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The Star Compass - Part 2

Chapter 9: The Garden of Whispers

The second moon had just dipped below the horizon when Maya felt it – not a sound, but the absence of one. The symphony of the luminous jungle, that vibrant pulse of light and color that had filled her dreams since their arrival, sputtered and faltered. In its place bloomed a cold silence that the Compass echoed in her hands, sending shivers down her spine.

"Something's wrong," she whispered, her voice cracking in the stillness of the night. She wasn't looking at Ben and Priya, asleep in their makeshift shelters of woven vines nearby, yet she knew they were awake. It thrummed in the rigid set of Ben's shoulders, tightened lines around Priya's normally placid features. Elara stepped out of the shadows of the Great Tree, glowing softly, a beacon amidst the fading luminescence. "You felt it too?" The question was unnecessary. Elara's eyes reflected the same unease. "Walk with me, child."

They ventured deeper into the jungle, a place that had throbbed with intoxicating color just days prior. Now, the once-vibrant leaves drooped, their light a pale, sickly echo. Even the air felt thinner, the usual symphony of chitters and buzzes silenced, replaced by an oppressive stillness.

The Great Tree, their heart, and sanctuary towered above them. Its glow had dimmed, the lines of energy that pulsed along its silvery bark sluggish and faint. "The forest…" Maya's voice faltered. The Compass, burning against her palm, mirrored her despair. It throbbed not in its usual response to discovery, but with an echo of the forest's distress.

"It weakens," Elara said, placing a gentle hand on Maya's shoulder, "With each passing hour, it fades further."

Hours turned into a sleepless night, then a day filled with frantic exploration. The villagers moved with a speed not borne of panic, but of a grim determination that tightened Maya's chest with worry. They found the source of the decline, a patch of jungle where leaves crumbled to dust and once-vibrant flowers turned to brittle grey husks. Something was draining the life from the forest, its invisible blight spreading outwards.

"No creature of this world could do this," Elara murmured, the despair in her luminous eyes deeper than any darkness.

Ben, a blur of frantic movement for days, stilled beside Maya. "Maybe… not of this world," he said, "That first ship, those invaders…." He trailed off, his usual exuberance replaced with a gnawing fear.

The Compass throbbed in response to Ben's words, a confirmation that chilled Maya to the bone. Yet, within that icy wave of dread bloomed a flicker of something else…possibility.

"I think…" Maya clutched the Compass, feeling its carvings shift and warp beneath her fingers, "I think I can understand them."

Not the villagers, with their flowing language of light and sound, but the whispers of the dying plants, their distress echoing through the Compass. It wasn't words, but impressions – a sense of thirst, of something sharp and cold leeching their essence, and emanating from a cluster of strangely twisted vines in the heart of the blight.

Hope, that fragile seedling, took root within Maya. Perhaps this was their purpose, the reason the Compass had chosen them. Ben's gadgets and Priya's quiet strength were potent weapons, but hers was different, a silent song of understanding that pulsed in time with the fading heartbeat of this world.

"Lead the way," Elara said, and though her voice was strong, Maya saw the flicker of desperate hope mirrored in her eyes.

Following the whispers felt like wading through mud, each step against an invisible tide. The blight was thickest here, the ground beneath their feet brittle with decay. The twisted vines pulsed with a sickly yellow light, their thorns like shards of glass. Yet, amidst the decay, Maya sensed a desperate plea, a thread of energy reaching outwards, seeking.

"There," she whispered, pointing towards a patch of vibrant moss, glowing with defiance against the encroaching rot. "They sense it, a… a different source."

Ben was already in motion, hacking through the clinging vines as Priya, back in her nimble human form, followed closely with sturdy woven shields to deflect the grasping thorns.

It took them the better part of a day to uncover what the moss had concealed – a subterranean spring, its water glowing with an intensity that pulsed in counterpoint to the blight the invaders had sown.

Maya knelt by the spring, the whispers of the forest clawing at her mind, a discordant melody of thirst and desperate hope. The Compass hummed, the familiar carvings twisting into a shape she hadn't seen before – a tendril reaching downwards, ending in a delicate cup.

Understanding bloomed. The Compass wasn't just a key; it was a conduit, a bridge between worlds. Could she channel this life force, amplify it, and offer it to the dying forest?

The pain was instant. As soon as her fingers touched the water, the Compass flared, the tendril-carving burning a fiery path across her skin. It drew strength from her, a relentless pull that left her dizzy and gasping. Yet, the water responded, its glow intensifying.

Ben and Priya were beside her then. Ben's hand clasped hers, an anchor amidst the disorienting drain. Priya's touch on her shoulder was a gentle weight, a reminder of the world she was fighting for. Elara stood sentinel, her light flaring brighter, reinforcing the fragile shield that Maya had erected by instinct.

With a gasp, Maya pictured the dying forest, the flowers withering, the leaves crumbling. She pictured their vibrant hues, felt the echo of their light in the rhythmic thrum of her own heart, and willed that energy to flow through her and into the Compass.

Chapter 10: The Clockwork Nebula

The journey into the nebula was less of a heroic leap through a shimmering stargate and more of a bumpy wagon ride through a cosmic dust storm. Even with the villagers' careful calculations and the Compass's otherworldly hum as a guide, it was a testament to both luck and Priya's stubborn piloting skills that they emerged in one piece.

"Are all space journeys this…violently relaxing?" Ben's voice quivered, just a bit higher than usual. He was curled up in the makeshift navigator's pod, looking a sickly shade of green.

"Just wait till we hit the gravity wells," Maya replied with a grin, feeling surprisingly steady. Each asteroid was a mini-world, its own gravitational pull messing with their trajectory in unexpected ways. Still, the thrill of the unknown outweighed her churning stomach.

The first planetoid resembled a giant, rust-spotted gear, orbiting a larger, disc-shaped world wreathed in swirling clouds. Their approach sent a flock of metallic, four-winged creatures chittering in alarm, the sound echoing oddly through the thin atmosphere.

Elara gestured towards a cluster of structures rising from the surface of the clockwork world. "There. Our contact awaits."

The 'contact' turned out to be a multi-limbed creature resembling a cross between a beetle and a very disgruntled mathematician. It communicated in a series of precise clicks, their translator device struggling to keep up.

"Well, that's… not good," Ben announced after a particularly long series of atonal beeps. He held up the cracked screen of the translator. "Apparently, the whole system is going haywire. They're on the verge of evacuation."

The beetle-mathematician, with surprising agility, performed what Maya could only describe as an elaborate interpretive dance of despair, complete with waving limbs and alarming clicking.

"Evacuate to where, exactly?" Priya asked, her usual calm tinged with a hint of exasperation. "Space isn't exactly filled with rest stops."

The answer came not in words, but as a holographic projection – a star chart, eerily familiar, overlaid with blinking red markers. "Those are the energy surges," Ben said, his voice low, "Coming too close to…"

He didn't need to finish. That blink was the first alien world, their haven, teetering on the edge of disaster.

Hours turned into a blur of activity. The beetle-folk, despite their impending doom, were meticulous. Diagrams, equations, and projections filled the walls of their dome-like dwellings, each marked with a strange system of glowing dots and dashes.

Ben, surprisingly, was in his element. He crawled over the diagrams, muttering to himself, his usual fidgeting morphing into focused energy. "It's not the orbits," he announced to the room at large, and the expectant hush that fell was its own kind of applause. "It's the timing. Their clocks are…" he trailed off, furrowing his brow.

"Wrong," Maya finished, an unwelcome jolt of recognition coursing through her.

Every world had its own rhythm, the dance of its moons and suns reflected in its inhabitants and the flow of its energy. Yet, here, something was fundamentally out of sync. She held her wrist up, glancing at her plain, Earth-bought watch – an object that suddenly felt like an anchor to the wrong reality. Its steady tick was at odds with the strange pulses of light dotting the beetle-folk's instruments.

"They're losing time," Ben said, wonder and worry battling for dominance in his voice, "But in bursts, not constantly. Something's siphoning it, in chunks."

The Compass throbbed against Maya's side, not with its usual hum of discovery, but a sympathetic echo of disharmony, mirroring the temporal distortions Ben described.

"Can you find the… the leak?" Elara asked, her voice hopeful.

Ben shrugged, then grinned. "Find it? No. But I might be able to…compensate, for a while." He began scribbling equations directly onto the dome wall, his grin widening with every line.

The solution, when it came, was as unexpected as it was ingenious. Ben, with Maya's help to interpret the Compass's strange temporal shifts, devised a series of rhythmic energy pulses. It wasn't elegant, but more like patching a leaky pipe with cosmic bubblegum. The Compass, held up to the heart of their makeshift control center, transformed their theoretical bursts of energy into a strange, shimmering wave.

Almost instantly, the panicked blips on the beetle-folk's projections slowed, then vanished. The frantic clicking morphed into hesitant chirps, tinged with cautious optimism.

Ben collapsed with a whoop of triumph, immediately regretting it amidst the shifting gravity as they bounced gently off the ceiling. "Told you I was a genius," he proclaimed, his voice echoing.

Maya grinned at him, pride and a surge of unfamiliar protectiveness rising within her. They weren't just along for the ride anymore. They were the lifeline, the bridge-builders, using their gifts in ways they'd never imagined.

But their victory was short-lived. A new alert flashed on the dome's projection, this time a deep, ominous crimson.

A wave of energy, not temporal but raw and destructive, rolled outwards from a neighboring planetoid – smooth, metallic, and devoid of any natural features. It slammed into the clockwork world, making the entire structure shudder.

"That's not good," Ben said, stating the painfully obvious.

"Invaders," Elara hissed, and even through the translator, the word carried a cold venom. "They found us."

Chapter 11: Symphony of the Sands

The desert world wasn't what Maya expected. She'd pictured barren dunes, the kind from old Earth movies her dad loved. Instead, they landed in a canyon carved from shimmering, glass-like sand that hummed beneath their feet. The air throbbed with a low, resonant pulse that seemed to emanate from the dunes themselves, and the inhabitants… they weren't the towering sandworms her nightmares had conjured, but lithe, scaled creatures with wide reflective eyes, their movements a graceful dance across the shifting landscape.

There was beauty here, but it was a harsh beauty, where the wrong step could send you tumbling into a crevasse or disturb something dormant beneath the deceptively smooth surface. It was no wonder Priya, usually the most adventurous among them, was glued to Elara's side, her eyes flicking nervously towards every ripple and shadow.

"Vibrations," she whispered, "They… talk through them. Navigate. It's like the whole planet is… singing."

The song, however, was slowly fading into dissonance. Even those without Priya's sensitivity could tell. The lizard-folk, as Maya had dubbed them, moved with agitated twitches instead of their usual melodic flow. Their calls, a series of low, melodic clicks, held an undercurrent of distress.

It was Priya who noticed it first. Having shed her human form, she moved with an uncanny grace in her turtle form, her sturdy shell leaving patterned tracks across the sand. "The rhythm… it's wrong." She hunkered down, bracing herself against a sudden gust of hot wind. "It feels like…" She struggled for words, but Maya understood.

The disharmony she'd felt in the clockwork world was different. This was a seismic shift, a wrongness deep within the bones of the planet itself. She glanced at the Compass. It pulsed in her hand, not with excitement, but with an echo of the planet's discord.

"Underground," Ben whispered, his voice a mere breath, eyes wide with a mixture of fear and manic energy. "Something's disrupting the… the song, from beneath."

His words echoed a deep, instinctual fear within Maya. Tunnels, burrowing creatures, the unseen dangers lurking below... It made her skin crawl. But they'd come this far, and the quiet plea in the eyes of the lizard-folk, mirrored in the dimming pulse of their world, outweighed her own anxieties.

Priya was the key. With her shell resonating with the seismic shifts and Maya attuned to the echo the Compass relayed, they became a crude yet effective mapping duo. It took hours, inching their way across the dunes, the sun beating down relentlessly. Yet, with each tremor, with each pulse the Compass translated into frantic patterns in the sand, they narrowed the source.

They found it on the edge of a vast crater, an outcropping of obsidian-like rock thrusting out of the sand. It looked out of place, alien. The tremors intensified around it, the air humming with a low throb that set Maya's teeth on edge.

"Looks kinda like that ship," Ben said, the first time he'd mentioned the ghost ship since that terrifying encounter. He wasn't smiling his usual cocky grin, and the fear that mirrored her own gnawed at her from within.

Their arrival didn't go unnoticed. Creatures – segmented insectoid things with gleaming carapaces – swarmed out of hidden tunnels, their chittering hisses piercing the heavy silence. The lizard-folk warriors fanned out defensively, but their weapons, designed to resonate with the sands, were useless against these creatures and the jarring vibrations their presence emanated.

Maya looked desperately at Ben, his bravado replaced by a determined frown, and Priya, withdrawn into her shell, a shield against both the unnatural tremors and her own fear. Her friends, her team, were strong, but this… this was beyond their usual adventures.

The Compass burned in her hand. Its carvings morphed, solidifying into a spear – sharp and echoing the harsh resonance of the invaders below. Understanding flooded her. This wasn't a fight. It was… surgery. A precise, destructive strike to sever the source of the disharmony.

She charged, the spear humming ominously, Ben's frantic shouts lost in the roar of the wind and the chittering of the insectoid horde. The vibrations intensified with each step, threatening to throw her off balance, but the Compass, her focus, kept her anchored.

The lizard-folk stared in horrified fascination as she slammed the spear-head into the obsidian rock. The vibrations ceased instantly, replaced by a deafening silence, and then a tremor, not harsh, but a ripple of realignment that pulsed outwards through the sands.

The insectoid creatures screeched, recoiling in disarray. They burrowed back into their tunnels, abandoning their half-constructed hive around the alien rock. With them gone, the desert world breathed a sigh of relief, the natural song of the sands tentatively resuming, off-key at first, then growing stronger.

It wasn't until she turned back, the spear dissolving into the Compass's familiar shape, that she realized she was surrounded. Ben and Priya wore matching expressions of utter awe. The lizard-folk, once timid, bowed before her, their melodic clicks a symphony of gratitude. Even Elara's normally stoic face held a hint of wonder.

It was then Maya felt it – not just the pulse of the revived desert, but something subtler. A shift in the air, a ripple in the invisible currents that bound this universe together. They were no longer just visitors... they held the power to shape, to protect, to be a part of this cosmic tapestry they'd only begun to understand.

Chapter 12: The Ghost Ship

"So, here's the plan," Ben announced, his usual manic grin back in full force, "We step into the gaping maw of the universe's most haunted spaceship, poke around in the supernatural equivalent of a radioactive dumpster, and maybe, just maybe, figure out who's messing with our friends."

"Inspirational," Priya said flatly. Her eyes, fixed on the shimmering distortion that marked the ghost ship's presence, held a healthy dose of skepticism.

Maya couldn't blame her. The faint distress beacon, a distorted echo of the signal from the first alien world, had led them to an empty patch of space infamous for vanishings and sightings of a mangled, monstrous ship. And now, the impossible hung before them – a vessel made of twisted metal and starlight, phasing in and out of reality like a broken projector.

Elara, stoic as always, offered the most practical advice: "It won't stay tangible for long. We must act quickly."

"No pressure then," Ben mumbled. He pulled a pair of goggles, cobbled together from spare parts and blinking with questionable purpose, over his eyes. "Science-vision engaged. Let's get spooky, folks."

The interior of the ship was a testament to chaos. Corridors shifted, floors tilted, and the flickering lights turned familiar shapes into monstrous parodies of themselves. Even the air felt wrong, buzzing with a static charge that sent Maya's skin prickling.

The Compass thrummed in her hands, less a guide and more of a warning system, its once-comforting carvings now twisting into unsettling shapes. Echoes of voices whispered from the distorted speaker system, whispers laden with despair and a flicker of cold rage that made her shiver.

"Well, this place is a fixer-upper," Ben said, his voice strained despite his attempt at nonchalance. And maybe it was just the flickering lights, but he did seem a shade paler than usual.

Priya, in her preferred turtle form, moved cautiously, her shell gleaming iridescently in the distorted light. "Energy signatures… fractured," she said, voice muffled slightly by her shell, "This place… it's unhinged."

The deeper they ventured, the more the ship seemed to resist them. A simple doorway transformed into a labyrinth, gravity went on a field trip of its own, and the air crackled with barely suppressed energy. Maya found herself separated, the shimmering walls reflecting back not her friends' panicked faces, but distorted images of herself – scared, angry, lost.

It was a voice that brought her back. Not a whisper, but a familiar voice, thick with worry, echoing through the impossible maze. "Maya! Maya, answer me!"

Ben. It was Ben's voice, and it cut through the ship's disorienting illusions. The walls shimmered, then steadied. Following the sound, she emerged into a chamber thrumming with unstable energy. It was the source of the beacon, a fractured communication array spitting sparks and distorted signals.

Ben was hunkered next to it, frantically working a mess of wires that defied the laws of physics as Maya knew them. Priya, braced against the fluctuating gravity, acted as lookout, her unwavering presence a beacon in the flickering chaos.

"Distress beacon is a bust," Ben announced without looking up, "But I think…just maybe..." He fumbled with something, and the distorted signal sputtered into a semblance of clarity.

"—attack… coordinates… must warn…" a voice, familiar yet strained, crackled through. It was Elara, and the desperation in her usually calm tone sent a chill down Maya's spine.

The connection cut abruptly, leaving only static. But they had what they needed – coordinates, and a warning.

"We have to go," Maya said, an unfamiliar urgency in her voice. "Now."

Easier said than done. The ship, as if sensing their resolve, rebelled. The hum of its malfunctioning heart intensified, and the whispers grew into shouts – accusations, pleas for help, echoes of a tragedy yet to fully unfold.

Priya, the ever-steady one, looked genuinely frightened. Ben's fingers stilled on the sparking wires, his usual chaos replaced with grim determination.

Maya clutched the Compass. It pulsed in defiance to the ship's discord. She pictured the great tree, Elara's unwavering faith, and the vibrant worlds they'd risked everything to protect. Focusing that surge of desperate protectiveness, she willed the Compass to shift, to become a key, a beacon, a way out.

The ship seemed to groan in protest. Then the impossible happened. A shimmer coalesced into a doorway, bathed in the soft glow of the great tree. Elara's beacon, honed by worry and fierce determination, had cut through the chaos.

They didn't hesitate. Ben slung his arm around Maya's shoulder, offering a shaky grin. "Ladies first." Priya, with uncharacteristic speed, scuttled past them.

They tumbled out into the familiar clearing beneath the tree's protective branches. The ship behind them flickered, dissolving back into its fractured existence. Elara rushed forward, relief warring with grim determination in her eyes.

"They're coming," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "And they're not alone."

Chapter 13: The Council of Stars

The asteroid base wasn't what Maya expected. She'd pictured sleek, sterile corridors from old sci-fi movies, or perhaps something carved from glowing crystals. Instead, the interior was a labyrinth of tunnels, some impossibly narrow, others wide enough to house the hulking, rhinoceros-like delegates from the methane-rich world of Kratos.

The air hummed with the susurrus of countless languages, smells of unfamiliar spices and strange, metallic tangs mixing in a symphony that made her head spin. Ben, normally buzzing with restless energy, was uncharacteristically subdued, his eyes wide as he tried to soak in the sheer impossible diversity around them. Even Priya, in her human form, moved with a hesitant fluidity, her gaze drawn to the jellyfish-like creatures floating serenely overhead.

Elara alone seemed unfazed. She led them through the bustling market, past stalls piled high with unidentifiable foods and devices that seemed to warp the laws of physics as Maya knew them.

"The Council knows what we bring," she murmured, her voice like a steadying anchor amidst the vibrant chaos. "But trust is a fragile bloom in the galaxy."

They reached the meeting chamber – a vast cavern lit by bioluminescent mosses, a deliberate contrast to the bustling marketplace. The delegates were already assembled: beetle-like mathematicians with their symphony of clicks, the scaled lizard-folk from the desert world, their melodic hums filling the silence, and others – insectoid, plant-based, even a sentient puddle species contained within an elaborate shimmering shell.

Elara led them to the center, where a circle had been left conspicuously empty. "You will address them," she said, then gave them a single, encouraging nod before taking her place among the delegates.

Maya glanced at Ben, at Priya. It was one thing to save a planet, another entirely to face the judgment of half the galaxy. She took a deep breath, and channeled the quiet determination that had carried them this far.

She told them of vibrant jungles fading, clockwork planets thrown into chaos, a desert world on the brink of falling silent… of the invaders, their ruthlessness, the faint distress calls now echoing from countless star systems on a collision course with their own.

She spoke of the Compass, not as a weapon, but as a bridge – a tool that allowed them to understand, to heal when they could, and above all, to warn.

Ben took over, his nervous energy morphing into impassioned urgency as he displayed projections, recounted anomalies, piecing together a picture of a threat far greater than they'd initially realized. Priya's quiet voice was the most powerful of all. She spoke of the bond they'd forged, of the courage of the villagers facing annihilation, a stark testament to the spirit they were fighting to protect.

When they finished, the silence in the room was heavy. The delegates, usually vibrant, moved hesitantly, their multilingual chatter replaced by low hums and sharp clicks of unease. Maya fought back a wave of despair. Had they failed?

Then, a voice broke through – high and clear, emanating from a small, unassuming avian creature. "A song… you speak of the Song of Stars." It hopped forward, iridescent feathers shimmering under the gentle luminescence. "Child, what do you know of it?"

Maya felt the Compass shift against her skin, its pulse quickening in a rhythm not of exploration, but recognition. A memory surfaced, of Elara's stories whispered late at night, fragmented tales of an ancient harmony, a vast interconnectedness…

Suddenly, it wasn't her voice that filled the chamber, but one laced with starlight and the age of whole planets.

"A song of creation, a symphony of light, A network of worlds, day woven with night. Broken, forgotten, its melody fades, But echoes still linger in star-scattered glades."

The Compass throbbed as the words left her lips, not hers at all, but reverberating from some deep, unknown well within it. When she looked back at the delegates, there wasn't doubt in their multifaceted eyes, but a flicker of something she couldn't name. Hope, perhaps, mingled with a desperation older than stars.

The rhinoceros delegate, its rumbling voice shaking the cavern walls, spoke then. "These are not trinkets you hold, children. They are keys to harmonies long silent."

The avian creature fluttered closer, tilting its head. "Tell us, child of Earth," it sang, voice clear as a bell, "Will you take up the forgotten refrain? Will you sing the stars back into song?"

Maya looked at Ben, at Priya, their faces mirrored her own shock and a dawning sense of awe. The weight of the galaxy, it seemed, now rested on their shoulders. There could be no going back to a simple science fair, to ordinary lives. Their choices would echo not just across worlds, but through time itself.

She thought of the vibrant forest, the clockwork nebula stabilized, the desert world resonating with its ancient song. They had already begun their symphony, note by hesitant note.

Clutching the Compass, feeling the pulse of countless worlds within it, she met the gaze of the assembled delegates. And though her voice was small, it filled the vast chamber with a newfound certainty.

"We'll try."

Chapter 14: Echoes of the Ancients

The Council's echoing chamber, once filled with the symphony of a hundred alien voices, now felt stifling. The delegates had fallen silent, replaced by a suffocating buzz of expectation. Gifts that whispered of hidden agendas piled up unheeded in a corner, while Ben's frantic scribbling on the edge of a translated treaty was the only sound cutting through the tense quiet. Maya gnawed her lip, the weight of the Compass pressing against her chest like a cold stone. It seemed ages ago, not weeks, that they were bumbling through a school science fair. Now they were the harbingers, the 'Star Singers' woven into whispers older than the dust on these asteroids.

She exchanged a worried glance with Priya. Even Ben, normally buzzing with energy, looked sallow in the dim, filtered light. They'd given the Council a glimpse of the Song of the Stars, a power thrumming beneath the universe itself... and now the galaxy waited for their next move. Help us. Fight them. Save us. The unspoken pleas clawed at Maya's resolve. They hadn't asked for this.

"We need…" Maya started, then coughed, her voice hoarse. "We need… time."

An outburst of multilingual protest rippled through the crowd. She expected it, yet the wave of cold stares still made her flinch. Then a voice, clear and melodic, cut through the din. A willowy being with eyes like polished amber, a representative from the desert world of Kahiris, rose to its full height.

"We have offered knowledge, technology, sanctuaries," it proclaimed, voice ringing with a surprising fierceness. "All we ask in return is hope. These children are but fledglings. Do we deny even them the time to spread their wings?"

An uneasy quiet descended. Maya felt a tremor in the Compass, a flicker of warmth beneath her fingers. Had Kahiris somehow sensed its need? The moment stretched, and relief washed over her as the Council reluctantly agreed. Yet, she couldn't shake the feeling they'd merely traded one kind of pressure for another.

They retreated to the sanctuary of the asteroid garden, the cacophony of the delegations a fading roar behind the thick, armored foliage. Even the air tasted different here, sweeter, tinged with a hint of alien cinnamon. Ben immediately launched into a breathless analysis of a pulsating, bioluminescent fungus, but Maya barely heard him. She needed a moment, a single heartbeat out of time from the weight of waiting eyes.

The tree startled her at first, a silent giant amidst the vibrant blooms. Its bark, rough and moss-covered, was laden not with books but with seed pods that glimmered with a soft, internal light. Curiosity overruled her unease.

"Curious…" Its voice, a rustling melody, echoed through the quiet glade, "…most curious indeed."

The creature was drawn, like everyone else, to the Compass. Yet, where others saw a powerful artifact, this creature saw… a story.

"Information wants to be known," it said, extending a twig-like finger to trace one of the glowing carvings on the Compass, "It sings, even when the singers are long gone."

That's when things got truly strange. The librarian-tree, with surprising gentleness, plucked a glowing pod from its branches. It wasn't a book, Maya realized, but a seed of some sort. The Librarian placed it in the center of the Compass. There was a flash, not of light, but of something deeper, a ripple in the fabric of the world around them.

The garden was gone. In its place bloomed a vision of a long-abandoned library, not of paper and ink, but of glowing crystals and filigreed metal. Beings tall and willowy moved among the stacks, their voices a shimmering symphony that filled Maya with an odd mix of wonder and sorrow. The librarian's voice was a soft breeze against her ear.

"The Harmonists. Recorders of the Song… until they were silenced."

The vision flickered, distorted. Harsh, geometric shapes intruded upon the gentle curves of the library, the melodic hum replaced with a discordant clash. It vanished in a final flash, leaving behind a scorched echo and a lingering note of despair. A headache throbbed behind Maya's eyes, and the scent of cinnamon, once sweet, now pricked at her nostrils with a nauseating sharpness.

The garden, with its gentle murmuring stream and air buzzing with insects, returned with a disorienting abruptness. The seed pod was a withered husk in the center of the Compass. The librarian regarded them, its mossy bark rustling in what might have been amusement.

"A keyhole," it said, "But a song without a singer is a tale left unfinished. Young explorers, do you have voices strong enough to continue the melody?"

Maya's usual certainty felt fragile now. "But… but we might make things worse," she whispered, the echo of the ruined library still aching in her head.

Priya, ever the pragmatist, stepped forward. "I'm starting to think the Council meetings were easier than this 'mentorship'," she said dryly.

Ben snorted, momentarily distracted from his notetaking. He stared at the withered seed, then back at his scribbles, a frown creasing his face. "Hey, at least we weren't being dissected by those bug scientists then. And these plants aren't trying to add us to their intergalactic cookbook."

Despite the tension in the air, the humor was a balm. The librarian rustled again, a sound like gentle laughter.

"The Harmonists failed… yet they left you keys. It is a choice, always. Use them, or watch as the Song of the Stars fades to silence."

The words hung heavy, but a spark flickered in Maya's eyes. She looked at the withered seed pod in the Compass. The Compass throbbed, a stubborn heartbeat against her ribs. We can't give up…

"A broken seed, a library turned to ash… but the Compass still sings. Maybe we're not meant to bring back the past, but to write a whole new verse."

Ben's notebook fell shut with a thud. He looked up, the excitement still thrumming through him, but mixed now with a heavy dose of uncertainty.

Their return to their makeshift quarters was a subdued one. Instead of the excited chatter of earlier days, each step felt laden with invisible weight. Ben uncharacteristically threw himself on a rickety cot, staring at the cracked ceiling. Priya absently shaped and reshaped a lump of glowing clay, her usual fluidity replaced by a tense stillness.

Finally, Maya broke the silence. "What do we do?" Her voice was barely a whisper, thin and fragile as glass.

Priya sighed, the clay collapsing into a shapeless lump. "We do what we've always done," she said, but even she didn't sound convinced. "Use what we have, figure out the next step."

But for once, Ben didn't rise to the challenge. "What if there is no next step?" His voice was rough, edged with a fear that mirrored Maya's own. "What if all we have is…is an echo? A shadow of something that's gone?" He sat up, running a hand through his unruly hair, "They expect us to be heroes, but maybe all we are is the cleanup crew, left to count the pieces of a broken world."

The silence stretched, Maya's own doubts echoing Ben's words…

Chapter 15: Echoes in Starlight

The scent of scorched cinnamon hung in the air, a phantom echo of the vision that lingered with Maya long after the withered seed husk was discarded. It clung to her clothes, her skin, a subtle reminder that some gifts leave a bitter aftertaste.

"It's not gibberish," Ben muttered for the hundredth time, his brow furrowed as he hunched over a holographic projection of the Compass. "There's a pattern, I swear…"

Maya, sprawled on the floor and sketching half-remembered shapes from the vision, barely looked up. "Maybe it's like those Earth ciphers, where you need a key sentence and then…"

Her voice trailed off as a booming laugh echoed through their quarters. In the doorway stood a figure that could only be described as a whirlwind in vaguely humanoid form. A nebula of wiry grey hair surrounded a face etched with what looked like permanent amusement, and their robe was less a garment than a collection of mismatched textiles held together by what seemed to be enthusiasm and an assortment of blinking gadgets.

"A key sentence!" the newcomer chortled, startling a flock of pigeon-like creatures nesting in the rafters. "Oh, that's simply marvelous. My dear children, allow me to introduce myself. Professor Astraeus Tidereach, interstellar linguist, amateur astroarchaeologist, and general busybody at your service!"

Priya, ever practical, cut to the chase. "The asteroid Council said you could help us with… this." She gestured vaguely at the glowing mess that was Ben's translation attempt.

Professor Tidereach bounced over to the projection, eyes gleaming. "Help? My dear, I've spent decades chasing whispers of the Song! This," they waved a dismissive hand, "is not help, it's the grandest puzzle the galaxy has ever produced!"

Over the next few days, a strange kind of routine settled upon them. The Professor was a blur of boundless energy, dragging them into forgotten archives within the asteroid base, setting up experiments that filled hallways with the scent of ozone and singed circuitry, and recounting tales of lost civilizations over cups of intensely purple tea.

The Compass was at the center of it all. Professor Tidereach fussed over it like a doting grandparent, muttering about harmonic frequencies, temporal anomalies, and star charts that predated most known species. Slowly but surely, symbols began to resolve into meaning – fragments of star systems Maya had never heard of, references to concepts that stretched the limits of her understanding. Each breakthrough brought a rush of exhilaration… mixed with a quiet, gnawing unease.

"These aren't just maps," she confided to Priya one late night, as the Professor snored in the next room, surrounded by half-disassembled chronometers. "They're like… blueprints. Like instructions for building something."

Priya nodded, her gaze fixed on the Compass. It pulsed with a new intensity, a heartbeat echoing Maya's unease. "What if we're not just finding old paths," she murmured, "but building new ones?"

The unspoken question lingered in the air: what were they building, and what price would it demand?

The whispers of danger that had been a background hum since their Council performance took on a more sinister shape. Delegations that were once eager to help turned strangely secretive. Gifts left anonymously at their doorstep had an odd, metallic tang under the sweet floral scent meant to disguise it. And always, there was the feeling of being watched, a prickling sensation at the base of Maya's neck that didn't fade even in the heart of the bustling asteroid base.

One evening, as they huddled over a newly translated segment of the Compass, a shadow fell across the flickering projections. Ben whirled around, hand instinctively going to the half-assembled energy blaster he'd been tinkering with.

It wasn't the sleek, multi-eyed Xylark warrior they'd been fearing. Instead, an elderly woman stood in the doorway, her presence a stark contrast to the Professor's chaotic energy. It was Esmeralda.

"The shadows grow long around you, Star Singers," she said, her voice low. "You hold starlight in your hands. Take care it doesn't burn you."

Chapter 16: The Hunter's Snare

The asteroid base, usually a vibrant labyrinth of languages and technologies, felt eerily silent as they slipped through shadowed corridors. Maya clutched the Compass, its warmth both a comfort and a burden. Each pulse seemed timed to the thudding of her own traitorous heart.

"They won't expect us to double back," Ben whispered, his usual bravado undercut by a nervous twitch. "Too obvious."

Priya snorted. "Since when did 'obvious' ever stop you?" Yet, even her voice lacked its usual wry edge. Esmeralda's warning had shaken them. The danger was no longer theoretical, but a hunter circling ever closer.

The Professor's makeshift lab was their sanctuary, a glorious mess of half-built contraptions and scribbled equations. Tidereach, usually the picture of excited chaos, stood uncharacteristically still, staring grimly at a shimmering data display.

"It's not the Xylark," they said, voice tight. "Those energy signatures are all wrong. Angular, precise… I've seen this pattern before, back when I was chasing rumors of the…" The Professor trailed off, a frown creasing their brow.

"The what?" Ben prompted, the blaster in his hands feeling like a useless toy against this unknown threat.

"The Archivists," Tidereach whispered, the name landing like a stone in the charged silence. "They were… a sect. Obsessed with knowledge, its preservation, its control. Ruthless in their pursuit of it. Most believed them extinct, a casualty of the Cygnus Wars."

Maya shivered despite the recycled warmth of the lab. "And now they think we have something they want?"

The Compass pulsed against her skin, as if in answer. Ben swore, then with forced calm, set about powering up defensive arrays the Professor had cobbled together from old mining equipment. The hum and whine of overtaxed systems filled the room, a soundtrack to their frantic preparations.

The attack wasn't an invasion, but an infiltration. The first sign was the flickering of lights, the whine of machinery stuttering into a groan, followed by the shriek of security systems failing one by one.

"They're not storming the gates," Priya murmured, eyes narrowed; "They're collapsing the walls around us."

Then came the whispers. Not in any language Maya recognized, but a slithering undercurrent of syllables behind the groan of failing infrastructure. The air itself seemed to grow heavy, pressing down on them. Then a flicker of movement in the far corner of the lab – a patch of darkness deeper than the manufactured shadows.

Ben fired, the makeshift blaster spitting a pulse of energy that illuminated not a corporeal being, but a humanoid shape woven from obsidian threads. It twisted away from the blast, the darkness rippling like disturbed water.

"Not physical…" he gasped, "Projections, or some kind of phase-shifted tech!"

"Archivists were notorious for their manipulation of dimensional fabric," Tidereach snapped, fingers flying over a salvaged control panel. "Focus less on hitting them, more on disrupting their…"

The Professor's words cut off in a strangled gasp. A tendril of darkness shot across the room, coiling around their leg. Tidereach screamed, not in pain, but in horrified fascination as their body began to dissolve, pixels of flesh flickering and then vanishing into the inky void.

Maya lunged forward, the Compass blazing in her outstretched hand. Not with any conscious intent, but a desperate surge of protective instinct. The Compass flared a blinding silver, a shockwave that made the shadows recoil. Tidereach collapsed, gasping, the dissolution halted mid-thigh.

"The Song…" the Professor whispered, staring at the glowing Compass. "It reacts to them…"

But there was no time for analysis. The tendrils attacked anew, thicker now, more relentless. Priya repurposed a half-built energy field projector, the beam flickering wildly but forcing the shadows back long enough for Ben to drag the half-conscious Professor further into the lab.

They retreated, step by agonizing step, blasts of light barely holding the encroaching darkness at bay. Every flicker of shadow felt like a hungry gaze, calculating and cold. Maya knew with chilling certainty – they weren't trying to kill them, but to capture them. The Compass was the prize, and they were merely the bearers.

The lab's back exit was their only hope, a rusted maintenance shaft the Professor used to smuggle in "questionably obtained" research components. Maya shoved the Professor through, then turned, Compass raised like a beacon against the tide of shadows.

"Ben, go!" she yelled, the ancient chant from the vision rising unbidden to her lips. The Compass throbbed in time with the syllables, the air sparking around her.

The darkness surged forward, and Maya let the energy loose…

Chapter 17: Burnt Stars and Broken Maps

The stale air of the maintenance tunnel burned in Maya's lungs, each ragged breath a painful reminder of their desperate flight. Somewhere behind her, the echo of Ben's swears and the clatter of salvaged tech told her they were still alive, but for how long?

The darkness wasn't absolute. A sickly green luminescence clung to the pitted metal walls, throwing their shadows into grotesque parodies that danced ahead, mocking their desperation.

Priya's voice cut through the fear-laced silence, shockingly calm. "They want the Compass intact. Taking us out risks damaging it – that's our advantage, for now."

The Compass… It throbbed faintly against Maya's ribs, not with its usual warmth, but with a tremor of something else. Fear? Anger? Or was she simply projecting her own emotions onto an ancient relic?

They stumbled onto a forgotten service platform, its viewport revealing not the comforting bustle of the asteroid base, but the cold gleam of emptiness. Emergency pods, their only escape route, were a stark reminder of their desperation.

"This is insane," Ben muttered, fingers dancing over a cracked control panel. He glanced at the Professor, slumped unconscious against a bulkhead. "We… we can't just leave them!"

Maya bit back a bitter retort. Heroism was easy when the danger was abstract. Now, faced with an impossible choice, her instincts screamed for self-preservation. The Archivists, ruthless and relentless, would be on their trail soon.

"We come back," Priya said, her voice as steely as the unyielding starscape before them. "We get help, gear up, and come back stronger."

A wave of shame mingled with Maya's relief. Priya, always the pragmatist, always the one with the courage to make the impossible choices. But did that make her a hero, or simply cold-hearted?

The pod lurched away from the asteroid base, the sensation of falling mirroring Maya's plummeting spirits. Were they merely postponing the inevitable? The Compass pulsed, and suddenly the vision of the ruined library superimposed itself over the pod's viewport. Scorched books, shattered crystal arrays… was this the future they were hurtling towards?

"We won't fail them," Ben's voice was barely a whisper, a desperate echo of her own hope. "We always find a way."

But as the asteroid base shrank to a speck of light swallowed by the vast darkness, Maya couldn't shake the feeling that their 'ways' were running out. The Compass had shown them a glimpse of the Song of the Stars – beautiful yet fragile. Now, the only song she could hear was the mournful wail of warning sirens in her head.

"We have to find… someone," she murmured as the emptiness enveloped them. Someone strong, someone who understood the power humming in her hands, the threat lurking in the dark corners of the galaxy. "We need more than just us."

Ben cast a worried glance her way. "And where do we find this mythical protector?" His attempt at flippancy fell flat.

Priya's eyes narrowed in contemplation. "There are rumors… old whispers about worlds hidden on the fringes, havens for those the rest of the galaxy brands dangerous. Seekers, scholars, exiles… maybe among them, we'll find someone who knows what we're up against."

The Compass pulsed in Maya's hand, and the image of the library faded, replaced by a sliver of star chart. A faint trace of a route away from the heart of the known systems, into the less-charted territories. A journey built on desperation, guided by a half-understood relic. It was madness, but was there any other option left?

Chapter 18: City of Whispers

The world didn't have a name, at least not one listed on any official star chart. Ben had dubbed it "Skuggsvaarth," after some villain in a pulpy space opera he was obsessed with, but Maya simply called it "the backwater planet."

Compared to the sterile efficiency of the asteroid, this place pulsed with a chaotic vibrancy that set her teeth on edge. The 'city' was a sprawling warren of makeshift structures clinging to the side of a rust-red cliff. Pulses of neon sliced through oily smog, the smell of unfamiliar spices warring with the metallic tang of poorly recycled air. Every shadow seemed to hold a glint of eyes, sizing them up – an assessment Maya and her friends had grown far too accustomed to in recent weeks.

"We might have traded one kind of danger for another," Priya murmured as a hulking, four-armed creature jostled past, barely sparing them a glance.

The Compass pulsed faintly, leading them deeper into the maze, a stubborn heartbeat against the frenetic energy of their surroundings. They were operating on blind faith now, hoping that among the outcasts and exiles, there was someone who held a piece of the puzzle they longed to solve, someone who knew what those shadows were hunting and how to fight back.

"Don't worry," Ben said, his usual chipperness forced, "If my calculations are correct – and they usually are – the place we seek should be…" He squinted at a scrap of salvaged datapad. "...right about here."

They stood facing a deceptively ordinary-looking stall, its awning a patchwork of faded fabrics that did little to hide the lingering scent of chemicals and something acrid Maya couldn't place. A wizened figure, shrouded in layers of mismatched scarves, peered at them from beneath the overhang, a flicker in the depths of their eyes the only sign of life beneath the wrappings.

"Knowledge is a fickle mistress, young seekers," rasped the figure, their voice a mixture of sand and smoke. "What coin do you bring to her altar?"

Maya hesitated. The Compass was too precious, their only real bargaining chip for the answers they desperately craved. Yet, revealing it too soon felt like losing their only shield in a den of predators. Instead, she withdrew one of the alien artifacts they'd salvaged from the asteroid's archives – a crystalline shard that hummed faintly with unknown energy.

The figure's eyes, barely visible within the tangle of scarves, widened in surprise, then narrowed in shrewd calculation. "This… this may suffice. Come, let us speak beneath the city's skin, where prying ears cannot taste your secrets."

They descended a rickety ladder into a subterranean chamber dimly lit by bioluminescent fungi that clung to the damp rock walls and cast an eerie glow on the shrouded figure. The air grew heavy, musty, filled with the whisper of old secrets and half-told tales.

The shrouded figure gestured towards a trio of battered cushions. "I am called the Weaver. I trade in words, both those that echo from the past and those that have yet to find a voice. Tell me, young star-singers, what story do you seek to write?"

Maya took a steadying breath. This was it. The moment they'd risked everything for. Ben and Priya sat on either side of her, a silent wall of support that eased the weight on her shoulders just a fraction. She glanced at the Compass in her hands and then up at the Weaver.

"We...we want to understand," she started, then hesitated. How could she explain the fragments of visions, the echoes of a forgotten song, the shadowy figures hunting their every step? Instead, she settled on the blunt truth. "We need to know how to fight back."

Chapter 19: Echoes and Oaths

The Weaver's chamber was a den of whispers. The fungal glow painted the shrouded figure in an eerie, otherworldly luminescence, and the scent of incense, both bitter and strangely sweet, clung to the damp air.

"The relic you possess…" The Weaver's voice was a hiss and a sigh, "…it is a key, yes. But to a door that has long been sealed shut."

Ben leaned forward, his ever-present restlessness momentarily forgotten. "So, what? We find the matching lock and boom – problem solved?"

"If only the universe worked on such simple mechanics." The Weaver let out a rasping chuckle that echoed uncomfortably in the cramped chamber. "The Song of the Stars, as your people call it, is a tapestry woven from starlight and shattered worlds. Your little key… it sings of a single thread, a fragment of a much larger design."

Priya's gaze sharpened from beneath her lowered hood. "And the Archivists? They want the whole tapestry?"

The Weaver shifted, and the shadows on their face seemed to deepen. "They seek not simply possession, child, but control. To reshape the Song to their own discordant tune. They have walked this path before. Worlds have burned in their wake."

A chill ran down Maya's spine, a stark contrast to the close warmth of the chamber. She thought of the ruined library, the scorched echoes of melody in the vision. Was this the future they were fighting for? Or worse, the one they might inadvertently create?

"Tell us how to stop them," she demanded, her voice hoarse. "Tell us what we need to do."

The Weaver regarded them for a long, silence-filled moment. "The path to the Song is long, and fraught with dangers far greater than those you have yet faced. There will be tests… choices…" Their gaze settled on the Compass in Maya's hands. "Sacrifices."

"We're not afraid," Ben retorted, but the bravado in his voice rang hollow.

"Fear is a wise companion on a fool's journey," The Weaver rasped. "It is what you do when confronted by that fear that defines you." Their gaze shifted back to Maya, as if seeing through the layers of fabric to the doubt churning beneath the surface. "The Song calls to you, child. You feel its pull, its promise of power. But remember, every melody has its counterpoint, a darkness echoing the light."

The Compass throbbed in Maya's hands, the pulse somehow both comforting and unsettling. "What if… what if we're not the heroes we thought we were?" she whispered.

The Weaver didn't offer easy reassurance. "Heroes are forged, child, not born. They are shaped by the choices they make when no good option shines bright. And you…" Their voice dropped, barely a breath amidst the shadows. "You stand at the crossroads, the scales yet to tip."

Maya met the Weaver's gaze, seeing not judgment in their eyes, but a chilling reflection of her own turmoil.

"Then help us learn what choices to make," Priya said, her voice clear and resolute amidst the oppressive silence. "Teach us not just about the Song, but how to survive in its wake."

The Weaver inclined their head, a mere flicker of movement. "Knowledge has a price, child. Are you prepared to pay?"

Priya reached into a hidden pocket of her cloak and withdrew a gleaming object – a data crystal they'd retrieved from the asteroid's archives, its contents unknown but clearly valuable. "A trade. Knowledge for knowledge."

The Weaver accepted the crystal, their shadowed fingers lingering over its smooth surface. "It is agreed. I will teach you what I can… of the hidden paths, the forgotten lore, the echoes of those who danced to the Song long ago." A dry rasp of laughter escaped them. "But do not mistake my lessons for salvation. I deal in survival, not miracles."

They rose then, with a surprising fluidity given their hunched appearance. "Come. The city above will not wait for star-singers to decide their fate. It is time you learned to wear its shadows like a cloak."

Chapter 20: The Price of Starlight

Under the Weaver's tutelage, Maya, Ben, and Priya became shadows slipping through the underbelly of the backwater world. The Weaver revealed hidden passageways, codes embedded in the cacophony of the market, and the telltale gestures that marked an informant from an enemy. It was a world of whispers and wary glances, where a single wrong move could prove fatal.

The lessons extended beyond survival. In the dim sanctuary beneath the city, the Weaver painted stories with words that dripped like acid rain. They spoke of the Archivists' past crusades, civilizations extinguished in their relentless pursuit of forgotten relics. They told of the Song of Stars, not as a mystical legend, but a raw, chaotic energy that could reshape the fabric of the cosmos… for good or ill.

The Compass, once a beacon of hope, thrummed with a new, menacing undertone. Even under the Weaver's guidance, its language remained frustratingly obscure: constellations that didn't grace any star chart Maya knew, symbols that left her with a lingering headache and a taste of metal at the back of her throat.

One sweltering afternoon, hunched over a pile of crumbling data slates, Ben let out a frustrated groan. "This is pointless! We're learning the rules to a game we can't even see the board for." He tossed aside a shard of crystal etched with incomprehensible runes. "Maybe we should just ditch this whole 'knowing stuff' plan, steal a ship, and run headfirst into the next adventure."

Priya snorted. "And end up Archivist chow? Your plans always did lack… perspective."

Yet, Maya noticed a flicker of uncertainty in her friend's eyes. Weren't they all tempted by Ben's brand of reckless abandon? Better to face the unknown than grapple with a power they barely grasped, yet felt growing within them.

"The Weaver warned us," she murmured, staring at the Compass in her hands. "Choices… sacrifices…"

"And?" the Weaver's voice slithered through the chamber's entrance. They were a master of the unexpected appearance, always fading into existence from unseen corners. "Have you found your answers within your precious relic?"

The Weaver reached out, withered fingers tracing a glyph on the Compass's smooth surface. Maya gasped, not in pain, but in a shock of recognition. A network of stars flared to life within the Compass, a pattern she'd glimpsed in her dreams… and in the ruined library.

"This…" she whispered, "I've seen this." She looked up at the Weaver, their face an unreadable mask. "They're leading us somewhere. The Archivists… they know where this is.”

"Indeed," The Weaver murmured. "A place of power, a wellspring of the Song. It is where they will attempt to bend the melody to their will … unless you reach it first."

The silence that followed pulsed with the unspoken question: what would they do with such power?

The Weaver gestured towards a battered satchel leaning against the wall. "Your bargain is fulfilled. Within, you will find supplies, and a course charted into the unclaimed territories – a treacherous path, but one less watched by the Archivists' eyes."

Priya retrieved the satchel, hefting it with a warrior's grim approval. "And in return for this… generosity?"

The Weaver's rasping laughter filled the heavy air. "Let us just say I have… investments in the future. Should you succeed in your quest, child, remember that even shadows are cast by starlight."

The cryptic farewell echoed long after the Weaver vanished into the twisting tunnels. They emerged onto the city's fringes as dusk painted the rust-streaked sky in bruised streaks of purple and gold. The air thrummed with uncertainty, mirroring Maya's own churning thoughts.

"Well," Ben said, breaking the silence with forced cheer. "At least we're back to the part where we run for our lives. Feels… oddly comforting."

"But this time," Priya added, tightening the strap of the satchel, "maybe, just maybe, we're running towards something, not just away."

Maya looked westward, where the last of the garish sunlight bled into the vast, uncharted darkness. Hope mingled with trepidation as the Compass throbbed in her hand, a stubborn pulse guiding them into the unknown.

The game had changed. The stakes were impossibly high, their roles uncertain. Were they still the naive star-singers, or were they becoming the authors of a story whose ending was far from certain?

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