Darken Blackangel caught his shadow skimming the green grass below him out of the corner of his eye. The morning sun shone on him, gently warming his pale, chalk white skin.
A smile crept across his face. He brushed strands of his jet-black hair from his eyes and kept flying, trying to gain speed and altitude. His pale blue eyes never blinked against the rushing wind. This was his domain, these peaceful blue skies and green hills. He had flown through them many times in his seventeen years, and could recognize any spot from the air.
He was born to fly.
The air was a cold shock, at least at this speed. He gently soared along, his midnight back wings gracefully launching him higher and higher through the air. Darken was one of the few people in this green domain who could fly and even in that small minority he was unique.
Or as he often thought of it, alone. Isolated. Set apart.
Darken shared many things in common with his fellow angels. He shared their pale skin, their soft, beautiful features and the ability to fly ability to fly. But in certain fundamental ways he was different.
The main difference people noted were the wings. Most angels had snow-white wings, lush and festooned with hundreds of feathers. Angel wings were soft to the touch and barely made a sound as they flapped through the air.
Darken's wings were different. It wasn't simply that they were jet-black or that on the inner wings there was a finger of red that zigzagged between the black or even the slicker, less silky feel of his feathers.
Mostly it was the tusks. They protruded from the crest of his wings like the curved bony claws of a cat. In truth his wings were shaped more like that of the other masters of the air in the Seven Spheres.
This was no accident, as Darken shared blood with them as well. He beat his wings, pushing himself higher and higher into the skies, mulling all this over. The angels and the dragons were implacable enemies, having warred with each other many times. Even now, in a time of tense peace there was real fear and mistrust between them. Even in peace a child such as Darken--born of angel and dragon could not exist. Too many differences in culture, too many taboos against mixing their races.
And yet, Darken thought, feeling the sun in his face and he flipped head over heels and aimed himself downward, here I am. He wrapped his wings tight around himself, slowly spinning down through the skies like a falling star.
He picked up speed as he turned the circumstances of his birth over in his head. There wasn't much to mull over. Darken had never known his parents--to keep him safe he was sent here mere days after being born.
Darken readied himself and as the ground was a mere twenty feet from him, he opened his wings and pulled out of the dive, muscles straining as his wings caught the wind.
Keep me safe from what? Darken had often wondered. For most of his life he had been sent here to be trained. Not only in how to fly, but how to fight, and how to live. Every lesson from how to crush rock with his bare hands to how to snatch a fish from a river while you soared above it--he recalled every lesson.
All the important things, he thought.That's what Master Ka'el keeps telling me. "I'm giving you all you'll need to know." I ask him why and all he does is shake his head sadly and remind me not to grow up too fast.
But sometimes I want to. I want to know more. I just want to know who I really am.
He looked at the tree-line below him and sighed, slowing himself down a bit. It wasn't that he hated it here or was bored in Deiyara, it was just that sometimes he longed to see what was beyond it.
Perhaps it was just a young man's dream or perhaps he hoped to find some answers to his questions beyond this realm.
Ka'el's admonishment about not growing up so fast echoed through his mind again. He sighed. It was good advice on the face of it--he would hate to find one day that he had outgrown a simple pleasure like flying the length of this realm.
But he was growing. And sometimes he wanted to know where it would take him. The question was, was it worth risking where you were to get where you were going?
* * *
Maryna Cyclade stood on the edge of the balcony, overlooking a sea of clouds below and a pale blue sky above. Her white-gloved hands gripped the golden rail of the balcony. While angels were accustomed to the skies being their domain, she had always had a secret fear of heights.
The irony wasn't lost on her. In their own realm, angels flew freely from one floating city to another. They never feared falling or losing control because there was no way to fall out of the sky. You could only fall so far before you regained control or someone caught you, a fact Maryna had been grateful for several times in her life.
She drew her purple robes tighter around her body, the winds suddenly a bit chilly. Odd, she thought. I've never known Nycheladra to ever have a chilly day. The breeze came past her again and she wrapped her wings around herself, her long brown hair caught in the breezes.
Nycheladra was beautiful, if one didnít mind the total lack of solid ground. Maryna had read ancient histories of how their ancestors had found ancient floating islands and slowly built the glittering golden spires and gravity pagodas she knew.
From the other side of history it seemed strange and impossible, but all the same, it impressed her. Especially as, from what she knew, the races who now ruled the seven worlds that made up the Seven Spheres, whatever their belligerence to one another, had one thing in common.
An almost collective amnesia. No one seemed to know why there were seven worlds, almost perfectly parceled out to a race. No one knew why they were connected either, or why only certain people could summon the gates that made travel between them possible.
"So many questions," the librarian who handed her the books had said almost patronizingly. "We are what we are and where we are, and both are perfect."
Answer enough for some people, not enough for Maryna. It had started as her hobby--as a child of privilege her every need was looked after and any occupation considered beneath her. It had left her with some amount of time on her hands and rather than sit around waiting for an arranged marriage, she had studied the history of the Seven Spheres.
Such as it was.
Maryna squinted, her bright golden eyes searching the far skies for something. She didnít like not knowing the truth, and for some reason, the simple answers never satisfied her. Sometimes she longed to be less than a child of nobility so she would be free to solve this mystery.
Somedays I would settle for just being free.
She had read the stories of the other realms. One was supposedly nothing but oceans, a world where the seas held sway much as the skies did in her own realm. Another was supposed to be a barren wasteland, a massive desert where the wind and the sand made even the angels walk. Another was supposed to be a lush green place, a place of peace that no war had ever come to. And still another was supposed to be a place of darkness and pain.
Despite the ominous words written about them, Maryna wanted to see them all. It seemed like such a waste otherwise. As lovely as it was to be born into a wealthy family, distant cousins of the king of the angels, it was also hatefully confining, and rare as the day where Maryna hadnít felt like a bird in a gilded cage.
* * *
The purple haired angel waited on the rocks next to the waterfall. The waterfall splashed onto them, droplets of water splashing onto her white skin, cool against skin warmed by the sun.
Liandra Skyshade closed her dark violet eyes and stretched. It felt so good to be alive today on a day like this. How she wished she could dwell in moments like these forever.
Even if I'm technically in lots of trouble, she thought, smiling a little.
For fourteen years, Liandra had lived on Deiyara, her only companions Master Ka'el and her big brother, Darken Blackangel. She loved them dearly, but now that she was older, she found herself wanting to be free more and more--to have more a life than the constant training and the lectures.
After all, she had lived here fourteen years and if she had seen half of this realm from the air it would have come as a surprise to her. She didnít want to be waiting for another fourteen.
Especially now that she had someone to wait for.
There was a rustle of leaves and she slowly opened her eyes and looked in the direction of the sound. Her purple lips bent into a frown.
"How long were you watching me?"
The pale young man stumbled from the bushed, running a hand through his blue hair and smiled. "I uhm, wasn't staring, Liandra. Honest."
Liandra slid off the rock and ran to embrace him. "You're a terrible liar Macabro, but I donít care." She gently kissed him on the cheek. "I love you anyway."
Macabro Darknova blushed a little. Like Liandra he had pale white skin and features that made him look nearly angelic. But his face was drawn slightly sharper. Plus he lacked wings. Liandra had often wondered what had happened. Had he had them removed? Was he one of those races from Master Ka'el's books?
It didnít matter to her, ultimately. She had fallen in love with Macabro the very first time she had seen him. He was a little naÔve and seemed so shy, but he had an earnest love for her--she knew it.
"What this?" Liandra asked, looking over Darknova's shoulders.
"Oh!" Darknova said, turning even redder. He brought a few small flowers, only slightly squished by Liandra's eager embrace. He held them in front of her. "I found these on my way here and I picked them for you. Do you like them?"
Liandra took them from him and took a deep breath. "Oh they're wonderful!"
Darknova took her in his arms and held her for a long time. Liandra, so happy to see him wrapped her wings around him, an extra embrace of love and affection.
"So," Darknova said, sounding as always like a child trying to sound older and tougher than he was. "Youíre not gonna get in trouble being out here, are you?"
"Macabro," Liandra said. "Even if I did it'd be worth every moment. I'm so glad you could come. Come on, let's sit here and enjoy the sun."
"Okay," Darknova said, following her back to the rock. In truth, he loved Liandra so much, he would have followed her anywhere.
They sat for awhile, talking occasionally, holding hands sometimes. Darknova felt so nervous and so uncertain, but still in a strange state of peace with her.
Finally, Liandra leaned forward and told spoke her mind.
"Macabro," she asked. "Why haven't you ever kissed me?"
Darknova blinked. "Kissed you? I . . .I . . .uhm . . .I don't know how."
"It's easy, Liandra said, leaning closer. She saw he was nervous and looked at him. "Are you OK? Do you not want to?"
"No, no," Darknova said. "Just nervous. I want . . .I want to do it right."
"You will," Liandra said, gently pressing her lips to his. She kissed him slowly and tenderly, slightly relieved that he wouldnít be any judge of her ability to kiss, because she really had no idea either.
She didnít know how, and she wasn't sure if she did it right, all she knew was that she wanted to be with him.
If Liandra had a single failing it was that she was so protective of those she loved and who loved her that like a young child, she only saw what was before her and couldn't conceive of ever having to let the people she loved go.
Not Master Ka'el, not Darken, and certainly not Darknova.
Liandra opened one eye still kissing her. A familiar shadow was circling them. She broke the kiss and frowned, glaring up through her purple bangs.
Oh Darken, she frowned. Canít I get one little moment to myself?
Darknova looked at her. "Hey, did I do something wrong?"
Liandra giggled and blushed. "No, no," she sighed. "Just my big brother come to collect me, I'm afraid. I'm sorry, Macabro. I wanted to have more time today."
"It's OK," Darknova replied. "I shouldn't have been so late. I'll let you know when I can come back, OK?"
"Come . . .back?"
"I have to go away for a while," Darknova said. "But I'll be back. Will you . . .uhm, wait for me?"
Liandra hugged him tight. "Of course I will! What kind of question is that?"
"Sorry," Darknova said. "I was just a little scared."
Darken's shadow grew larger over them as he descended. Darknova looked up and slid off the rock. "Ok, I better go," he said. "I'll see you again, Liandra! I love you!"
I love you too!" Liandra said, beaming.
Darknova ran off into the bushes. Darken landed a few seconds later.
"Did he just say he loved you?" Darken asked, turning to her. Liandra grimaced, pouted and punched Darken lightly in the arm.
"Hey!" Darken exclaimed. "What was that for?"
"You had to come get me right now?" Liandra said. "I barely get to see Macabro as it is."
"Oh," Darken said. "I just figured since it was about time for supper we should head back to the temple."
Liandra sighed. "I guess," she said, wearily. Sometimes I wish darken had a girlfriend, she mused. Maybe then he's understand just how precious these moments are, especially when you donít have very many.
Liandra shook out her wings, spreading them and tensing her muscles. "Come on," she said flatly. "Let's get going."
Darken looked down and put his hand on Liandra's shoulder, his blue eyes deep and sad and a little ashamed. Liandra knew what that look meant.
"I'm sorry Liandra," Darken said. "I wasnít thinking. I didnít mean to scare him off."
Liandra shook her head and hugged him. "It's Ok," she said. "Just try not to bust in on me the next time it happens, OK?"
"I wonít," Darken said. "I promise."
Liandra smiled at him and hugged him again. After a time they leapt into the air and took off.
* * *
On the other side of Deiyara in a grassy valley surrounded by the end of a range of mountains lay a temple--and old ziggurat, it's taupe sandstone long since turned black but untold years, centuries, even millennia of time.
Much like it's owner. He kept to the shadows, his hunched satyr-like form silhouetted against the reddening late day sun. He balanced himself on a cane, his long scraggly gray-green hair falling into his face and silhouetting his red eyes. In his other hand he held a small piece of golden jewelry. It was light but it seemed to carry much more weight than it actually did.
"Give it to him when he's ready, " Master Ka'el thought, repeating the words of the woman who had given it to him. Ka'el had known this day would come and he had been dreading it.
Not because Darken wasn't ready for the responsibility, but because of what it meant. With this, his mother's Eagle Clasp, he could travel to the other Spheres, he would learn things that even master Ka'el's library of ancient texts could never teach him. And most of all he would finally learn the truth about his parentage.
No, he thought, sighing. The question is not whether he is ready, but whether I am. I raised him since birth, like he was my own son. This is the beginning of my goodbye to him. And it will be slow and painful.
And in all honesty, I'm not sure I'm ready yet to say goodbye to him. I know where his destiny will take him, and I know what a terrible burden it will be for him. He will never know peace, he will have to fight for everything he loves and he will never have a home until this destiny is complete.
And once it is, the home he has made will not be for him.
He turned the Eagle Clasp over in his hands.
Yes, a heavy burden.
Ka'el was the oldest living being in the Seven Spheres, the last survivor of a race from long ago. He had come here awaiting destiny passively, working behind the scenes with the races that had supplanted his to complete a grand design. But as the prophecy made itself clear, Ka'el found him drawn closer to the people who believed in it.
That brought with it many complications, Ka'el pondered, turning away from the sunset. When one finds themselves caring for the instruments of prophecy it becomes so hard to see it in the abstract.
Because some must die for the prophecy to be fulfilled. And every one I lose, is a piece of my heart forever lost. All that sustains me is the belief that ultimately we can build a world where such sacrifices are unneeded.
He sighed and chastised himself. Pull yourself together, he thought. Liandra and Darken will return soon. You must prepare.
* * *
Taruga was a sphere of darkness. It was impossible to dwell in it for any amount of time without feeling the darkness as less of a state of being than an actual physical feeling--heavy, cold, oppressive, smothering.
Unless you happened to be a vampire. Then it was as pleasant as the eternal spring of Deiyara or the limitless skies of Nycheladra.
Kirone Witchfire was herself not a vampire, at least not a true one. She was a half-breed, one half vampire one half a Fallen. Given that the fallen were themselves an offshoot of the angels she mused sometimes that perhaps she was perhaps one-eighth angel.
It was a thought that caused her to chuckle. There was nothing angelic about her.
She allowed herself a smile wide enough to bare her fangs as she made her way down the red-lit halls of the Imperial Palace. In the darkness of Taruga, the vampire ruled supreme and this Imperial Palace was proof, an obsidian tower of strength where there were always the bodies of demons and other malcontents staked to the walls as a warning.
It was one from which Kirone hoped to rule one day.
She wrapped herself in her long black cloak as she approached the guards to the throne room. They immediately recognized her and made way, opening the blood-soaked doors.
On the ebony throne before her sat her father, Cryptonus, the Vampire Emperor. He was clad in his usual armor--an odd melange of cloth and the skin of living demons that formed a carapace around him as they slowly consumed his flesh. It was a disturbing arrangement to contemplate, but Cryptonus had long ago taught his daughter that in a realm where advancement by assassination was the norm, and the wise ruler was prepared for anything, wherever the blade should fall from.
Kirone stood before him, unwrapped herself from her cloak and went to one knee. The awkwardness with which she did it betrayed her insincerity. Even though she was seventeen years old, Kirone had vowed that ultimately more people would go to their knees before her than she ever would kneel to herself.
While Kirone had received certain gifts from her parents, the one thing that was clearly all hers was her limitless ambition. It was something she nursed and cultivated in the purest part of her heart.
She bowed her head, her flame-red head shielding her blood-red eyes and making her face as dark as her intentions. She prayed her father couldnít see her grimace as she willed herself to be obsequious, or at least appear so.
"You sent for me, Father?" She asked, her voice like a viper's hiss.
"I did, my daughter," Cryptonus said. "This is a proud day for our dynasty, Kirone. Today is the day you become a queen."
Kirone blinked and felt herself wobble as she tried to balance herself on one knee.
"You heard me, Kirone," Cryptonus said. His blank red eyes fixed on her as his lips were pulled into a snarl. "It is time for you to start down the path to your destiny. I have arranged for you to be given your own Sphere to rule."
Kirone couldn't believe her ears. "My own Sphere?"
"Yes," Cryptonus said. "It has been decided that tomorrow you will be taken to Sirroc, the desert sphere of the Fallen. There you will subjugate the people and, if you wish, you may make it your own kingdom."
Cryptonus rose from his throne and stroke down to his daughter, still prostrate on the floor. "This is as it was intended to be, my daughter," he said. "The prophecy tells us one born from two races will conquer the Spheres. For the past seventeen years we have instructed you in all you will need to achieve the prophecy."
My own kingdom, Kirone thought ruefully. If only I can conquer it. Somehow I knew there had to be a catch.
Cryptonus drew his sword and passed it over Kirone's head. "Rise, now, my daughter," He said. "Rise as Lady Kirone Witchfire, ruler of Sirroc, in the name of the Emperor of the Night."
Kirone got to her feet, smiling. She bowed her head. 'Thank you Father, she said. "I won't disappoint you, I promise."
"See that you donít, Kirone," Cryptonus said. "Now go. You have much to prepare for. You task will be a long and difficult one. I will not see you again until it is done."
Kirone bowed and quickly exited the room. One the one hand she was overjoyed. A whole Sphere to conquer, if only she could. Of course, it was the most godforsaken Sphere of the entire Seven--so barren and desolate that no kingdom had ever taken root on it, just a few nomadic settlements here and there.
Exile disguised as opportunity. In the guise of doing her a favor, Cryptonus had presented her a conundrum, as difficult in its way as growing a flower in desert sand. How do you unite a realm of nomads?
No unity at all, she thought. But I can bring unity to them.
She let her tongue run over her fangs.
One way or another.
She smiled again as she made her way down the hall.
First Sirroc, then I will return here, Father, she thought. And then I will add Taruga to my kingdom. You were right in that it's my destiny to conquer the Spheres. I'm willing to do it.
Even over the body of my own father.