Chapter 10: Train of Consequences

Deep under the waves of Aquatica, God Poseidon continued his rise to the surface, cutting a swath of death and destruction in his wake. It moved in more or less of a straight line, never deviating from it's course because it never needed to--nothing was strong enough to halt or divert it.

The people of Aquatica had first noticed that something was moving when the schools of fish suddenly changed their patterns. Their usual manner was to ride the currents, but of late something had changed them, and the mer-people could sense it as an air-breather might have noticed a slight change in the wind.

Experience had taught them that anything that could survive in the deep ocean and the leviathans that prowled fathoms above it and still rise was something to be feared.

They'd begun to plan when the Beast was a mere five fathoms below one of their largest cities. They began the process of evacuating it and moving as much of it as possible away from the monster's path, and where once there were innocent townsfolk, great armies riding massive sea creatures mustered and waited for whatever it was to come up.

Meralei, Captain of the Undersea Legions, looked down into the black depths. Like the rest of her men she could feel the disturbance this thing, whatever it was, was churning in the water. Not just how it seemed to ignore the current, blasting through it as unlikely as something might pierce solid rock, but the unmistakable scent that proceeded it.

The scent of death.

She steadied the large seahorse-like creature she was riding as she gave the signal to her troops to begin. The shapeless force was beginning to coalesce as it left the last of the darkness behind it. It didnít look like any sea creature she had ever seen, nor any being she could recognize from its silhouette.

Only the scent, now so overpowering it threatened to turn her stomach, betrayed any evidence of its intentions.

She raised her massive sword, signaling the first wave of her attack. Two men, riding creatures much like herself moved into position above the creature, carrying a large net between them. They broke away just short of the Beast, releasing what was contained within their net.

The clear, gelatinous jellyfish like creature seemed to bloom into it's full size and shape in the water, extending its tentacles towards God Poseidon. The clear tentacles were loaded with stinging cells powerful enough to kill a full-grown leviathan, and were very hard to kill, as the Beast was sure to find out should he decide to struggle.

God Poseidon reached for the jellyfish, ripping it in two with his arms. The pieces rippled and split into two more jellyfish, which immediately wrapped its tentacles around the arms holding them. God Poseidon reached up for the two irritating creatures with his own tentacles, but instead of peeling them away, merely tore them in half, spawning two more jellyfish.

Meralei and her men watched the scene with ever growing tension. While the jellyfish were slowing him down, it seemed to owe more to the monster's own confusion rather than any effect the jellyfishes' stings were having.

It was still rising.

Meralei gave the signal for her second wave to ready their attack. Behind her, massive shells, guided by more of her men began to mass. Meralei caught her first full sight of God Poseidon, its massive form, despite all the disturbances it was causing as it tried to free itself from the jellyfish seemed to almost blend with the blue of the ocean, and for a moment she mused whether it was the ocean itself.

She lowered her sword, ordering the shells into position. The mollusks within the shells drifted down to God Poseidon, latching on with their muscular suction devices and attempting to pierce its skin with their poison-laden beaks.

Wave after wave of shells were dropped on it, and for a time they seemed to stop his advance, whether due to poisoning or the sheer mass they added to its form, it was hard to tell.

For a moment, Meralei let herself hope that perhaps they could stop the Beast after all.

Then it folded its arms over itself and the shells began to drop away, drifting in the water. Meralei gave the signal for her third wave to make ready, her green eyes narrowing on the Beast and its sudden change in behavior.

God Poseidon thrashed its body outward, releasing an incredible electric current into the water, frying the shells that hadn't already been stunned or killed outright when he'd been charging up the attack. Even far away Meralei felt the pain of the shock as it flashed outward, the distance between them the only thing saving Meralei and her men from being killed as quickly as the shells had.

But the Beast wasn't done yet. Spotting Meralei's force of men and creatures, it turned and slowed its advance. It extended its arms again, this time slower as if it were stretching after awakening from a deep sleep.

Then, opening its hands, it slammed them together, clapping them just once.

The resultant shockwave blasted forth, increasing in force rather than decreasing. The massive creatures that Meralei's men rode were blown backwards like leaves in the wind and Meralei herself was thrown along, taken by the current into the vacant city they'd evacuated just hours before.

The shockwave was no kinder to the colorful coral spires of the city than it had been to the soldiers. It sheared through the structures left behind, some of the men it had taken up in its wake were slammed into walls with such force the impact immediately liquefied them, then pulverized the wall they had crashed into. The city crumbled as the wave passed on, burying the soldiers in the debris of the city they had tried so hard to save.

* * *

Monstructor stood alone in he darkened chamber of the Beast he called his home, watching as his beloved pets gathered the bits and pieces off the floor. Though the room was dark, he could see perfectly through his spectacles as the spider-like creatures gathered the arms, legs, and torsos he'd gathered together over time.

Plenty of unlikely and unwitting would-be adventurers had found their way to the Beast in Monstructor's time living here, seeking to claim its power or destroy it. Their current dismembered state attested to their success. Bits of Angels, Dragons, Vampires, some in serious states of decomposition, littered the floor of Monstructor's home.

They weren't souvenirs, of course--Monstructor didnít believe in sentimental attatchmments like that. No, he'd kept them around in case they would be handy. Raw materials for future experimentation. The pile had grown over time simply because he'd lacked the time and energy to do anything with them.

Now, thanks to Kirone, he had both.

Soon his creatures would spin a cocoon around the bits and pieces, the process within fusing the mismatched limbs together and creating life, of a sort. The final result, of course, he was less sure of.

But that is why one does experiments, he thought to himself. To see what happens.

He smiled, mad eyes shining through his red spectacles. His spectacles were an early triumph of his, the first distillation of the knowledge he'd found within the Beast. With them, he could see in the absolute darkness of the buried machine, and in that darkness, learn even more secrets, such as this particular Beast's need to feed on the energy of the living.

Unlike the glasses, that particular lesson had come with some cost to him. One of the arms lying on the floor belonged to him.

It was somehow fitting then, that Kirone and her vampiric ilk had resurrected it and used it as their fortress, Monstructor thought, watching as the cocoons began to form on the walls, the limbs held together by sticky webbed nets. The green scorpion-like creatures continued to pass over them, back and forth, the clear gelatin of their webbing turning opaque as it dried in the stale, rank air of the chamber.

Kirone needs an army, he thought. Better than Vampires--an army that can ignore the hateful sun, an army with total an unquestioning obedience to her. Monstructor was determined to give her that. The remains here, coupled with those of her fallen Vampires, will be the nucleus of that army, the proof of concept.

A harbinger of bigger and better things to come.

Monstructor's final ambition, of course, went far beyond merely reanimating the dead.

He knelt down to the floor of the chamber, placing his metal hand flat on the floor, reaching out with his mind. His mind and his will tried to contact the Beast within the machine, Monstructor's arm, being made from the Beast, was the bridge between them, the line of communication.

He desired knowledge and the only way to learn what he wished was to commune with the Beast. Ever since he'd felt the power within Vertiga's blade, he knew there was potential to do what even the ancient races couldn't with their massive Beasts.

I could create a stable Beast, he thought. Before, the ancient races simply tore spirits away and trapped them inside machines like this. Insanity was inevitable when confronted with their new reality.

But perhaps if the spirit could be enticed into inhabiting the Beast-shell willingly . . .

He willed the Beast to speak to him; it's mad discordant images filling his mind. While communication with the mad machine was possible it usually only provided bits and pieces of the puzzle.

It was up to Monstructor to put them together.

* * *

Darken cradled his sister in his arms, trying hard to hold himself together in the grip of grief and rage that threatened to suffocate him. He cried, the sobs wracking his body to such a great degree he could hardly catch a breath. He cursed himself silently for not acting sooner, not trying to shove past Cygnus and stop Darknova before he attacked Liandra.

Most of all he was enraged at himself for being away, following up a past that was completely alien to him and long-dead besides. There was nothing there for him that he could see or appreciate that was equal to what he now held in his arms. The life he'd always known.

The life that now threatened to slip away.

"Is she . . ." Cygnus began, taking a nervous step forward.

"No, she's not dead," he said ruefully. "But she's going to be soon."

"You canít help her?"

"I could have, before this even started!" Darken shouted. "If you'd minded your own business, she wouldn't have to die!"

Cygnus flinched, quietly accepting his accusation as true.

"I'm asking is there anything you can do for her, now?"

"I . . ." Darken started, ready to shout at her again. "There . . .there's nothing I can do for her. I know someone who could help, but I'd never get there in time. It's . . .just to far to fly."

"Do you know where?"

"What does it matter to you?"

"I can help."

Darken held his sister tighter. "You mean like you helped cause this?"

"All right, that's enough," she sighed. "I accept that I may not have entirely known what I was doing keeping you at bay. I . . .I'm not as familiar with how things are as you are. But I have the power to get you where you could get her help, if you trust me. Now we can try that . . .or we can argue amongst each other while she dies."

"You have power?" Darken sighed, holding Liandra closer. "Prove it."

Cygnus frowned. "All right," she said. "Look at me. And try not to blink."

"But--"

"Trust me."

Darken looked up at her, willing his eyes not to blink even though they burned with tears. He lasted perhaps half a minute before his eyes blinked a tear down his cheek.

"You blinked," a voice said from behind him.

Cygnus laid her white-gloved hand on his shoulder. "I can cross distances quickly," she said. "But it takes a lot of effort and I have to know where it is I'm going. If you have that knowledge, I can get us there. If you'll trust me."

Darken sighed, brushing Liandra's hair over her ruined eyes. It seemed like utter madness. This strange woman didnít know anything about vampires, but she was so certain she could cover hours of flying in an instant?

His fingers found Liandra's neck, feeling her pulse fading.

Whatever he decided, he didnít have much time. Liandra would last maybe another hour if they stayed here and awaited the end.

Ka'el might not even be able to do anything for her, he thought, trying immediately to push the thought from his mind and keep kindling the hope the woman offered him. But if anyone would know . . .he would.

Besides, if she's going to die, it should be at home.

She could be wrong, he thought. After all, all I know of her "help" was causing this in the first place. She could do nothing or kill us all in the attempt.

But what does it matter? Liandra is my family, she is my life, and if she's going to die . . .I don't want to live. None of this destiny talk Ka'el's poured into my head, saving the Spheres, none of it matters to me, unless I can protect the ones I live.

What have I got to lose?

"All right," he said quietly. "What do I have to do?"

Cygnus laid her other hand on his shoulder, stepping between his wings and closing her eyes.

"Just think of where we need to go," she said quietly. "Concentrate."

Darken closed his eyes and thought of the temple, his mind going through every detail. In his mind he was flying over it now, turning and coming to light on the large stone landing on the slope of the ziggurat, where he usually spent every morning watching the sun come up over the treeline.

In the darkness of his thought there seemed to be a blue flash across his vision. A cool, brilliant blue that seemed to wash over his mind and his heart. For a second his grief, his anger, and his terror were gone, as if he'd walked through a dark corridor into a bright room, the light so bright and piercing he was blinded for a second.

Then he opened his eyes.

"What . . ." Darken said, trying to get to his feet. His wings spread behind him and nearly pushed Cygnus down as he knelt down, trying to gather Liandra up in his arms.

They were on the stone landing he'd just been thinking about. And he knew it was real--the scent of the air, the gentle sigh of the wind as it blew through the treetops--they were all details he knew as completely as the back of his hand.

Darken looked over at Cygnus, who looked visibly exhausted and more than a little shaken. She moved away from him and looked for a place to sit down.

"How did you--"

Cygnus waved the question off. "I didn't," she said. "You did. Go, get her the help she needs."

"I did? What are you--"

"GO!" Cygnus shouted. "She hasnít got time for me to explain it to you."

Darken nodded, starting for the entrance. Cygnus watched him as he walked into the temple, the darkness within seeming to swallow him as he made his way inside.

She sighed and sat alone, leaning back against the stone wall of the temple and trying to get her bearings. While some of her exhaustion was pretense, a show to get him to leave her behind and see to Liandra, a surprising amount of it was genuine.

Even chasing and fighting Vertiga hadnít taken as much out of her as crossing though had, and Vertiga's power was immense.

The main problem is, she thought, I'm not used to being tired. I've been dragged into far more than I intended to involve myself in. I certainly never wanted to find myself here.

But what else could I do? I gave my word, didn't I?

She bit her lip, thinking about that and one other thing that she'd been trying to push aside since she'd seen the image of this place in Darken's mind.

I gave my vow, and I intend to hold to it. Just as I'll hold to the vow to myself that I will never, ever, go in to that place.

* * *

To be a Beast was to be mad, to know no other thought, to feel no emotion except an appetite for destruction. The only thought that ran through the mind of a beast was a prolonged scream that never stopped. They wandered to and fro on the Spheres, destroying all they found, because in their minds they were trapped. Trapped on an unfamiliar world, tapped inside a machine that suffocated their very essence, a wound that would never heal. It only ever hurt.

But even Beasts could have moments of lucidity.

Even Beasts could remember.

Artica stood on the glacier its steps had created, looking down at the dark forest below her, its massive trees a dome that held tight to one another like folded hands, keeping their precious secret underneath. The forest stretched for miles, hidden in a valley far from prying eyes, cradled between two mountains among the range that stretched across Deiyara.

Artica raised its arms, and a gentle snow began to fall, propelled by a light wind. It began to cover the treetops, a blanket of white covering the dark green foliage. Then the shows began to come down harder, the wind howling a little stronger.

Artica began to push harder, the snow now becoming ice, coating the branches of the trees, coating the snow and weighing them down. Branches sagged, then snapped loose. One of the trees fell completely over, churning the earth that held it as its roots peeled away.

And then they began to stream out of the darkness of the forest, first a few dozen, then hundreds--a glowing cloud of fluttering beauty. The fairies of the hidden forest did their best to flee the sudden violent winter that had never touched their sanctuary before this moment.

The spirit within Artica, however, saw them only as traitors, and while it had every intention of leveling the Sphere, these fairies would suffer a more immediate and awful fate.

Extermination.

The Beast turned its attention to them and gestured at the cloud of them that attempted to escape its attention, shooting them with a burst of cold so powerful that it froze many of them solid in an instant. They fell to the earth, some of them falling and shattering on the Beast's snowflake-like armor, some landing on the frozen ground, broken underfoot by the Beast's footstep.

One landed in the palm of Artica's hand, the expression on its tiny face one of fear and disbelief. Artica turned it in her hand, cradling it almost gently for a moment.

Then the monstrous machine clenched the hand into a tight fist, snapping the fairy's frozen corpse in two.

* * *

Darken floated down the temple's main shaft, following the drone of voices from the bottom of the shaft. He tried to be careful as he descended--he had a passenger along, and an injured one at that, after all. But he always found himself falling a little too fast, his descent a little too uncontrolled. The twin emotions of hope and fear within himself made him reckless and impatient, the fear of what could happen distracting him from the immediate moment.

"KA'EL!" Darken shouted down below

Ka'el and Maryna raised their heads as he descended upon them. Darken came to as gentle a landing as he could as he shoved past Maryna to show Liandra to Ka'el.

"What happened?"

"She's been bitten," Darken said, deep in the grip of anxiety. His words came out as sharp, impatient gasps. Neither he nor Liandra had any time for explanations.

"Vampire. She's still alive, but fading. Help her!"

Ka'el walked to another corner of the room and cleared a small stone altar, gesturing for Darken to lay her down upon it. Maryna, deciding to wait for a more propitious moment to ask questions or say anything at all, really, stood back and watched them.

Ka'el surveyed Liandra's injuries with a grim look on his face, as Darken stared at him from the other side of the altar.

"She is barely alive," he observed. "So close to the change."

He shut his eyes, his hands cradling the back of her neck gently as he summoned his magic, bringing it up through himself and into his fingers, willing it to close her wounds and heal her.

It was more difficult than it appeared.

Liandra is beginning to turn, he thought, feeling the punctures in her throat seal shut under his touch. Some of what is happening inside her is a physical change, not injury. And that I dare not attempt to alter or I will kill her for certain.

I have to bring her back from the edge. The rest of the damage I must attend to later. For now I must ensure there is a "later" for her.

He willed his magics to restore some of her stamina; his brow furrowing as he tried to will some of her spent life force back into her body, lending some of his own strength to bolster hers.

Healing magic was difficult, even under the most ideal of circumstances. It was easy to go too far when transferring one's life force to another--The injured person could draw in all the healer's life force and kill the him. Ka'el had developed more focused medical magic to reduce the danger to the healer for that very reason.

Liandra, unfortunately, was above a simple sealing of her wounds or binding of bone and tissue--the very energy that sustained life was fading from her. And Ka'el's magic couldnít sustain her. Perhaps it was the hunger that came with her turning or the despair of imminent death, or her injury, but the magic wouldnít take.

They were losing her.

Darken held her hand in his, watching Ka'el and watching her for any sign of improvement. Tears streamed down his face as he saw her already slow breathing weaken and become less than a wheeze. He squeezed her hand and grit his teeth, silently pleading with her, and when silence failed him, he gave his grief a voice.

"Liandra," he sobbed. "Please, Liandra, stay with me . . .little sister . . ."

He cursed himself again for being to slow, for letting this happen. Whereas before in his mind he'd blamed that foolish woman for stopping him from killing Macabro when he'd had the chance, now he assumed all the blame for it, the guilt inside him weighing him down so much his wings sagged under the figurative weight.

All this power I have, he thought. All that I'm supposed to have. My "destiny," he thought, silently mocking himself. And I can't even save you. Why am I not powerful enough to do this?

He squeezed her hand tight, squeezing his eyes closed as well. As if a counterweight to Ka'el's concentration and logic to summon his healing magic, Darken's grief and his love for her swallowing any thought in wild emotion.

I would give anything to save you Liandra, he thought.

That blue spark he'd seen when the woman had told him to concentrate on the temple flared at the edge of his vision for a moment, and Darken was so shocked to see it, his eyes opened and it disappeared.

Wait a minute, he thought. What did she say back at the landing?

"I didnít do it. You did."

And I just saw the same thing as I did when we appeared here.

Darken steadied himself, trying to clear his mind enough to consider the possibility before him.

Then he held Liandra's hand in both of his, closed his eyes, and concentrated again, thinking of her, alive and restored. He shut his eyes tightly, squeezing the last of his tears away and pushing everything else away.

The spark flared into a brilliant blue-white light behind his eyes. Unlike before, where it had barely lasted a second, this lasted longer, the piercing light flaring into a glare so bright it hurt to look at. Every cell in his body felt like it had caught fire, burning with a pain more intense than anything he'd ever felt.

Darken screamed, letting go of his sister's hand and he fell to the floor, shuddering and trembling, completely exhausted by the effort of what he'd done.

"DARKEN!" Ka'el shouted. He wanted to run to him, but he had to finish with Liandra first. As if to answer his concern, Maryna rushed to Darken's side, looking him over for any sign of injury.

He concentrated on Liandra. She was alive again--still injured, but well back from the brink of death. He silently closed the connection between them, shutting off the flow of magic. She would survive. As what he wasn't quite sure of at the moment, but she would not die and succumb completely to the vampire's bite. The immediate danger to her was past.

I have the time I need to attend to her properly, he thought, relieved.

As for Darken . . .he has much to answer for.

"He's . . .sleeping, I think," Maryna said, turning Darken over to rest on his side, cradling his head in her lap. "I . . .Ka'el, what did he just do? You never told me he had that kind of power."

Ka'el walked over to him, poking him with his cane. Impossible as it seemed, his brow seemed to furrow even with more worry and fear.

"I did not know myself," he said. "He shouldnít have it at all. It is extraordinarily dangerous."

"Dangerous?" Maryna asked. "How? For him?"

"Not just for him," Ka'el said. "For his sake, as well as that of every other living being within the Spheres, he must never invoke it again.

"Assuming he even survives this time, of course."

* * *

Vertiga and Kirone walked through the bleak streets of the city of the dead, watching the villagers walk back and forth in a peculiar tableau before her. They seemed to take no notice of her as they went about the tasks of their day. Vertiga had even screamed in one villager's ear out of sheer boredom to see if she could get a reaction from the ghostly grey woman.

Nothing. The ghostly woman merely walked along sadly, carrying a laundry basket that she hadnít held for the past two days. Twelve hours later, of course, she would pass by Vertiga again, still carrying the same phantom basket, still ignoring her.

"It's an unintended consequence of the death-spell," Kirone said, a sanguine smile across her black lips. "The few villagers that my men didnít turn will most likely keep doing what they were doing for that day."

"They just repeat themselves, over and over?" Vertiga said. "Why?"

"I have no idea," Kirone shrugged. "And they don't, or at least not entirely. Eventually the time gets shorter and shorter. That woman, for instance--today she'll probably make it all the way across the street. Tomorrow she'll only get as far as the door. The day after that, she won't even get to the door. She can only go as far as she has life force left in her. When it's gone, she'll . . .just stop, I suppose."

Vertiga looked at the sad woman. They were following her into the town square now, past more of the curious grey shade-people, locked in a holding pattern as the Beast above them drained their life forces away slowly.

"All this just to power that machine up there, huh?" Vertiga said. "Such a waste."

"A waste?" Kirone said, watching as two of the ghost-children chased each other. "Donít tell me I misjudged you. The way you murdered my man Lumekh led me to believe you were immune to weaknesses like mercy."

Hardly, the voice in Vertiga's mind interjected. As I hope you will soon find out, Vampire witch. But you would hardly expect her to not feel some pang of sympathy for these wretched beings, would you?

I can handle this just fine on my own, thanks, Vertiga thought.

I grow tired of you waiting for the right moment to strike. I suspect your resolve is failing.

My resolve is fine, damn it, Vertiga thought angrily. It's opportunity I lack. Now would you please back off while I handle her?

"Vertiga?"

Vertiga blinked. "Sorry, I was thinking of something else," she said. "What were you saying?"

"Never mind," Kirone said. They watched the people weaving in and out the square like ghosts, cogs and gears in a machine that was slowly winding down. Vertiga watched them with unceasing curiosity, endlessly fascinated with the tragic mobius loop they seemed doomed to walk on. And just as morbidly fascinating, the woman beside her who seemed to think it perfectly natural and right to do this to them.

"This all must seem like second nature to you," Vertiga said, leaning on her sword as an old man might on her cane. "Draining the whole town dry like this."

"Why?" Kirone asked, cocking an eyebrow.

"Well, you're a vampire. You prey on the living. This is the same kind of thing, just on a larger scale."

"Vantiga and his men would know better about that than I would," Kirone said. "I've never fed on the living. I find it disgusting."

"Youíre joking," Vertiga said. "You've never tried it?"

Kirone shook her head. "It's considered something for the lesser classes where I come from," she said, smiling and baring her fangs. "People of my station feed only from the streams of blood. It's unseemly to feed otherwise--that's what slaves are for: to feed those they serve."

"How strange," Vertiga said. "I was always led to believe you Vampires lived to bite humans. That drinking their blood and turning us into your slaves was some god-given right you felt you had, the highest ecstasy you could achieve."

"I've always tried to keep myself pure," Kirone replied.

Vertiga smirked. "Of course," she said. "So you donít feel the hunger that true vampires would, then?"

"All I've ever craved in my life is power," Kirone said, smiling. She pointed to a young boy walking towards them. "Look here. I think they're about to reset again. I wonder if they can see us right before they fall right back into their cycle?"

Vertiga kept her eyes on the young boy. His face was blank as he stupidly walked on, oblivious to either his original destination or the fact he would never reach it. He was, or had been, just about her age. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as she felt the something strange in the air for a moment, her eyes meeting his.

He stopped not three steps from where she stood and a peculiar expression crossed his face, as if he were waking from a deep sleep. His eyes blinked, and seemed to shine a little as he saw her and smiled, reaching out for her and opening his mouth to say something.

Then he was gone. Vertiga raised her sword and took a step back. She looked for the man and then turned to Kirone, her eyes burning with rage.

"You knew that would happen, didnít you?" Vertiga demanded.

"I swear to you, I didnít," Kirone said, indifferent to both her rage and the strange behavior of the shades. "I've never actually watched one of them this closely before. You have my word I didnít know."

Vertiga slowly lowered her sword. She looked away for a moment, trying to rein in her anger.

We are still waiting for "opportunity," then? The voice in her head mocked.

"You asked me why I wasn't impressed with what you'd done here in your village," Vertiga said, her voice tight with rage. "This is what I meant. I donít think it's any great achievement to wield power like this. It's sloppy and irresponsible."

"You think so?" Kirone asked. "Then what would you have done?"

"I would have killed each and every one of them, if I'd had to," Vertiga replied. "But I would have done it face to face."

"You see that as more honorable, then?"

"I see it as kinder."

Kirone smiled as the shades began to walk through the town again. A small laugh trilled from her lips.

"You know, Vertiga, the more time we spend together," she began, shrugging her cloak off her shoulders and folding her arms over her chest. "The more I think I like you. I think it's your homicidal nobility."

Vertiga's eyes narrowed, looking at her companion sharply from the corner of her eyes. Then a slight smirk crossed her face.

* * *

The throne room of the Angel's Imperial Palace was almost ridiculously opulent. The alabaster hall's high ceilings arched almost out of sight, the frescoes that had been painted on them barely visible to someone standing up and looking at them. The floor was a strange black and white colored marble with a red carpet trimmed with gold leading to the three thrones on the far wall.

Two were of gold, for the King and Queen of the angels. The King, of course, sat in the very center. The third, to the right the King's throne was of silver.

The Queen's throne had stood empty for years, now, but the other two had tenants that occupied them even now.

Sachiel sat on his silver throne, looking out the large narrow window, his mind a million miles away. Outside the city stretched on for miles, the sky stretched on ever longer, and from his window he could imagine that the Sphere was all the world there was.

Unfortunately, the one woman he cared about in all the world wasn't anywhere in it.

He sighed and tried to drag his attention back to the meeting at hand.

Matariel sat on his left, rubbing his chin as he considered the report being given. Something about one of the Imperial skyships being destroyed and the survivors slain.

An irritated expression crossed his face.

Pay attention to what you're supposed to, he reminded himself, hoping the duties of a prince would drag his mind away from Maryna and his worries as her 24 hour furlough was winding down.

"We are presently recalling our other skyships on patron to converge on the point where the Falchion's distress call emanated from," Sandalphon said, kneeling before Sachiel's father. Alecto stood behind him, as focused on what was going on as Sachiel wasn't. "But I'm afraid they're far to scattered to provide any immediate force, my Lord. It could be two whole days before we're in a position to attack with our full strength, and we have no idea where the thing that destroyed the Falchion is nor where it's going."

"And you have no information about the nature of the attack that destroyed the Falchion?" Matariel asked. Sachiel could see the wheels in his mind turning Matariel was a good king, and always considered the needs of his subjects.

"Nothing, my lord, save for one word," Sandalphon replied. "'Burning.'"

"Have your scouts reported any contact?"

"None yet, my Lord. The Falchion was at the furthest range of our explored borders, however--we only have a few listening posts out that far. But given its speed, it could already be past them, heading for us. Until someone else sees it, it's impossible to determine where it will strike."

"I see," Matariel said. He sighed, considering what to do. "Then we should prepare for the worst. Fortify the Imperial City, ensure the population is evacuated to safety and prepare to make our stand here. See to it, Sandalphon."

Sandalphon, Matariel, and Sachiel all rose from their respective position. Sandalphon put his gloved fist over his heart.

"By your command, my Lord," Sandalphon said, bowing his head curtly. He and Alecto both turned to leave as Sachiel made his way down to them.

"Lord Sandalphon," he said. "Wait a moment, please."

Sandalphon paused, his expression grim and already focused on the task his king had laid out. Behind him, Alecto rolled her eyes, correctly assuming what this was all about.

"Maryna. Is there--"

"Maryna is hardly the most important thing we have to deal with right now," Alecto sneered.

"Keep your place, Alecto," Sandalphon said. He turned to Sachiel. "I have no information of her return, my Lord."

"She's still got some time," Sachiel said. "I just wondered if she'd come back early, and with the state of emergency, would she--"

"If she returns, you have my world she will be kept safe," Sandalphon said. "Now I must beg your pardon--I must see to my duties."

"Of course," Sachiel said, cursing himself for not picking his moment better. Hadnít he already used up his influence in the past couple of days? By law she should have been tossed into the royal dungeon, had her not intervened.

He's stuck his neck out for you quite enough already, he scolded himself. The least you could offer in return is a little gratitude.

"Thank you for assuring her safety, Lord Sandalphon," Sachiel said. "It really does mean a lot to me."

Sandalphon nodded and walked away. Alecto trailed behind him, rolling her eyes as she turned away from the Prince. While it was frowned upon to speak out of turn to a prince of the realm, her weary expression spoke volumes without a single word.

From his place at his throne, Matariel raised his eyebrow, regarding him with some curiosity, as if asking silently what was bothering him. Sachiel, already embarrassed by his presumption, waved it off.

Alecto was right, he thought. My thoughts should be with the people, not my consort. After all, what good is Maryna coming back if there's nothing to come back to?

He spared another glance out the window, hoping that wherever she was, she was safe.

* * *

"What . . .happened?" Darken asked, groaning as he squinted against the light. He looked up, seeing Maryna's face and as the realization of where he was dawned on him, nervously sat up, blushing slightly.

"You passed out," Maryna replied, getting to her feet. "Whatever you did an hour ago, it knocked you out. I've been waiting for you to come to while Ka'el studies how to help Liandra."

"Oh," Darken said. He looked over at the altar. Liandra lay there, eyes closed, her chest rising and falling slowly as she slept. "Is she . . ."

"Whatever you did, it seemed to make the difference," Maryna said, walking over to Liandra. "What did you do to her, anyway?"

"I, uh . . .I wish I knew," Darken said. "So I can not do it again anytime soon."

Maryna looked over at him. "Youíre all right now, though?"

Darken nodded. "Little light-headed, but all right," he said. "Why?"

"You've been laying in my lap for an hour," Maryna said. "My legs were starting to go to sleep."

"Oh," Darken said. He walked over to Liandra, trying to hide his slight embarrassment with his wings. "I'm . . .sorry--I didnít realize my head was that heavy."

"It's all right," Maryna said, smiling gently at him. "I didn't mind it. And it's not."

Darken blinked, looking over Liandra. Most of her injuries seemed to be healed, except for her eyes, which were gone for good. His hands trembled as he brushed her hair from her eyes, only to brush it back down, trembling at the horrible sight of her empty, scarred eye sockets.

Darken sighed. Some things he couldnít fix, even when he nearly killed himself in the attempt.

At least she's alive, he thought. He looked down at her wings, noticing they were turning a dark grey, very close to his own jet-black wings.

"Ka'el says that's a side effect of her turning," Maryna said, watching him touch her wings.

"I wasn't fast enough to stop her from turning, then," Darken said, sighing.

"He said there's nothing you could have done," Maryna replied. "You got her here in time to stop her from fully succumbing to the bite--she's still alive, just . . .changed, slightly."

"This is more than just a slight change!"

Darken looked over his shoulder at Maryna. He could tell his words had hurt her and felt ashamed. She'd stayed with him while he lay there, after all. It hardly seemed fair to take out his anger, which was directed mostly at himself for not moving fast enough to prevent all this, on her.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didnít mean to shout."

"It's all right," Maryna said, looking away. "Ka'el tells me all you two have ever had really is each other."

Darken nodded. "Pretty much. Well, Ka'el too. But Liandra and I . . .we grew up together. Brother and sister by all but blood, I guess."

"Where is he, anyway?"

"Consulting his books," Maryna said. "In the lower chambers."

"Why?"

"He didnít say," Maryna said.

"Does he want me to go help him?"

Maryna shook her head. "That was one thing he was crystal clear on," she said. "He wants to talk to you, but not right now."

Darken grimaced, touching Liandra's face. "That means he's not happy with me."

"Concerned, more than unhappy," Maryna replied. She walked over to Liandra and watched Darken as he looked over his fallen sister.

Darken noticed her staring and cocked an annoyed eyebrow.

"What is it?"

Maryna smiled gently. "Nothing," she said. "It's just . . .strange. When I met you earlier today you seemed . . .kind of scary."

Darken blinked. "Scary?"

"You sound surprised."

"I've never scared anyone in my life," he said.

"Well, I didnít quite mean you meant to be scary," she said. "Just that the way you were to me seems at odds with how gentle you are with her."

"Oh," Darken said. "Uh . . .Well, we donít get many visitors, and our friends here are scattered around on the Sphere and donít come around much. Consequently, I guess I never learned how to be a good host."

"Maybe it just takes awhile for you to warm up to new people," Maryna suggested, trying to catch his eye.

Darken shrugged. "Maybe," he said. "You wouldnít be the first to feel that way today, that's for sure."

He put down Liandra's hand and looked up, suddenly remembering.

"I'll be right back," he said. "Look after Liandra for me for a bit, would you?"

"Where are you going?" Maryna asked.

"Going to see if someone's still waiting on word about Liandra," he called back as he leapt into the air, his wings pushing him high into the sky. "I'll be right back."

Maryna watched him fly up and out of sight, then looked down on Liandra. She thought about what she'd said to Darken and how he seemed to her now, as compared to the forbidding, standoffish young man she'd met on top of the tower this morning.

"You know, your brother is a real enigma," Maryna said quietly to Liandra. "This morning I honestly thought he was the most obnoxious person I'd never met. And that's up against some stiff competition. When Ka'el and I spoke this afternoon, I found the idea of him being some kind of chosen one a little . . .well, dismaying."

"Then he came back with you," Maryna said, looking at Liandra's darkening wings. "Wouldn't leave your side. Wouldnít give up hope that he could save you, somehow. Nearly killed himself invoking whatever power that scared Ka'el so much. And I suspect if you needed it again, knowing the cost, he'd do exactly the same thing for you. Without a second thought."

She felt one of Liandra's feathers slip loose from her wings and lifted it up. The point of it was brightest white, like Maryna's own wings. But as it ran to the other tip it darkened into a jet black.

"I understand him a little more now," she said, turning the feather in her hands, studying it as she thought about Liandra's big brother. After a time, she laid the feather down and smiled, looking up from Liandra for a moment and giving voice to the thought in her mind.

"And I certainly like him a lot more."

* * *

Tornadron had been wandering through the desert aimlessly, unsure of where he was. The path of destruction it had left in his wake after destroying the small village had been swallowed up by a sandstorm, the gusts of wind like a great hand smoothing over the damage as easily as one might smooth the wrinkles out of a made bed.

This confused the Beast. With no sign of its passing left and nothing on the horizon but more sand, it had no way to judge where it was going. Confusion stoked its madness further and it roared with impotent rage.

The wind around it began to howl like a wounded creature and more lighting generated by the static electricity of the dry air surged through the sand. The winds around it became more of a vortex until it had generated a tornado around itself, hoping perhaps that if it blasted enough of the sand away, some clue as to its direction would be found.

Tornadron began to rise, being borne aloft by the tornado it had generated and begin to move across the desert much faster than the sullen march it had. It began covering miles of distance quite rapidly, but there was still nothing, the entire world, it seemed, was barren and dead.

Tornadron was about to give up hope when it noticed something, a flash in its consciousness. Something cut through its madness and frustration for a moment.

There was another Beast here, and close, too.

Driven by some urge deeper than the madness, it began to turn its destructive course towards it. Not out of any sense of relationship, of course--Beasts didn't feel things like kinship.

Beasts only longed to destroy, and when confronted with another of their kind, to destroy each other.

* * *

To Darken's surprise, she was still waiting, and, apart from sitting down hadnít moved from her spot on the landing since they'd arrived there so suddenly. She looked up from polishing her sword, her silver eyes regarding him with curiosity.

"I didnít think you'd still be here," Darken said, walking over to her.

"I swore I'd protect Liandra and that Darknova boy," Cygnus said, laying her sword beside her. "I failed one of them. I wonít fail the other. How is she?"

"Alive," Darken said, looking at the sun setting over the treeline. "Thanks to you."

"I told you--you got us here, not me," Cygnus replied. "I didn't do anything worth your thanks."

"I'm glad you mentioned that," Darken said. "How did you know?"

Cygnus looked away for a moment, watching the sunset too as she weighed how to answer this question.

"I'm a good judge of character," she said.

"Character?" Darken repeated. "You figured out I had the power to get us from Skycity to the temple in an instant. That's a little more than a character judgment."

Cygnus shifted nervously on the stone.

"Feminine intuition, then," she offered, folding her arms over her chest as she watched the sunset. It was positively beautiful. She'd never seen anything like it.

Darken sighed. "Uh . . .right," he said, knowing when to quit. "In any case you were right. She's going to live."

"As she was?"

"No," Darken frowned, looking at his white boots. "It looks like she was bitten bad enough to turn . . .slightly. I'm not exactly sure what that means--no one seems to, really--but I intend to find out."

"And if she is turned, what will you do?" Cygnus asked, turning her head to look at him. "Will you kill her, as you did Darknova?"

Darken looked away, stung. The tension and the urgency of the moment had almost convinced him that killing Darknova had been something someone else had done--even now when he thought about it, the whole thing seemed like a nightmare--terrible, but somehow unreal in memory.

But it was real, and what she said brought it all back in one awful instant.

"I . . .no," Darken said finally. "Liandra's my sister. Whatever else, that hasnít changed. I love her. I couldnít hurt her."

"Even if it came down to you or her?"

Darken sighed. "Even then."

Cygnus cocked her head to side, as if seeing Darken for the very first time.

"Good."

"I'm sorry I was so mean to you so much today," Darken said. "You did everything you could to help me and I donít even know your name."

"Cygnus," she replied. "My name is Cygnus."

"Nice to meet you, Cygnus," Darken said, offering his hand. "My name's Darken Blackangel."

Cygnus looked at his hand, then looked up at him. He looked down at his own hand, blushing again as the awkwardness he felt spread like wildfire.

"I, uh . . .guess you donít do that, do you?" Darken asked.

Cygnus smiled, observing Darken with bemused detachment.

Darken looked back at the entrance to the temple, unsure of what to say. Her peculiar manner put him off his feet as it made him more curious about her.

Cygnus is certainly a strange one. And she could give Ka'el a lesson or two in being annoyingly enigmatic, he pondered.

"Look, if you want to go see her, she's just in--"

"No," Cygnus said flatly. "I'll wait here."

"Wait for what?"

"Until she can come and see me herself."

"But I'm sure--"

"Darken," she said, getting to her feet. "I canít go in there. I just can't."

"Well why not?"

Cygnus looked away.

I really donít want to fight with him now, she thought. It seems I've fought with just about everyone up until now. But I can't explain it to him.

He just wouldnít understand.

"Listen," she sighed, looking down at the stone steps and choosing her words carefully. "Is it all right if I canít tell you right now?"

Darken blinked. Cygnus frowned. That hadnít worked the way she'd planned.

Her head spun. All right, she thought, trying to focus herself. Try another approach.

I never thought Iíd think of the days when I was tracking Vertiga through that desert as "easy," but I'm obviously much better at fighting than talking.

"Darken," she began, raising her white-gloved hands to buy herself some time. "There are a lot of things I can't explain right now. And I can't explain why I can't explain them. Do you understand?"

Darken blinked. "Not really."

This is like shouting into the wind, Cygnus sighed wearily.

"There are things I'd like to keep to myself for now," she said. "Until I know I can trust you."

Darken sighed.

"I mean, we've only properly met, just now," she said. "You wouldnít tell me everything out of the blue, would you?"

"I . . .guess I wouldnít," Darken said. "I'm sorry. I guess I didnít see it that way."

"You donít have to apologize," she said. "I've never had to explain it to anyone before. I've . . .kind of been on my own for a long time."

Darken pondered that for a moment. Her manner certainly seemed to bear that out--She seemed very guarded and collected, definitely secretive, and her attitude spoke of someone confident enough in her abilities not to have to brag about them.

But her evasiveness doesn't seem to be malicious, he thought. And all she's asking to do is wait out here, for some reason she wonít say. Prying it out of her didnít work, so why not just wait for a better time to ask her?

If she'll stick around, that is.

"I understand," Darken lied. "So . . .you're going to stay out here?"

Cygnus nodded.

"It could take days before she's able to see you."

Cygnus raised her hands, sitting back on the stone. "I've got days to wait," she said. "I'm not going anywhere. I promise you that, Darken. I will be here."

Darken nodded. He looked up, the orange of the dusk giving way to the dark blue of night. "I'll let you know how she's doing, OK?"

"Thanks," Cygnus said.

Darken nodded, smiling at her as he started back inside.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Cygnus."

She smiled and nodded at him, waving as he stepped back inside the temple, hoping her eyes didn't betray the fear she felt as he walked through the entrance. She hated deceiving him, but felt it was necessary.

After all, If I were to go in with him, she thought, I'd be recognized in a second. And I'm not sure he or Liandra would or could protect me if they knew.

* * *

Ka'el closed the book, setting it atop a stack of volumes just like it and rested on his cane. He'd been reading most of the night. Sixteen volumes on medicine and healing magic, five he'd written himself long ago, and none of them offered any clues to restoring Liandra's sight.

The forty books he'd consulted on science were also dead ends. Neither the science had had arisen after his time nor the magic designed to heal and restore offered any help.

The problem is that her eyes are gone completely, he mused. There's nothing left to restore--magic is powerful, but it cannot make something out of nothing. And no technology exists to give her sight back, not even the symbiotic technology the Vampires use.

He sighed. He'd explored the problem from all the angles he thought most likely, but there was nothing.

Unless someone were to lend her their eyes, Ka'el thought.

He mused on the impossibility of even transplanting them even if someone would offer. Then, for some reason, his mind drifted to the technology of the Vampires again.

The Vampires bred their technology to work in harmony with their own biology--it fed off them as they fed off others, working in a kind of balance.

Of course, he thought. Perhaps that symbiosis, after a fashion, may be effected in this case. A binding, like the ferromancers and their swords . . .but a more willing joining.

He knew of a race on Deiyara who had bound themselves to others in the past as a way of observing the world beyond while still remaining hidden from prying eyes.

Perhaps they could be persuaded to do so again, he thought.

It was a race Ka'el knew well--he was the one who'd hidden them away in the first place. Despite what he'd told Maryna, the battle between the soul-sphere and the spirits was not a simple black-and-white affair. While the soul-sphere and the sky-dwellers had been a unified front, the spirits had been disunited at best. Only a few had truly wanted to make war on the sky-dwellers and those they served.

Some had even tried to stay out of the fighting altogether, and after being cursed Ka'el had protected them, giving them a hidden sanctuary on this very Sphere where they could hide from the defeated and vengeful spirits.

Ka'el had never asked any price for this sanctuary, and would not ask one now. Some exchange would have to take place, obviously.

Some price would have to be paid.



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