Chapter 11: Sunrise

Darken hadn't slept at all that night. Too much weighed on his mind. The euphoria of Liandra's recovery (more or less) was balanced with his own feeling of shame and failure at causing things to go awry in the first place.

He'd always tried to do the right thing, not just in general, but for her and for Ka'el. They were, after all, the only family he had, and that had been the way he'd been raised. From early on, Ka'el had taught him over and over again that there was always another way, but it was up to him to choose the right way.

There were, unfortunately, plenty of times where Darken felt he hadnít been able to find a right way at all. At times like that, he found himself questioning every decision he'd made and everything up to and including his own capabilities. Whether it was the pressure of Ka'el's talk of his "destiny," or his own self-image, or even some combination of the two, he didn't have an answer. When he felt like he should have one and he didnít--those were the times he felt most like a failure.

So he kept a vigil for her, sitting all night just outside her door, knees folded up to his chest, and his wings wrapped around himself. He wasn't alone--Cygnus kept her own silent vigil outside of Liandra's window, but the whole night passed without the two of them speaking once. Maryna had come to check on him, but he'd been just as taciturn with her as with anyone.

That silence seemed to make time drag on and on and it felt to Darken like the longest night of his life. Not that Darken even noticed the silence or found it all that oppressive--his mind was clamoring with recriminations, running over the battle in his head again, searching for some chance he should have taken that would have stopped it all from happening, and then cursing himself for not taking it.

As the first pale beams of sunlight reached through Liandra's window and cast a small triangle of light out into the doorway, Darken heard some stirrings from inside Liandra's room, slowly getting to his feet.

"Liandra?" Darken called gently.

"Darken?" Liandra asked. Her voice was weak, and still a little ragged from the screaming of before, the recognition of the effect saddening him all over again. He shrugged it off as best he could and walked in the room to see her.

Liandra was sitting on the floor, leaning against the far wall of her room, one of her arms reaching up and over to the windowsill. The rest of her was curled into a ball, squeezed tight against the wall.

"Oh, Liandra," he said gently. "You should be resting."

"Couldn't . . .couldnít sleep. I wanted to see the sun come up."

Darken felt his breath catch, the pain of what had happened and the pain of seeing her this pathetic and desperate like a new stab through the heart.

"I'm sorry," Darken said, walking over to the window and lifting her up. He felt her wince as the sun struck her bare arm, and tried to get her back to bed before he hurt her any more.

"There we go," Darken said, lying her on her side and gathering her now jet-black wings up so she wouldnít lie on them. Her hands slipped under the pillow and Darken found himself suddenly grateful that she couldn't see him flinch as he hair brushed back from where her eyes had been, even though on some level they were looking right through him. He sat on the foot of the bed with his back to her, feeling very guilty about it all.

"Liandra . . .I'm sorry," Darken said. "I'm so sorry for what's happened to you."

"Darken."

He paused for a moment, unsure whether she was just talking slowly or asking him something.

"I'm here," he said quietly.

"Darknova," she said quietly. Her voice was like a whisper. "What happened to him?"

"Liandra, maybe this should wait until--"

"No."

Darken sighed.

"I need to know," she said. "I need to know you tried to help him like you did me."

Will she hate me for telling her the truth? Darken wondered.

It doesn't seem right to lie to her. Not after everything else I've done to her already.

"Please tell me."

Darken swallowed.

"No," he said. "He . . .he was beyond help by the time I got there."

His shoulders fell, as if the effort of saying it was akin to moving a huge weight off his shoulders.

"It's OK," Liandra whispered, reaching out for his hand and taking it her own. "I know you tried your best." He could feel how weak she was and wondered what the effort had cost her, and if she knew what she'd said had hurt him so very much.

"I've tried to cry about it," Liandra said, quieter than she thought darken could hear. "I want to . . .but I can't. The tears donít come."

"I did try," Darken said. Holding back his own tears took all his strength. "I just wish I'd succeeded."

She squeezed his hand, trying to reassure him with actions where words were obviously failing.

He sighed and turned to face her. "You should rest, little sister," he said. "I'm going to see what I can do to help you through this.

"I won't fail you again. I promise."

He laid his hand on her shoulder, waiting for her to relax and become a bit more restive, then rose gently from the bed and walked outside the room. He looked up at the stone walls of the temple, not because there was anything particularly interesting there, but because it was all that was keeping him from crying, and it was because of that that he missed the presence of another in the hall.

"Darken," Ka'el said gently.

The young man sighed. This was all he needed right now.

"Maryna told me youíd been looking for me," he said, not turning around. Unlike Liandra, Ka'el would be able to see Darken, and probably knew what was bothering him even without him turning around.

"I wanted to make sure Liandra was all right before I came to talk to you."

Ka'el nodded. Darken didnít like it when Ka'el was this quiet--it either meant he was trying to get Darken to see something he wasn't getting or because he was angry.

"She said you were angry at me."

"Not angry," Ka'el said. "Concerned. Darken, what you did--"

"--Saved her life," Darken said. "Doesnít that count for anything?"

"Yes it does, but you nearly ended your own in doing so."

"Ka'el, you and Liandra are my whole family," Darken replied. "I'd do anything to save you. Without you two, I don't know where I'd be."

"Your destiny--"

"My destiny hasn't happened yet. It's the here and now that's important to me."

They both fell silent. Darken looked at the floor, one of the tears he'd been struggling to hold back rolled down his pale white cheek to the stone floor of the temple. This was turning into an argument, and Darken had neither the appetite nor the wish for that right now.

"You are correct," Ka'el said.

Darken blinked, turning around.

"What did you say?"

"You heard perfectly well what I said."

"Sorry," he replied. "I'm . . .just not used to being right. Especially with you."

"You know what I have done in the past, with building these worlds," Ka'el said. "I put myself at great risk to ensure there would be a future, and all of it was on the slim promise that life would return to this worlds."

"I'm not sure I understand, Master," Darken replied.

"You have done nothing I would not and have not done myself in your place," he said. "Had I the power, even knowing the risk . . .yes, I suppose I would have used it to save her, even at the cost of my own life."

"You have had your first taste of your destiny," Ka'el continued. "The power behind your heritage is strong, but you are not yet strong enough to wield it without harm to yourself."

"That's why I almost killed myself?"

Ka'el nodded. "And until you have had the proper training, invoking it carries a grave risk to yourself. But I will train you in the time we have left to harness it and wield it properly."

"In the time we have left? You mean you and I or--?"

"For now, that is unimportant," Ka'el said, waving his question off. He gestured to his young student. "For now, we must prepare."

"What are we preparing for now?"

"The two of us must go to the hidden forest today," Ka'el said. "There is something there we must acquire."

"Like what?"

"Liandra's sight."

* * *

"No, Prince Sachiel," Alecto said, the voice of her father constantly reminding her that he was a prince and she couldnít snap at him, no matter how much she wanted to. She sat behind her desk within the guard tower as Sachiel paced back and forth in front of her. The lack of sleep she'd had certainly wasn't helping her naturally brusque nature any. "Maryna hasnít returned."

"I thought the Clasp would return her after an entire day had elapsed," Sachiel said.

"Perhaps it's still yesterday there," Alecto said. "Time is supposed to move differently, depending on what Sphere you're on."

"But to that degree?"

Alecto sighed. More than anything, she wished for her father's patience right now.

"Prince Sachiel," she said, rising from her chair. "At the moment, whether or not a day on Deiyara is the same length as one here is completely irrelevant, to me and everyone else who is not yourself. My father and myself have spent the entire night evacuating people to safety and fortifying the city. And frankly . . ."

"And what, Lightningfrost?"

"Never mind," Alecto said, catching herself and trying to back away from the edge. "Forgive me, my Prince. Lack of sleep."

"No, what were you going to say?" Sachiel asked, not even bothering to disguise his irritation with her, now.

"It's not my place," Alecto said, stiffening and standing tall, as if rigidity would help her hold her tongue.

"You . . .donít like me very much, do you?"

Alecto looked down at her desk. It seemed a little less obvious than staring at the floor.

"My Prince . . ."

"No," Sachiel said. "Let's drop the titles for a moment. I want to know."

Alecto took a deep breath. "Is this a command, my Prince?"

"If it gets you to finally say what's on your mind, then yes, I suppose it is a copmmand," he replied. "Let's have it."

Alecto closed her eyes.

"I like you fine, Prince Sachiel," Alecto said. "It's Cyclade who offends me."

"Maryna? But why?"

"You mean aside from breaking the law and acting like she's above it?"

"Yes," Sachiel said. "Aside from that. When I came here to get her out two days ago, I'd swear that you were positively relishing having her locked up."

Alecto looked away, turning from him and staring out the window of her office. Outside, the elite guard was doing drills in the courtyard, and for a moment, the crisis out there felt very far away.

The crisis inside her office, unfortunately, was all too close.

"I thought it was bad etiquette to turn your back on a Prince of the realm."

"I thought we'd dropped the titles for this conversation," Alecto replied, a bit too sharp.

"I suppose we have," Sachiel said. "I'm still waiting for an answer."

"There are about fifty things I can imagine more important than explaining my dislike for Cyclade," she said.

"I'll ask about those afterwards, then."

Alecto turned back to him, her silver eyes hard and impassive.

"She's a dilettante," she said finally.

"Was that so hard?"

"Her and people like her--people who never have to work a day in their lives because of the family they were born into . . .I find them to be idle and irritating. I wasn't born into my job, my Lord. I'd have no standing at all, had Sandalphon not adopted me when I was small. Even then, I've had to work harder and be better than people like her, who hardly worked at all."

"If that's how you feel about her," Sachiel said. "I donít know how you tolerate me."

"My duty is to the King and his family," Alecto said. "I committed myself to that path when I entered into service. Your place, your father's--I've never questioned that."

"Sandalphon taught you well," Sachiel said. "But one day, she will be married to me, and she'll be a part of my family. And you may have Sandalphon's rank. And then what will you do?"

"I haven't considered that, my Lord. For now, though, you may ever rely on my loyalty and my service."

* * *

Darken and Ka'el walked along in silence, cradling Liandra in his arms as they moved through the tall grasses and scrub trees deeper into the mountain. Ka'el seemed certain they could find something to help Liandra regain her sight here, but it seemed an unlikely place for it.

I canít imagine anyone hiding a pair of eyes in a dense forest like this, he thought. He looked around, studying the unlikely terrain as he went. I don't think I've ever even seen a place like this when I've flown over the Sphere. The mountains are cold, and these rocks aren't usually welcoming to things that grow. This forest shouldnít exist at all.

All the same, it must be important. Ka'el never leaves the temple, after all. He wouldn't leave it and come this far on a lark.

He looked down at Liandra, who stirred in his arms. She'd been quietly sleeping for most of the trip. Ka'el insisted that was the best thing for her now-- to sleep and wait for the full extent of whatever change was working its way through her to run its course. They'd given up on doing anything to reverse the vampirism--nothing, it seemed could lift that curse--and had instead concentrated on ways to ease her pain and stave off the hunger, so that she would have as normal as life as possible.

And also, if possible, to allow her to see again.

"Darken?" Liandra said slowly, her tone flat and neutral. Even though her voice was quiet it was enough to jar Darken forcibly out of his thoughts. He blinked and looked down at her.

"Are you OK, Liandra?" Darken asked.

"What's it like outside today, Darken?"

He looked down at his feet, stung for a moment as he pondered how best to answer it. The feelings of failure and anger gripped his heart tightly again, causing his shoulders to slouch and lower Liandra just a little. The forest before them was beautiful, if a little dark and frightening, seeming as it did to exist outside of even the sunlight, this strange anomaly that lived here in privacy by its own rules.

"It's beautiful," Darken said.

Liandra put her hand to his chest, as if the act of touching him reassured her he was still alive.

"I've tried . . .to understand," Liandra said quietly, "But I can't."

I know the feeling, little sister, Darken thought.

"We'll make it right, Liandra," Darken said. "Ka'el brought you here to help you."

"And he may have been wrong," Ka'el interjected.

Darken blinked.

"Set her down there, Darken," he continued. "We must go on ahead without her."

"But--"

"To carry her with us would endanger her, Darken," Ka'el said. "I sense something is very wrong here."

"What's wrong?"

"It is a feeling, more than anything," Ka'el said. "More than that, I cannot say."

Darken sighed. "All right," he said, setting Liandra down in the soft grass at the base of one of the trees. He followed behind Ka'el as they made their way into the forest. "I donít really like leaving her there, Master."

"Nor do I," Ka'el said. "But it is necessary. Under the best of circumstances, great case must be taken in dealing with those who dwell in the hidden forest."

"Are they dangerous?"

Ka'el shook his head. "Clannish, more than anything. Very suspicious of outsiders, anyone not like themselves. After the first war, a group of spirits begged me for sanctuary. They had no interest in the war their masters had waged on our world, but their neutrality was looked on as treason. Had they been sealed away with the others, they would have been destroyed--The ruling spirits are deeply resentful beings."

"So you gave them sanctuary here, then?"

Ka'el nodded. "In return for their help in trapping their masters."

"You've never told me this before."

"It never came up," Ka'el said. "I gave them their sanctuary, a place where they could dwell and hide from the rest of the world and the war they fled. Afterwards, I did much the same thing. Who was I to tell them that was wrong?"

Darken thought about that for a moment. "And theyíre going to help us?"

"If they can be persuaded to."

"You don't sound confident."

"I am not," Ka'el said. His eyes were focused on something deeper in the forest. "Because something is definitely wrong, here."

"Yes, I remember you saying," Darken said. "Would you mind telling me what it is I should be afraid of?"

"Two things," Ka'el said. "One, I sense a presence here I shouldnít--a very familiar, very old, and very terrifying one. Two, this forest is not supposed to be freezing cold."

"Cold? But--"

Darken felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and noticed the vapor of his breath in an instant, and trusted his instincts.

"GET BEHIND ME!" Darken shouted, wrapping his wings around Ka'el. In the instant before he braced himself, he noticed a strange light, a bright yellow cloud that seemed to shimmer past them.

This was followed a half-second later by a bright white freezing flash, and Darken felt himself chilled to the bone. Cold greater than anything he'd felt before seeped into his bones, and ice began to form on his body around his wings. Fortunately, Ka'el was well protected from the blast of ice.

A large shape began to move through the blizzard. Darken spread his wings, cracking the ice and shrugging the effects of the cold off as best he could.

"Master," Darken began, shouting a little over the howl of the wind. "I think we just figured out what's making the forest so cold."

"Indeed," Ka'el said, his eyes narrowing as the shape stepped into the light, revealing itself in all it's awful and, to Ka'el, all too familiar, glory.

"Artica," he murmured under his breath.

"What?"

"It's not important," Ka'el said. "What is important is that creature must be destroyed."

Darken blinked. Ka'el says a lot of things, and even the most gentle ones sound like orders most of the time, but I've never known him to say to "destroy" anything, never mind with such obvious hate is his voice.

"Any idea how we do that?" Darken asked, summoning his Blackfang.

"Yes," Ka'el said, raising his cane. "Prepare yourself."

"Master, that thing just wiped out most of the forest," Darken said. "What--"

"And it will kill Liandra and anything in its path if it gets through us," Ka'el said. "We are the only ones who can defeat this monster, but only if you trust me and as I say."

Artica turned and faced the two creatures that stood before her, staring at them with as much dead-eyed curiosity as the ancient metal face it wore was able to emote. These two weren't like the small fairies it had been crushing with pathetic ease most of the day and night. It didn't recognize the creature with wings, but the smaller being that stood behind him . . .that one Artica knew very well, and the shock of recognition was enough to give focus to it's madness.

The Great Traitor, himself.

"Darken," Ka'el said, planting his feet. "Take flight."

Darken beat his wings, fighting the howling winds and the tiring cold as he struggled to raise himself aloft. Snow began to collect on his wings, melting into a slush that dribbled down his feather as he began to climb.

Artica lunged back, and having a clear shot, now blasted volley of ice darts at Ka'el, who spun his stick around quickly, creating a whirling shield that shattered every one of the darts before they could strike him.

"Fire, Darken! FIRE!"

Darken blinked, for a moment not understanding precisely what Ka'el meant, then suddenly remembering. Fighting off his embarrassment and worry over the pain it would cause him, he inhaled sharply and blew a stream of fire at Artica.

To his surprise, the strange machine seemed to leap back in absolute terror of the small stream of fire he'd generated. It gestured with its arm sending chunks of ice into the air in a wide, lazy arc. Darken dodged two of them and smashed another with the Blackfang.

Darken pushed her back further with his fire-breath, noting that while the concept of fire seemed to terrify it, even when he'd struck Artica with a burst of flame, it didn't damage it at all, and Darken wondered how long he could hold her at bay with only a psychological advantage.

"Darken," Ka'el said. "Stand behind me, now."

Darken banked behind him, coming to a soft landing behind Ka'el, who now stood tall, completely ignoring the blizzard. Ka'el held his staff up in front of the creature. There was a strange sound as the staff extended, doubling in length. The revealed parts of the staff began to glow and pulse with an internal energy that was almost organic.

Ka'el closed his eyes and traced a circle in the air, his brow furrowing with intense concentration. Darken could feel the energy he was summoning--it was so powerful that the air around them seemed to crackle with life as he gestured.

Inside this phantom circle, Ka'el began to draw an ideogram in the air, moving too quickly and with too much complexity for Darken to follow all of it. His staff lowered to the lowest point of the circle, and with a flourish, Ka'el finished the ideogram.

A brilliant wave of blue light struck Artica, catching it and holding it in place. It struggled to move, but seemed held fast to the spot, locked in place by Ka'el's spell.

"Now, Darken," Kael said. "Strike her with all your strength!"

Darken closed his eyes, holding the Blackfang high above his head as he look flight. He thought of his failure at protecting Liandra from Darknova, thought of how he couldn't heal her completely, of all the times he'd failed. Most of all he thought of her lying peacefully against the tree, completely oblivious to the path of this bizarre creature, which might threaten her.

I wonít fail her again, he thought, halting his ascent and easing into a dive.

I promised her I wouldnít fail her again.

He screamed towards Artica with incredible speed, moving so fast he ignored the cold and the noise around him. At the last possible second, he extended his wings again, holding his spear out and tumbling, the force of the fall added to the effort of slashing the creature with the spear.

The Blackfang tore through Artica with a sound like ice being crushed. Darken covered his head with his wings as it screamed in agony, the freezing cold it had radiated dissipating and turning to a kind of hot white light.

Ka'el shielded his eyes as Artica's form disappeared in a white silhouette. There was no sound, and hardly any force behind the explosion, only an odd change in the air. The machine body that had housed her turned black and stayed, frozen in a pose of uncomprehending shock, the gleaming blue and silver armor turning black as Ka'el eyes adjusted again.

"What--" Darken said, getting out from under his wings. "What was that thing?"

"A old nightmare," Ka'el said. "One I thought gone long ago."

"Right," Darken said, steadying himself on his Blackfang. "My fault for asking I guess. And what about that little trick you did?"

Ka'el ignored him, crouching down in the snow. He pulled out a small figure; it's delicate form frozen solid. He sighed wearily as he turned it in his huge fingers.

Darken was about to ask another question, but thought better of it. Suddenly darker thoughts were filling his mind.

"Donít tell me," he said. "That's who we were supposed to ask for help, right?"

Ka'el nodded, setting the frozen figure gently down into the snow. He gestured and his staff returned to its usual cane form and he rested against it, quite weary and sad at the moment.

The snow was beginning to melt around them, but it made neither of them happy enough to speak. Darken sighed, sending the Blackfang away and leaning against a tree, standing in the dark shade of one of the trees. Light that Darken assumed was the sun dappled through the branches, but Darken didn't look up.

He was too sad for that, too busy wondering how one person could succeed and fail all at once.

It was only when the shadows of the forest began to pulse with light again did they finally comprehend that the shimmering light through the branches weren't the light of an indifferent sun, but the surviving spirits they had come to see in the first place.

* * *

"It looks like a storm's coming," Kirone said, shielding her eyes from the sun, focused on the brown blur on the horizon.

"That's impossible," Vertiga said, squinting at the advancing maelstrom on the horizon. "The skies are all wrong for a storm like that."

"Are you certain?"

"I live here, remember?" Vertiga replied. "No, that's not a natural storm. Something's coming."

Kirone blinked "Could you be a little more vague? We know there's something coming, Vertiga. What we need are specifics."

Yes, Vertiga thought. Would you like to add anything, La--

I am not speaking to you, the voice in her mind replied.

Fine, be that way.

"I canít tell you more unless I go see for myself," Vertiga said, raising her sword. Despite the fact that the spirit within the blade was unwilling to speak to her, it was more than willing to share its power with her. She broke into a run, and from there, gained so much speed that she became a purple-white blur, cleaving a wake in the sand with wind almost as fierce as the storm's.

I bet I know who it is, Vertiga thought. It's that girl we met on the way here, isnít it?

I told you I--

--am not speaking to me. Yes, I know. I was thinking to myself, actually. She seemed to be able to control the winds. Maybe she's come back?

It is not Cygnus.

Vertiga sped along faster, closing the gap between herself and the storm.

Oh hello, I didn't realize you were talking to me again, Vertiga thought. If it's not her, then who else do you know who could do this?

Vertiga came to a stop just in front of the swirling storm. It had all the classic signs of a sandstorm--howling wind that propelled sand with such biting force it could cleave rock, the odd burst of static lightning, but there was something different about this.

One, a storm this huge would have blotted out the whole sky. Two, no storm would have something in the rough shape of a man walking in the middle of it.

Vertiga raised her sword high above her head and brought it down on the grounding, sending a geyser of purple fire into the air. She turned on her heel, slashing at the geyser and sending it flying at the intruder.

The purple wave struck the shape inside of the storm on the chest, sending it falling backward into the sand. The storm began to dissipate, and the shape inside was revealed in the sunlight.

The creature stood up in the sand, its armored form shining as the sunlight glinted off its gold and silver armor, as though the machine could ignore the gritty sands it blew around itself.

"Okay, so it's not obviously not Cygnus," Vertiga said. "What is it, then?"

I suggest you ask your ally, the voice in her head said bitterly. For know, know that its name is Tornadron.

Vertiga was about to say something when Tornadron raised its hands. The spiky silver protrusions on its body disconnected as the fans on his shoulder ran up to speed, sending the whirling blades in her direction. She batted the first aside, and leapt over the second. The third caught her painfully in the arm, opening a red gash, the fourth striking her on the opposite side. Her blood flowed down her arms and legs, dripping and staining the sand as she was pulled towards him.

Vertiga screamed, her sword-arm going limp. She felt herself being lifted up by the wind, drawn towards the creature, who even now waited for her, the blades attached to his forearms crossed and gleaming so bright she squinted against it.

STOP!

Vertiga winced. The voice in her head had never yelled this loud, and she wondered for a moment if the spirit in her blade was trying to yell at Tornadron.

No, she thought. That's . . .ridiculous. Besides which . . .how could the spirit in my sword know what this machine was or know what was in Kirone's . . .

Vertiga.

"Wha . . ."

Donít try to speak. Just listen. I know youíre in pain, but if you wish to escape your death, you must listen very carefully to me. You must hold tight to the blade, don't let it drop, now.

Tornadron uncrossed its arms. Vertiga could see through her half-closed eyes that the center of its chest was a glaring eye, the black pupil of which arced lightning with the regular pulse of a beating heart.

NOW!

Vertiga tried to raise the sword, but found it painful--her arms felt like it was hanging from one very painful thread. Suddenly, she felt something running through her, like a surge of adrenaline, only more powerful, and its effect more immediate.

NOW, VERTIGA!

She raised her blade up and drove the point of it against the eye. The points of the blade screeched as it glanced off the eye, but it had the desired effect--Torandron pushed her away.

In fact, it pushed her back towards Kirone and past her with such force it rustled the sorceress' cloak. Kirone looked down at Vertiga, sand now covering and caking her open wounds. She lay there for a second, groaning in pain.

"Problems?"

Vertiga groaned, rising to her feet.

"You've made a mess of yourself," Kirone said, gesturing with her hand. "Here, allow me."

Vertiga felt her wounds immediately close and looked at where they'd been with utter disbelief. Not because of the magic--even desert-dwellers knew a thing or two about how to effectively use magic.

No, her incredulous reaction stemmed entirely from the fact that Kirone had just saved her life. A woman who had no problems murdering an entire village as a byproduct of powering up her weapon of war, had healed her.

A woman who was planning to kill her.

Or was that the sword?

"You--"

"It's the least I can do for a friend," Kirone said, helping her to her feet. She turned back to Tornadron who was rocketing towards them at full force, this time not disguising himself in a storm.

"It's name is Tornadron," Vetriga said.

"And?"

"That's really all I know," Vertiga said, raising her sword and preparing to meet the creature's charge.

"That doesn't help very much."

"I said the same thing."

"What?"

"Never mind," Vertiga said. "It's extremely powerful and it seems to be generating its own winds and storms. I also think it might be related to your little war machine back there."

"Hm," Kirone said. It certainly looked similar to the machine she'd unearthed though not quite the same size. It was also far more aggressive--whether that was due to hers being resurrected gradually or some intrinsic element of this Beast as opposed to hers, she had no idea.

But plenty of possibilities of what she could do with two such machines were beginning to occur to her.

She raised her arms, summoning her magic.

"Vertiga," she said slowly. "We're going to incapacitate it. I donít want it destroyed. I have plans for this newcomer."

Vertiga's grip tightened on her sword. "I'll do my best," she said. "Or at least help you find all the pieces later."

* * *

"He said someone was out here," Maryna said standing before Cygnus and tried to look as intimidating as possible. "He didnít say it was a human."

"I'm guessing you mean Darken?" Cygnus said.

Maryna nodded. "He said you were there when his sister was hurt."

"Yes, well. I'm not very proud of my role in that."

"Why? Did you--"

Cygnus shook her head. "No, but I could have stopped it. I definitely should have tried harder."

"Why didn't you, then?"

Cygnus furrowed her brow. Unlike Darken, who'd been mercifully distracted from his determined string of inquiry rather easily this woman wouldnít be charmed with a little gentle circular reasoning, it seemed.

So she decided to take the offensive.

"Look, why exactly am I being interrogated, anyway?" Cygnus asked. "I have my reasons for being here--I owe it to Liandra, and it was okay with Darken, so what business is it of yours why I'm out here?"

Maryna's face fell, a little stung.

"Sorry," she said. "I guess I came on a little strong."

"I guess you did."

Maryna frowned. "I said I was sorry," she said, a little more hurt in her voice.

"It's all right," Cygnus replied. "Just . . .try not to assume strange people waiting outside enormous stone temples are up to no good, OK? They might just be waiting for their friends."

"Well, when you put it like that . . ." Maryna said. She regarded Cygnus curiously, as if she were a particularly fascinating clue.

Cygnus looked annoyed. "What are you staring at?"

"You. I havenít seen many humans before. My people donít have a lot of dealings with them."

"Your people?"

"You've never seen an Angel before?"

"Well, uh, not until yesterday," Cygnus said, hoping she was covering herself better than she thought. "We were fairly isolated where we lived."

"I see," Maryna said.

"How'd you end up here?" Cygnus said, deciding to turn the tables.

"I wanted to go somewhere else," Maryna said. "I guess you might say I was looking for an adventure. So they let me come here for a day, hoping Iíd stop talking about it, I guess. So far, I've stayed for two."

"Won't you be missed?"

"Probably," Maryna said. "If they really want me back, they can come and get me."

"You sound as though you'll fight them if they come for you."

"No," Maryna sighed. "I didnít mean that. I just . . .Since I've been here, I donít know if I want to go back. And if they press the point, I don't know what's going to happen."

Maryna looked down at her feet. "I'm sorry," she said. "I can see I've been alternately peppering you with questions and my autobiography. That's not exactly a good way to make friends, is it?"

"Well, it should probably come after the making friends part," Cygnus began. "But it's all right--I've never stood on ceremony and don't want to start now. You can call me Cygnus."

"My name's Maryna," the young Angel said. She was about to offer her hand to Cygnus when a great shadow drifted over the both of them.

Maryna's head snapped up toward the skies.

"Darken?"

"No," Cygnus said, leaping to her feet. Her right hands rested on her sword. "That's definitely not him."

"How do you know?"

"Darken doesnít have a tail, also, he doesnít fly that slow."

The shadow, a black silhouette against the sunlight turned and moved lower, as if trying to land. Its wings beat against the wind and then tried to glide, but it seemed to be struggling against the air. Whatever it was, Deiyara wasn't its natural habitat.

It turned, finally settling on a way to descend that wouldnít cause it to crash into the Temple wall and came to rest two steps below the landing Maryna and Cygnus stood upon. It landed in a crouch, then spread its great leathery wings wide and rose to its feet.

It began to climb the stairs in a strange half-walk half-crawling gait. It's clawed fingers scraping against the stones; its narrow yellow eyes focused on the pair of them.

Cygnus tightened her grip on the sword for a moment but Maryna waved her off.

"No," she said.

"Maryna, look at him," she said. "He's--"

"--A Dragon," she said.

The Dragon in question shuffled up to them, raising itself to its full height. The midday sun gave its red-scaled skin, pulled taut over a muscular frame, a metallic iridescence. At least where it wasn't gashed and burnt with battle scars.

"An Angel," he growled. It looked over at Cygnus. "I donít know what you are, but you are not who I sought."

"I'm hearing that sort of thing a lot today," Cygnus said. "Mind telling us who you are and who it is you seek?"

"Yes," maryna said. "We might be able to help you."

"Doubtful, Angel. My name is Grune," he replied. "I seek Darken Blackangel, and his master. His people need their aid."

Maryna blinked. Out of the corner of her eyes she noticed Cygnus flinch slightly at the mention of Ka'el "His people?"

"Leave it to Angels to clutter a simple matter with talk," Grune sneered. "Darken is of our blood, girl--I am his brother to his father. Where is he?"

"He left this morning," Maryna said.

Grune looked away, snarling. He stamped his clawed foot down on the

"Calm down, he said he'd be back."

"The crisis that brings me here will not wait! Every moment I spend here, more of my people will die. A powerful creature is destroying our people and our world. Nothing we have tried can destroy or even slow its advance. Our need is desperate and immediate."

"A creature?" Maryna asked.

"Our histories refer to creatures like it," Grune replied. "In the ancient times, they were called Beasts."

* * *

The battle wasn't going well. Even supercharged by Kirone's magic, Vetriga's blows only seemed to slow the Tornadron down or cause him to flinch, but even under constant assault, Tornadron was moving closer to the city as if pulled there by an inexorable and, apparently irresistible, force.

Vantiga and Monstructor watched the battle from their perch atop the Beast, looking with dismay as the strange creature moved closer to the city.

"That thing out there," Vantiga said. "You said it's another Beast."

Monstructor squinted through his spectacles at the battle, his metal hand resting on the Beast's armor, trying to will it to join the fight.

"Yes," Monstructor said. "But it is fully awake, not between life and death as ours is. It is . . .very powerful."

"I thought Kirone's spell was supposed to resurrect this one to its full power," Vantiga said. "Command it to fight!"

"It will," Monstructor replied. "But that takes time. It is still drawing life from the people below us."

"There must be something we can do!"

Despite his fears and doubts about her, his duty to Kirone and her family was still strong within Vantiga, and he was still sworn to protect her. He might decide different at some time in the future, but for now, he wasn't about to see her destroyed.

Especially by another one of these hatefully powerful machines.

"We can move," Monstructor said.

"Then move us closer," Vantiga said. He could feel the Beast begin to lurch forward like a baby learning to walk, the shuddering motion so forceful it nearly knocked Vantiga and Monstructor both off their feet. For the first time in two and a half days, the Beast moved away from the sun it had eclipsed. Had any of the shades below looked up at that moment, the white flash of light would have struck them blind.

The flight became steadier and they began to pick up speed. Vantiga regained his balance, the rush of the wind as they traveled forward. Vertiga looked over her shoulder and saw the giant Beast lumbering forward and pulled Kirone out of its way.

"We should get inside," Monstructor whispered. Vantiga looked at him, picking out his companion's expression, equal parts sanguinary and awestruck and, despite himself suddenly felt very afraid.

"What?" Vantiga asked.

"This is between the Beasts, now."

Tornadron caught sight of the Beast that had piqued its interest as it wandered blindly through the desert and sped to meet it. It sent some of the blades embedded in its body ahead, borne on its winds. They glanced against the huge Beast's heavy armor. The skull shape on the bottom of the Beast opened its jaws and roared with pain and rage.

It was the loudest sound Vantiga had ever heard. Even standing behind the great maw, the vibration and the sound of the scream tore through him and he felt his body close to disintegrating under the strain of it. He fell down, almost grateful in a sense, that his fear and doubt would soon leave him, when the shining god of Death came to claim him.

The God of Death, unfortunately, must have found him wanting. He was aware that Monstructor was dragging him along, back into the interior of the Beast. Vantiga, even though it hurt to think, couldnít help but be disappointed.

Tornadron whirled in for the attack, slashing the other beast with its forearm blades and sending bolts of lighting through it. The other beast roared as the Beast of the Storm attacked it with all its might and ferocity, but it didnít retaliate.

Tornadron attacked again, moving closer, towards the figure on the throne above the skull, striking at it over and over again with its blades and its lightning bolts.

Still, the Beast refused to fight back.

Tornadron roared with frustration and reared back, willing the fans that held it aloft to full power. The resultant tornado surged with lightning and began to tear at the outer buildings of the city as Tornadron began to focus its power. It would use a concentrated blast of wind to punch a hole through the Beast's armored hide, then shred whatever was inside.

It was, at that moment, the other Beast, despite its refusal to defend itself, showed some sign beyond its roar that it knew what was being done to it. Tornadron, focused on generating a storm powerful enough to tear it asunder, missed it. The four snakeheads on the enthroned figure opened their eyes.

Then their mouths.

And then, the Beast began to fight back.

The snakeheads opened their fanged mouths and surged forward, moving with such force that they ignored the howling wind as if it weren't there at all. One smashed into Tornadron's head, tearing it apart as it snaked around its chest. Another sank its teeth into one of its fans, gnawing it loose and spitting it onto the ground. Then it slithered around Tornadron's waist, the remaining two securing his chest.

The fan crashed into the sands below, just in front of where Kirone and Vetriga had fled to safety. Kirone and Vertiga, nervously moving towards it as the winds began to die out. Vertiga shielded her eyes against the sun, looking above them at the two silhouettes tearing at each other.

Above her, the snakeheads tore Tornadron's legs free from his body, pulling the remains close to the skull shape below. The eye in Tornadron's chest stared nervously as it was drawn into the creature's maw.

It lived just long enough for it to see the creature it had attacked, flip it's severed legs into its mouth with almost contemptuous indifference. Then, with a mighty crunch of the skull's jaw, they were gone.

Below, Kirone stared up at it, awed and a little frustrated at the passive remove she found herself in while all this was going on.

"What's happening?" Kirone murmured. "I can barely see anything."

"I think," Vertiga began, watching the two shadows above them, her eyes better attuned to pick out finer details than her companion's. "No . . .that's . . .impossible.

"I think . . .your machine just . . .ate . . .the other one."

"Ate it?" Kirone asked incredulously.

Yes, you foolish girl, the voice of Vertiga's blade snapped. It consumed it and is absorbing its power to fully restore itself.

Had you the slightest idea of what you were awakening, would you have dared to give it life again?

Of the Beasts that had been awakened, two had already fallen. One of the Beasts had not fully awakened until this moment, until it had consumed one of its own kind. It had slept, for centuries, Kirone's resurrection of it little more than a simple turning in its slumber. Even Kirone using its power to awaken its fellow Beasts hadn't caused it to stir.

Only devouring one of its own had resurrected it. And now Morgoth--The Mother of the Beasts, the Beast of Dominance--was awake, and of the witnesses to its resurrection, only the spirit within Vertiga's blade truly understood what that meant.

At long last, our revenge begins.



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