Chapter 12: Open Secrets

"Liandra."

Liandra could hear the familiar voice calling her, but to her sleep-clouded mind, it seemed to be very far away indeed. And at the moment, she wanted them far away. The shame and awful sense of Macabro's betrayal cut deeper--deeper than the loss of her sight even. It seemed easy, so easy, to just pull away from everyone. To shut down and lock oneself away from everything. To live in darkness as complete as the darkness she saw.

"Your eyes can play tricks on you," Ka'el had taught her once. "Seeing is more than looking at a thing."

She hadnít understood what he'd been talking about back then, but after the horrible outcome of Macabro's blinding her, it was all she had been thinking about. It had seemed so simple, when she'd struck out on her own--she'd find Darken, and she'd help him. How, she didnít know, but she'd left all the same, certain that something would occur to her.

When she'd seen Macabro in trouble, the same thing occurred to her--help him, never mind how. Even if there had been nothing she could have done for him, at least he'd be there. At least he wouldnít suffer alone.

She understood now, somewhat bitterly, that suffering alone happened whether or not people were there for you or not. After all, how could Darken or Ka'el understand not only the pain of her blindness, but the horrible isolation of it--the way their voices called to her from the eternal black nowhere that was the totality of her vision. How could they understand the lingering phantom pain that beckoned her, every moment, to open eyes she knew were gone.

It was worse than pain. It was actual torment, and she knew she would have to live with it so long as she lived. There was no way to heal her eyes, after all--Ka'el had no way of doing it and Darken had done had saved her life, but not her vision.

"Liandra . . .please wake up."

Was it Darken? Ka'el? It was hard to make out. She tried to retrace her steps this morning as she felt Darken gently shake her awake.

Was it even morning now, she wondered?

The last thing she'd remembered was coming to the Hidden Forest, being carried by Darken.

Then, she'd slept. Darken or Ka'el had murmured something about how they would return for her, but she hadn't listened. Sleep had been too tempting--it was, after all, the only time that the darkness around her felt comforting and enveloping, rather than suffocating and drowning.

"Liandra, can you see me?"

No, it was definitely Darken, she thought. Nagging me to get up.

I wish he'd leave me alone. Of course I canít see. It's cold, and I want to sleep.

She hesitated for a moment, the words acid, bitter, and most unlike her.

Darken poked her again and she murmured something and turned over. Finally he jabbed her hard in the back with the butt of his Blackfang.

"DARKEN, STOP IT!"

That was it--Liandra stood up with a start, fists clenched, her brow furrowed in anger as she turned to Darken--

She stopped suddenly, the sound of her shouting echoing against the mountains ringing the forest.

Her fists were still clenched, shaking with annoyed rage and she was looking at Darken, ready to punch him, at the very least.

Unfortunately, it was the very act of looking at Darken that was the problem.

"What is this?"

Darken smiled, taking a step back in case Liandra decided to punch him anyway once the shock wore off.

Liandra's view shifted from Ka'el, to Darken, to back to Darken.

"What's happening?"

"You can see us?"

Liandra unclenched her fists, bringing herself up to a sitting position. She was shaking--the feeling was much deeper than the cold, no this was shock, surprise, disbelief, and further down a very long list--the cold.

"I . . .am I dead?"

"Very much not," Darken said, smiling. "But you can see. Kind of."

Liandra frowned. "Kind of?"

"Ka'el's going to have to explain it," Darken said. "I'm not sure how it works, and I saw the whole thing."

"Liandra, I want you to try looking to your left, just to your left shoulder."

"All . . .right," Liandra said. Slowly her field of vision began to turn, slower than if she were seeing through new eyes. A quick flash of a very bright light seemed to shine over her left shoulder, then just as quickly, flit away, leaving a few sparkling lights as it did.

"The light . . .what . . ."

"You have realized we have not given you new eyes," Ka'el said. "Rather, others now see for you. The word is "symbiosis." The three of you are bound together."

"Three?"

"Yourself and two of these Fairies," Ka'el said, crouching down in front of her. He extended a long, clawed finger out; his eyes focused on something just behind her. The light she'd caught the faintest glimpse of before was now well and truly in front of her, pulsing with its own inner light, that when it dimmed ever so slightly, seemed to resolve into the shape of a small person.

"This is Aurorya," he said. "Or Adorya--I am not certain which. The Fairies have no need for names, you understand. That they have them at all is part of the ritual that bound them to your sight."

The Fairy flew off Ka'el's finger and settled on her shoulder again.

"They will be your sight, Liandra," Ka'el said. "You will likely not see them very often, any more than you could previously see your own eyes in anything but a reflection. But they are there, nevertheless."

"How did you do this?" Liandra asked.

"The same way as he does anything, Liandra," Darken said. "They owed him a favor."

He was looking everywhere but at Liandra, not out of shame or horror at the way she looked--no, he was trying not to smile and trying not to cry for her. Liandra knew she couldn't, but wanted to as well.

The sullen darkness that had wrapped itself around her like a black fist was gone. More than being able to see again, there was a sense of never being alone again--wherever she went, she would go with them, and they with her.

It was a miracle, she thought. I'm not alone in the dark anymore. I can see again.

* * *

They waited.

It was all they could do.

God Poseidon had torn through their cities and their mightiest engines of war on its way to the surface as if their best were pitiful. Meralei and what few forces had survived the initial assault of the mighty creature had gathered here, on a flat shelf of rock that marked the boundary of the shallow waters (and the last redoubt before God Poseidon would strike their most densely populated cities) to try one last desperate tactic to stop it.

This would be the last in a string of ever more desperate delaying tactics. Luring him into the thick forest of seaweed had failed to ensnare and trap him, or even slow him down to any great extent. Nor had trying to battle him on the backs of their mighty whale-ships, which were so formidable that even after hundreds of years, her people used the same whales as when they had adopted the tactic.

Nothing they had tried had worked, no matter how mutually destructive to both her people and the Beast. If she had a tenth of her forces now compared to when she began the assault, she would have been quite surprised indeed. She'd left far too many of them, soldiers and creatures of the seas, floating in the black depths today.

There hadnít even been time to return them home and bury them properly, she thought, watching as her engineers laid the trap on the flat expanse of rock before her. And by the time we return . . .IF we return . . .there won't be anything left to bury or honor.

She took a breath. Of course, if this monster succeeds and makes its way to our cities, our honored dead will have plenty of company.

She looked above her, watching a group of her soldiers swimming on seahorse-like beasts above her head. A few hundred feet above them was a city. The small fishing village of Arima. Or rather it had been--the riders were signaling her that the last of the people had been evacuated from Arima.

Because succeed or fail, Arima would cease to exist in the next few minutes.

Meralei was never one to want people removed from their homes, and she'd done far too much of it already in her efforts to battle this monster. In setting up the trap here on the shelf, she'd consulted the maps of their oceans, curious as to what the creature's present path told her about its intentions. Given its burning desire to rampage through cities, she had assumed it was angered by the presence of her people within its waters and destroyed them as retribution.

It was only when she consulted the map, that she began to understand--the creature's path indicated it was merely moving in a straight line, with only slight deviations to hound her forces back to their homes.

Such single-mindedness terrified her. Who would build such and engine of destruction? Meralei wondered. By design it wreaks havoc on whatever crosses its sight, never discriminating between friend or foe, man or sea-creature.

More than that, who or what was capable of destroying it?

Meralei raised her sword, ordering her soldiers to rally on her position. She felt the ominous rumbling, transmitted through the water. Her soldiers looked at each other, and despite their training, Meralei knew they were afraid.

So was she.

The rumbling got ever stronger, so intense now it seemed to thud within their chests as the water changed course and the black shape of God Poseidon began to appear at the limit of their vision.

"Cavalry," she said, pointing her sword at the looming terror. "On my signal . . ."

The soldiers that had been supervising the evacuation began to take up positions in front of her main force, forming a rounded half-circle--useless if engaging an enemy's army, but ideal for the plan.

"NOW!"

The cavalry charged forward, the soldiers in the lead trying to fight the terror that slithered around their hearts as the silhouette before them began to resolve into a shape with more definition and detail.

Once they were close enough, they let fly with their weaponry. Their spears and crossbows would do little to actually hurt the Beast, but their sole intention was to draw the creature's attention towards themselves, and in this, their harassing shots succeeded.

God Poseidon roared with fury as it began to charge at them with renewed speed and ferocity, the cavalrymen, now dwarfed by their opponent, ordered their mounts to turn around and retreat to the main force as quickly as possible. Most of them were able to make it, but a few of the slower ones were caught in God Poseidon's path and were crushed by it as it advanced.

Meralei could see the cavalrymen advancing over the long, flat plain. They were moving so fast they would make it to her forces in a matter of seconds. She pointed her sword at two other mounted soldiers behind her, ordering them to ready themselves for their pass at the creature. They steadied their mounts with one arm on the reins--the other, shrouded in a strange, curved, piece of armor was held in front of themselves, the curved tip pointing forward.

Stirring up a small cloud of dust as they advanced, the Cavalrymen roared towards and to the front lines so quickly it seemed as though they would fly right past. The very moment the cavalrymen had joined her force, she waved the two mounted soldiers forward, the two of them rocketing just as fast to a point a few feet in front of the creature.

Once they'd reached their planned distance, they raised their armored hands and leaned forward in the saddles, flinging two small red objects forward. They tumbled a few feet in front of the advancing monster, stirring up a pitiful amount of sand as they came to rest on the plain.

The soldiers turned and raised their armored gauntlets back at Meralei.

"Bugler," she said, turning to another of her group. "Sound retreat to the our next line of defense. NOW!"

The bugler did as he was ordered, but the soldiers, instinctively following her lead, had begun to turn and prepare to retreat. All but the two soldiers, who now waited on the plain for the monster to find them. As the rest of the soldiers retreated, Meralei quietly spoke a prayer under her breath, venerating the two soldiers who now waited to sacrifice their life to use the Mermen's greatest weapon, spring the trap, and halt the juggernaut's advance.

There was a flat noise as they activated the weapons, immediately dying as the weapons they'd tossed into the water before them activated. The Mermen, having striven their entire lives to live in harmony with the waters they lived in attempted to make even their weapons of war more harmful to any invader or enemy than the ocean itself.

The Charybdis Bomb was the one thing that violated that sacred belief. The bomb created a power vortex in the water that could shatter a ship or destroy a city easily before its power was expended. It was her people's weapon of last resort.

Meralei pushed her forces faster and farther than she had any expectation to. They had to clear the vortex's radius before the next part of their plan could be implemented, or they might be swept up in the backwash. Some of her men, exhausted after fighting and retreating from the beast couldn't keep up and she grimaced as she saw them slowed, stopped, and finally yanked backwards into certain destruction in the Charybdis vortex.

Finally, as the vortex achieved its full strength, they found the rows of armored warriors who indicated the establishment of the second line. Her survivors limped forward, taking their place behind the line, as Meralei shouted the order to implement the second part of the trap. At her word, signals were sent to the other devices her people had seeded along the plain.

While God Poseidon was immobilized by the Charybdis vortex, several charges were activated, some above the beast in the bedrock of the city or Arima, but a greater amount below him in the rock that comprised the plain itself. Rocks caught in the whirlpool were smashed against its body, sending it reeling under the onslaught as it felt the charges blow underneath it.

The effect was nothing short of tremendous. The rocks beneath God Poseidon fell away, the suction of so much mass shifting beneath the waves only intensifying the vortex and pulling it deeper into the tumbling rocks and sand. As it was yanked down into the newly created trench, the rocks and buildings, indeed the entire city of Arima tumbled down on top of it and these too pulverized themselves against the body of the mighty war machine.

Meralei and her soldiers braced themselves--even better than three miles from the explosion, the land beneath them was shuddering in shock and the seas they breathed seemed to be sucked away from their gills and down into the vortex. Any sign of God Poseidon, the plain they had detonated, or Arima itself was gone in a hurricane of whirling water.

It took some time for the dust to truly settle before Meralei ordered two mounted scouts to investigate the avalanche. Meralei watched them and their signals; her nerves rubbed raw with panic at the thought that this monster might have been able to survive their most powerful weapon.

Because if the Charybdis Bomb and the avalanche couldnít stop him, she knew they had nothing left.

The scouts signaled all clear almost tentatively, and Meralei confirmed it with hesitation. The silence felt awful, somehow, after an entire day of fight or flight. Even the fine sand that had been blasted loose in the explosions seemed to hesitate, hanging there in the water, uncertain of whether it was safe to settle again.

It was a feeling that Meralei well understood at the moment.

She ordered the scouts back to their base and gave the order to stand down. Her soldiers deserved a rest, and this moment, however long it might last, was as good a time as any.

Because there's no telling when we may have to fight it again, she thought, looking at her soldiers sheathing their weapons and beginning to relax, their eyes always nervously going to God Poseidon's grave, and she knew they thought the same thing she was thinking.

How long would it stay buried?

* * *

Darken looked up, watching Liandra flying above them. She and her fairies trailed light behind her, silhouetted against the clear blue sky. Her flight was shaky and uncertain at first--adjusting to her new sight had been easy enough when she was standing still, much less so when one was flying at high speeds. Nevertheless, after a few nervous moments, Liandra was swooping and diving with carefree elation. Darken made no effort to call he back, figuring that after all she'd been though in the last two days, at the very least she'd earned some time to have fun.

He hadn't told her the cost involved--how the Hidden Forest had been annihilated by what Ka'el called a "Beast." Or why Ka'el seemed alternately saddened and terrified at the sight of it.

It was powerful, but with his skill, we were able to shut it down pretty easily, Darken thought. I donít see what there is to be afraid of. But from how he acted . . .I'm pretty sure there's more I need to know.

Ka'el was looking off into the distance--at the wasteland where the Hidden Forest had been. The snow was beginning to melt, but the extreme cold, ice, and snow had done its work well. The previously green leaves of the trees were shriveled and browning from the shock of the sudden bitter cold. While they had earned a victory and done what they'd come to do, what few Fairies were left now had no home--their sanctuary was gone forever.

"I feel bad for the fairies," Darken said, turning to face Ka'el. "Where will they go now?"

"I am . . .not certain," Ka'el said. "In return for their help with Liandra, they asked only that I let them go somewhere else, where I could not find them. Apart from the two bound to Liandra, I am never to see them again. Apparently, my arrival has always been something of a bad omen, according to them."

"I donít understand. It wasn't your fault that . . .thing . . .attacked them. Besides, you made them this sanctuary in this first place. Why would they refuse to have anything to do with you now?"

Ka'el sighed and looked away. An emotion Darken had never seen cross his face now settled on him, and settled with such force that his shoulders hunched a little. He looked tired, more than usual, and his sad eyes seemed sadder.

Darken didn't want to push, but he needed to know.

"Master . . .that thing . . .the Beast . . .what was it?"

Ka'el rocked back and forth on his cane. He looked up at Liandra, happily soaring through the skies, her now jet-black wings like a shadow against the sky. Under those wings, her fairies flew alongside. She was happy, only days after things seemed so very hopeless.

More than anything, he found that he wanted to dwell in that moment forever, to pretend the rest of his days would be filled with moments like this. Moments where he could heal, protect, and possibly even redeem himself.

Unfortunately, experience held him back.

"You would spoil the beginnings of a good day and one little victory with something as unpleasant as the truth, Darken?"

"Master, I want to know."

"And I suppose you should," Ka'el took a deep breath. "The Beasts were created by my people. A synthesis of magic and technology. Spirits were bound to them, much as I bound Aurorya and Adorya to Liandra."

"You . . .created that thing?"

"My people did," Ka'el said. "We were locked in a war we could not win, so we created these terrible weapons as an act of vengeance. If we could not have the world and all the bounties therein, we would ensure that no one would have it, even if it meant scouring the world to ash."

Darken took a deep breath. "That's terrible."

Ka'el nodded. "It was, and is. Those who urged us to build these neglected to tell us at the time we were creating the instruments of our own genocide. So my people built an army of them and unleashed them on the world, only to have the mad machines slaughter everyone and everything, with no discrimination between friend or foe. Our masters intended for the Beasts to settle their score with the living things on this world, to evacuate the world on which we lived for themselves."

Darken grimaced. It bothered him deeply, hearing Ka'el's words--not just because of what he was saying, but the matter-of-factness way he said this.

I can't believe that Ka'el would be capable of creating anything like that, Darken said. But is it impossible that he could . . .or do I just not want to believe it could be true.

"I was the last of my kind, and to atone, I fought the Beasts, destroying all I could find, and protecting those survivors of their wrath that I could. The fairies, for instance--this sanctuary was created to protect them from the wrath of the spirits."

"What would the spirits want with them?" Darken asked.

"Fairies are the beginning of a spirit's life-cycle," Ka'el said. "They are . . .or were . . .child-spirits."

"Is that why the Beast came here, why it killed so many of the fairies?"

Ka'el nodded. "The fairies, when they saw the destruction the spirits and the Beasts had wrought, implored me to protect them, to keep them from becoming the monstrous beings their progenitors had become. This I did for them--I arrested their growth, preventing the change that would have one day transformed them into spirits as I sealed the spirits themselves away, forever. Or, so I thought."

"The Beast's presence means the spirits have returned?"

Ka'el sighed.

"Not yet," he said. "Not in force."

"How can you be sure?" Darken asked.

"I would know, Darken," his master responded. "When they were locked away, they vowed vengeance on me. If they break through, they will come for me first."

"Well . . .wouldnít they have forgotten by now? It's been ages, hasnít it?"

"They nor I will ever forget, Darken," Ka'el responded sharply. "It is our mutual curse."

"So what do we do?"

Ka'el said nothing. He was looking at Liandra again, happily soaring through the skies.

"Donít you have a plan?"

Ka'el turned to him, looking into his eyes with the deep penetrating look that said Darken was supposed to be comprehending more than he actually was.

Darken hated that look. Because whatever lesson he was supposed to learn from it, he never seemed to work out until it was far too late.

* * *

Sachiel stood next to his father in the palace's War Room, a map of the floating cities spread on a large gilt table before them. On the other side of the table, Sandalphon, red brush in hand, leaned over the table, crossing out points on the map.

"It's moving in a straight line?" Matariel asked, pointing a white-gloved hand at the points on the map.

"In a sense," Sandalphon said. "However, its course does alter slightly when we move our fleets to engage it. However, if a city is far enough out of its path, it will ignore it, and continue forward. The city of Alsulin was directly in its path, but as you see here, as it moved closer to the Capitol, the cities of Aenar and Corina were left untouched."

"And nothing has been successful in halting its advance?" Matariel said.

Sandalphon shook his head. "Our only successful fleet action has been in ferrying some of our citizens in the outer cities to our fortresses close to the Capitol, my Lord."

Sachiel squinted at the map. In a way, he'd almost been grateful to have this distraction from worrying about Maryna, but hearing about in detail and hearing about the ships and crews that had been destroyed by whatever this burning creature was souring the distraction a little.

Partly because now Maryna was a world away, with now knowledge of the nightmare they were facing and the thousands of their people it had already slaughtered, while it was the only thing everyone else here was thinking about. Partly because he felt like he should be doing more. What was the point of being born royal if you lacked the power to help the people you ruled?

The worst of it was not knowing what he should do--Matariel and Sandalphon were both veterans of the wars with the Dragons and the other races and had seen plenty of battle in their lifetime. Beyond being Matariel's son, Sachiel felt he could add little to their deliberations.

Well, except for one idea that seemed to nag at him constantly.

"What kind of creature could do this?" Sachiel asked no one in particular.

"We do not know, my Prince," Sandalphon said, his lined face registering surprise as the young scion spoke. "It is very powerful, and our scouts have determined it is some sort of machine, apparently of a science far in advance of even our own."

"Then it couldn't have come from one of the other races?"

"I am not certain," Sandalphon said, looking at Matariel in quiet entreaty to rein in his suddenly precocious son. "It seems unlikely, however, given what we knew of the other races skills and level of advancement."

Sachiel nodded, letting this sink in. Then he looked at Sandalphon and made a suggestion that he knew before he even spoke it aloud bordered on the blasphemous.

"Then why not contact the other races?"

Sandalphon stiffened and pushed himself away from the table. Sachiel felt himself beginning to blush slightly and looked up at his father, whose face registered no anger or shock at all.

"My Prince, you know not what you ask for. Angels do not cry for aid."

Sachiel clenched his fists for a moment.

"I do," he said. "And I donít suggest we "cry for aid," as you say. If the other races have encountered something like this before, they might know how to stop it--"

"Unlikely."

"Or it might be happening to them at the same time it's happening to us, part of something larger," he continued. "I wouldnít even suggest it, except this . . .thing . . .is destroying our ships and cities so easily, and nothing we do seems to slow it down and all you seem to suggest is that we continue to send our forces after it until we have no one left. It's suicide."

"It's at best unlikely, at most, foolish," Sandalphon said. "If the other races have encountered something like this, given their inferior skills, they are most likely already extinct. And if this assault on our territory is part of a greater assault on the Spheres, it is not our concern--we must protect out homeland first. We are Angels, my Prince. We have never needed allies to protect our homes."

"But we've never been in this kind of trouble before," Sachiel said. "Canít we--"

"No, Sachiel," Matariel said. "We can not. We signed a treaty with the other races before you were born to keep them out of our affairs, and at the moment, this is exclusively our problem. We stand alone, whatever happens."

Sachiel bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut. So much for being able to do anything, he thought, the bitterness like a fire in the pit of his stomach. They wonít even listen to me, and I'm supposed to be the prince, born to power and the throne.

And yet, it's useless. I can fight, I know I can, but against something like this?

He sighed, resting his hands on the table as his father pointed to positions on the map.

"We'll move the main force of the fleet here, just outside the outskirts of the city," he said. "A small detachment of ships will evacuate the three cities in the creature's path, evacuating some to the fortresses in the Capitol and the outlying cities."

"Yes, my Lord," Sandalphon said. "And if those ships are needed to defend the Capitol?"

"We will have to do without them," Matariel said. "If the Capitol falls to this creature, they will be all that remains to protect the survivors of our race."

Sandalphon nodded.

Sachiel watched as his father and his father's guardsman planned, with some resignation, for their own doom and that of their race. He knew the idea of a few ships protecting some of the outer cities was ridiculous--what was to stop this creature from turning its attention to the other cities at any time?

He thought of Maryna again, remembering her head buried in some historical record or another, learning about the past while he'd been training with weapons or learning court etiquette, and fooling himself that he was preparing for the future.

A future that seemed to be growing ever more doubtful by the minute.

* * *

Morgoth, having finally awakened in full, had decided it bitterly resented being inhabited by living beings attempting to control it and had tried to rid itself of the infestation in the same way a dog might scratch fleas off itself. This distressed Kirone and Monstructor, not least of which because they'd been aboard the creature at the time it began to struggle in earnest to shake them loose.

What followed soon after was something so comical one could forget for a moment that this was a contest of wills between a potential tyrant and a recently unearthed ancient war machine of unbelievable power. Time and again Kirone and her retinue would board the Beast, only to be driven out soon after by its internal defenses. Kirone would curse the monster, formulate a new plan to tame it, then try again.

Even Monstructor's affinity for the Beast was no help in quieting it. Nor did Kirone's magic seem capable of bringing it to heel. Vantiga's role had been simply to rescue his Princess and her minion from the inevitable response. Beyond that, he knew, he was little help.

However, Vertiga had been able to stay inside, ever since the beginning of Morgoth's violent convulsions. They seemed to calm down when only she remained inside the Beast. Even now, she found herself crawling alone through the strangely organic-seeming tunnels and chambers of the Beast completely undisturbed, her only company her own thoughts and the relentless heart-beat like throb of the Beast's systems.

And, of course, the voice in her head. On and on she was urged forward for what felt like miles in one direction, then up for miles, then down, or through for miles.

She felt like she'd been walking or climbing forever.

"Why . . .am I here?" Vertiga said, crawling on her stomach inches below a conduit that glowed bright red with such power she could feel the heat on the small of her back.

Because, the voice hissed. This is my . . .our moment.

"Funny--I thought "our moment" was going to be the moment Kirone had our sword jammed through her heart," Vertiga said. "Or wait, this is part of "the plan" isnít it? The one you keep saying I'm too stupid to comprehend."

I have never referred to you as stupid, Vertiga.

"I think you have," she said, bringing herself to a crouch and keeping her sword at the ready for anything that might be lurking within. "What about when this thing was eating . . .what did you call him. Tornadron?"

I said "foolish," the voice responded. And I was referring to Kirone.

"Right," Vertiga said. "Well, I think we can both agree on that. Why did she bother waking this thing up, if it was going to turn on her?"

She couldnít have known, the voice replied. Morgoth was assumed to be lost forever--the spirit that drove it forever extinguished.

"Spirit?" Vertiga said, tucking the sword into the sash she wore around her waist as she clambered up another conduit. "Like you . . .in the sword?"

Similar, but on a much larger scale. Your ferromancers bind spirits to blades, but only in the sense of borrowing a spirit's power--the spirit is not trapped within the metal as completely as a Beast is.

Vertiga dragged herself up to another level. Some distance in front of her, something pulsed, a perfect sphere of brilliant orange-yellow light. All around it, conduits snaked out from it like the arteries of a heart. The steady throb she'd been hearing was loud enough now that it shuddered through her chest like the sound of drums.

"So this is just ferromancy, then?" Vertiga said, resting her hands on her thighs and trying to catch her breath.

Far more complex and dangerous than ferromancy, the voice replied. Your swordsmiths take care to bind only lesser spirits to their blades. Those who made the beasts tried to bind primal forces of nature to the machines. It drove the spirits mad, and the machines became unstoppable engines of destruction. After all, how does one stop the earth beneath them from rebelling against it, or hold back fires older than time itself?

Vertiga said nothing. She kept walking toward the heart of the Beast, the throbbing "heartbeat" now beginning to push in her eardrums the closer she got.

"Primal forces," she said, clambering through a thin nest of conduits and pipes. "So that . . .Tornadron . . .was what? A wind spirit?"

THE wind spirit, the voice corrected sharply. There are many spirits of the elements--mistrals, zephyrs, and the like. But all of them are descended from a single great spirit. Tornadron was one of those. If it is a primal force of nature, it follows it would be a primal, near-indestructible spirit.

"Whatever this Beast was seemed to make short work of it."

Morgoth's spirit and power is greater than even that of the primal winds, the voice replied.

"Really? What is it?"

The power of creation.

Vertiga stopped for a moment.

"Creation? You mean, like . . .creating life?"

Of a sort. She was bound into this shell to create Beasts. Lacking spirits to bind to the machines, that Monstructor managed to bend her natural inclinations to creating physical beings, and since she was asleep . . .she lacked the awareness to know the difference.

"And we're going to kill her?"

No, the voice said. Only to subdue her, and, by subduing her ability to create for Kirone, help ourselves in the bargain.

Vertiga grimaced as she stepped over and ducked the final swirling thickets of conduits, shielding her eyes from the immense, pulsing light of Morgoth's heart. The sound of the Beast's pulsing heart was so loud it blocked out every sound, blanketing everything in a grinding bass sound that rumbled through and past her like thunder.

"ALL RIGHT," Vertiga said, drawing her sword from its mooring on her sash. "WE'RE--"

You donít have to shout, the voice reprimanded her. I can hear you perfectly well.

"I CAN'T HEAR ANYTHING RIGHT NOW," Vertiga said. "WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?"

You have to ask? Kill it.

"WHAT?"

Plunge the sword into Morgoth's heart. Destroy her.

NOW, Vertiga!

Vertiga and the voice went back and forth twice more before she understood, raising the sword above her head and spinning on her feet as she brought it down in a stabbing motion into the glowing sun-like heart of the Beast.

Purple-orange lightning surged through her blade, blasting her backwards into a nest of pipes. She went limp as her body banged hard against the pipes and she fell to the ground. Purple fires swarmed over the surface of Morgoth's heart, then flashed orange again, then back to purple, and then went black.

But not before firing Vertiga's sword out of itself, like a cork from a bottle.

Vertiga lay there for a moment on the dingy floor of Morgoth's heart-chamber. Her head was spinning from the dual shocks of the impact and the noise that had been ringing in her ears. She tried to move, slowly and painfully, hissing with inhaled pain as she closed her fingers into a fist, pulling herself up to her knees.

She took a deep breath--ragged and quick at first, then slower and more deliberate as the pain lessened. The air was hot, but not quite as hot as it had been, and everything was dark. Nothing inside her felt broken, but the unbelievable amount of pain made her wonder how she could possibly be alive at all.

She touched the fire-gem at the center of her armor's breastplate. Weak and flickering light began to fill the chamber, then began to intensify and illuminate the darkened chamber as Vertiga hauled herself up to her feet, pulling herself up the pipes and conduits as she went. She leaned against one of them, trying to get a firm steadiness on her feet before she tried anything harder than breathing or moving around.

The sounds had stopped--the throbbing bass sound that had only minutes before threatened to push the breath from her lungs and crush her skull was gone, but more than that, the whole chamber, indeed, the entire Beast, seemed to be quiet. Not dead, exactly, and not asleep, as it had been before, but quiet.

It wasn't the only thing quiet, either.

"Hello?" Vertiga called out?

No answer. The only one speaking in her head was her own mind.

"Are you there?"

Vertiga felt herself beginning to sweat again, despite the dying heat.

Where could he have gone? Surely using the sword didn't kill him, she thought, panic beginning to freeze her from the inside out. It didnít when we fought Tornadron.

Where are you? Are you not talking to me?

Vertiga bit her lip.

"ANSWER ME!"

There was no answer. She sighed and leaned back against the pipe.

Now what will I do? Vertiga thought. How am I supposed to finish what we've started by myself? Since the Vampires attacked me it's just been you and I . . .Vertiga and her trusty . . .

Oh, she thought, taking a few wobbly steps forward.

Of course.

She began walking in a hunched-over posture, partly to keep her balance, but partly because she was looking for something.

Weird, she mused, clambering back to where the heart of the Beast had been stilled. I used to be able to feel the sword in my head, even if Iíd dropped it or thrown it--somehow we were linked. Iíd always know where to find it again.

But there's nothing. Did Morgoth destroy it?

No--he'd told me himself--the sword was nigh indestructible, and that was before his power was merged with it. Then again, these Beasts are pretty powerful--he said so himself. Maybe . . .

After a few minutes of fumbling her way back to Morgoth's heart, she found the blade, lying against a cluster of thin conduits. She held it up. It felt all right--the weight was the same, the edges seemed to have no cracks, and nothing seemed to be damaged, even though there was little available light for a careful examination.

The one thing amiss that she could detect was the row of runes carved into the flat of the blade. Where they had previously glowed orange, they now appeared to be blackened, streaked with ash.

It looks almost . . .dead, she wondered.

She held the sword as tight as she could, trying to connect with the power inside it.

It's . . .there, she thought, pushing hard with her will. Harder to . . .tap into it, though.

She relaxed, balancing on the sword as if it were a cane. Something had changed within the blade, all right. The power she'd relied on and that had been so readily at hand before was buried somehow, and it was going to take concentration and effort to tap into it again.

And right now, it was going to take all her effort to get back out of the inner chambers of the Beast again.

She looked behind her and sighed. The fire-gem only lit things out a little further, but she knew the true distance stretched on for at least twice what she could see. And she wasn't looking forward to trying to find her way out again.

Especially with no one to talk to on the way back.



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