Chapter 13: Conversations

They returned to the temple in the late afternoon. They would have returned sooner, but Darken had elected to walk with Ka'el. He had more questions he wanted answered, wanted to know more about the Beast they'd encountered, and wanted to try to pin Ka'el down about what he knew about them while he was still in the mood to talk.

Unfortunately for Darken, the moment Ka'el had passed and for the most part they walked in silence. Ka'el's eyes remained downcast the whole time, watching his feet, one in front of the other, gently rustling through the grass as they walked in silence back to the temple.

The silence, coupled with Ka'el deliberate gait made the journey seem to take forever, and Darken would occasionally blurt out a word or two in order to break the monotony, or catch Ka'el off-guard long enough to hopefully get him talking again. However, his master was fully committed to his silence.

At least until they began mounting the temple steps. Liandra was the first to leave, soaring higher and flying to the upper mezzanine of the Temple.

"I think I see someone I know," she said, her black wings swooping over Darken and Ka'el's heads as she took wing. Ka'el raised his head, following her flight path.

"There is someone else here?" Ka'el asked.

"Yeah," Darken said. "Cygnus. She's a human. She . . .helped me get Liandra back here yesterday, though I really couldnít tell you how."

"And you did not invite her inside?"

"She didnít want to," Darken said. "She said she'd wait outside until Liandra could come out to see her."

"Curious," Ka'el said. "And you say she rejected staying inside?"

"She was pretty definite about it."

"Was she?" Ka'el asked. "Intriguing. Did you ask why?"

"Yes," Darken said. "Well, I tried, but she brushed the question aside."

"And you saw nothing amiss with this?"

"My mind was on other things, Master," Darken replied. "Plus, she'd already helped me get here much faster than I could have my own."

"How?"

"I'm not sure about that, either."

Before Ka'el could pursue the matter further, he was confronted by something far more curious than a reluctant guest. Namely, the image of an Angel and a Dragon, walking down the steps to greet them, walking side by side. Even Darken, who barely knew about the prejudices between the two races, was surprised, because he recognized the Dragon.

"Grune," Darken blurted. "What are you doing here? Maryna, what's going on?"

"Trouble, Nephew," Grune said. "I have sought you and your master out to aid me with it. The Angel has attempted to aid me in learning more about the nature of the threat we face, but I tire of consulting books. Ka'el, I require your counsel and your aid to help my people. Will you give it?"

"However I can help, I will," Ka'el said. "As I have in the past. Come--we'll discuss this matter inside."

* * *

Monstructor made his way carefully down into the bowels of the Beast, skulking through formerly dark and shadowy places that now hummed with new life. For more years than he could remember, these hidden chambers had been where he created his best work, safe from prying eyes, safe from those who wouldnít understand his creative gift.

Finally he scurried down into his chamber, where a day before he'd begun altering the remains of Kirone's vampire soldiers with a few pieces he'd kept around in an effort to breed an army for her. A day since the Beast had put the jumbled images in his mind, showing him how to do it.

A lot had changed in the time since then. In little more than the space of a day, the Beast had move of its own accord, consumed another Beast and went wild. It had rejected him, rejected Kirone, rejected all of them.

Except for the human, he thought, ruefully. She did something to it, made it different. Now I feel it, alive and breathing all around me, I feel its parts moving, its machine heart beating through its chambers.

And it doesn't talk to me anymore.

That disturbed Monstructor most of all. For years, he and the beast had been all that each other had. They had whispered to each other, shared secrets, and parts of each other.

Now, nothing.

I have tried to keep it hidden from Kirone and the others, he thought, walking into his hidden chamber. And most of all, from that damned woman. She did something to the Beast, changed it somehow. After all, it didnít reject her, did it?

Damn her for her interference! I swear, the first task of my new army . . .

THE new army, he corrected himself. The first test of the new army will be to repay her in kind for taking the Beast from me.

Assuming, of course, her meddling hasnít ruined them as well.

The chamber was dark, and there was no sign of movement. It was hard to tell in the spare light and long shadows of the chamber whether the cocoons his machines had spun around the bits and pieces he'd collected had opened or not.

Ordinarily, the process would take days, if not weeks, but that was before the Beast had risen to full power. Now, with more than enough power to go around, perhaps that was no longer true, and he could create with more rapidity, and on a larger scale.

If these first three had survived.

He stood there in the darkness for awhile, listening for sounds of movement.

He waited for some time, the darkness beginning to still around him. He scowled behind his spectacles, his face etched into a severe frown. The woman had stopped the Beast from speaking to him, changed it fundamentally, and now, on top of everything else, she'd ruined his experiments.

He prepared to turn from the chamber when he heard a dry, scraping noise in the chamber. Monstructor's eyes relaxed, curious as to the source of the movement. At first, he assumed it was more of his insects, and willed any of them that still might be in the chamber to him.

At word from him, they should have come instantly to his side, but none of them did. Monstructor walked towards the cocoons, examining them. There was a slight tear in them, indicating whatever had grown inside it had torn loose, but if they had . . .then where were they?

"Are you here?" Monstructor asked, his quiet, quavering voice calling to whatever might dwell in the darkness.

"Show yourself," he continued. "You have nothing to fear from me . . .I am your creator. Come out, into the light. Let me complete my work."

The scraping continued, movement now coming on three sides. Monstructor turned to look at the source of the movement and only saw red eyes floating in the dark.

"Come on," Monstructor said, gesturing to the source of the noises with a slight smile. "You can trust me. Let me see you."

One of them reached out into the light, his thin, skeletal hand reaching out for Monstructor, silhouetted against one of the cocoons. Behind him, another appendage from another of the creatures stirred, the eyes on the end of it, narrowing and dilating as it looked at Monstructor.

Monstructor allowed himself a thin, nervous laugh, one of his insects slithering up his leg and into his arms. The last of the creatures moved into view, poking his horned head nervously out of the shadows to look at his creator.

Monstructor smiled, his faith in the Beast, at least in this case, restored. He stroked the insect in his arms as he watched his creations moving into the light, his children seeking the approval of their "father."

"Now," he said gently. "We should finish you and then when that's done, introduce you to everyone."

* * *

Cygnus thought she'd been successful in slipping away from the others. She'd watched Grune and Maryna greet Darken at the entrance to the temple from her usual spot on the landing. They'd tried to entice her into the temple, but Cygnus elected instead to keep her watch on the upper landing, ostensibly to keep a lookout for these "Beasts" the Dragon had spoken of with such fear.

The truth was, just as when Darken had invited her in, she didnít want to go into the temple. Not with who dwelt inside, and what she knew he was responsible for. No, she would keep her promise and wait for Liandra to return, to come and see her.

And then, she supposed, she'd leave.

She hadn't given that part of it a whole lot of thought. Perhaps it was due to the fact that things had been going so fast since she'd tumbled through the gate and into this Sphere. There hadn't really been time up until now to explore the question of "then what?"

There was something she could do here, but it was, at best, a sidetrack, something expected of her, but not what had brought her here. No, that was on Cirroc, with Vertiga Scylla.

Unfortunately, once through the gate, it had been destroyed, and from what she'd been able to determine, that gate was one of the few that would allow her travel back to Cirroc. And the only one who seemed capable of crossing Spheres without one was Darken.

So maybe, in a roundabout way, it makes sense to stay, she thought. At least until I can persuade Darken to send me back to Cirroc. And to ensure that he'll help me, when the time comes, I should probably hold off on the "other thing," whatever trouble that may buy me later on, when I go home . . .

She felt herself tense as she heard scuffling footsteps behind her, and for a single, worried moment wondered who it could be, and whether they'd heard, or could divine her thoughts.

"Cygnus?"

It was a girl's voice, and Cygnus relaxed a little, feeling a little silly for being that tense over nothing. A thin smile parted her lips and she slid off the stone parapet she'd been sitting on and walked over to the temple entrance.

"Liandra," Cygnus said, as the woman who'd called her name walked into the sunlight. Cygnus stood before her, unsure of what to do next. She was grateful to see her up and about, grateful that she seemed more herself than she had when Macabro had attacked her, but she found she didnít know what or how to do that.

Fortunately for her, Liandra was more than willing to show her. Liandra ran into Cygnus' arms, and embracing her tightly. Cygnus held her arms straight out for a moment, grateful that Liandra couldnít see her confusion. Then she slowly, tentatively, put her arms around Liandra.

"I'm glad you're feeling better," Cygnus said, holding her a little tighter for a moment as the emotion behind the gesture began to feel a bit more natural and genuine.

"I am," Liandra said, the happiness in her voice undisguised. "It's better than that though, Cygnus--I can see again! Look!"

Liandra wriggled loose from her embrace and stood back as her twin fairies circled around her and settled on her shoulder, watching Cygnus intently. Cygnus, who had been smiling up to this point, felt her smile drop off suddenly at the sight of the two fairies, who stared at her without the slightest hint of recognition.

Not that they should know her, or recognize her as she was now. All the same, the very sight of them opened old wounds, deeper and older than both of them, and Cygnus felt a deep twinge of pain inside her as she looked at them.

"Is something wrong, Cygnus?" Liandra asked, obviously picking up on her discomfort.

"I'm fine," Cygnus lied. "I'm just . . .stunned, I guess. Darken made it seem like there was nothing that could be done to get your sight back."

"No one did, until Ka'el took us to the Hidden Forest," Liandra said. "Then the fairies were bound to me, and then, all of a sudden I could see. Isnít that wonderful, Cygnus?"

Ka'el. Another name that, like the sight of the fairies, was tinged with pain for Cygnus, but this time she didnít let it show. Cygnus looked away, walking back to her parapet and sitting down on it, watching Liandra as she walked to the edge of the mezzanine, looking out at the afternoon sky.

"It's . . .wonderful, Liandra," Cygnus said, eager to change the subject, or to have something else to focus on. She gestured to Liandra's wings, now completely black. "What happened to your wings?"

Liandra's fairies circled around her, peering at her wings. "Oh," she said. "It's apparently some kind of side effect of the vampirism."

She ran her tongue over her teeth thoughtfully.

"That, and the fangs."

Cygnus' brow furrowed. "Oh," she said. "I'm sorry. I guess there are things that . . .Ka'el still canít fix, can he? Is it . . .are you . . .like Macabro was?"

Now it was Liandra's turn to look sad. "No," she said. "At least . . .I donít feel like it. I mean, I have the fangs, and my wings, but I can be out in the sun and I'm not thirsting for . . .you know."

"And they canít figure out why?"

Liandra shook her head. "There's a lot still to be explained."

"There always is," Cygnus said, looking at her and smiling. "I'm very glad youíre feeling better, Liandra. I wasn't about to leave this place until I knew you were all right."

"I wasn't about to let you leave without thanking you," Liandra said, walking over and sitting down next to her. "So I guess we had the same idea, sort of."

"Thank me?" Cygnus asked. "For what?"

"For helping protect me."

"I don't feel like I did such a good job with that," Cygnus said as she looked away, back at the sky. "If I'd understood what was happening to Macabro, or just let Darken help you, you might not have been hurt. I feel like it's my fault you're how you are now."

"It wasn't your fault."

"It feels like it."

"Well, then, donít feel that way," Liandra said. "I didnít know what I was getting into when I left here, so I'm just as responsible for being in that situation as you were, really. I don't blame you for what happened, Cygnus."

Cygnus nodded. "It seems a high price to pay for not preparing for the unexpected. It doesnít seem all that fair."

"Maybe it isn't," Liandra said. "But maybe we can both forgive ourselves for not knowing everything? I can see again, and I'm alive. And I found a new friend, even in the midst of this. Those things are worth holding on to, arenít they?"

Cygnus smiled sadly, then nodded. "I donít think I've ever been called anyone's friend," she said.

"First time for everything," Liandra said, smiling.

* * *

Anduril was eight years old. For all that time, he and his family had lived and worked in the city of Pharis, the largest city before the Angel's capital city. His wings, which had only come in three years before, were still too underdeveloped to permit him flight on his own. This had hardly concerned his parents before now--it took a few years for every Angel's wings to come in fully, after all. They'd always planned to teach him.

One day.

Unfortunately, that day was still relatively far in the future, and Anduril was being carried by a Seraphim through the emptied streets of the city towards the docks, where a group of ships were moored. The order had come a day ago--because of the path of the strange being of fire, and its tendency to annihilate entire cities in its path, Pharis and two other cities must be evacuated, and its citizens taken to shelters in the cities untouched by the creature named Xiephon.

The creature that even now was breaking through the line of ships that had been arrayed at the edge of the city in an effort to slow its advance, at least just long enough to evacuate the last of the citizens from Pharis before the end.

They had no hope that the creature could be stopped by force of arms--they'd heard what it had done to the other ships that had encountered it, how quickly they'd been destroyed.

Nevertheless, they had to try, had to save as many as they could.

The Seraphim carrying Anduril made it to the ship with seconds to spare, flying up past the embarkation ramp and landing directly on the deck of the ship, resting Anduril's feet on the deck and gesturing for him to follow the other refugees to the lower decks. They'd try to count them, find a list of names, and reunite separated families again later.

To preserve even the hope of a "later" for their people, the civilians had to be protected, and with any luck, they could take the places of those that had fallen in their rescue and repay the debt the Seraphim would pay to ensure their escape.

One day.

The ship shuddered as its engines groaned to life, pulling away from the dock as it rose from the almost empty city below. Anduril turned back, looking out into the skies beyond the city and saw more of the ships on the outskirts of the city, some of them intact save for a few plumes of smoke amidships, some beginning to sink into the clouds, and that seemed to be coming towards his ship.

It was an amazing sight. After so many years of peace, it was rare to see one of the Angel battleships, let alone the ten that had been docked in Pharis for most of the day. He wanted to see more, to see the monster that some of the passengers behind him seemed to find so terrifying, but he was pushed back into the holding area with the other civilians as Seraphim around him began setting up weapon stations and preparing for battle.

The three ships still flying at the edge of the city ran their engines to full power, circling the Beast and in some cases just barely missing being sheared by the white-hot fire it blasted from its eyes. Keeping one step ahead at all times, their captains gave the order to fire a very special weapon at Xiephon.

From the bows of each of their ships, a long, clawed object fired, the long chain attached to the projectile unspooling as it soared towards its target. Once it had found its mark, it locked into place around Xiephon, the heavy iron of the clamps beginning to glow white-hot at the merest contact with it.

Acting as one, the captains gave the order to activate their weapons. Lightning surged through the chains to the clamps, dumping a quarter of the power of their engines into the weapon. Xiephon screamed under the onslaught, a cry so loud it seemed to push in the ears of the captains and crew of the ships.

When screaming failed to dislodge the torturous mechanism, Xiephon let loose with another blast of fire from its eyes, then began firing wildly as it desperately shook itself free. One of the ships was destroyed instantly, burned from bow to stern by Xiephon's fire. Another was struck in its maneuvering vanes, listing to port as it tried to get away before a second shot could finish it.

The strain of one engine trying to hold the ship aloft was too much, and the ship capsized, its hull corkscrewing into the city it had fought so hard to protect. The ship went up in a burst of flame, the noise of the explosion shattering the windows of the buildings in the city, even as the structures tumbled onto the burning hulk of the ship, spreading the flames through the city.

This left only the last ship, the Cestus. Its captain, Mirel, watched as the Beast flew past it, its flames having now sheared through the chain holding their weapon in place. For a moment they had hoped their shock anchors could hurt the Beast, as nothing before that time had seemed to even slow its advance.

This tactic had, if only for a little while, he thought. Perhaps if we'd had more ships, more shock anchors to subdue the creature, we could incapacitate it enough to hurt it, or drive it off.

But we donít have enough ships, or enough shock anchors. And we donít have time to fall back and regroup.

We have to hold the line.

He watched as Xiephon moved into the city now, the gun batteries on the outer edges of the city firing as the burning monster came closer. Unlike the shock anchors, the gun batteries barely made any impression on it, and the fire it rained on them seemed more out of boredom than any fear the guns could harm it.

Mirel pondered this as he turned to his first officer. "What's the status of the evacuation?"

"Most of the ships are on their way to cities not in the line of fire, Captain," his first officer said, using a piece of his uniform to stop the bleeding on a cut on his forehead. "The last of the rescue ships is reporting engine trouble, however. They're having trouble getting clear."

"Unacceptable," Mirel said. "Order them to escape with all speed. That thing's already in the outskirts of the city, it will be at the docks in no time. Those people will be as good as dead."

"I know, sir," the first officer replied. "They say with another two minutes, maybe less, they can run their engines up to speed and escape the war zone."

Two minutes, Mirel thought. We barely lasted one minute against it. That ship doesnít have the weapons we have--they'll be burned to cinders the instant the creature catches sight of them.

Mirel took a deep breath. Two minutes, he thought. There has to be some way we can buy them the time they need. I will not let this monster kill any more of our people.

We must endure.

"What's the status of our engines?"

"Ninety percent, sir," the first officer replied. "Enough to rejoin the battle, if we need to."

"So, we have weapons as well?"

"A few of our gunnery stations survived the initial skirmish."

"Good," Mirel said. He turned to his helmsman. "Put us on course to intercept the rescue ship."

"Sir?"

"Do it," he said.

The Cestus turned; its timbers groaning as it rapidly changed course, turning towards the city again. As it passed Xiephon it saw it shattering streets, homes, temples and buildings at least a century old, razing all in its path with its burning gaze. Even if the people of the Pharis survived the day, their city would not.

Thanks to this monster, Mirel thought, the hot winds from the fires no spreading through the city rustling through his wings and his clothes, the smoke blackening the few gleaming spires that remained standing.

As he'd predicted, Xiephon was heading for the docks. The last rescue ship had just begun to pull away from its berth, far too slowly. There hadnít been time to outfit a ship to properly carry this amount of refugees from Pharis, and putting them on military vessels were out of the question--every warship was needed to draw the line against Xiephon. And previous experience told them that none of the ships were expected to survive an encounter with Xiephon. The escort ship that had been assigned to protect it was already a mile away, too far to protect its slower ship from the immediate and fatal assault of the Beast.

Mirel and the Cestus, however, were close enough.

"We're parallel to the creature," his first officer shouted, the sound of the Cestus' engines straining at full speed almost deafening. "Twenty seconds until we can intercept the rescue ship."

"Steady," Mirel said. "On my signal, bring us about. All weapons stations . . . prepare to fire."

A few seconds later, the Cestus crossed into the Beast's path, its engines finally beginning to overheat under the strain of both their desperate speed and the turn. Mirel ordered his people to ignore it, to focus on what had to be done to protect the rescue ship. The engines had to be kept at maximum power for as long as possible.

They had to get as close as possible to the Beast, and keep its attention focused on the Cestus.

"All forward weapons, FIRE!" Mirel shouted.

The Cestus opened fire with an impressive salvo, most of which struck Xiephon, though apart from distracting it, it did little to affect it. Mirel ordered the weapons to fire again and again, until they were exhausted. He hadnít expected the weapons to do any damage--if the much heavier batteries on the outskirts of the city couldn't damage it, nothing the Cestus carried would.

Hurting it wasn't the point. The point was to draw the monster's attention to the Cestus, to buy the rescue ship the time it needed.

Mirel allowed himself a last look over his shoulder at the docks. The rescue ship had cleared the city, its engines running to full speed and rapidly disappearing as it headed for the horizonless skies beyond.

Meanwhile, the Cestus continued its straight-line course directly for the Beast. They'd done what they'd intended--protected the ship, bought it the time they needed. The city was evacuated, most of the people kept safe. Duty was satisfied.

His people would survive.

Neither Mirel nor any of his crew made any effort to abandon ship. All had pledged long ago that they would die in the service of their people, of their king, of their Sphere. Their final duty completed, they stayed aboard the ship, determined that their last act, however suicidal, would justify what they had done to protect their people.

And bid defiance to this creature that seemed determined to exterminate them.

The Cestus was struck by a blast of fire from Xiephon's eyes, cutting into the hull on the port and starboard side. Before the Beast could bring her withering fiery gaze to bear on the suicidal ship once more, it crashed into the creature, its engines finally blowing out as its bow struck Xiephon in the chest, the ship seeming to flatten against the red-hot armor of the creature as the outer timbers flashed into fire, consumed on contact.

In an instant, the Cestus was gone, burned away to nothing as Xiephon continued to ravage the city, lashing it with its fiery gaze and replacing its golden spires with columns of blazing fire.

* * *

Grune's nostrils flared as he held the bowl up to his nose. The steam that rose from the bowl followed the dry inhalation as he sniffed it curiously. Whatever this strange concoction was, it far from proper food for a Dragon.

Neither, plainly speaking, was the company. They sat in a circle in the main hall of the temple, Grune sitting across from Ka'el and to the left of Maryna and Liandra. Liandra's fairies paced in front of Grune, studying him with endless curiosity.

Ordinarily, they very idea of eating with Angels, even food as ill-suited as this, would have been an affront to my pride, he thought, continuing to study the bowl of soup. Obviously, desperation drives one to things they never thought themselves capable of.

"There is . . .no meat in this at all?" Grune asked, his eyes narrowing on the bowl.

"Not much," Darken said, supping from his bowl as Grune watched him. "Sometimes there's fish, but mostly it's spices and vegetables that grow around them temple. I'm sure it's safe for Dragons to eat."

"Hmph," Grune said, downing the contents of the bowl in a series of gulps. He wiped a trail of soup from the corner of his mouth, his thin forked tongue hanging out at the taste of it.

"No meat, and what there is probably cooked," he remarked. "Madness."

Grune watched Liandra's fairies, his eyes narrowing on them as they hovered inches away from him. Grune allowed himself a toothy smirk and snorted, suddenly blowing a short plume of smoke in the fairies direction, who flitted back to Liandra in frightened flight.

Grune held the bowl in his hand, chuckling quietly.

"It's good isnít it?" Darken asked, mistaking the source of his bemusement.

Grune hissed. "It lacks a certain something for my tastes, nephew."

"Had I known we would be feeding Dragons, I would have made provision, Grune," Ka'el said. "But your kind never ventures out of Ladon, at least not since the last war."

"Ordinarily, you would be correct, Ka'el," Grune replied. "However, my people are under assault from a force even we cannot hope to match, and so I come, as my brother did, to seek your aid. We are under siege. Beset by a Beast."

"A Beast," Darken said, nearly dropping his bowl of soup into his lap. "Grune, are you sure?"

"It has killed a hundred of my people, nephew. I would not lie about that. Every effort we have made to drive it off or destroy it has met with failure. It strides swiftly from molten magma, and crushes mountains under its hooves. No means at our disposal can hurt it even in the slightest."

"Another Beast. We fought one today, too," Darken said, turning to Ka'el. "Master, how many of these monsters are there?"

"That you still survive tells me you either escaped it or destroyed it," Grune said, his tail twitching with anticipation.

"The latter," Ka'el said. "That you say you have also encountered a Beast . . .this I find most distressing."

"Why?" Liandra asked, her fairies settling on her arm. "What's a Beast?"

"War machines," Maryna said. "Powered by Spirits. But, according to the histories said they were destroyed ages ago, before Angels and Dragons first came into being. "

They should have been, Ka'el thought, sighing as he rested his folded hands over the crook of his staff. I thought I destroyed them all. I should have made sure, long ago, when I was still strong.

One more mistake left undone to threaten my work.

"If you know how to destroy it, come back with me," Grune said, the undertone of pleading fighting through his usual growl. "Before it slays the rest of my people."

"I do not," Ka'el said. "At least, not on my own. Darken assisted me in its destruction."

"Then the two of you will return with me . . ."

"No."

"Master," Darken interjected. "If Grune's here at all, it means the Beast is slaughtering them, just as the one we fought murdered the Fairies in the Hidden Forest. You helped them, why won't you help the Dragons? They're family . . .or, at least . . .my family."

"I did not say we would not help them, Darken," Ka'el said. "I only say that I will not go with you to Ladon."

"But you said the two of you destroyed the Beast," Maryna interjected. "If only Darken goes to Ladon, how can he destroy the Beast?"

"I have no intention of sending Darken to fight the Beast alone, Maryna," Ka'el said. "The one I send will know her part in the ritual to destroy the Beast."

"Who?" Liandra asked. "You said, "her part." That means it's a woman. That means it's either me, or Cygnus--"

"No," Ka'el said. He pointed the crook of his staff at the one he intended to accompany Darken. "She will accompany Darken to Ladon and destroy the Beast."

"The Angel?" Grune thundered in disbelief.

"Maryna?" Darken asked, equally surprised.

"Me?" Maryna asked, more stunned than anyone.

* * *

"I've been looking for you," Kirone said, staring at Vertiga's back. They stood on top of Morgoth, the gentle breezes at that altitude whipping gently around them, causing both Kirone's cloak and Vertiga's hair to wave gently in the breeze.

"What for?" Vertiga said, holding her sword in front of her, trying to access the power she knew was within it. Now that the voice in her head (or more accurately, in the sword) was gone, there was nothing to stop her from acting against Kirone, indeed, acting against all of them.

But the thrill of being able to act freely proved to be its own impediment. It was interfering with the intense concentration necessary to tap back into the sword and the power within it.

"For taming the Beast," Kirone said. "You were the only one it didnít try to kill, after it ate that other Beast . . .what was its name?"

"Tornadron."

"Tornadron," Kirone repeated. "Consuming it seems to have changed the nature of our Beast, most obviously in the way it went wild immediately afterward. And now that you've subdued it, it's changed again."

"I didnít do much of anything," Vertiga said. She didnít want to talk to Kirone, not when a little more focus would reach the power within her blade. If she struck quickly, she could incinerate Kirone before she had any idea what was happening.

If only she'd shut up, Vertiga thought, her brow furrowing.

"In any case, I owe you my thanks," Kirone said. "Thanks to whatever it is you've done, the Beast is docile, mobile, and at full power."

"Meaning what?" Vertiga asked, cursing herself for being sucked into speaking to her.

"Meaning the Beast is at full power, for the first time in hundreds, maybe thousands, of years," Kirone said. "Monstructor says that chambers even he didn't know about have opened up. And machinery has begun to repair itself, or grow completely, within. Engines of fabrication, creation, and . . .travel. As a result, my plans have changed slightly, and because of that, I wanted to speak with you."

"I donít want to go anywhere," Vertiga said, pondering how completely her own plans had changed due to circumstance. "And I don't want to help you do anything. I want my revenge."

"And then what?"

Vertiga stiffened, her concentration slipping. "I . . ."

"No, really," Kirone said. "I want to know. Once you get your revenge, what's next?"

Vertiga took a deep breath. "I donít know."

"So, you're keeping your options open, then?"

"I'm not one of your lackeys, Kirone," Vertiga said. "And I wonít be tricked into becoming one because youíre short-handed at the moment. What kind of game are you playing?"

"No games, Vertiga," Kirone said. "But my plans are changing--I don't intend to stay on this Sphere. As soon as Monstructor has ascertained whether or not it can stand the stress involved with crossing Spheres, I intend to take it to the other Spheres."

"A mission of conquest."

"Eventually," Kirone said. "But not at first. Tornadron's appearance leads me to believe there are other Beasts out there, probably rampaging through the other Spheres even as we speak. Given how powerful this Beast has become by consuming one of them, I think it's worth finding the other Beasts . . .and feeding them to this one. Increasing its power perhaps a hundred-fold, and then unleashing it on the Spheres."

"I donít think the other Beasts will go willingly into this thing's gullet," Vertiga replied.

"Tornadron didn't," Kirone said, a sanguine smile on her lips. "You see how much success it had in resisting."

"Not much," Vertiga said. "But you can't believe that they'll all be like that."

"I don't," Kirone said. "That's why I intend to learn exactly what this Beast can do before I take it into battle. So that when the time comes, we can exploit this machine's abilities to the fullest, and use it to its--"

"Spare me the strategy," Vertiga said. "Why tell me this? What's in it for me?"

Kirone smiled. "One of the things I like the most about you," she said. "Your unerring direct approach. Why I'm telling you is because I want you to stay. For a little while longer, anyway."

"Forget it," Vertiga said. "I told you--I'm not one of your soldiers."

"What if I were to aid you with your revenge?" Kirone asked. "I told you, when we became allies, I wouldn't stand in the way of taking your revenge on the Vampires. Suppose I upped the ante and pledged to aid you with all the forces I could bring to bear?"

"Meaning?"

"Once our hunt for the Beasts is finished, we take the Beast to Taruga and unleash it on the Vampires. Wipe out the entire Vampire race."

"The entire race?" Vertiga repeated incredulously. "Your own race."

"The lesser half of it," Kirone corrected.

"So you've said," Vertiga asked. "What about Vantiga? He's a vampire. Will you keep him?"

"He's loyal to my bloodline, if not to me personally," Kirone said. "He'll do what he's told. It's not as if he can't do much else--between the guards he lost meeting Monstructor and the number you killed before we met in the city below, he's the very last of the group that accompanied me here a week ago."

"He might decide he has nothing to lose by acting against you," Vertiga said. "If he learned about this, it might convince him it was worth trying."

"I'm not going to tell him," Kirone laughed. "And I doubt he'll listen to you, considering what you did to the soldiers under his command."

"Logical," Vertiga said. "But assassins don't work on logic."

"Vantiga will stay where he is until his usefulness to me is at an end," Kirone said. "And he won't know what we're planning until we're ready to move, and, if you agree, how about we tell him after you've run the point of your sword through his chest and cleaved his head from his shoulders?"

Vertiga turned to face her very slowly, her violet eyes meeting Kirone's blood-red gaze. Both of them knew where she longed to run the point of her sword through, and that Kirone's suggestion was just a dangling carrot, and effort to string her along a little longer, while Kirone consolidated her power.

And Vertiga was fairly certain Kirone believed much the same thing about what she would do when she decided to make her move.

However many Vampires Kirone dangles in front of me, she thought. I know she gave the orders that led to my father's death. She could put her whole race between her and I, and it still wouldnít save her. That she asked at all, tells me this isnít her moment, yet . . .and it's not mine, at least until I can freely summon the power in the sword again.

So, I suppose, we'll keep on playing this game a little longer. While I see if there's more than one way to get what I want.

"So, are you in . . .or not?" Kirone asked, breaking the long silence.

Vertiga's face remained neutral for a few moments, and then she began to smile.

"I'm in," she finally said, her hands gripping her sword tightly.

* * *

"All right," Darken said. "Now, Ka'el--I want some answers."

He stood between Ka'el and the doorway, blocking the one exit from the main hall. The others had long since left, Grune and Liandra going to rest, Maryna busying herself in the study, re-reading the books about the Beasts in preparation for the special training Ka'el intended to give her before she and Darken left in the morning.

"I will answer the things I can answer, Darken," Ka'el said. "But some of the answers you seek are beyond my wisdom."

"All I want to know is why youíre not coming with me to Ladon," Darken said. "Maryna's not strong enough to handle a Beast, even with your training and me protecting her. It's smarter for you and I to go--for your experience to guide me and help me do what I need to."

"Wiser, perhaps, but not possible, Darken," Ka'el said. "I cannot leave this Sphere."

"But why not?"

Ka'el sighed. "Because I would be recognized."

"I donít understand," Darken said.

"No," Ka'el said. "You do not."

"Then help me to understand."

"I will try," Ka'el said. "Darken, you know me, and my true nature. How I helped to shape the Spheres and the races upon them. Whenever possible, I tried to do my work invisibly, to encourage the races that came after mine. Sometimes, this was impossible, and it was required that I walk among them openly, doing things they could only term miracles. In their minds, only gods could do miraculous things."

"So . . .when you say "recognized," you mean they'd see you as a god again?" Darken asked.

Ka'el nodded. "And if they were to see me as a God, especially in a situation like this, they would expect me to destroy the Beast, heal their ills and raise the fallen ones the Beast had murdered. And that would only be the beginning of it. I cannot do that anymore, and even if I could, I would not."

"Why not?" Darken asked. "You were the one who told me I should do whatever I could to help people, to save them if I could. I believed you. Why wouldnít you do that for them?"

"Partly because I lack the power to," Ka'el said. "But more because the change that is coming requires that the races of the Spheres take their own destinies into their hands, and stop relying on gods, or spirits, or any higher power to change their future. If change, if unity, is to come . . .it must come from you."

"From me?"

"From all of you. You can either create the world you live in, build a future you can live in, or others will create it for you, as the Spirits did for my people. They manipulated us into extinction, and we followed blindly along, because we had our faith that gods knew no malice. We were wrong."

"But wait a minute," Darken said. "What about all that talk about me being "chosen," about this prophecy? I'm not a god, either."

"Nor should you ever become one," Ka'el said. "The races of the Spheres no longer need old gods, nor new ones to replace the old. They need you, Darken--and people like you. People who can embody a common purpose, and perhaps, a common destiny. They must be shown they are stronger together than they ever could be alone."

Darken leaned against the wall, trying to take all of it in. "No," he said. "You're wrong. You have to be. That's not . . .I mean, I canít . . .I can't do anything like that. There're so many years of history separating them all, and who am I? They won't listen to me. They certainly won't come together because I say so."

"But you've already done it."

Darken blinked. "When?"

"Just an hour ago," Ka'el said. "Grune, the Dragon, sat down next to Liandra and Maryna. Angels. Sworn enemies of the Dragons. They shared the same food, and shared each other's company without incident, history or not. And you played a large role in bringing them together."

"But that was only because Grune wanted our help," Darken said. "And because Maryna and Liandra were already here. I didnít do anything to make that happen."

"It is a beginning, Darken." Ka'el said. "Sometimes, it takes an emergency to find common cause, to jar one out of old prejudices and ask for help from a stranger, or to give aid to another. Once that happens, a being is open to possibilities they might never have dreamed possible. They may embrace it, or retreat from it, but whatever their choice, they have seen the truth."

"If you say so," Darken said, looking at his shoes. "I just donít think I'm the one to show anybody any "truth." I never wanted to be part of some great destiny, or unite anyone. I just wanted to stay here, with you and Liandra. Just . . .stay here and be happy."

Ka'el looked at him for some time, smiling sadly as his eyes met Darken's.

"Now it seems like . . .I come back here, and almost immediately I have to leave again, because something's happened to Liandra, or . . ." his words trailed off for a moment while he gained his composure.

"Something's always pulling me away," Darken said. "And every time I come back, I get the feeling the life I wanted is slipping away. And . . .I guess I'm afraid that one day . . .I'm going to come back, and neither you nor Liandra will be here. That the life I wanted will be gone."

Ka'el took a deep breath, leaning on his cane as he considered how best to answer. Darken was more right than he knew--the time would come when he would stand alone, when no one would help him.

Is it kinder, I wonder, to lie to him? Ka'el mused. Should I let him believe that this quiet refuge will always be here for him, or do I tell him the truth, however painful?

No, he chided himself. You began this when his mother gave him to you. You owe it to him to be truthful now.

"Ka'el," Darken asked. "When this is over . . .when I've fulfilled this great destiny I'm meant for . . .can I come back here? Can I come back home?"

"No," Ka'el said.

Darken sighed, leaning more against the wall as his wings wrapped around him. His eyes were watering, but he was determined he wouldn't cry.

"Your destiny, like mine, will require great sacrifice," Ka'el continued. "And it may be that you lose everything in pursuing it. It is a great destiny . . .but it will not be an easy one, and it is a very solitary one. And for that, I am very sorry."

Darken looked away from him, staring at the circle where they'd eaten and talked.

"Knowing what you know now," Ka'el began. "Knowing what it may cost you . . .will you still go?"

"Honestly?" Darken responded. "Knowing what I know, more than anything, I want to stay. Live here, happy. Trying to forget what you've told me, hide from what's out there. Maybe if I had enough time, I could actually forget your words."

Darken drew himself back up to his feet, his wings slowly unraveling from around himself.

"I could forget what you told me, but not the price others would pay," Darken said. "Grune says the Beast is murdering the Dragons, and I saw first hand what one of them could do this morning. If I stayed here, and didnít do what I could to help . . .even more would die. Maybe all of them.

"And I don't think I could forget that," Darken said. "I don't think that life would be all that happy, knowing the price others paid. So--even knowing what it might cost--if I can help . . .then I should do everything I can."



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