Chapter 14: Dragonfire

Maryna joined the three of them a little late, doing all she could to shake out the cobwebs from her head. If the training Ka'el had given Darken was any indication of what Darken had endured his whole life, she had new appreciation for what he'd gone through.

Then again, she wondered, how much had he had to learn in one night?

They stood in a circle, each looking at the other, Darken and Maryna nervous but eager, Grune impatient, and Ka'el, as always, quiet an unknowable.

"Are you OK?" Darken asked Maryna quietly.

Maryna nodded. "I'm a little tired, but it'll pass."

"It'll be OK," Darken said. "Ladon's a rougher place than youíre used to, but I'll look out for you, I promise."

"Thanks."

Darken smiled slightly and turned to Ka'el. "What will you do while we're gone, Master?"

"I have things I will attend to," Ka'el said. "Things I have left long undone."

Darken nodded. "And youíre not going to tell me what they are?"

"When the time is right," Ka'el said. "For now, your mind should be on the task before you."

"Right," Darken said. He hated when Ka'el decided to be enigmatic, but trying to plumb the truth behind his words would take forever, and, as Ka'el had said, there was something more important to confront.

"Now . . .Are you all ready?" Ka'el asked, raising his staff.

"Some of us have been ready since the first," Grune snarled. His eyes narrowed on Maryna. "Unfortunately, it seems some others decided to waste time sleeping."

"She couldnít help that, Grune," Darken replied. "It's better she's as rested as possible, so she'll be better able to do her part when they time comes."

"Assuming she can stay awake, that is. This is the problem with Angles--no stamina, no steel, no resolve."

"Grune, stop it," Darken said. "Now you're the one wasting time. Do you want us to help destroy the Beast, or do you want to have a go at Maryna and the Angels some more?"

Grune fell silent, hissing under his breath. Maryna was quite pleased that Darken had rushed to her defense, just as she knew that Grune's ire was directed more at her people than at herself. It stung, though, especially after she'd done all she could to help him learn about the nature of the threat facing Ladon yesterday.

All the same, she thought, more sniping at each other won't get us anywhere.

"Grune, I promise that whatever happens, I'll do all I can for your people," Maryna said.

"Donít promise, Angel," Grune said. "Succeed. Then your words will have some meaning to me."

Maryna sighed. Well, so much for building bridges.

"We're ready, Master," Darken said, eager to begin their task and leave what was sure to become a very nasty argument behind.

Ka'el raised his staff, and both Darken and Maryna's Eagle Clasps began to glow. A thin trail of light passed between them, opening out into a circle that enveloped Maryna, Darken, and Grune. The circle fell down at their feet, erupting into a column of light so bright it blotted out even the silhouette of their forms, and then flared even brighter.

Then, in a flash, they were gone, and Ka'el stood alone, staring down the sloping stairs of the temple, focusing on the upper mezzanine. He'd told Darken the truth--he did have things he needed to attend to, and they were things long left undone.

What Darken didnít know was how long they had been left unresolved.

* * *

Gavelon stood in the control center of Morgoth, his only company an annoyed Vertiga, who watched him with sullen eyes as he fought the urge to pace, failed, paced, then returned to fighting it again.

"Did either of them explain what this was about?" Gavelon asked, turning to Vertiga. Curiously enough, despite their mutual animosity, Vertiga could see the question was an honest enough one, and she was almost tempted to give him something other than a sharp answer.

Almost.

"No, they didnít," Vertiga said. "And if you donít stop pacing, you won't be around long enough to find out, but you will stop annoying me, I promise you that."

Gavelon sneered, shaking his head and wondering why he bothered.

Just then, a door at one end of the chamber slid open. Kirone strode out, walking calmly past both Gavelon and Vertiga without even acknowledging their presence. She crossed past them to the door on the far side of the chamber, stopping two feet from it.

"Lady Kirone, if I might--"

"Your curiosity will be revealed in due time, Gavelon," Kirone replied. "In . . .two minutes time, in point of fact."

"Then you don't know what Monstructor has called us here for?"

"Oh, I know," Kirone replied. "However, it would be rude to spoil the surprise, wouldnít it, Gavelon?"

"Surprise, my lady?"

"For you."

Gavelon shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

"My Lady, forgive the slowness of my comprehension, but--"

"Forgiven," Kirone said. "Now, pay attention. I donít often give gifts, but given you are my most loyal soldier, it's natural I make an exception for you. Monstructor!"

The door slid open and Monstructor crept out. As usual, his pace was slow and his posture hunched and nervous. Two of the insects that only a few days ago had murdered Gavelon's men crawled along his arm and shoulder. His eyes narrowed on Gavelon, seemingly magnified by his red spectacles.

Gavelon felt slightly uneasy. Every other time he'd questioned or spoken to Monstructor, his eyes were always moving, always shifting away from his gaze. Gavelon had always considered it the look of one who was guilty, afraid.

A coward.

But now, he seems positively placid, Gavelon thought. Why?

"Lady Kirone told you, did she?" Monstructor asked, walking over to Gavelon.

"She mentioned something about a gift," Gavelon said. "But I wasn't certain whether the gift I was to receive was from her or you."

Monstructor nodded, his metal arm pushing his spectacles back up his nose. "You might, in fact, say it is a gift from the both of us, Gavelon. Her intent, coupled with my ingenuity. I give to you . . .your three new soldiers."

He gestured to the door, and something moved out of the darkness and into the light. It was tall, slightly larger even than Gavelon. Despite moving like a human, it appeared to be wrought out of metal, not like a machine, but living, breathing, steel. Its face was a fearsome, horned visage, its red eyes narrow and angry.

Following it was another creature, just as large as the other had been. It looked more human than the other had, except it was clad in black and gray chitinous armor and the mask that obscured everything but its burning orange eyes. More unusual, its right arm was missing, and in its place, the serpentine head of a Dragon.

After him, another came out, so large that it squeezed through the door sideways. Unlike the others, it walked in an apelike stance, lurching forward like a juggernaut. It wore heavy black and red armor; armor that Gavelon recognized was as much for protection within as from without.

The third creature was burning, constantly. Thin wisps of fire and hazy heat vented from its back and its head was a black skull, wreathed in a constant pillar of fire. The fire didn't seem to hurt the creature any, but the sight of it quite disturbed Gavelon.

"Who and what are these creatures?" Gavelon asked.

"Your new soldiers, as he said," Kirone said with a smile. "Arenít they wonderful?"

"This is Teratos," Monstructor said, gesturing to the first. "This one is Svarog, and finally, Cauldron. They are powerful allies, yes, and under your leadership, they will lead us to victory."

Gavelon took a deep breath. "Are they more Beasts?"

Monstructor shook his head. "No. They are quite mortal. Modified from what we had on hand. Thanks to the powers our Beast has, they are far more powerful than anything I might have created before."

"Modified?" Gavelon asked. "From the villagers?"

"No," Monstructor said. "From the remains of your men."

"WHAT?"

"They were already dead," Monstructor said. "This way, they have new lives and can serve Kirone, and serve you again."

"That is not the point," Gavelon said, his breath escaping between his fangs in hissing exhales. The awful truth of what Monstructor had done to them was sinking in. He recalled the faces of the men he'd trained, who had served him so well, who'd lain down their lives for him and Kirone.

And now they had been made into . . .this.

"They . . .you . . .have desecrated their remains. Perverted them into these . . .things," he said, the words coming slower as he felt something inside himself come loose. "My men."

"I have given them new life," Monstructor said. "I have made them better than they were before. I thought you would be pleased, Gavelon."

"Pleased?" Gavelon asked, his body stiffening. "Pleased? You think . . .I'm. . .PLEASED?"

Gavelon surged forward, moving quickly, and seized Monstructor by the throat, his hands slipping under his collar and finding the creature's throat. His hands slipped smoothly around Monstructor's throat and he began to squeeze.

"You do this to my men?" Gavelon said, squeezing tighter. In his rage he even ignored Monstructor's two insects, which slithered over him, desperately stinging Gavelon to get him to release his hold on their master. "Twist them into some mockery of life and deny them even the bright light of death? I'll KILL YOU for that!"

"Gavelon, STOP!" Kirone commanded. Gavelon wasn't listening to her. If anything, he squeezed tighter, almost wishing it were her throat in his hands, wishing that he could disregard a life's worth of obedience and kill her too, because he knew Monstructor had acted on her order.

And if she were that cavalier about the lives of his men, what did that say about his own life? About the lives of his very race?

"Gavelon, stop now, or I'll order them to stop you," Kirone said, gesturing to the three creatures beside her. The three creatures watched impassively as the

"He must die for this," Gavelon said. Monstructor's eyes were beginning to roll back in his head, and even the mechanized grip of his mechanical arm was beginning to slip a little, as was his control over his insects.

He was dying.

Before he could choke the final breath of life from Monstructor however, he felt his back burn with fire, shredding the bio-armor of his suit and throwing him forward. He heard the two insects slide off his back as he fell forward, his hands slipping from Monstructor's throat and sending him backpedaling onto the floor, falling hard onto his backside as Gavelon tumbled forward, face-down on the floor.

Vertiga stepped over him, grinding a foot into the small of Gavelon's back as she bent down over him, laying the point of her sword on the floor on one side of his neck, the edge of the blade pressing into the soft flesh of his neck.

She leaned forward, her silver hair covering her face.

"It's not time, yet," she whispered.

Gavelon felt his flesh burning, and burned as much from within from his own humiliation. He'd seen what happened to those of his men who'd underestimated Vertiga, who assumed that simply because she was a girl, she could pose no threat to them.

And in my rage, my zeal to act, I made the same mistake, he thought, feeling her weight as she leaned into him, squeezing the breath from his lungs.

The rage ebbed quickly, as did his thirst to act. Both had been forced from him, not by Vertiga's blast, or the threat of reprisal from Kirone and the creatures she now commanded. No, it was Vertiga's whispered words that had changed his mind.

"Vertiga," Kirone asked. "Is he . . .?"

"Down," Vertiga said, flipping her hair up as she looked up at her. "But not dead."

Monstructor skittered up off the floor, taking shelter behind his three creatures and beside Kirone. "Perhaps I should rectify that," he said. "Our new soldiers' first act will be his execution--"

"No," Vertiga said, pulling Gavelon roughly to his feet. "I think you should convert him."

"Convert him?" Kirone repeated. Vertiga could see the wheels turning in her head. "I suppose it would be a waste of perfectly good raw material to--"

"No."

Everyone turned to Gavelon, his voice like metal on stone as he spoke. Vertiga held the edge of her sword to his throat. At his next sign of aggression, she would take his head off his shoulders.

"It's not time yet," Gavelon remembered. Why had she said that?

"I . . ."

"You are going to die for your insubordination," Kirone said. "After your execution, you will be converted into someone more useful to me and far more loyal than you turned out to be.

"Kill him, but leave him intact. For the most part."

"I throw myself at my lady's mercy," Gavelon said. Whatever Vertiga's motives for not eliminating him then and there, he wouldn't be able to learn more dead, and that meant he would have to talk glibly to hold off that fate.

"There's none to be given," Kirone said. "You know what the penalty for defiance is, Gavelon."

"My lady . . .the penalty of death is for defiance of royal command."

"I commanded you to stop choking Monstuctor."

"I . . .in my rage, my lady, I did not hear you."

Kirone laughed. "You donít seriously expect me to believe that?"

"No," Gavelon said. "I . . .apologize for my behavior, and I will make whatever restitution you see fit."

"I don't need prisoners, Gavelon," Kirone said. "And after this little outburst, however shall I trust you again? I canít have you going around indiscriminately murdering my followers, after all."

"I could watch him," Vertiga volunteered.

"You?" Kirone asked. "Why?"

"He's a Vampire," Vertiga said. "If anyone's going to kill him, Iíd much prefer to be the one who did it."

"Oh yes," Kirone said. "Your vendetta. Then why shouldnít I have you just kill him outright?"

"His kind toyed with my father before taking his life," Vertiga said. "I think he would find the experience of having his life in my hands, subject to my whim instructive, and it might teach him the value of obedience, which I think we all can see he could stand to learn again."

"It's cruel enough punishment, I suppose," Kirone mused. "Demoted to serving at a human's whim. I rather like the hateful irony of it. But tell me--how would you ensure his good behavior when youíre not with him?"

Vertiga nodded, pulling a jewel from its mount on her armor loose. "Good point," she said, cradling the jewel in her palm. "I should think this would ensure he wonít repeat his mistake."

"What is it?"

Vertiga held it up between her fingers. "A minder," she said, pressing it into Gavelon's armor. It sank into what remained of his bio-armor, slithering under the surface as it diffused within it. "Any aggressive move he makes against any of us, the jewel generates a death spell. Kills him instantly."

"I see." Kirone said. "Can you demonstrate this?"

"Not without killing him outright, no," Vertiga said. "Which sort of defeats the purpose."

"Naturally," Kirone said. She turned to Monstructor. "You were the one he attacked. What do you say?"

Monstructor stared angrily at Gavelon, rubbing his throat. "Kill him now," he said. "I could create a servant for you far better than him. Far more loyal, too."

Kirone pondered his words, and the words she and Vertiga had spoken yesterday. Gavelon had nothing to lose now, and confronted with the new soldiers, he had to know that he would be next--it was merely a question of how and when. Either knowing this, and failing to seize his revenge, he would be broken for good, or bide his time and strike again.

"Indeed you could," Kirone said. "But I think we should give Vertiga's plan a chance. Because Gavelon has served me well, in difficult circumstances, too. And he deserves a second chance, Monstructor. As you gave his fallen comrades."

Kirone smiled, letting her pronouncement settle among those assembled for a moment.

"But at the first sign of betrayal, Gavelon, it's over," Kirone said. "And Monstructor gets your remains, to do with as he will. It's only right--he was the one you attacked and tried to murder. You will serve him after death, to settle the debt."

Gavelon looked at Vertiga, then at Monstructor, then at Kirone. Again and again, Vertiga's words echoed through his mind.

"It's not time yet."

"I . . .am humbled by your mercy, My Lady," Gavelon said. Kirone nodded to Vertiga and she removed the blade from his neck, shoving him forward.

Kirone watched Gavelon closely. She had no intention of waiting for the minder Vertiga had implanted within him to do its work. No, when the time was right, and there was less chance of more violence, Gavelon would meet with a fatal accident, and Monstructor would resurrect him into something more useful to her cause.

Just as Monstructor would, sooner or later, when his expertise in controlling the Beast was at an end. And Vertiga, too--when her rage could no longer be pointed like a gun at a useful target.

The trick, she mused. Is to keep them pitted against each other as they wait for their turn.

* * *

Darken crouched at the edge of a cliff wall, overlooking a large trench that had been hewn by a great battle below them. He leaned on his Blackfang, staring through the hazy heat of Ladon, looking for clues in the path of destruction that had been cut through Grune's world.

"You said you tried to corral him here?" Darken asked.

"Yes," Grune said. "Then we were to collapse the entrance to the ravine and direct one of the lava flows into it, concentrating the heat in . . ."

Grune's head snapped over to Maryna, who stared blankly out into space, her finger tracing the same shape in the air over and over again.

"What are you doing?"

Maryna traced it again, stopping suddenly as she realized Grune was speaking to her.

"Oh, sorry," she said. "I was just doing the seal."

"What?" Grune snarled.

"The seal," Maryna repeated. "I have to do my art, or darken canít destroy it. I'm tracing it in the air so that by the time we fight this Beast, it'll be second nature."

"Stop it," Grune growled. "It's distracting."

"Sorry," Maryna said, a little sheepish.

Grune shook his head in contempt. "Angels."

Maryna grimaced and returned to tracing the air.

"Is there some place you can lead it to that's like this?" Darken asked. "But not a ravine. Somewhere with a thin ground layer, but close to a volcano?"

"The Obsidian Fields," Grune said. "It's a plain of volcanic glass . . .only a few miles northwest of here."

Darken nodded. "That's where we'll try to capture it," he said.

Maryna blinked, her finger stopping in mid-air. "I thought we were going to destroy it?"

"Well, we are," Darken said. "But from what Grune said, we'll have to stop it long enough to try, and it's pretty fast."

"Far too fast for my people to give chase."

"We're not going to chase it," Darken said, rising to his feet and taking to the skies. "We're going to make it chase us."

Grune smiled, spreading his wings and taking flight, followed by Maryna. They soared along, buoyed by the warm air of the Sphere as they made their way to the scene of the battle.

Despite the wild, jagged landscape of Ladon, silhouetted against its constant volcanic activity, the battle was easy enough to find. Groups of Dragons, types even Darken had never seen, were locked in mortal combat with a giant . . .thing. It looked like a machine, but behaved like a wild animal.

Terrane.

"Is that the Beast?" Maryna asked Grune.

"Yes," Grune snapped. "Can you not see how it's killing my people?"

Darken stared at him, holding his Blackfang at the ready.

"Is that like the one you and Ka'el fought?" Maryna asked him.

"Not really," Darken said. "That one was a lot smaller."

"Oh," Maryna replied. "That's kind of worrying."

"For me too," Darken said, raising his Blackfang to strike.

"Grune, get ready to pull your men back," Darken said. "I want it chasing Maryna and myself, and no one else."

"I do not wish to leave you alone to--"

"You have to trust me."

Grune's lip curled in a sneer. Trusting Darken's father had ultimately led to his brother's death, and Darken's birth. Trusting Ka'el and Darken had led to him bringing an Angel into their homeland to aid in their salvation. Either Grune trusted too well, or trusted the wrong thing.

But Darken is blood, and that alone would make me trust him, Grune said. Even if he were not so willing to fly into battle to save a people he barely knows.

"I will do as you ask," Grune said. "Return alive, nephew."

Darken smiled as Grune broke off, flying towards the Dragons to signal them away. Darken turned to Maryna, brushing his hair from his eyes with his free hand as he looked at her.

"It's our turn now," Darken said. "Are you ready?"

Maryna, despite being scared to death, nodded. Much the same as Grune, she trusted Darken, though her reasons might have been slightly different. They swooped closer to the beast, circling around it in low lazy circles, crossing in front of it and causing it to slow it's manic gait in curiosity. Whatever these things were, they looked quite different from the creatures that had been harassing it up to this moment.

Darken flew back and forth in front of Terrane, just out of reach of the Beast's grasping arms. He summoned his magical energies and fired a bolt of energy at Terrane, the force of his blast so powerful that it stopped the Beast in its tracks, shuddering with something that, from its body language, seemed an awful lot like pain.

Darken watched it carefully, his wings beating gently as he hovered in place. The Beast stopped shuddering in pain, pawing the ground beneath it with one of its front hooves. Darken waited until it had sight of him, then soared away, towards the horizon. Maryna followed his lead, keeping a parallel flight path to his as Terrane charged furiously after them.

The Obsidian Fields were only a few miles away, flying at top speed. There Darken knew, they had all they would need to trap the Beast, and hopefully, destroy it before it could free itself.

Assuming they survived the chase, of course.

* * *

"So," Cygnus said, glaring at Ka'el with steely silver eyes. "The Great Traitor shows himself at last." She didnít draw her sword, but Ka'el could feel the tension in the air. The anger. The bitterness that had not abated, even after untold years.

The other side of his legacy.

"I thought it appropriate to wait until we were not to be disturbed," Ka'el said. "Then we would be able to talk properly . . .Doppelganger."

Cygnus stiffened, the word cutting deeply through her.

"Yes, spirit . . .I know your true name as surely as you know mine."

Cygnus turned her back on him, white-gloved fists clenched in anger.

"I meant no offense."

"You offended my entire race millennia ago, Traitor," she hissed. "Locked us away from this world, from our children, from our home. Stranded us in nothingness."

"This world was the home of my people," Ka'el responded. "You attempted to force your way through. If our positions were reversed . . .would you not have fought back against our encroaching on your world?"

"I don't know," Cygnus responded. Her hand went to her sword. "All I remember is the horrible feeling of being locked away, torn from this world. We belonged here . . .we were as connected to it in our way as you were. To be torn away, forever . . . It bred such . . .anger in my kind. Our rage against you and the other races became almost sacred. All those years we tried so hard to find a way through, knowing the Great Traitor was on the other side and if we could find him . . .we could fulfil our vow of vengeance."

She drew her sword, pointing the tip at Ka'el's neck.

"You intend to fulfil that vow, now?"

Cygnus bit her bottom lip, bracing herself to run her sword through his throat.

"I . . .always thought I would. The spirits have often dreamt of what they would do to you were they in my place right now."

Ka'el looked into her eyes. He seemed to be quite at ease with himself, despite the threatening point of the blade pressing against his windpipe.

"If you believe, and I mean truly believe, that my death will settle the feud between the spirits and the people I protect, then my life is yours to take," Ka'el said. "If you think that one more death will balance things. But my blood must be the last ever spilled between us."

Cygnus' eyes narrowed. "Stop taunting me."

"I would never do that," Ka'el said. "I only ask that my death is the finish of it, that with the death of the Great Traitor, you and the other spirits live with my children in peace."

Cygnus gripped the hilt of her sword tighter. Her control of the wind-spirit within her blade was slipping slightly, and the previously balmy summer-like wind had suddenly become colder and was blowing harder.

"We're taught to hate all of you," she said, her voice tight with anger and confusion. "Youíre on our world, after all. You stole our home. And because youíre not spirits, you're . . .less than we are. Killing you should be like your kind swatting an insect. Easy. Justified."

"Is that what you believe?" Ka'el asked.

"I . . .donít know."

"Donít avoid the question. Is it what you truly believe?" Ka'el said. "Because if it is, considering all you've seen in the few days you have been among us, of how my children feel, how they hurt, and how very much they are like you . . .then nothing I say, or nothing I've seen will convince you now."

"Youíre trying to confuse me!"

"You were already confused," Ka'el said. "It was so easy to hate an Angel, or a Human, a Dragon, or even the Great Traitor himself, wasn't it? Until you met them, of course. Until they called you friend. Never knowing what you truly are, never knowing that you were told that they were all sub-creatures that you were destined to annihilate to settle a score older than time itself. Never knowing how much alike your races actually were. This is truth, Cygnus. You can either run and hide from it . . .or see things as they truly are and decide what you must do."

Cygnus was breathing heavily, the wind positively howling and ice-cold. All her life, she'd been told he and his kind were nothing. Mockeries of the perfect spirit beings they assumed themselves to be. They didn't look like them, so they couldn't reason like them, or feel like them, or hurt like them.

Images flashed behind her eyes. Liandra suffering Macabro's betrayal, Darken's pain over what had happened to his sister, and Liandra and Darken's fondness for one another, and Maryna's attempts to befriend her.

They suffered, and hurt, just as her people did. And their pain ran deeper than just their physical beings, just like her own did.

She never knew it was possible.

No one had ever told her.

The wind blew hard, then began to lessen. Cygnus kept her sword on Ka'el throat.

"You called me Cygnus," she said, the tension in her voice cracking with uncertainty. "Not Doppelganger. Tell me why?"

"Doppelganger is the name of your spirit," Ka'el said. "But it is Cygnus who I see before me, who Darken, Liandra and Maryna have befriended, so that is the name I shall use. The rest . . .is not worth speaking about. A spirit and my kind would never see eye to eye, would they? But one person to another . . .that might just lead to understanding."

Cygnus dropped the point of her sword. "You might as well call me a traitor, too," she said. "While you're adding extra names, that is."

"You haven't betrayed anything but your prejudices," Ka'el said. "And in terms of treason, there are worse things to betray."

"Easy for you to say."

"Hardly. After all, who would know more about the nature of treason than the Great Traitor?"

* * *

Maryna watched as Darken finally coaxed Terrane into the Obsidian fields, flying just far enough ahead of him and occasionally striking him hard enough to anger him and urge him forward. Terrane was more than obliging, of course, giving chase through the Fields, stopping only occasionally to swipe at Darken with his fists or kick him with his hooves.

Maryna winced at the sound of Terrane's hooves piledriving through the volcanic glass. They were close enough for Maryna to move a bit closer to the action. This, she did tentatively, keeping well away from Terrane as she took her position behind Darken. Nervously, she traced the pattern of the seal in the air again, just to make sure she knew it by heart.

She was ready. Now it was just a matter of waiting for the right moment.

Darken struck Terrane across the face with the blade of his Blackfang, soaring into the skies, just narrowly missing Terrane's arms swinging in to crush him where he'd been. But by the time the Beast had done that, Darken was behind him, driving the point of the Blackfang into his neck.

Terrane winced, turning its upper torso and trying to strike at Darken with its elbow. Before, Darken had escaped its grasp by studying its body language, anticipating its response and dodging just in the nick of time. All the better to antagonize it and draw it deeper into the Obsidian Fields.

However, all things get lucky eventually, and Terrane caught Darken with his wild elbow strike, knocking Darken off balance and into the grasp of Terrane's other fist. The Beast grasped him around his foot and, as if cracking a whip, smashed him into the ground, sending shards of black glass into the sky as he hit the ground.

"DARKEN!" Maryna cried. His Blackfang clattered to the ground next to him. Terrane stalked forward tentatively, almost as if it were uncertain his fallen opponent was actually incapacitated.

Maryna gave her next move all of a second's thought and flew at top speed towards them.

I know Darken wanted me to stay out of the fight until it was time to seal it, she thought. But he's just as necessary to destroying this thing as I am.

Maryna landed unsteadily, her white boots wobbling on the uneven glassy surface. Terrane had advanced to a trot now, a little more confident that he could deliver the killing blow than he had been a second before.

I couldnít even see him when he struck down Darken, so I doubt I stand much of a chance this close in, she thought, snaking her arms under Darken, gently lifting him off the ground and taking care not to snag him in the jagged glass and hurt him any more than he was already. Terrane drew closer, looming against the red skies as Maryna tried to pull Darken up to his feet and reach for his Blackfang, which she was desperately trying to slide closer to her with her foot.

Oh no, she thought, pulling hard and huffing and puffing as she did so. Darken, you weigh a TON.

Terrane reared back on his hind hooves and rose up, ready to crush them between his front legs. Maryna took a deep breath and stretched her wings out, pulling with all the strength she could muster to get the two of them into the sky.

She shut her eyes and beat her wings. There was another sound of obsidian tinkling and the sound of Terrane's hooves smashing into the crater it had left Darken in.

Maryna opened her eyes nervously, fearing the worst.

She blinked as the shock of what she'd done sank in. She'd made it--she was carrying Darken--slowly--through the Obsidian Fields. Maryna flew as fast as she could, her arms groaning with pain as she attempted to carry Darken as far away from the Beast as she could manage.

Apparently, that wasn't going to be all that far. Darken was dead weight at the moment, and Maryna wasn't the strongest Angel who'd even been. The best she could manage was a wavering flight path just a few feet above the ground, and that was, at best, a temporary solution.

Because she was getting tired, and Terrane wasn't.

And he was getting closer.

Well, we're not much good at this sort of thing after all, are we Darken? Maryna thought. After all, everything depended on you doing your part when we got here and giving me the chance to seal the Beast.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THAT IF YOU'RE UNCONCIOUS, CAN WE?

Maryna tried to rise a bit higher in the air, forcing herself to get a grip on the situation. The muscles in her arms burned as she kept on trying to carry Darken, her efforts powered more by desperation than her already-exhausted reserves of strength.

All right, all right, Maryna thought, forcing herself to keep calm and ignore the pain for a few seconds. Think--I'm not a fighter like Darken--there's not much I can really do. In all my studying, I never gave much serious thought to defending myself.

Seems a little shortsighted, really, given the circumstances.

Darken might have a chance, if I can heal him, she thought. But I canít do that with the Beast breathing down my neck. I have to buy myself some time . . .at least a minute. That'd give me time to heal Darken . . .at least a little, maybe enough to wake him up.

But how? How do I get that minute? I donít even have a weapon--Darken's is back there. Magic? I only know a little--most of it is the seals Ka'el taught me, a few healing spells I learned back at . . .

Wait.

During her more idle hours studying in the Angels royal library she'd taken to the studying of magic--it was her big obsession before the mystery of the Spheres had beckoned her. She'd never progressed very far beyond the rudiments--healing spells, a few others, but she'd quite avidly studied one more advanced spell.

The Shining Arrow.

She couldnít remember what had drawn her more to it--the name or how the effect had been described in the texts. And she'd tried her best to learn how to create it, only to find herself held back by two things.

One, there was no place in the Royal Court to practice an extremely powerful and incredibly destructive spell without getting in serious trouble, and two, she hadnít been strong enough to summon the magical energies necessary.

But that was before Ka'el taught me the seals, she thought. Maybe now I can.

It's all I can think to try right now, at any rate.

She set Darken down as gently as she could manage, which under the circumstances wasn't much. She looked him over. It looked bad--he was cut pretty badly from being slammed face-first into the volcanic glass, never mind the potential internal injuries.

She touched his face for a moment, looking at him. Behind her, Terrane's hoofbeats pounded closer.

With any luck, you'll be back up to your feet to help me in a minute, Maryna said, smiling at him. She rose to her feet, turning to face the beast.

If youíre not, though . . .at least I'll be spared dying of embarrassment in front of you.

Maryna forced her fear and her exhaustion from her mind, tapping into the magical energies within herself, and using those to draw even more energies to herself. She brought her arms together in front of herself, palms closed, pointed towards the advancing Beast.

The ground underneath her shook as Terrane drew closer, but she resolutely forced it from her mind. There could be nothing, now, nothing except for her, the magic within her, and the shape she had to force it into.

She drew one of her arms backward. Brilliant silver energy arched from the arm she kept extended, connected to a straight-line beam of energy that ran from one hand to the other.

She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. Terrane was so close now; so huge he seemed to blot out everything else. Maryna willed more energy into the point where the two lines of energy converged, concentrating the power into one precise point.

She did this despite the burning of her muscles, the minor injuries, and the fear that, along with the seemingly-boiling air of the Sphere, seemed to make breathing especially difficult for her.

It couldnít touch her now.

She let the Shining Arrow loose, the arc of energy folding into the "arrow" and rocketing towards its target. It struck the Beast full on, silver lighting arcing all over its body and sending it to the ground.

Maryna watched as the Beast collapsed under the force of the strike. She felt if she'd tried to move at this moment, she'd fall over unconscious, but it didnít matter. The fact that she'd managed to invoke the Shining Arrow, never mind hit anything with it, was impressive enough.

How about that? I guess I am a little stronger now, she thought with a satisfied smile.

"I did it," she said under her breath. "I DID IT! Darken, did you see--"

"Oh."

She sighed. As much as she would have liked for a moment or two to enjoy her small victory, she had neither the time nor the audience for that.

Yet.

What she did have was maybe a minute or so before Terrane got back to his feet and this started all over again.

Quietly, she tapped back into the magic energy she'd summoned only seconds before, drawing it towards her hands and reaching for Darken.

* * *

"Alecto," a voice called out from behind her.

She ignored it, at first--after all, whoever had called her, it didnít seem very urgent, and besides which, she had a detachment of Royal Guards to deploy to guard the city.

The creature that had lain waste to so many cities and ships was coming, there was no more doubt, and nothing to delay it. A day, maybe two, and it would be here at the city gates.

"Alecto, I must speak with you."

She'd decided the best way to address that oncoming danger was to ignore it. There was too much to do--buildings had to be fortified, citizens evacuated, defenses manned--to surrender to panic at the moment, so to better motivate her people, she'd encouraged them to focus on the process as an isolated thing.

"In a minute," she said, flicking a look over her shoulder at the now somewhat annoying voice behind her. She pointed out several buildings on a city map to red-robed Seraphim standing beside her, explaining in quick and muted tones his respective duties.

"Alecto--"

"What is it?" She said, turning on her heel to face her impatient and heretofore faceless antagonist. Upon seeing him, she was suddenly mortified. Had she been paying more attention, she might have recognized his voice a bit more readily.

"I need to speak with you, as I said," Sachiel said.

"O-of course, my Lord," Alecto said, drawing herself to attention as much because of the Prince's station and her own embarrassment forcing her into familiar patterns. "Forgive my tone--we're fortifying the city in anticipation of the attack, you see, and . . ."

"It's all right, Alecto," Sachiel said. "We're all doing are part, and I can understand why tempers might be a little frayed. I've done a bit of sniping myself today."

"I . . .see," Alecto said, brushing her hair off her shoulder. "What can I do for you. My Lord?"

Sachiel's eyes flitted back and forth to the Seraphim around them. "Uh, look," he began. "Is there somewhere we might discuss this in private?"

"Of course," Alecto said, waving him off into a small alcove. "We can speak in my office."

"Thank you."

Sachiel entered the small and somewhat claustrophobic room first, studying the few mementos that Alecto had deigned to put up on the wall. Alecto followed in behind him, taking care to follow protocol with every move she made.

"Better?"

Sachiel nodded.

"What can I do for you, my Lord?" Alecto asked.

Sachiel looked down at the floor. "I need a favor, and I'm absolutely certain you wonít like it."

"Whether I like it or not doesnít enter into it," Alecto said. "I, and my people are yours to command, my Lo--"

"I want you to accompany me to Deiyara," Sachiel said. "I want you to help me find Maryna and bring her back here."

"You can't be serious," Alecto said, wincing as she realized in her anger she'd meant to keep that thought to herself.

"I'm quite serious, Alecto," Sachiel said.

"My Lord," Alecto began. "She made her choice, and despite the fact that she's long overdue, with the current state of emergency, I canít spare the time or--"

"Oh yes, you can," Sachiel said. "You see, after we'd talked before, I made a study of our laws, figuring that if I were going to enlist your help, Iíd need a sound legal footing to persuade you. There's a law about preserving the continuity of the royal line in a state of emergency . . .let me see if I remember it: "In a time of crisis, the direct royal line of succession must be preserved." Well . . .I'm here, but my consort is not. And if there's going to be a future for my family . . .well, I'm pretty sure we're a matched set. Without us, there wonít be any future generations."

Alecto grimaced. "Youíre using the letter of the law to defeat the spirit of it," she replied. "The law is supposed to provide for the protection of all blood relations of the royal line, not consorts."

"Maybe I am," Sachiel said. "But in case legality didnít persuade you, I have a follow-up argument: If you donít come with me, I'll go myself. Alone, if I have to."

"My prince, that is completely out of the question," Alecto said. "You canít possibly--"

"Look," Sachiel said, his voice tightening. He'd hoped his opening gambits would persuade her, but he was tired of dancing around it. "We're a day from something out there coming to this city and destroying us all. The only idea I could come up with got shouted down, and all anyone says to me now is "we'll keep you safe, my Lord. You wonít have to do anything." But I'm through with that, I'm tired of waiting.

"I have to do something, Alecto. Tomorrow my city may be in flames, and the only person I care about is a world away. If we're all doomed, Iíd like to do something, try to save someone before the end--"

"--there's no guarantee of that, my Lord," Alecto interjected. "We may yet prevail. Besides which . . .you'll forgive me for saying so, but Maryna may be safer where she is. It might be a mistake to bring her back here and put her in harm's way."

"Her place is here," Sachiel said.

"She thought otherwise, if her eagerness to leave is any indication."

"She doesnít know this is happening," Sachiel countered. "I donít think she would have left had she known. And she wouldnít stay away. Her home is here, Alecto . . .she wouldn't stay away just to save herself."

"Then why did she leave it in the first place?"

"People can leave home with every intention of coming back," Sachiel said. He eyed her curiously. "I'm surprised you donít understand that."

"This is the only home I've ever had, my Lord" Alecto said. "I've never thought of abandoning it. Everything I've ever wanted is here--my life, my work, family . . .everything. So no, I'm afraid I donít understand the impulse to leave it."

Sachiel sighed. "I'd hoped I could persuade you--if not with laws, then with duty, and then just by begging you to help," he said. "Since none of those have worked, I guess I'm going alone."

"You will not go alone," Alecto said. She took a deep breath, that despite her efforts to cover her true feelings, still seemed like a sigh of exasperation. "As much as I may dislike Maryna and as foolhardy an idea as this is, especially under the current circumstances, I will go with you. If only to protect you and that annoying Cyclade woman from your own worst impulses."

"Thank you, Alecto. I--"

"There is a condition, my Lord," Alecto said. "We search for half a day--no more. I will not abandon our defense of the city for longer than that. When that monster comes, I will need every soldier I have to protect our people. So, succeed or fail, we will be here when the time comes."

"Agreed," Sachiel said.

"Good," Alecto said. "I'll assemble a squad of Seraphim for the search. We'll leave in one hour's time, my Lord."

* * *

"Darken, wake up."

Darken groaned, the very act of opening his eyes both excruciatingly painful and a phenomenal exertion. He tried to take a breath and found it equally as difficult, partly because his ribs ached so much and partly because the air was so thin and so hot.

"Darken, come on, you have to wake up."

The voice calling to him seemed like it was coming from miles away. Darken fought the confusion and pain, forcing himself back to clarity as if he were climbing hand over hand towards it. Gradually his eyes focused on Maryna, who stood over him, shaking him awake.

"M-maryna, what's . . ."

"Get ready to fly, Darken."

"I canít I . . ."

"Darken, he's coming."

Quickly, the last of the cobwebs fell away.

The Beast, he thought. Must have got lucky and sucker-punched me. I feel like I've been out for days.

He could see the blurry black and red shape of the Beast stomping towards him as he dragged himself to his feet. From the glass grinding under his feet, he could tell they'd made it to the Obsidian Fields, but just barely. Maryna looked exhausted, he'd just come to, and his weapon was gone.

And the Beast was charging towards them, its hooves churning the ground as it screamed towards them.

"Darken, what'll we do?"

"Get behind me," he said. "Take off and get ready to seal him. I'll . . .keep him busy."

"The last time you tried that, he nearly killed you."

"Yeah. I remember that part," Darken said. "Trouble is, I donít have any other ideas and no time to come up with anything better. MOVE!"

Maryna took to the sky and Darken followed, his wings beating frantically as he soared into the skies. He climbed higher and higher, well out of the reach of the Beast as he looked around him, getting his bearings.

Behind him, a volcano belched lava and ash into the sky. From the way the land sloped into the Obsidian Fields, this was the source of the glassy desert on which he and Maryna found themselves, and from the way the Beast carefully stepped on the glass deposits, there were several hollow areas beneath the shelf of glass on which it walked.

Perfect, he thought, calming himself and ignoring the pain that surged through him as he concentrated, summoning the magic energies within him and opening a connection to the energy beyond him.

He descended a little, floating gently back towards the volcano. He could feel the power surging within him. It seemed to come easier, and more than that it felt different. Purer, somehow.

And was it healing him as he concentrated it? How was that possible?

He put it out of his mind. At the moment, he had to focus on the task at hand. A task that would take every iota of power he could muster and all he could borrow, too.

Come on, he thought, extending his arm towards the Beast and clenching his fist, willing the power within himself to coalesce there. His brow furrowed in concentration, his hand burning with the power gathered within it, waiting for Terrane to come closer.

Then, as easily as his brow relaxed, he let go. A column of brilliant blue energy erupted from his arm, so powerful Darken had to brace himself with his other arm. The beam struck true, boring a hole into the ground underneath Terrane. The glassy floor pulverized under the power of his onslaught, knocking the Beast off its hooves and into the improvised ravine.

Once he'd dug the ravine, Darken turned the beam on Terrane, pressing him into the ravine with column of force. Darken took a deep breath, carefully partitioning the forces within him and sending a fraction of them to his other hand.

He extended this hand behind him, and another, smaller column of force sheared from the ravine to the slope of the volcano, then bored deep enough to tap a vein of magma within the fiery mountain. The white-hot liquid burst through the rock, burbling forth and running into the freshly dug canal Darken had prepared for it.

As the white-hot liquid flowed into the ravine, covering the wildly thrashing Terrane, Darken willed the beam of energy to keep the Beast pressed against the floor of the ravine as the lava poured in on it. Darken felt sweat pouring off his brow as he willed himself to keep up the pressure for as long as he could.

Finally, he shut off the beam, but not the energies within himself. Digging the ravine and pouring the lava in had been the easy part--a part he'd borrowed from Grune's strategy.

Grune's initial scheme to trap the beast in the lava failed because he couldn't immobilize it long enough for the lava to harden into rock, Darken thought. But I can. If I can move fast enough.

He flew quickly down to the edge of the ravine. The Beast was treading water, trying to get its feet planted and leap free of the trap. In a handful of seconds, all would be lost.

Darken silently hoped he was as strong as he needed to be to achieve this and summoned the power within in him, focusing it in his hands as he landed on the ground. The heat was so intense it threatened to burn his clothing, but he ignored it, opening his arms wide for a moment, drawing energy from within and drawing energy away from the burning pool.

There was a brilliant blue-white flash as Darken fell to his knees, slamming his hands into the ground. He willed the energies within him into the ground, through the land, through the lava, through the Beast.

And he willed them to freeze.

In an instant, the heat was gone.

Darken squinted, looking with hesitation on what he'd done.

Sure enough, it had worked. The formerly bubbling pool of lava that had filled the ravine had hardened into rock, and Terrane was trapped, the monster's arms thrashing about trying to pull itself free of the trap.

Darken got to his feet, a little less steadily than he'd have liked.

I did it, he thought, breathing heavily. I . . .canít believe it. I froze the entire ravine, but . . .how? I knew how to do it, but I didn't think I was that powerful.

How did I manage to do it?

And why did it seem so . . .easy?

His mind flashed back to the power within him, how easily he'd gathered it and bent it to his will. Clearly, there was something going on with him, or more accurately within him, which he didn't understand.

But there was no time to go ponder it. In a few moments, the cold he'd generated would give way to Ladon's natural heat, and soon enough, the Beast would learn how to pound his way free of the ravine and they'd lose him. Now was the time to act.

"Maryna!" Darken called.

Maryna swooped into view, flying in from well behind the ravine.

"Where have you been?" Darken asked. "I meant for you to stay away from him, but keep close."
"I had something I had to get for you," Maryna shouted, tossing something down to him. Darken reached out and instinctively grabbed it. A smile crossed his lips when he realized what it was.

The Blackfang. I must have dropped it.

"Thanks," he said, smiling at her as she descended.

Maryna landed next to him, nervously eyeing the Beast, trapped up to his waist in stone.

"Is it time?"

"It's time. Are you ready?"

Maryna nodded. "I hope I've got this right."

"You hope?"

Maryna looked at him and Darken smiled.

"You can do it," he said. "I know you can."

Maryna took to the skies again, flying up to face the Beast. It reached for her as she hovered a few feet away. For a moment, she felt afraid. Afraid the Beast would escape and kill her; afraid she'd fail to seal it.

Then she remembered. She'd already proven she was stronger than she knew she could be, and whether or not anyone had seen it, she knew.

And that was enough.

She summoned the energies within her, tracing a wide circle in full view of the Beast. Tracing her movements, a brilliant white-silver circle of energy formed between her and the Beast, pulsing with energy.

Here we go.

She extended her hand, quickly tracing the pattern she'd been practicing all day within the circle, lines of energy following the path of her fingers within the circle.

All the way around, down, bottom left, upper right, upper left, lower right.

The circle pulsed with energy and there was a sound like a thunderclap as the seal locked into place. Through the pulsing light Maryna saw the Beast go slack, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

I did it, she thought. I canít believe it!

I knew practicing that pattern would pay off.

Maryna dropped back, eyeing the Beast as she moved out of the way. She'd done her part. The spirit within the Beast had been sealed away.

Now the machine that housed it had to be destroyed.

As if in answer to that, Darken came flying in, his body wreathed in a strange blue flame, as he flew towards the creature. There was another flash of light as he flew through the seal, and an even brighter one as he tore into the Beast.

There was a tremendous explosion, and Terrane was no more.

Maryna shielded her eyes from the flash of the explosion, but the force of it was not so easily diverted. She felt herself tumble through the air, eyes still shut tight against the flash of the explosion.

Then something seemed to steady her, and her wild flight suddenly became an easy, gentle descent to the ground below.

She opened her eyes nervously. Sure enough the Beast was gone. Except for the ruined remnants of his torso that remained still embedded in the ravine, there was no sign of him.

Which meant Maryna was free to concentrate on the other pressing matter. Darken was cradling her in his arms. Clearly he'd stopped her from tumbling down to the ground.

She felt a warm blush spread across her cheeks as she looked up at him. They both looked grimy, bruised and battered, but they'd done it. The Beast was destroyed, and they were safe in each other's arms.

I hadnít intended that part, she thought, squirming a bit and trying to hide her blushing face from Darken.

But . . .I can't say as I mind right now.

"Darken?"

Darken blinked, looking down at her.

"We won, didnít we?"

He nodded. "We've saved the Dragons and destroyed the Beast."

"An Angel, saving Dragons," Maryna muttered. "That ought to give Grune fits."

"It's his nature," Darken said. "He can be a prickly before you get to know him."

"So . . .we're heroes now?"

Darken raised an eyebrow. "I guess so. We've certainly done some good today. If that's heroic, I guess we qualify."

"Wonderful," Maryna said, shifting in his arms, trying to get comfortable, or at least as comfortable as she could manage under the circumstances. She rested her head against chest, closing her eyes and trying to relax, musing as she did so whether or not heroes felt as beat up and bone tired as she did right now.



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