Chapter 15: The Way the Wind Blows

"I believe this belongs to you."

Vertiga didn't move, hoping that if she ignored the familiar voice behind her they'd leave her alone. She'd come here to get away from Kirone, from Gavelon, and from the plots she seemed to alternately find herself instigating or enmeshed in.

Unfortunately, I seem to drag them behind me wherever I go, she thought.

She heard the steady breathing behind her and felt the other person's presence standing a couple feet away from her, the two of them determined in their own way to perpetuate their silent stubbornness.

Her temper flared a bit, and Vertiga laid one hand on the hilt of her sword. Yes, that was one way to break the stalemate and be left in peace. Draw the sword and burn him to ashes. But as tempting as it was, she found her heart wasn't quite in it.

So she waited.

Minutes passed. Finally, whether due to her own impatience or the silent tension in the air she relented and turned to face Gavelon, who stood, weaponless, holding something in his hand.

It was the jewel she'd pulled from her armor. Supposedly it was a "minder"--meant to prevent Gavelon from attacking Kirone or otherwise causing trouble. The mind could force him to leave her in peace, or even force him to take his own head off with his bare hands.

It could have, that is, had it not been a lie on Vertiga's part.

"My armor rejected it an hour ago," he said finally. "Then I went to look for you, but the others said you'd left."

"Yes," Vertiga said; her eyes narrow angry slits. "I wanted to be alone. Obviously, that hasnít quite worked out the way I wanted it to."

"I thought it best we speak alone," Gavelon said. "So it suits my purposes well. I know your stunt with "minder" was a ruse, to keep me alive a little longer, and now that we both know the truth about that bit of deception, I have only one question. Then I will leave you in peace."

"What?" Vertiga said.

"Not what," Gavelon corrected. "Why? Why did you save my life? When we first met, you made your intentions to exterminate my people blatant. You have, in fact, eliminated every member of my command that remained in my service since you arrived. Why save my life?"

"Why not?"

"That is not an answer."

"It may not be," Vertiga said. "But it's as good as you're going to get from me. But if you need something else, then, you'll have to settle for this: You owe me one. All right? Now go away."

Gavelon pondered her answer for a moment, then looked at her. Even for an old soldier such as himself, his expression was grave.

"I didnít ask for your help," he said.

"It suits my purpose to have you around. For now." Vertiga said. There was a cold undercurrent to her last words, and she hoped Gavelon caught the warning underneath them. Anger stirred deep inside her, belying the flat, impassive words she spoke. She quietly wondered about whether or not speaking the truth at the heart of her anger would be a good thing or not, not matter how much she wanted to.

So tempting to say what I really want to say to him, she thought. To spit the words in his face.

"Your purpose. And when this "purpose" is served . . .I can assume you'll murder me, as you did my men?"

"Yes," Vertiga said. "You do what I tell you, you live a little longer, but make no mistake--I vowed Iíd kill every last one of you and I will. It's no more than you deserve."

She took a deep breath. As much as she'd tried to hold back from throwing it in his face, something in her wouldnít allow her to stop herself.

Gavelon absorbed her honesty with his usual stoicism. After all, it was no great surprise--he'd seen her in action; seen her brutally destroy his men as thoughtlessly as a child would swat an insect, and seen the malicious glee on her face when she'd stood over their remains.

For her to relent, even temporarily, must have been like stopping the sun in the sky, he thought.

"At least you told me the truth," Gavelon said. If he was angry about what she'd said, his tone never betrayed it. "And what exactly is my incentive to help you or serve you, knowing this?"

"Because I'm all that stands between Kirone turning you into another one of those monsters," Vertiga said.

"Small consolation. I had made peace with the idea that she would."

"If you were, why didnít you kill yourself?" Vertiga said, her voice growing tighter with anger. "Or can you bloodsuckers only hurt other people?"

"Because, before I died, I wanted justice for my men. I owed them that, as their captain," Gavelon said. "They were good soldiers--"

"Your men are butchers," Vertiga said. "You're a butcher. Your whole damned race . . .they're all murdering demons. Your men killed my family, and nearly killed me. Then you followed it up by killing everyone in this village."

"I gave no orders to them to kill anyone," Gavelon said. "They exceeded my authority--"

"Your men are guilty," Vertiga said, biting back the hate that roared through her mind like wildfire. "Youíre all guilty, as far as I'm concerned. Not just your men, or you for commanding them . . .every vampire. Every single one. Do you understand?"

She gestured to the wandering fading spirits that shuffled silently through the streets.

"Look what you did to these people! Look what you did to . . .to . . ."

. . .to me, she added silently.

She turned away from him again. "So . . .you know how I feel, now," she said. "And you know I had my reasons for saving you. They may not make sense, but it's all you have, isnít it? So you can join me and stay alive a little longer, or . . ."

". . .or I can continue to serve Kirone, knowing I live on as I am solely at her whim," Gavelon said. "Not much of a choice. But there's a third option neither of you have considered."

"Oh?"

"I will not choose," Gavelon said, closing his hands around the object in his palm. "I will serve my people as I pledged until my death. If my choices are between a human who has given herself to a maddening hatred, or one of my own who sees me as disposable . . .I will remain true to myself."

Vantiga opened his hand again, flicking the jewel at her feet. He stared at the back of her head for a time, waiting for her response to this calculated gesture of disrespect.

Vertiga's hand tightened on her sword. The smartest thing to do would be to cut him down right here and now. He could tell Kirone that Vertiga intended to betray her. Turning Vertiga over would be the surest way to get back in her good graces, after all.

Draw the sword, she thought. He'll never be able to counter your speed, or the power the sword has. Even though it's diminished . . .you could still destroy him.

He wouldnít even have time to scream.

Vertiga closed her eyes, trying to get control of herself. The rage she'd carried inside her since the assault on her home sometimes took hold with such force that she couldn't seem to think clearly. Or speak. Or even to breathe. Like she had no control over herself anymore, but something within her did.

Whatever that was, it didnít mind being out of control. If anything, it seemed to relish it and embrace it wholeheartedly.

That dichotomy was more terrifying than anything to her.

No, she thought, feeling herself beginning to still and the anger within quieting just enough to where she could think again.

No. Not now. There's another way to do this.

"Gavelon," she said quietly. "There's something you donít know. Kirone's taking the Beast to your people's home sphere. She plans to exterminate the vampires. Not just the ones in power . . .all of them."

Gavelon felt as though he'd been struck. The part of him that had always been a patriot--for his emperor and for his race--wanted to shout, to deny it vehemently.

Then he thought of his men. His command. His comrades who had been so callously changed by Kirone and her servant, twisted until there was nothing he could recognize within them. She'd always treated him and his men with contempt--useful to a point, but generally superfluous and expendable.

But when she'd changed them . . .it was as if her contempt for them was made real. Changed them until there was no sign they'd been vampires. Taken even the dignity of death in service to our people from them. And if she would do this to soldiers pledged to her service . . .what of the lower classes?

He closed his eyes.

Is that our future, then?

I'd accepted that it would be my destiny but . . .our people. Betrayed by one who rules them.

Can I go on serving my people, to the last moment if I were to allow this? How could I claim to serve my people and my empire while aiding and abetting their extinction?

"Nothing to say that?"

"It changes nothing," Gavelon lied. "My destiny is what it is, and I am resigned to it. I will do my duty, and serve my people."

"Your people are as good as dead," Vertiga said. "Don't you understand? Whether it's Kirone or me . . .the end's going to be the same. Death. For all of you. Do you really want to be the only vampire left?"

"I already am."

He spared her one last look before turning on his heel to leave. Before he took a first step, however, he looked over his shoulder at Vertiga.

"Since you saved me, I will offer you this," he began. "Whenever you decide to take your revenge on me . . .I won't resist."

"Not much of a bargain. You and I both know you canít resist my power, Gavelon."

Gavelon mused on that for a second. "No," he said. "I certainly cannot. I am a practical enough officer to admit when I am overmatched.

"But then . . .I am growing used to being trapped between forces I can neither fully comprehend nor hope to match. It is a hopeless battle, and one I will lose.

"But one I must fight, regardless."

With that, he trudged off. Vertiga kept an eye on him until he vanished out of sight, her gaze returning to the ghostly shades who continued to shuffle along through the streets, stupidly plodding along in memories of the lives they'd led.

Lives that Kirone had destroyed without a thought, and, even more cruelly, trapped them in. The best they could hope for would be, eventually, eventually to fade away.

Some of them already had. In the time since Vertiga began watching them, she'd seen the older ones had gone first--gradually their shade-forms had grown lighter and lighter and finally dissolved into nothingness.

Like Gavelon said-- they were caught in the middle of something they couldn't comprehend and couldn't fight, and the forces that had slain them hadnít given them a second thought.

Like swatting sand flies, Vertiga thought.

Vertiga had a lot in common with these people . . .or these ghosts that had been people.

Has it only been a little while since all this happened? Vertiga thought, staring at the drifting shades. It seems like ages ago since I left home.

Home. She strained to remember it, as if it had all been a dream and she was trying to hold on to it after she'd awakened. I haven't even thought about it for ages. Haven't thought anything for ages, it feels like.

Nothing, except getting those vampires and making them pay for what they did to me.

Nothing else seemed important, except that.

It had gone so easily, at the start. Hunt the vampires down, join with Kirone and bide her time, waiting for the moment to finish them all off and take her revenge. So simple and clear-cut.

What changed?

The voice. The voice and the power behind it had driven her, relentlessly forward. It had been incredible--she'd never been hurt, or if she had, she hadnít felt it.

It was all a matter of doing what the voice said. However hateful and impatient it could be at times.

Now the voice was gone, and some of the power was gone. Worse still, all of her direction had gone too. Saving Gavelon hadnít been some sort of master plan, no matter what she'd told Gavelon. She was making it up as she went along, because it was all she knew to do. Because without the voice, the power, and the direction it provided she felt . . .adrift.

Inside and out, she thought. The girl I was . . . at home . . .feels like a different person to me. I remember that life, I remember her, but I donít recognize her. And I donít recognize myself in her anymore.

Sometimes I wonder if she . . .I . . . died on the floor of my father's foundry.

But if she's gone . . .then what am I?

Besides scared and confused, I mean.

One of the shades caught her eye--the one she'd seen looking right at her before. As he passed, he turned and looked at her again, and this time she devoted her full attention to the look he gave her.

A shiver went through her as she realized it was a look of recognition, as if he knew who she was.

How? Vertiga wondered. I'd never come to this village before now, but I'd swear he looked at me as if he knew me.

But how could he know me?

I mean, I barely know myself these days.

* * *

Liandra sat at the top of the temple, her fairies resting on her shoulders as they stared out at the forest below and the world beyond her. The usually lush forest was muted by the grainy twilight. In less than an hours time, the sun would be up, but for now, the whole world below her seemed to be indecisive, stuck between night and day.

Being caught between one thing and another was a state of being Liandra could well relate to at the moment. It wasn't only what had happened to her with Macabro, or Darken leaving and returning and leaving and returning--everyone has responsibilities, after all. And change happened whether one wanted it to or not.

As a rule, she didnít fear change, or at least she hadnít thought so. But there was so much of it now, and the one constant in all the inconstancy was that Liandra was often lost in the shuffle.

And everything keeps changing, with or without me, she thought. Everything around me . . .and inside me.

She hadnít told Darken or Ka'el about that last part yet.

A few days ago, Darken pulled me back from the brink, or so he said, she remembered. Neither he nor Ka'el seems to know how he did it, but I didn't turn into a vampire; at least I didnít turn into one like Macabro was. I didnít lose control and attack them trying to feed.

But I have changed--my wings went black, I've grown these fangs, I feel weak during the day sometimes . . .

. . .and I'm hungry. More and more lately. And it never seems to go away no matter how much I eat.

The last part--the hunger--frightened her the most. Would she lose control, like Macabro had? Attack Ka'el or Darken?

So according to them, I'm not a vampire, but everything that's happening to me, everything I feel . . .tells me I am. Maybe not as bad as Macabro was, but . . .if I'm not a vampire then what am I?

What's happening to me?

She sighed. It was a lot to keep to yourself, but Liandra didnít feel as if she had any choice. Too much was happening for everyone else, here, after all--Ka'el with his work in aiding Darken, Darken always leaving, sometimes with Maryna, sometimes not.

Off on his great "destiny," she thought. Saving the Spheres. What are my problems compared to that? Am I just being jealous?

She thought about the conversation she'd had with Ka'el before she'd left to find Darken, a memory that seemed to drift through her thoughts whenever she thought about how she felt.

"Darken has a destiny," she remembered. Then he said I stand outside destiny. And that if I remember that at the right moment, it could save my life.

I've never quite been able to work out what he meant by that. I thought he meant that I wasn't bound by what's intended for Darken. Fine. But I donít have the slightest idea what's intended for me.

I envy Darken sometimes . . .he must never question what he has to do. Probably never wonders whether he's doing the right thing or frets about his place in the Sphere.

Spheres, she corrected herself with a sigh.

Liandra considered her options for a moment as she began to feel the warming rays of the sun on her arms. She felt it sinking deeper, past her skin, causing the muscles under her skin to tire and begin to ache slightly.

I stand outside destiny, she thought. But whose? And where do I stand, really? I think I need to find out just where that is.

* * *

Maryna woke early with the sun, the first rays of which reached tentatively through her window. She found herself coming to gradually; the sluggishness was a legacy of the battle with Terrane. Even something as simple as scratching one of her legs with her toes seemed the equal of moving a mountain.

She took a deep breath and tried to get her bearings. How could she be this exhausted? She'd slept for hours here in this bed and had to have recovered some of her strength.

Then again, she thought, shifting her body and freeing the wing she'd pinned under herself in the night. I think maybe the bed's part of the problem here.

Being nobly born, Maryna had been accustomed to the finest in everything, even when she hadnít been aware of it herself. Her concept of a bed, cultivated by a lifetime of sleeping on opulent plush beds handcrafted by the finest artisans in Nycheladra, who approached the challenge of building a bed designed to comfortably support an Angel and their wings as both an engineering feat and a means of self-expression.

Ka'el and Darken's notion of a comfortable bed, by contrast, was "something a little soft to lie on. With a blanket."

She sighed, trying to stretch her wings out underneath her, but this did little for her comfort, as it meant having to keep her back arched. Rolling onto her stomach only caused her wings to throw the blanket off herself.

She sighed, finally sitting up more in exasperation than anything else.

Sleeping in seemed to be a challenge she wasn't up to this morning. She sighed, running her fingers through her hair and swinging her legs over the side of the bed, her bare feet settling against the cold stones as she stretched a little.

She blinked slowly, trying to get her bearings as her eyes adjusted to the dimly lit room. Her white boots lay at the foot of the bed, a few feet away, but far enough that it would take a major effort to reach for them now.

She retraced her steps from the previous morning, trying to get a sense of where she was here and now into a bit of a sharper focus.

Let's see, Darken and I went back with Grune to his Sphere, and we fought the Beast, she recalled. Or rather, he chased us until I finally got the seal-spell to work right. Grune invited us back for a celebration with the rest of the Dragons, which as near as I can recall involved a lot of happy shouting and hitting.

Darken made our apologies for leaving early and we came back, here, and I went to sleep.

Yes, that sounds about right.

She put her hands to her face, trying to rub the sleep out of her eyes. Something felt wrong with her face and she stopped, rubbing her fingertips against her forehead and holding her hands up to the sunlight.

Oh, she thought. I'm dirty. I hadnít even thought about it, until now. I guess I had too many other things on my mind before.

She laughed a little, under her breath. If Sachiel could see me now, she mused, reaching for her boots. Her smile faded at the thought of him as she pulled her boots on.

I should go back, she thought. I stayed here longer than I should have. If I'm being honest with myself, I don't really want to leave. There's so much we could learn from Ka'el, and there's so much that we seem to have willfully forgotten.

I'm not at all sure why that is.

She stood up, loosely adjusting her robes around herself. She fastened her Eagle Clasp to the lapel of her robe and shuffled out of the room. Given how far she'd gone over the limit of her stay she probably wouldnít be allowed back here, especially given the feathers she'd ruffled in trying to get here. She realized with a sudden pang of sadness that she'd kept herself from thinking of that fact. Even with the scary moments--Liandra's blindness, fighting the Beast with Darken . . .she was having fun here--having adventures and learning new things.

It was the life she'd dreamt of having back on Nycheladra, and the one that seemed unreachable one back home.

I wonder if it's selfish to want something else? Maryna wondered, stepping out onto the upper mezzanine of the temple and spreading her wings. She pushed off with her feet and ascended into the sky, eyes cast down on the ground below, looking for the break in the tree line that indicated the presence of the river.

I mean, I wouldnít want to stay forever--I do have a home and a family back there, but I just donít know if I have a life back there, at least one I'm at all interested in living.

I suspect they allowed me to come here to get the notion I had another option out of my system. That I'd come here, see there was nothing, and come back and settle into the role I was supposedly born to play.

I donít think Sachiel or I ever realized what would happen if I actually found what I was looking for.

Moments later, she spied she'd been searching the land for--a secluded waterfall that emptied into a small lagoon and banked around, descending in a graceful spiral and coming to rest on a rocky shore on one side of the lagoon.

Have I, though? Maryna pondered, pulling her boots off her feet. Do I want something like this because it's what I actually want, or just because it's not the life waiting for me when I go back?

She undid the sash at her waist, wriggling out of her robes. She stepped out of her clothes, completely naked, her wings folding over her body for a moment as she stepped towards the water. The contrast between the coolness of the nearby water and the warming morning sun felt good on her alabaster skin, good enough to where she decided modesty wasn't a particularly pressing issue and tentatively unfolded her wings, picking her way through the grass and standing beside the water's edge, nervously extending a toe towards the water.

"Ooh!"

Dipping her toe inside, she found the water to be a little colder than she'd imagined. Then she remembered that not all baths were likely to be carefully heated and perfumed like she'd been used to.

Another reminder of her gilded prison.

Like the bed, she would have to settle for what she could get. She took a deep breath and held it as she stepped into the cool, clear water.

She shivered a bit as the water enveloped her completely. Breathing again, she began to gather the water in her hands, running it up and down her arms, splashing it over her face. The water hadn't actually been that cold, but in contrast to Ladon's oppressive volcanic heat it was initially frigid, but ultimately welcome.

The Dragons are more than welcome to live in a climate like that, she thought, dunking her hair into the water. But I think I'd wilt in it. But this . . .this is actually quite nice.

She leaned back, letting the water support her as she floated on her back for a bit. Her wings beat underneath her, gently pulling her along like a leaf on the surface of the water.

Despite her best efforts to focus on the simple pleasures of this moment, her mind drifted back to Sachiel, and also to Darken. It was strange, how each of them seemed to represent the choices she had before her.

Is that because it's easy to match them up like that, or is it because I'm making my choice of life a choice between them?

She had feelings for Sachiel--ever since they were young they'd been together, and being with him felt right. It wasn't the idea of being his betrothed that offended her as much as everything that went with it and what it meant for her.

And on the other side of things, was Darken. Despite their rocky introduction, she found him to be interesting. So protective of those he cared about, so willing to do anything for them. Suspicious at first, but welcoming and trusting once you proved yourself to him. Asking nothing, but willing to give anything he could. So honest and determined to do the right thing.

So cute, in a very strange way.

I wonder . . .what would it be like to be cared for like that?

After Darken had destroyed the Beast, he'd held her in his arms until she felt strong enough to stand. She knew he hadnít meant it as anything save a gesture of support, but she found herself reading more into it despite herself.

Being held like that . . .I knew he'd do whatever he could to protect me. And that felt good.

Would Sachiel go as far for me as Darken would, I wonder?

She frowned, putting her feet back down on the floor of the lagoon.

That's not fair, she cautioned herself. Pitting the two of them against each other, even in your head. Youíre pledged to one, and even if you do like Darken . . .if you asked him, he'd tell you to keep your word to Sachiel.

She sighed, flopping her wet hair over her shoulder and gently squeezing the water out of it as she walked to the shallow end of the lagoon. Her brow was furrowed, willing herself as best she could not to think about Darken, or how much she liked him, or what would happen if maybe, just maybe, she didnít go back . . .

Obviously, not thinking about Darken is not working.

She let the waters still around her for a moment, looking up at the sky and thinking about her options. Unfortunately, all her thoughts seemed to flow back to Darken. Perhaps it was because of her initial attraction, or the time they'd spent together, fighting side by side against the Beast.

More than likely it was the dim awareness that Darken was right there.

Watching her.

Naked, bathing in the lagoon.

"DARKEN!" Maryna gasp-shrieked, her wings sloshing through the water as she wrapped them around herself.

"M-Maryna," Darken stammered. He was standing on the bank of the river, white face flushed with embarrassment. His eyes desperately tried to look away, above, or around her, and when that failed, tried not to stare, keeping his eyes on his boots.

"Youíre, uh . . .you're naked."

"What are you doing here?!"

"Uh . . .looking for you," Darken said, looking up, suddenly remembering why he shouldnít, and looking down again. "I was awake early and I saw you leave and I was afraid . . .uhm . . ."

"What?"

"I was afraid you might leave, before I got a chance to thank you properly, or say goodbye," Darken said. "I mean, I didnít want you to feel like you couldnít come back anytime or anything like that."

Maryna blushed, keeping her wings around herself.

"I wanted to bathe . . .Ladon's kind of gritty if you're not a Dragon, you know," She said, stammering a little. "I . . .you know, kind of wanted to clean up and have some time to myself."

"Oh," Darken said. Despite their mutual embarrassment, Maryna couldnít help but be amused by how boyish Darken was being over this. "I'm sorry. Uh, I can go, if . . ."

"No, it's OK," Maryna said. "After all, you've seen me naked now. Kind of makes keeping secrets from you feel a little strange to me."

"I didnít see anything. I swear I didn't."

Maryna couldnít help herself and began to laugh. Darken looked up warily, his face now completely flushed.

"It's OK Darken," she said. "I was just a little surprised. I didn't mind."

"Uh . . .right," Darken said. "So, uh, if you want me to stick around I could . . .I don't know . . .keep my back to you while you finished and got dressed . . ."

"Why? Is there something wrong with me?" Maryna asked, walking towards him and letting her wings relax a bit.

"Oh no," Darken said. "Not . . .at all."

"Then what?"

"Well . . .youíre naked, and . . ."

"It's the best way I've found it's to get clean," Maryna said, smirking at him. Darken's wings twitched, as if they wanted to cover his head, and he looked so flustered and so beside himself, Maryna found she couldn't resist teasing him just a little.

"Well, actually, since we both got somewhat grimy fighting that Beast, maybe we both should clean up. Together."

"Oh, no . . .I uh, I've bathed already."

Maryna blinked. "Huh?"

"I bathed already this morning," Darken said. "There's a well behind the temple."

Maryna's smirk fell a little. "Well then . . .you could always take another."

Darken blinked. "But I've already had one."

"Darken, I mean . . .together."

"But I've already had mine. You go ahead and finish."

Maryna sighed, quietly amazed at how quickly amusement at Darken's awkwardness had turned to exasperation. Ka'el had taken care of him, trained him for his role in what was to come, given him a sanctuary and a family, after a fashion. But clearly, in all those years the one thing Ka'el had never ever got around to talking to Darken about was women.

"Darken," Maryna said flatly.

Darken was staring at his boots so intently he was almost bending over. He had no particular interest in his footwear--it just seemed the safest direction to look in at the moment.

"Darken."

"Yes?"

"If I say something right now . . .promise not to get upset?"

Darken swallowed. "Go ahead."

"Hand me my robe and turn around," Maryna said with a resigned sigh.

Darken walked over to where her clothes where piled up and handed her the robe, all the time keeping his eyes in any direction but hers. Maryna watched him standing above her, all the time reminding herself that despite Darken's sophistication about some things, in many ways, he'd never been far beyond the Temple or the Sphere in general in his life, and as such, was bound to be naïve about things she took for granted.

That, plus, if I were to drown him right now, I'd doom us all, she thought.

Maryna slipped on her robe, covering herself as she reached for the rest of her clothes. "It's OK," she said. "You can turn around now."

Darken turned around slowly as she pulled on the rest of her clothes. Maryna watched him watching her and blushed a little herself. She smiled a bit and Darken smiled back, blushing and trying very hard to tuck his chin into his chest.

"Youíre a strange one, Darken Blackangel," she said, pulling on her leggings and her boots. Her hair, still a little damp, framed the smile on her face behind a wiry curtain. "I really donít know what to think about you."

"I never thought I was that hard to understand," Darken said.

"Neither did I, but you find ways to catch me by surprise."

"Huh?"

"Nothing."

Darken looked at her, nervously brushing the hair from his eyes and smiling at her. Maryna smiled back, despite wondering exactly what she'd been thinking earlier when the idea of staying with him seemed so appealing.

Either he has a charm I canít put a name to yet, Maryna thought, flipping her hair from her face. Or the idea of returning to palace life is more terrifying than I thought and I'm grasping at straws.

She brushed some dirt and grass of her robes and sat on a nearby rock. "Can I ask you something a little personal, Darken?"

Darken sat on another rock facing her and looked at her. "Sure," he said. "I mean . . .we're keeping no secrets, right?"

"Uh, right," Maryna said, twisting her mouth into something not quite a smile or a frown, with elements of both. "Liandra's friend . . .Darknova. What was he to her?"

Darken looked out at the water, pondering the question. "I suppose," he began, clearly never having giving much thought to the issue before now. "Darknova was her boyfriend . . .though I think she was way too young to have one, really."

"Why?"

Darken shrugged. "I just didnít want her to be in too much of a hurry to grow up, I guess. She should enjoy being young while she can."

"And did you?"

"Ever have a boyfriend?" Darken laughed. "No. I canít say that I have."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it," Maryna said, giggling.

Darken smiled shyly. "I know," he said. "But no . . .I've never had a . . . girlfriend."

"Never?"

Darken blushed. "It never came up," he shrugged.

"Never? But youíre older than I am," Maryna said.

"N-not by much," Darken countered. "I just . . .never have had the chance, you know?"

Maryna smiled. "I guess that makes sense," she said. "There are a lot of things you've done that I never even imaged one could do."

"That's hard for me to imagine, Maryna."

"It's the truth," she said. "In a lot of ways I'm as sheltered as you are. It's just a different kind of shelter, I guess."

"How?"

"Well . . ." Maryna began. She'd felt herself begin to blush and looked down at the ground, her clothes, anything but Darken, because if she had, she'd blush even more. It was while she was staring down the front of her robes she noticed her Eagle's Clasp, still fastened to her robes.

The jewel inside was flashing.

"What is it, Maryna?"

She cradled the Clasp in her hand, staring at it and looking over at Darken's.

"My Clasp," she said. "It's flashing. So is yours, actually. I'm not exactly sure what it means--Ka'el only fixed mine two days ago, after all."

Darken looked down at his and shifted off the rock, spreading his wings out a little.

"It means there's danger close by," he said, his eyes searching for the source of the alert. "We should go."

"Thank heaven it waited until I was dressed," Maryna muttered under her breath. She spread her wings out; shaking what little water still clung to her feathers out as she prepared to fly.

Shadows seemed to swarm above them between the sun and the tree line. Darken could make out, just barely that whatever they were, they were shaped like a winged man's silhouette.

That meant either Dragons or Angels, Darken thought. But the Dragons have no reason to attack us, and neither do the Angels. In any event, the Clasp says trouble. He took to the skies, beating his wings swiftly to rise up to quickly escape them.

Unfortunately, to do that he would have to fly very close to the shadowy swarm, who were circling dangerously close now and beginning to spiral downward against his ascent. Darken pulled his arms and legs close, trying to force himself upward. Two of the shadowy flyers rocketed past him so quick he barely caught sight of them as they swooped past.

Whoever they are, they're using a more aggressive style of flying than I've seen before, he thought, extending his wings out and turning to see if Maryna had followed him out. Dragons canít do anything like that, especially in these skies.

Angels for certain, then?

But Maryna's people are Angels . . .why would they be dangerous?

Before he could explore the matter further, he felt every cell in his body catch fire, the sudden burning pain so sudden and so intense that he couldn't even scream in the face of it. The pain seemed to last forever, though in truth it was over in a few seconds.

A few seconds later, he was plummeting to the ground, stopped roughly in mid-air by the two shadowy figures that had flown past him. They hooked their arms through his and settled him roughly down to the ground. He fell to his knees, vaguely aware of the soft thump of heavy boots in the dirt all around him.

Darken bit back the pain, trying to catch his breath and get his legs under him. He'd been caught so completely by surprise that he'd had no time to brace against the attack, or even see who had attacked him. Until he could, he decided to be cautious, learn what he could while his attackers didn't imagine him to be a threat.

"You didnít have to do that!" Maryna shouted, louder than Darken had ever heard. "He wouldnít have hurt me!"

"How were we to know that?" Another voice. A woman's . . .about Maryna's age, but harder. Colder, somehow. "You vanish for four days, and we find you out here in the company of . . .whatever he is. We had to render him harmless to complete our mission."

"Your mission," Maryna spat. "Of course--you were just doing your duty. I expected you'd say something like that"

"That's right," the female voice retorted. "I have mine, just as you have yours. The difference is, I do mine without question. We had to come and collect you to do yours."

"That's enough," Another voice, now--a man's, about Darken's age. "Maryna, are you all right? What did he do to you?"

"Sachiel, he didn't do anything to me, I was out here of my own free will. What are you doing here?"

"We came to rescue you," Sachiel said. "From how things looked, we got here just in time."

"Just in time to kill a friend of mine?"

"It's all right," Darken groaned. He rose up into a crouch, something very hard and very sharp just inches away from his wings. "I'm not dead. But I think I may have fallen into something sharp."

"Let him up," Alecto said. "Get up, and tell your part in this."

"Nothing to tell," he replied. He rose up, his eyes fixing on the man and woman on either side of Maryna. Surrounding all of them were six or seven armored angels, each dressed in red and blue and each of them pointing their spears very threateningly in Darken's direction.

"Who and what are you supposed to be?" Sachiel asked. Darken could tell from the tenor of his voice and his body language that this "Sachiel," whoever he was, was used to getting an immediate answer to questions like that.

"My name is Darken Blackangel," he replied. "I live in this place. Maryna came here and stayed for a couple of days . . .no harm was intended or done. Believe me--it's nothing worth pointing a weapon at me for. I give you my word--I kept her safe."

Sachiel's red eyes narrowed on Darken. He was angry, that much was obvious to Darken. Also, perplexed and confused--obviously he'd never been to another Sphere before, either.

"Your word doesnít mean much to me," Alecto said. "We'll take you both and learn the truth when we return to our Sphere. Restrain him."

"But I havenít done anything wrong!"

Alecto looked at Darken with a cold, withering, gaze. "Nothing youíd freely admit to at the point of a weapon so soon after being caught, no," she said. "However, if you come with us, and we learn you are innocent, you will be promptly released, once we're satisfied of your innocence."

"Wait a moment," Sachiel interjected. "We only came for Maryna, and she's safe. There's no need to arrest him."

Alecto looked at Sachiel incredulously. "You believe him?"

Sachiel looked back at Darken. "It's obvious to me he's acting like someone who has nothing to hide."

"Perhaps that's only because whatever barbaric customs this Sphere holds celebrate what we would consider criminal," Alecto responded. "Or he was too stupid to effect an escape."

"Alecto, I'm warning you . . ."

"I understand, my Prince, but the law is the law. Besides, I will have to account for our journey to this place in the midst of a state of emergency on our own. I want tangible proof at hand to explain why it was necessary."

"But . . ."

"You wanted this, my Prince," Alecto said, watching as the guards bound Darken's wings and then his hands, two other guards keeping their spears pointed at him at all times. "You put your own needs above your Sphere's and now you will let me do things as I must."

Maryna's eyes began to tear up. "Darken, I'm sorry . . .it's all my fault. Just go with them for right away, OK?"

"I canít exactly get away," he replied, flexing his wings under the binders.

"No," Alecto said, walking up to Darken and snatching the Eagle clasp off of his clothes. "Now you can't."



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