Chapter 16: Trouble & Strife

Cygnus had lost track of how many nights and days she'd seen at this place, and how quiet things got at night. Even the animals in the forest below seemed to quiet down as the darkness set it--instead of the teeming songs she'd heard from the treetops beneath her in the day there was only the occasional screech at this time of night.

She'd had a lot of time to consider it--Cygnus never slept. There was no need to, after all. Despite appearances, she was a spirit, and spirits were always restless. So she'd learned to appreciate both the long nights and long days from her lonely perch outside the temple.

But she was higher now, and no longer alone. Behind her, sitting on a disused altar sat Liandra, wrapped in her now jet-black wings. The glowing silhouettes of her fairies peeked out from her wings, standing on her shoulders and looking out at Cygnus with curiosity and recognition.

She'd have been lying if she said it didnít bother her--it did. No one, except Ka'el and herself knew what she really was. But the longer she looked at the fairies, the more she felt they knew her true nature as well.

How could that not? As they were . . .I used to be.

Cygnus pushed it away, resolving to worry over it another time.

There were more pressing matters now, such as why Liandra was out here with her in the darkness, rather than asleep in her bed. Cygnus had barely seen her that day, and had only spoken to her about an hour ago, as night began to set.

"You didn't say why you decided to join me out here tonight," Cygnus said, turning to Liandra.

"I'm . . .I'm more comfortable out here now," Liandra said, her voice quiet and guarded. "In the dark, I mean."

"Is that how you feel or does it have something to do with . . . what that boy did to you?" Cygnus asked. She didnít exactly understand what "vampirism" was, even now, but the trauma, the feeling of being hurt in a way you could never fix, that she understood well.

After all, she felt it sting anew whenever she looked at Ka'el.

"I donít know," Liandra said. "I . . .just feel different. Ever since Darken and Ka'el gave me my sight back, I've--well, this is going to sound pretty weird--I've seen things. Things I don't like."

"What do you mean?" Cygnus said, hoping Liandra couldnít hear the slight quaver of fear in her voice. "You mean . . .creatures or--?"

"No," Liandra said, one of her fairies shaking her head to emphasize the point. "About me."

"I donít understand."

"I got myself into this because I wanted to rescue Darken . . .find him, bring him back here," she said. "On some level, I guess I knew things were about to change and I wanted to hold my nice familiar life a little while longer."

"Why?"

"Why?" Liandra asked, her wings unfolding as she rose to her feet. "Because I was scared of things changing. Scared of the worlds outside this place--so huge, so . . .different. I was scared I'd get lost in them. Do you understand?"

If Cygnus did, she gave no sign.

"I guess you don't . . .I've never really known you to be scared, Cygnus."

"I . . .get scared," Cygnus replied, her voice softer and surprisingly human. "I suppose I'm just better at hiding it. But no . . .I know what it's like to be afraid of change.

"The question is . . .what will you do about it?"

"I've been thinking about that," Liandra said. "Whatever's coming, whatever this destiny Ka'el and Darken are tied up in, it's going to change things. Our lives, this whole world . . .when it finally happens, everything I want to hold onto could be gone."

Liandra walked over to Cygnus, whose eyes were fixed on the dark horizon.

"I need to learn how to live in this world, in the world that's coming. Without them, if that's what it comes to," Liandra said. Something in her voice told Cygnus this was the first time she'd been able to put the pieces together.

"I need to learn to fight."

Cygnus considered that for a moment. "You were there when Macabro died," she said. "Fighting's not something to take lightly."

"You donít think I should?"

"I'm just . . .I'm your friend, Liandra, and you're my only friend," Cygnus said, turning to her. "I just want you to know what you're getting into."

"It's not what I wanted," Liandra said. "Any of this, really. But things can't go on the way they're going. I have to learn how to stand on my own. To fight for the things I want to protect."

Her fairies turned to Cygnus, their blue eyes meeting her shining silver gaze.

"Will you . . .help me?"

"Help you how?" Cygnus asked.

"Just . . .stand by me while I try to do this," Liandra replied. "I want someone there who . . .well, who understands."

"Darken might be a better--"

"Darken wouldnít want me to," Liandra said. "That's one of the reasons I want to do this. I have to learn to do things on my own--Darken's not always going to be around to save me."

* * *

Darken stared through the crisscrossing bars of the cell door at Alecto, who stood stiffly before him, his Eagle Clasp in her hand. She was flanked by two of her guards, just like the ones that had carried Maryna and himself away. He guessed he'd been there for a few hours now--as on Ladon, it seemed like all the Spheres had their own cycles of time, so it was impossible to be sure.

"All right," she began. "I'd like to ask you a few questions."

"Go ahead," Darken replied. "Maybe if I answer them you'll let me loose?"

Alecto looked incredulous. "Why would I do that? You were caught kidnapping the prince's consort. That's a very grave offense."

"I didnít kidnap her!"

"You kept her from leaving at the scheduled time."

"No, I didn't," Darken said. "If youíd just let me explain, youíd see this is all a misunderstanding. I--"

"I'm not here to listen to your explanations," Alecto said. "Youíre here to answer my questions. Now, are you prepared to do that without interrupting me with protestations of your innocence?"

"But--"

Alecto's eyes narrowed. "Every one I've ever had in these cells claims they're innocent," she said, gesturing to Darken's neighboring cells. "If I didnít believe them, why would I believe some strange creature from another world with every reason to lie to me?"

Darken took a deep breath. As much as he wanted to persuade he was innocent and get out of this glorified closet of a cell, it didnít seem like it was going to make things any easier with Alecto.

I could just blast my way out of this jail, he thought, feeling guilty for even considering the idea silently. I know I'm strong enough to do it.

But where do I go from there? She's got my Eagle Clasp, which means I'd be stuck here even if I did try to escape. And on top of that, I'd be genuinely guilty, instead of caught up in circumstance.

No, he decided. However angry I am at being tossed in prison, I have to play fair, and assume they're going to do the same. And if I decide they aren't . . .well, I'll worry about that when and if it happens, I guess.

Alecto sighed impatiently, the sound breaking the tension and snapping Darken back to the here and now.

"I'll . . .I'll answer your questions," he said, his voice even and calm.

"Good," Alecto said. "I have your name, of course."

"It's the only one I've ever had."

"No aliases?"

"None."

Alecto looked satisfied, if not particularly inclined to believe him.

"Next question--what are you?"

Darken looked puzzled. "I'm not sure I understand the question."

"Your species?"

Darken nodded. "Hm. I'm not sure how to answer that question."

"Answering it truthfully would be a start."

"That's just it," Darken said. "I'm half-Angel, half-Dragon. I donít think there's a name for it."

"'Mongrel,'" one of the guards said under his breath.

Darken flinched, not liking the sound of the word any more from an Angel's mouth than from a Dragon's. Alecto looked of her shoulder, lowering her wings and glaring at the guard. The guard, chastened, stiffened and returned to his pose of stoic silence as if nothing had occurred. Then she turned to face Darken again.

"Where did you get this?" she asked, raising his Eagle Clasp.

"It belonged to my mother," Darken said.

"Your mother," Alecto repeated. She examined the Clasp. "What was her name?"

"I donít know."

"Lying to me will not help you in any way, shape, or form."

"I'm not lying," Darken shot back.

"This is an Eagle Clasp belonging to a member of the Royal Family," Alecto said, holding it before Darken's eyes. "Among our people, a citizen could not be more well-known, and you mean to tell me you can't identify your own mother?"

"I can if she was dead just after I was born," Darken said, getting defensive. "I'm pretty sure my birth was . . .unusual, so I have a feeling my mother and my father both, might want to keep it secret. I wouldn't know any of you, Royal Family or not--this is my first time in this Sphere. I wouldn't even have come had you not taken me by force!"

Alecto sneered. "You were arrested in accordance with our laws--"

"I didnít do anything!"

"That still has yet to be determined," Alecto said.

"I want to speak to someone who will let me prove my innocence," Darken said. "I'm sure even prisoners have recourse to the law in this Sphere."

"Our citizens do, yes," Alecto said. "For prisoners from other Spheres . . .the laws are, less clear, shall we say. And in addition to that, you've been apprehended while we are under a state of emergency. So your recourse is limited to one person."

Darken tried not to look nervous. He didn't like the sound of any of that.

"Who?"

"Me," Alecto said, hefting the Eagle Clasp in her hand. "I intend to get to the bottom of this. And I promise you, Blackangel . . .if you're lying, you will pay for it."

Alecto turned and walked out of the prison block. Darken rushed up to the door of his cell, his glowed hands lacing through the mesh of the door.

"Then itís a good thing I'm not!"

Alecto kept walking as his voice echoed through the empty prison block.

* * *

"You didnít ask for any of this, I bet," Vertiga said. She was sitting in her usual spot on the rubble, addressing the ghost-boy she'd seen before (and who, she was certain had seen her) watching him still going through the motions of the last day of his life, even as he faded more and more from sight.

"I can guess almost exactly what you thought," she said to the uncomprehending apparition. "You probably woke up thinking 'Today will be just like any other day in this village, and every day to come. I'm going to spend my whole life here, this will be my whole world, and I'm fine with that. It's a nice enough world and a nice enough life.'

"I know, because that's just how I used to think."

Vertiga frowned. "I donít know what I think, now," she said quietly. "Just like you, Kirone and her people tore my life apart. Ruined it in a day. Maybe even less than a day. I'm not really sure about how time passes anymore.

"I should have died," she said, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "I . . .part of me wishes I had, sometimes. Because even if I do what I'm thinking--Kill Kirone, kill her followers, destroy that thing in the sky, and murder every wretched Vampire I can find . . .I keep asking myself, 'Then what?'

"My home, my family . . .that's gone, no there's nothing and no one to go back to, and even if there were . . .would they let me come back? Would they recognize me as who I was or what I am now?"

She watched as he froze in mid-step and blinked back to his original position. Of the family of ghosts that had milled around the boy just a few days before, he was the last one left. Not just in this small corner of the streets, but in the entire city--little by little the streets had thinned of the shade-people.

Sucked up by that monster above them, Vertiga thought. And who knows what gets done to them up there. I've already seen what Kirone will do to those who are loyal to her. Heaven help those she takes by force.

The boy had wandered back over to her again. Vertiga kept focused on him, waiting for a repeat of that moment where, she had been certain she had seen him, insubstantial wraith or not. It hadnít happened again in the past few days since she'd come, but so long as he was here, there was always a chance.

"I cried out for power, power enough to punish those who'd hurt me," she said, cradling her sword in her hands. "I didnít care what the price was to me, I just . . .wanted them to pay. I wanted to make them pay."

Vertiga looked down. Just then, she realized she'd never given real thought to what had happened that night. There hadnít been time, really--the spirit had driven relentlessly to this city, driven her into battle with Kirone's people, and then, within the machine, apparently had abandoned her.

"But I can't stop," she continued, looking into the eyes of the ghost. "I'm like Gavelon in that sense. We canít go back, but there's no future for either of us. And presently, neither of us seems willing or able to lie down and die."

Suddenly, she caught sight of something turning the far corner. Her confusion vanished in an instant as she slid off the stone she'd been sitting on, her hand gripping her sword and raising it.

The thing she'd seen moving out of the corner of her eye came closer. Vertiga grimaced.

Another shade. A woman, too. Strange--I thought all of them had vanished from this part of the city by now. Except for him, of course.

She sighed. Going around in circles with her revenant friend had made her edgy. The hazards of spending too much time thinking when she should have been doing something.

But what should she do?

She didnít have an answer for that, and neither did the ghost before her.

Not that he ever did.

It was just nice to have someone to talk to.

Frustrated, she spared the boy's ghost one more look and a silent goodbye as she trudged down the empty streets, determined to find something--anything--to do or react to. Anything to keep from being alone. Anything to keep from thinking about what happened next.

The sound of her boots in the sand gradually faded, and gradually a stillness came over the part of the village, the two shades that remained trudging along the paths they were locked into, as indifferent to Vertiga's dilemma as fate had been to them.

The woman's shade passed by the shade of the younger boy, and then turned to face him. The ghosts that walked through the town, what few of them were left, never acknowledged one another. They never deviated from the path they'd been on the last day of their lives, a path they replayed over and over until they were absorbed into the Beast above them. They walked past other ghosts, sometimes even through other ghosts, but never acknowledged the passing of another.

Except for this one.

This ghost rippled and darkened, the pale bluish-gray of its form melting into a solid black silhouette, then flaring out a more three-dimensional shape. The shape became a bit more detailed--colour and features became more apparent as the bluish-gray shade dissipated like fog in a wind, the shape within the illusion shrugging the last of it off with a gentle wave of her black cloak.

Kirone stood alone, facing the shade before her, watching him locked in place with the mixture of sadism and curiosity of a child torturing an insect. Her red eyes looked through him, to the stone on which Vetriga had sat.

She'd been curious for some time just where Vertiga went when she left Morgoth to dwell in the city, curious as to just what she was doing, and even more importantly, what she might be planning.

So she decided to follow her. It hadn't been easy, either. To stay within earshot Kirone had disguised herself as rubble, part of a wall, and finally, one of the shades in an effort to stay close and yet still stay hidden.

It didnít occur to me how much Iíd let my illusion-casting abilities go, she thought. But the strain was worth it--Eavesdropping on her has proven to be quite educational.

Owing to her immense power and unpredictability, Vertiga's a wild card. Monstructor obeys me like a goddess, and through him, his trio of creatures. Gavelon has no power to stop me, and thus, no choice.

But Vertiga . . .

I never doubted she'd kill me the moment the opportunity presented itself, but I thought that owed to her hatred of Vampires more than any personal animus.

But no, she mused. She really is quite unstable. She could kill anyone in this sort of state. The wrong moment, the right provocation, and Vertiga would go berserk, and with the power she could bring to bear, she would be as valuable to me as a Beast.

Almost.

But a Beast I could control. Vertiga will have to be . . .handled. And very carefully, at that. After all, what good is a bomb to you if it blows you up rather than its intended target?

Kirone's eyes focusing on the shade.

Funny how fate works, she thought. That a boy Vertiga probably had no idea existed when he was alive should be her dearest confidante now. Even though he canít comfort her, or reassure her, or help her find a way through her confusion.

Clever girl, Vertiga. Who keeps secrets better than dead?

But that's beside the point, my spectral friend. She trust you, speaks to you, trusts you with a part of herself I couldn't touch or appeal to. The part I suspect is the key to controlling her.

And I think you could be of some use to me in reining in your dear "friend."

She reached into one of the pockets in her cloak, producing a small clear orb. She placed it in the center of her palm and raised it towards the ghost. The orb began to glow with a dull white light. The light pulsed, grew brighter, and then filled the whole alley with a split-second flash of light.

Kirone opened her eyes, looking at the orb. The formerly clear orb now held a dark, cloudy shape in the center of it, roiling like a storm cloud in the clear glass. A cruel smile played across her lips as she returned the orb to its pocket in her cloak, and then turned and walked down the now-empty street, her black cape billowing behind her.

* * *

Sachiel had been staring at Maryna's back for so long he'd considered counting the feathers in her wings. He'd found her here an hour ago, staring out the window and saying nothing.

Not that she really had to. Her expression was an angry as Sachiel had ever seen it--her yellow eyes were narrow slits of light. Her arms were folded in front of her, and her fists were clenched tight.

And she wouldnít say a word to him.

It hadnít stopped Sachiel from trying, though. From time to time he tried to engage her in conversation, to get her talking so he could explain all this, explain why he'd done what he'd done to get her back.

And she hadnít said a word then, either.

And as before, Sachiel would gamely try again. It was turning into a contest of wills--Maryna's stubborn refusal to say a word to him versus Sachiel's unwillingness to leave it unspoken and unexplained.

After all, he thought. I may not get a chance to explain myself later.

He took a deep breath and walked across the room to be closer to her, determined he'd give it one more try.

"Maryna, I'm sorry if I--"

Maryna hissed as she exhaled and turned to face him.

"Sorry?" Maryna thundered. "Youíre sorry? You barge in what you weren't needed and arrest my friend and drag me back home without even asking me what I might want or what's going on and youíre sorry?"

Sachiel hadnít been prepared as he thought he might for this attempt to work, nor had he been ready for her ferocious response.

"I . . .Alecto arrested him, Maryna, it wasn't--"

"Yes it was," Maryna said. "I know the law, Sachiel, and I know she wouldnít have gone if you hadn't ordered it."

"I didn't--I mean, I didnít know he'd be there . . ."

"No," Maryna said. "It wasn't that you didnít know, it's that you didnít think. You never do. You never did."

"I wanted to rescue you! I thought you were--"

"No you didn't," Maryna said. "You just wanted me back. Donít insult me by pretending it was anything else. You didnít listen before I left, and you wonít listen now."

Maryna sighed. "You think that just because youíre a prince, that everyone will do what you say, when you say it, and to hell with what they might want. Or need. Or think about it. So long as youíre happy, hang the rest of us, is that it?"

"But . . .Maryna, I'm next in line to be king and . . .well . . .aren't people supposed to do what a king says?"

Maryna looked over her shoulder, her angry eyes meeting his.

"Tell me something," she said. "If it were you that was being ordered around, you who was supposed to go along blindly with what was expected of you . . .how would you like it?"

Sachiel flinched. Not at the accusation or her anger, but because he suddenly wondered if she wasn't right.

I didnít listen to her, did I? Sachiel pondered. I acted like it was just a silly pursuit, like her books and her training and magic and that if she did it once she'd get it out of her system and she'd come back and we'd be married and things would settle down.

And after that I pulled rank on Alecto, all but commanding her to go to the Sphere and take her back. I knew I was wrong. Alecto told me as much, and . . .I did it anyway.

Sachiel stopped his recriminations for a moment. He remembered what had set him to ordering Alecto to Deiyara. Trying to convince his father to contact the other races and being told no. Being shamed at his powerlessness.

"It's not . . ." Sachiel began. "It's not like what . . .youíre saying I do, it's not like it doesn't happen to me, either."

Maryna sighed. "I know that," she said. "We're both of us locked into a role someone else prepared for us, and we canít get out of them. But only one of us recognizes it for the prison it is."

Sachiel looked at the floor. The words hurt, partially because they were true, but partly because of the truth he began to suspect was behind those words. He started to put it together in his mind--why she'd wanted to leave, why she hadnít wanted to return, and what her "friend" had been doing there with her when they'd found them.

He took a deep breath, his suspicions causing him more pain than he'd ever felt in his life.

"Are you . . .are you saying you donít want to marry me?"

"Sacheil, what does that have to--"

"Well, if anyone's putting you in a box, it's me," he said, fumbling for the right words. "Or . . .what I represent. I donít know, I just wanted you back, because . . ."

He thought about not finishing his sentence. Since she was angry, hurt, and annoyed at his thoughtlessness, would she even listen to him?

Even if he was more honest than he'd even been with anyone else?

No, he thought. Whatever's happened between us, she deserves to know. Maybe it'll help things make sense, even if it wonít make a difference.

"I was scared," he said. "That's why I wanted you back home."

Maryna was quiet for a moment. Then, slowly, she turned her head, uncertain if she'd heard right.

"You were . . ."

"Scared," Sachiel said. "There--I said it twice. There's something happening here . . .in this Sphere, and . . .well, things are . . .kind of crazy."

"Crazy?" Maryna blinked.

Sachiel moved closer to her, pointing at the window.

"This window overlooks the main street in the city," he said. "That street's the busiest part of the city. Now, what's missing?"

Maryna stared down. "The people?"

Sachiel nodded. "We've been evacuating the citizens for the last few days. Some have been moved to other cities, some to safer redoubts in the city. We're under attack by something . . .and no, I donít know what it is. Either because they won't tell me, or because they donít know."

"Then how do you know youíre under attack?"

"Because whatever it is has destroyed ships, soldiers, entire cities," Sachiel said. "And nothing we can do seems to stop it. So all we can do now is get out of the way, and hope it wonít come back and finish us off.

"And there's nothing I can do about it," he continued. "Any of it. I suggested they contact the other races and see if they'd encountered anything like this--they said no. They keep me here in the citadel to protect me. Because . . ."

He took a breath, steadying himself. "Because my father's staying to the end, and if something should happen to him, then it falls to me to put the pieces back together. To become king. A powerless king on a throne of ashes."

Maryna blinked, turning to face him. "This . . .thing that's attacking us. Its path of destruction isn't in a straight line by any chance, is it?"

"More or less."

Maryna looked out the window again, then back at him and finally, back out the window. She bit the bottom of her lip, deep in thought.

"You . . .you donít think I made it all up, do you?" Sachiel said, the silence beginning to unnerve him.

"No," Maryna said.

"Then you're mad because I've brought you here, . . .because it could be coming here?"

Maryna looked back at him, distracted. "What? No. No . . .I'm not, Sachiel. It's just . . ."

Sachiel looked nervous. "What?"

Maryna turned to face him. "I think there's some things I should tell you. Just . . .try to believe me as best you can when I do, because it might sound unbelievable."

Sachiel's heart immediately fell and crashed lower as her words confirmed his worst fears.

"Go ahead," he said, not disguising the pain in his voice.

"I may have encountered something like this while I was gone."

Sachiel blinked. "You . . .what?"

"I know how it sounds," she said. She turned to him, taking his hands in hers. "But if it is what I think it is, then I know to stop it."

"How?" Sachiel asked. His head was swimming. She didnít seem angry at him anymore, but his relief was coloured slightly by the fact that she wasn't making any sense at all.

They'd specifically selected a Sphere that had no dominant races, no apparent risk of danger, so how could she have encountered anything like this? He wondered. Never mind how was she able to stop it when our ships and soldiers couldnít?

"It canít be the same thing, Maryna," he said. "We've sent the bulk of our armies after it and barely any of them have survived. How could you possibly--"

"I told you it would sound crazy," Maryna said, gripping his hands tighter. "Donít pay attention to how it sounds. I just need to know two things right now. One--do you trust me?"

"What does--"

"Do you?"

I donít understand you very well, Sachiel thought. Less and less, lately.

But trust?

"I . . .yes," he said. "I do."

"Good," Maryna said.

"What's the other thing? The other thing you said you needed to know."

Maryna's eyes met his, her brow set with a serious look.

"Were you serious about what you said before? How you wanted to do something to stop this?"

Sachiel blinked. "Yes, but you remember I told you--"

"I know what you told me, Sachiel," Maryna said. "You were wrong. There is something you can do. Something only you can do."

* * *

"How do I look?" Liandra asked, her fairies circling around her. Cygnus watched as they illuminated the new-dressed Liandra. They'd traded the top of the temple for her room, a few hours ago--Liandra planned to leave as soon as day broke, which left them the night to prepare for the journey.

She hadn't told Cygnus precisely where they were headed, only that she had a "friend" who lived close by who would teach her what she needed to know.

"It's . . .certainly different," Cygnus said. "Different" was an understatement. Liandra now wore blue pants and white boots, which were mostly wrapped with thin black leather.

The leather wrapping's Liandra explained, were treated with an alchemical potion that made them tough as steel, and would offer substantial protection without being too heavy.

While the armor made some sense, the tattered remains of Liandra's purple dress didn't. She'd shredded it earlier in the night, fashioning it into a ragged half-shirt. It barely looked like clothing now, and it certainly didnít look as if it would offer much in the way of protection.

Cygnus couldnít keep her curiosity to herself. "Youíre really going to wear that?"

"What?"

"The . . .well, the shirt. What's left of your dress."

Liandra felt down her body for it, running the ragged edge between her fingers.

"Why wouldn't I?"

"Well, you're armoring the rest of yourself, but . . .shouldnít you armor your chest?"

Liandra's fairies swirled around her as she continued to feel the fabric in her hands.

"This . . .this isn't for protection," Liandra said. "I want to have it close, so I can remind myself of why I made this decision. And I want to remind myself of what I left behind when I started down this path. This . . .what's left of my favorite dress . . .this is who I used to be."

"I hope you don't end up regretting that," Cygnus replied.

"I hope I don't either," Liandra said. "But I must do this my own way."

Cygnus nodded. That she could understand.

"So, who's this friend you're going to see?"

"I actually stopped in to see him when I was going to see Darken. He's helped to raise us since we were children," Liandra said, her fairies drawing a brilliant trail of light down to a chest in a corner of the room. Liandra crouched down and opened, it, taking two things out of it.

One of them--a brilliant red and gold belt--she buckled around herself. It was a little too large and rested around her hips. The second item--a red and gold choke--she fastened around her neck.

"What are those?" Cygnus asked.

Lianda's fairies circled around her, coming to rest on her shoulders.

"These . . .according to Ka'el these are the only two things he was able to save from my real parents," she sighed. "I never knew them. Never used to look at them before but now . . .I just want them around."

Cygnus really didn't understand that tendency--incorporeal sprits made corporeal had little use for touchstones of memory, after all. But she didn't need to.

"Reminding yourself of where you came from, again?"

Liandra's fairies nodded. "And I hope they point the way to where I'm going."

* * *

"Father," Alecto said, snapping to attention before Sandalphon. He sat at his desk in his office in the inner citadel, the surface of his desk covered with maps with evacuation routes drawn and re-drawn on them. Despite his apparent composure, Alecto could tell he was exhausted.

Nevertheless, his expression brightened upon seeing her, something which always made Alecto feel special. Despite the nature of their duties and the distance it required them to keep from others, they always had time for one another.

And that was all Alecto really needed.

"Alecto," he said, rising from his desk. "It's too early for your report. Is this a social visit?"

"I'm afraid not, Father," Alecto replied. "It's business. I need authorization to enter the Crystal Forever."

Sandalphon raised an eyebrow. "You're already cleared for access to the Crystal Forever."

"Only for my own personal use," Alecto said. "This involves an investigation. I've got to access an Eagle Clasp's memory."

Sandalphon perked up for a moment, the promise of investigations a welcome diversion from his other worries.

"An Eagle Clasp?" Sandalphon asked. "Who have you apprehended?"

"I'm not sure," Alecto said. She hadnít intended to get into details until she knew something for sure, as the very act of crossing to another Sphere contravened every law she professed to serve, and every law Sandalphon had trained her to respect.

Well, every law, except royal decree, she thought.

"I . . .apprehended him under . . .special circumstances," she said. She found herself unable to look at him, fearing his disappointment. "I . . .found him on Deiyara."

"Deiyara?" Sandalphon asked. "You crossed Spheres?"

"Prince Sachiel ordered me to," she replied, somewhat defensive. "He . . .he wanted that Cyclade woman back. We found her and we found this . . .man . . .with her."

"What is he?"

"I'm not sure," she replied. "He's not sure, either. According to him, the circumstances of his parentage and his birth never came up."

She produced Darken's Eagle clasp from her pocket.

"But he had this."

Sandalphon nearly leapt across the desk, one hand reaching for the Clasp, one for her hand. Alecto couldnít easily identify the look on his face. Equal parts anger, hurt, and sorrow floated over his face like shadows. She swallowed hard, worried about what he'd say, worried if the expression on his face meant he was angry with her.

"Father--"

"Where did you get this?"

"I told you. He had it with him. He was wearing it."

Sandalphon's hand closed around the Clasp, taking it from her. He stared at it; it's jeweled red eyes meeting his. They stared at one another for so long Alecto started to feel a bit invisible.

"Father, if I exceeded my--"

Sandalphon's hand closed around the Clasp, his expression finally settling into a mournful look.

"No," Sandalphon replied. "No . . .you didn't. Our oath is to serve, and you were compelled to obey. You did what you were supposed to do."

"Do you know who that Clasp belongs to?"

"Whoever currently holds it, no . . .I donít know them," Sandalphon said. He sighed. "But I do know who it used to belong to."

"Who?"

Sandalphon's expression hardened, and he handed the Clasp back to Alecto. "This . . .this is an official investigation," he said, snapping back into his familiar poise, rigid and official. "Better you make your impartial inquiries, and then return and ask me. I will send the documents to clear you for access to the Crystal Forever immediately. Then, see me again."

"Of course, Father. Thank you."

Sandalphon nodded to her. Alecto, taking dismissal as the gesture's intent, turned to leave his office.

She's nearly crossed the doorway when he stopped her.

"This person you apprehended, the one who had the Clasp," Sandalphon said. "How old was he?"

Alecto blinked, her expression a mask of puzzlement as she turned to face him again.

"He's young. About my age, more or less," Alecto said.

Sandalphon looked pained, and more than a little cross. He looked down at his desk, then looked up to see Alecto looking at him with equal parts concern and expectation.

"That's all for now," he said. "Just . . .let me know what you find out. I should like to learn more about his reasons for having that."

Alecto nodded, bowing gently. "I won't disappoint you, Father."

* * *

The cell was cramped, narrow, and uncomfortable. It was impossible for Darken to stand up straight and even more impossible for him to stretch his wings out in the tight confines of the cell.

That's probably the point, he thought. What better way to keep criminal Angels in line than to put them in a space where they can't use their wings at all?

It's almost like having your wrists chained together.

He'd grown tired of staring at Alecto's guards many hours ago, and with great difficulty had turned himself around. The other side of the cell didnít offer much, but after spending most of the day with his only view being two armored prison guards, he was ready for a change of pace.

He found he had to clamber over the narrow U-shaped bed to get to the small round window on the other side of the cell, but his efforts were rewarded with a view of the city beyond.

Darken had never seen anything like it. Skycity had been impressive enough, but this was something else. Buildings and city blocks seemed to stretch for miles outside the citadel's walls. If he turned his head a little in the other direction, he could see some of the citadel.

Buildings made of gold and a city that stretches on forever, he thought. It's unbelievable.

But why does it seem so empty?

In a city as large as this, as late as it was, why were there only a few lights in the windows? Darken had never spent much time in cities of any kind, but even at night there was surely something was going on.

But no. An almost deathly quiet settled over the city, heavier than the darkness of night, but just as perceptible.

And there was something else. Darken could feel it, it was if the city itself was holding it's breath, waiting tensely for something terrible in the night. Whatever it was, it was uninvited, unwelcome, and terrifying, and that fear was so acute Darken could smell it in the air.

It would certainly explain why they're so paranoid when it comes to outsiders, Darken thought. But this is more than fear of the other.

What it could be?



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