Chapter 17: Looking For Clues

Alecto cradled Darken's Eagle Clasp in the palm of her hand as she walked into the Crystal Forever. A twitch of nervousness went through her as she stepped through the heavy iron doors.

The Crystal Forever is the repository of my entire race's past, she thought, looking around the cavernous lobby. Above her, there were frescoes of great battles the Angels had one, their most legendary kings.

It's never meant that much to me though, she thought, looking at her own Eagle Clasp which was fastened at her hip.

Perhaps because I don't have a past. Or one that I know of, at least.

She walked down the long corridor alone for a while, her only company the echo of her own footsteps. Finally, one of the attendants intercepted her. She was struck by how quiet they were, and how, with their long white robes they moved like the spirits they were the caretakers of.

"What is your business here?" The attendant asked. He even looked like a ghost--Alecto couldn't remember the last time she'd seen someone that old.

"I'm on an investigation," Alecto said. "My orders come from Sanadlphon."

She lifted the Eagle Clasp up between them.

"I want to know who this belongs to."

Alecto had always fancied herself a good judge of character, and a keen observer of the way people behaved. So she immediately caught the subtle flinch that rippled through the caretaker and connected it with a similar reaction she'd seen in Sandalphon.

The attendant got his bearings quickly. "Hmm," he said, studying the Eagle Clasp. "Very old . . .certainly it belonged to one of the members of the Royal Family. But I was under the impression they were all accounted for. Where did you find it?"

"Deiyara," Alecto said.

"Something this valuable, on another Sphere?" The attendant said. "Strange. Perhaps it was left there during the war. Yes, that must be it."

Alecto listened to him, but focused more on what he wasn't saying. There was more than he was saying--both about who it belonged to and why it would be on another Sphere if it were that valued and belonged to someone this important.

Unfortunately, her observations didn't lead to answers, any more than Sandalphon's similarly evasive answers had. If anything, they only doubled the amount of questions.

"Perhaps," Alecto said. "I need to verify the identity of the person I took it from. To do that I'll need to speak with the owner before him.

"Very well," the attendant said, returning the Clasp to her. "You may pass."

The attendant quickly took her inside. As she was taken deeper into the Crystal Forever, Alecto was struck by how isolating every chamber seemed, how closed off from the world outside it all was.

I suppose that's understandable enough, she mused, walking along the white stone path to the nearest free receiving area. It's all an attempt to isolate the past from the present and future. To trap it and preserve it, like a rare butterfly.

Alecto cocked an eyebrow, again struck by the strangeness of the place before her.

How do you possibly maintain a garden in a chamber like this? Alecto mused, ejecting the red crystal from Darken's Eagle Clasp and putting it on top of the stand, stepping back as the column of light showered upwards, shimmering as it gradually resolved itself into the shape of an Angel.

The Angel, whoever she was, certainly looked to Alecto like royalty. She was tall, and despite the thin elegance of her form, her body language radiated quiet strength and determination.

Exactly which branch of the Royal Family she was from was a bit harder to determine. Her clothes were pure white--nothing in the style of them to give Alecto any clues to her identity. Even her tunic, where members of the Royal Family often wore their family symbols was unfamiliar. There was only a pair of gold angel wings superimposed over the silhouette of a dragon.

Something about that symbol and what it might mean was so unexpected that Alecto found her natural instinct for questioning deserting her.

"Who--?"

"Who are you?" The apparition demanded. "Where is my son?"

"Hold on," Alecto said, raising the empty Clasp. "Your son, you said? Does this belong to him?"

"Of course it does," the woman replied. "Where is he?"

In her time, she must not have been the most patient Angel alive, Alecto thought.

"Look," she began. "I have a few questions--"

"I shouldn't be talking to you at all. I want to see my son. Where is he?"

"I . . .I'll be more than happy to bring your son here after I'm done," Alecto said, trying to find her footing. "But first, there are some questions I need answering. I'm investigating who really owns this Clasp. It was taken off someone from the Earth Sphere, and no one I've spoken to will tell me who it belongs to."

"It belonged to me, and it belongs to my son, and you have no right to have it."

"I may have the person who stole it from your son in custody," Alecto said. "When I know who it really belongs to, assuming he's still alive, I'll return it to your son and the thief will pay for him crime. I promise you that."

"This thief," the apparition said. "Does he have a name?"

"Darken Blackangel," Alecto said. "Do you know him?"

"Of course I do. He's not a thief, you foolish girl--he is my son."

* * *

"So," Sachiel said, still not quite believing it. "Not only do you think you know what this thing is, you and this Darken character destroyed something like it before?"

"You make it sound impossible," Maryna replied.

"Well . . .I just . . .never saw you as a fighter, is all."

Maryna frowned. "I'll try not to take that comment quite in the way you meant," she said. "Let's just say I havenít spent all time on decorum lessons and the like."

"I suppose this is more of that exciting life you wanted?"

Maryna nodded.

"Well, if this works, we're liable to have more than enough excitement for both of us. For the rest of our entire lives. Who knows--we might even get a room right next to him."

They came to land before the citadel tower, both of them staring at the door before them for a minute.

"I'm still not sure about this."

"It's the only way, Sachiel."

"But . . .You said you destroyed it."

"I canít do it alone," Maryna said. "I need him. Sachiel. We--he and I--can only destroy one of those things working together. It's just how it's done."

The words bit into Sachiel. He knew what she really meant. Battling the monster was just an excuse, a lever to get him to free Darken.

By all rights, I should let him rot there, he thought. Bad enough she doesnít even try to hide it, but I dread having to see the two of them . . .

He couldn't even put it into words in his mind.

But what if I'm wrong? What if she means exactly what she's said and he's the only one who can help? Am I willing to stand back and let our entire race be exterminated because of jealousy?

Sachiel reached for the door handle, but paused momentarily. He'd never asked himself that question, never really pondered what he would and wouldn't have to do, and what he might have to give up.

He closed his eyes and grabbed the door handle.

No. I'm not willing to let that happen.

He opened the door and they went inside quickly. The citadel was fairly deserted--two guards in the front, one at the entrance to the cell block. Sachiel assumed most of them had been called to the defense of the city or to aid in evacuating the survivors.

However, the two guards at Darken's cell had remained, watching their prisoner in his cell. Sachiel's jaw clenched, and his gait slowed somewhat. Again, he was hit with the inevitability of his own future and what he would have to do, what he would have to be, to grasp it.

And right now, what he had to be was convincing.

"Guards," he said, consciously trying to add more timbre and authority to his voice. "You may leave. We're taking the prisoner with us."

"Prince Sachiel, our orders are to guard the prisoner until Alecto returns," one of the guards replied.

"You have new orders, now," Sachiel said, stammering a little. "Mine. The prisoner is to come with us, and you are to leave and wait for Alecto to assign you a task to help us defend the city. This is an important prisoner. We're going to ensure he lives to stand trial."

Maryna shot him a curious look, but Sachiel paid her no mind. He was nervous enough as it is. He'd never imagined the weight of responsibility he was taking on by doing this, and as the full weight of it came to rest on him, it felt like he was trying to carry an entire city on his back.

"This is highly irregular, Prince Sachiel," the other guard chimed in, stepping forward.

"These are . . .irregular times," he replied. "For now, I ask you to carry out my orders. Immediately and without question."

Whatever their doubts, the guards had been trained to obey the Royal Family in whatever order they were given, and while Alecto had made it abundantly clear that no one, especially not Maryna, was to see the prisoner except for herself, Sachiel's authority trumped hers.

Slowly they walked past Maryna, who was already squeezing past them to look into the cell. Sachiel let them pass, giving both of them a nod of approval as they clambered down the hall.

"Darken," Maryna asked, watching him as he groggily rolled off the bed in his cell. "Darken, wake up!"

Sachiel walked up behind Maryna, eyeing Darken curiously. He'd never bothered to take a good look at him when they'd taken him captive--all his attention had been focused on getting Maryna back.

Seeing him now, he hardly seemed like a danger to anyone. This was something of a disappointment to him, as if he looked more threatening, Sachiel would have felt a bit more confident about his involvement in freeing him and in his ability to destroy the thing burning through his city.

"I . . .I donít know how you sleep on these beds," Darken asked, walking up to the bars. His eyes adjusted to the light and he seemed to sharpen up quickly as he recognized Maryna.

"Maryna, what is it? Have you--"

"Darken, there's a Beast here," Maryna said. "It's attacking the city--apparently it's been tearing through this Sphere for days."

Darken looked at her, more than a little shocked and a little scared. He'd fought and destroyed two of them, but in one case he's had Ka'el's power and experience helping him.

The Beast he and Maryna had destroyed, well, he wasn't entirely sure that luck more than anything had played a role there.

"Are you sure?"

"Well, no one who's seen it seems to live long enough to tell about it," she said. "But . . .elemental powers, destroys everything in its path, moves on a straight line . . .what else could it be?"

"I guess youíre right," Darken said. "You've got to get me out, then."

"She's not getting you out, Darken," Sachiel said, stepping between them.

"Sachiel, what are--?"

"No, Maryna," Sachiel said, turning to look at Darken through the cell bars. "Maryna tells me you've fought things like this before, and you know how to destroy them."

"That's right," Darken said. If he'd had to put a word to the way Sachiel was looking at him it would have either been "jealous" or "desperate." Maybe both at the same time.

"And both of you have to do it."

Darken nodded. "She seals off the spirit and its energy. After that, I can destroy it. But it has to be done almost simultaneously."

Sachiel sighed and looked over his shoulder at Maryna, then back to Darken, his hands gripping the bars of his cell.

"You sound as if you donít believe it," Darken said to him.

"I believe her," Sachiel said, cocking his head back to Maryna. "And she believes in you. So . . .I guess I have to believe you as well. I can free you, but . . .there's a price for it."

"Oh, for . . .Sachiel, if this--"

"No, Maryna, it's . . .it's not," Sachiel said, staring through the bars, his eyes meeting Darken's. "The one thing--the only thing--I want from you is to destroy this thing. Save my people. Can you do that?"

Darken nodded. "You have my word."

Sachiel closed his eyes. His Eagle Clasp pulsed with a bright red light.

"Open."

The locking mechanism slid away at the prince's command and Sachiel slid the door open. Darken moved past him, right into the path of Maryna's embrace. Darken smiled and hugged her quickly, but then slid out of the embrace as Sachiel banged the door loudly.

Darken turned to face Sachiel. Maryna stayed the between the two, nervous.

"Now that I'm free," Darken asked. "I want to ask you for something."

"I promise--after this is over, we'll send you home--"

"That's not what I meant," Darken interrupted. "These Beasts are all over the other Spheres. I don't know how many are rampaging and where they might be, but I'm told if one's loose, then all of them are."

"So?"

"So, when the time comes, I want to you to remember what the Beast has done to your world, the price you've paid in the blood of your people . . .and I want you to help the rest of the races of the Spheres against the Beasts. Stand with them on their world, like I'm standing with you on yours."

Sachiel blinked. He'd thought certain Darken would have asked for his freedom, or asked for Maryna and himself to be spirited away. Something practical and something selfish, at any rate. But this request was one he hadn't anticipated at all.

"I will," Sachiel said. "Even if it's just me. I . . .we . . .can't let this happen to anyone else, no matter who they are."

Darken smiled, extending his hand to Sachiel. "My name's Darken Blackangel."

Sachiel took his hand--nervously at first, then more confidently.

"My name is Sachiel," he said.

Darken let go, and began looking down the hall. Sachiel was about to ask what he was looking for, when Maryna slid up behind him, wrapping his arms around his waist and standing on tiptoe to give him a gentle peck on the cheek.

"I am so proud of you right now," she whispered.

* * *

The jagged foothills of the mountain range were a forbidding barrier--even the forest seemed to stop short against them like a great green wave breaking along a rocky cliff. Even in daybreak there was something forbidding about the place--daylight seemed to have a hard time reaching it because of the mountains in the distance. The sunlight only seemed to come through in shafts, and those shafts made the rocky crags cast long shadows over everything.

"Are you sure there's someone here to can teach you how to fight?" Cygnus asked, her hand resting on the hilt of her sword. Liandra had told her this was a safe place, but she could hardly imagine anyone or anything being able to live here.

"I'm sure," Liandra said. "He's taught Darken and I before, when we were younger. This is where his race lives, we just have to wait here for them. They'll be along."

"Why here?"

"This is their hunting ground."

"Their what?"

There was a scratching on the rocks above them. Cygnus turned to follow the noise, but whatever it was had moved away, all she saw was a rippling shape on top of one of the rocks dash away just as she caught a glimpse.

Suddenly, the sound was all around them. Shadows moved in the distance and small bits of gravel slid off the rocky crags as whatever was tracking them leapt into position.

Before Cygnus or Liandra knew what was happening a group of Jakyra kits had surrounded them, weapons drawn, circling the two newcomers warily.

Cygnus' hand tightened on her sword.

"No," Liandra said. "It'll be all right Cygnus. I know them."

"We donít know you," one of the kits said, his words fumbling a bit against his new canines. Liandra's fairies flew over to him, and he jumped back, raising his spear.

"Kiba, right? We met a few days ago."

Kiba's eyes narrowed. His black nose twitched.

"You don't smell the same," he said.

"I've . . .been through some changes," Liandra said, her fairies circling around Kiba and returning to her. "I need to speak with your father. Is he here?"

"What about her?" Kiba said, pointing his spear at Cygnus. "She doesnít smell at all. Who is she?"

"She's my friend," Liandra said.

"Your friend doesnít have a scent," Kiba said, annoyed. "Everything has a scent."

"But she doesn't."

"Exactly. Why?"

Cygnus let go of her sword. "I've never had to explain how I smell or don't," she said. "So I donít have an answer for you."

"Hmph."

"Kiba," Liandra said, gently leading him back to more important business. "Tigerhawk. Where is he?"

Kiba looked annoyed. She looked like Liandra, even sort of smelled like her, but there was another scent that covered her.

Something he couldnít exactly place, but something that made him uneasy all the same.

Whatever it was, it was going to be up to Father to work it out, he thought.

"DAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" He shouted to the rocks. The piercing cry ricocheted off the rock walls for a solid minute. Then everything fell silent for a moment, until a soft beating of wings above them grew louder and louder.

"I'm here, son," a warm voice bellowed above them. "What have you found?"

Tigerhawk came to a landing between his son and Liandra, his wings fanning out between them, then folding around his shoulders as he stood up.

"Intruders, Da," Kiba said, his ear twitching nervously. "We thought they were, anyway. We didnít try to eat them, I promise."

Tigerhawk turned to Liandra. "Is that . . .Liandra?"

It was hard to reconcile his memory of Liandra, who he'd only seen days ago with the person who stood before him now. There were similarities, yes, but so many changes, too. And not just the black wings, or the strange clothes, or the twin fairies who seemed altogether too curious about him but never strayed far from her. Something in her whole manner had changed.

"Liandra, what's happened to you?" Tigerhawk asked, approaching her, but a little less eagerly than he had the last time they'd met.

"It's a long story, Tigerhawk," she replied. "That's . . .sort of why I'm here. I wanted someone I trusted, someone who might help me make sense of them."

Tigerhawk nodded slowly, then turned to Cygnus. "And you are?"

"This is Cygnus," Liandra said. "She's my friend."

"She has no scent, Da," Kiba said, the anxiety apparent in his voice.

"No, she certainly doesn't," Tigerhawk said. "Nevertheless . . .any friend of Liandra's is a friend of ours, and we will treat her as such. Wonít we Kiba?"

Kiba pouted.

"Won't we, Kiba?"

Kiba sighed and lowered his weapon. "Yes, Da."

"Forgive him," Tigerhawk said. "Very headstrong. He takes after his father in that."

"I see," Cygnus said. "It's all right. I . . .can understand being wary around someone new."

Tigerhawk nodded. "Then we should get you two to the village and prepare a feast," he said, gesturing to the kits to return home. He turned to Liandra for a moment. "How long are you staying?"

"It'll take some time to explain everything," Tigerhawk," she said. "So we could be here awhile."

"Good enough," he said. "I've a feeling it's a long story."

* * *

Kirone eyed the orb in her hands, turning it in the spare light of the room before she returned it to the pocket in her cloak. In the right light she could still make out the smoky trail of the trapped spirit within it. She hadn't quite decided what to do with it yet, but if it meant anything to Vertiga, it was important enough to keep around.

One never knows when these sort of things might be useful. Especially if it meant even the slightest bit of control over Vertiga.

She touched her fire-gem, spilling a little more light into the chamber. With everything that had been going on in terms of attacking the city, reactivating Morgoth and the assault of the second Beast, she'd never had time to adequately explore every section of Morgoth.

This section in particular, she'd left to Monstructor. Ever since the success of creating her Generals (as he called them) he'd kept to himself more and more, spending more and more time within the Beast.

Kirone hadn't let that worry her--unlike Gavelon or Vertiga, Monstructor had neither wounded patriotic duty nor fanatical need for vengeance that would motivate him to plot against her.

If anything, he seemed to worship her.

Depending on her mood, Kirone found that alternately amusing and annoying. There was something especially pathetic about Monstructor's constant bowing and scraping to her, and how, when she gathered he forces he seemed to spend a great deal of time hiding behind her.

It was almost ridiculous, she thought, especially for someone as powerful as he is. Still . . .annoying though it might be, it is reassuring to know that at least one of my minions isnít trying to kill me.

She turned; throwing the light of her fire-gem down a long corridor that seemed to open up further down. Something at the other end, at the very edge of the light, caught her eye.

She walked very cautiously down the corridor; the fire-gem's light almost struggling against the suffocating darkness. At the far end of the corridor was an antechamber, nearly as large as the one she'd just left.

There was a difference, however. This antechamber had several large coils snaking from the floor to the ceiling, and on the edges of those coils, large blister-like protrusions. She was too far away to get a good look, but by passing her fire-gem across them, she could see the same smoky trails as she'd seen in her orb.

I knew Morgoth collected souls from the city below us, she thought, but I've never had a clear idea of exactly what she does with them. I assumed the Beast just used them for fuel, but this looks like something different.

They look almost like . . .cocoons.

"Do you like it, my lady? It's good . . .isn't it?"

Kirone nearly jumped at the sound of the thin voice echoing through the chamber. Fortunately, she steadied herself before she turned to face Monstructor, who was standing behind her.

How long had he been here? How long had he been watching me? Kirone wondered, with more than a little irritation. She found herself tempted to punish him with her magic--nothing lethal, but enough to hurt for some time and enough to make him pay for surprising her.

But rage like that, she knew, was unseemly for a future Queen, and she let it pass. Besides, she was more interested in finding out what all of this was.

Questions first, she thought. Then, if I'm still mad, perhaps I'll maim him.

"It would be," she began. "If I knew its purpose."

"Its purpose is to further your pose, my Lady," Monstructor said, nervously squeezing past her to point at the cocoon-like things in the coils. "I've studied this place . . .learned its secrets. Morgoth is more than a weapon, more than a Beast."

"What is it then?"

"An engine of war," Monstructor replied. He pointed again to the ghostly wisps in the coils.

"And those," he said. "Are the beginning of your new army."

* * *

Tigerhawk eyed the fairy that had alighted upon his gloved fingertip with curiosity. The fairy seemed to be equally curious about him and for a few moments seemed engaged in a curiously unbalanced staring contest.

"Some of my people said they saw creatures like this in a valley not far from here," Tigerhawk said. "I'd never gone there myself. I thought they were just imagining things, but . . .here you are, little one."

The fairy flitted off the tip of his glove and landed back on Liandra's shoulder.

"And you say . . .they see for you?" Tigerhawk continued.

"They replace my eyes, yes," Liandra said. "We've been bonded together, I guess you'd say. It's . . .kind of complicated. Ka'el explained some of it, but not enough for me to really understand."

"He never truly does," Tigerhawk replied with a sigh. "Perhaps if he did, things would be less difficult."

Tigerhawk turned away from her, pouring some water from a jug on a table into a small stone cup. He gestured with the cup to Liandra, who nodded and took it. Tigerhawk shrugged and passed it to her, then poured a cup for himself, cradling it in his hands.

"I . . .I'm sorry for what happened to you, Liandra," Tigerhawk said. "We--Ka'el and I--should have done a better job of preparing you for what you might find when you ventured out on your own.

"But we secretly hoped you wouldn't," he continued, taking a sip of water. "It's a strange thing to be a parent. You try as best you can to prepare your children for the day when they have to stand on their own, and when they do . . .you hate that they have to leave. Do you understand?"

"I . . .don't, Tigerhawk," Liandra said, drinking her water as the fairies peered down into the cup. "I'm sorry."

"Perhaps when you're older," Tigerhawk sighed. "Liandra, you must understand--Darken's path was chosen for him long ago, and knowing what awaited him we were able to prepare him for what Ka'el told me is to come.

"We never wanted this for you. I . . .promised things would be different for you."

"I didnít want it either," Liandra said. "But what's done is done. I'm not part of Darken's destiny--Ka'el's told me as much. But I want to stand with him, and face whatever's coming. And for that I need to know how to fight. How to survive."

Liandra set the cup down.

"I need to fight what might try to hurt me, and what I'm afraid might be within me," she continued. "And I need your help to do that."

"You never needed to ask," Tigerhawk said. "I am bound by my word to look after you."

"You word to Ka'el?"

Tigerhawk smiled. It wasn't his usual broad grin--it was the kind of smile that seemed to fight against a welter of grief.

"To your mother and father," he said, gesturing to her belt. "I see you decided to wear the things of theirs I was able to salvage."

Liandra touched her belt.

"These . . .were from you?"

"They were your heritage," Tigerhawk said. "I was determined to save them for you."

"Then you knew them."

"I fought beside them." Tigerhawk said, his eyes far away and a little sad. "They were Angels, but their courage was like that of my people, and I respected that. I was as honored to be godfather to your birth as I was to Darken's."

"Why didnít you ever tell me?" Liandra asked, the hurt plainly obvious in her voice.

"Because they had me promise not to tell you," Tigerhawk said. "They feared what might happen if you knew, and if you tried to return home. Better to keep you safe here in Deiyara, to let you forge a new life for yourself without the weight of the past on you."

"I had a right to know."

"Yes, you did," Tigerhawk said. "But sometimes in doing what's best, we don't necessarily do what's right. But you are correct; you deserve to know about your parents. And Darken's parents. And Ka'el and myself and the destiny that binds us together, and the curse that bound us all."

* * *

The Hawkwind wasn't the most impressive ship in the Angel fleet, by any means. It wasn't very large, well armored, or armed, like its larger cousins. That might have been one of the reasons why Sandalphon had ordered them to wait behind the main line of the attack--a small, lightly-armed ship that hadn't seen frontline combat since the war, while possibly fast enough to evade the Beast's assault, it couldn't hope to damage it or push it back.

So the Hawkwind could only watch the distant fires from its position. From time to time, Captain Archnafel could see a shape move within the curtain of fire and smoke. Usually the movement was followed by an exploding fireball, and Archnafel knew, even without seeing it, that every fireball was another ship or building lost to whatever it was that had come to destroy them that day.

My orders tell me to stay, he thought, peering at the conflagration before him in his telescope. But part of me wants to signal an advance. If we're to die, I'd rather I died in service to something. This feels far too much like quietly waiting for the end.

"Sir!" one of his crewmen barked. Archnafel laid down his spyglass and watched as the crewman waved frantically in the direction they were coming in. "Boarders!"

"Survivors?" Archnafel asked.

"Looks like, Captain."

Archnafel's brow furrowed. "But they're coming from behind our lines," he said. "Why would they . . ."

The flying shapes dove in for a landing, coming to rest on the deck before Archnafel. Two of them he didnít recognize at all, but the middle one was unmistakable.

"Prince Sachiel!" Archnafel said. "What are you doing out here?"

"We're here to help, Captain," Sachiel said. "But we'll need your ship."

"To help? But how--"

Sachiel waved the questions off. He was in no mood for it. This close to the fire and smoke, knowing what awaited him within it, made him more frightened than he'd ever been.

"My companions here, we can defeat the Be--the intruder," Sachiel said. "But for that, we'll have to take the ship to it."

"I'm sorry, my Lord, but I have my orders," Archnafel said. "I'm not to break formation until the intruder breaks through our lines."

Besides, he thought. I have enough problems without you suddenly developing delusions of grandeur. What are you playing at? Donít you realize what's going on?

Later on, Sachiel would wonder what it was that finally let him put his fear aside. Maybe it was the urgency of the situation, maybe it was his impatience, maybe it was just his will to do whatever was necessary to save his people, but his fear, and his embarrassment suddenly quieted. All that was left was the clarity of his purpose.

And in, that moment, he truly became a king.

"Captain, we donít have time for this!" he shouted. "I'm heir apparent to throne, and that means and my orders supersede the ones you were given. Now we can stop this thing, but we have to be close enough to attack it. That means I have to take a ship--this ship--to it. Now that's putting the ship in jeopardy, but I will be there with you, and your fate will be the same as mine. Do you want to save our people? I do, but I need your help, and I need it now. If not, then we'll find another ship that will. What's it to be?"

Archnafel stared at him. He'd never met the Prince personally, but his determination was unmistakable. The idea that Sachiel and his two companions, one of whom looked completely out of place was utterly ridiculous.

Ridiculous as it sounded, it was clear enough that he believed it.

But the only alternative to the ridiculous that Archanfel could see at the moment was the hopeless--follow Sachiel's order into battle or wait for the intruder to destroy them as well.

"Orders, Captain?" His first officer called from behind him.

Archnafel looked at Sachiel, his eyes narrowing as if he were trying to see all the way through him.

"Can you stop it?"

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we could, believe me," Sachiel said. "And I'm not asking you to risk anything that I'm not."

Archnafel nodded and turned to his first officer.

"Run out the guns and prepare for battle," he shouted. "Helmsman . . .take us into the fire."



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