Chapter 18: The Maiden & the Warrior

The heat was incredible, so oppressive and so stifling that it, combined with the thick cloud of ashes in the air, made even breathing required plenty of effort. The Hawkwind banked past a geyser of fire that had once been a block of homes and soared over blackened streets that had once been gilt, searching for its quarry.

It wasn't a long search. Xipehon was silhouetted against the hazy red of the fires it had unleashed, surrounded by a trio of ships that was unleashing salvo after salvo of cannon fire at it.

Xiephon behaved as if it hadnít even felt them. Its eyes glowed like twin suns and twin beams of fire stabbed from its eyes. With a flick of the Beast's head, the attacking ships were annihilated.

Sachiel swallowed hard. The loss of his people, even if he'd never met them, or even seen them at all, hit him like a slap in the face. He'd been trained in the arts of war, he'd even led mock battles from time to time, but he'd never really seen the cost of war.

Until this one terrible moment.

"Scared?"

Sachiel blinked. He turned to Darken, who stood beside him, fists clenched, the hot wind from the flames blowing through his hair. Beside Darken, Maryna stood, her face turned away from the burning remains of the ships that now crashed to the city streets below.

"I asked you if you were scared," Darken said.

"Princes of the realm donít get scared," Sachiel said, looking away.

They arenít supposed to, he thought.

"Are you?" Sachiel asked.

"I've done this exactly twice," Darken said. "Scared me both times. So yes . . .I am."

He summoned the Blackfang into his hands.

"But I'm more determined than I am scared," he continued, taking a deep breath as his hands tightened around the spear.

Sachiel blinked. "Could you have done that the whole time you were in jail?"

Darken nodded.

"Then why didn't you? You could have escaped any time you wanted."

"I had faith you'd let me go, once you knew I hadnít done anything wrong."

Sachiel blinked. "That's quite a lot of faith," he said.

"As much as you put in me," Darken said.

Sachiel couldnít believe it. Given Alecto's rigid adherence to the letter of the law, Darken might have been waiting quite awhile for his hoped-for exoneration. For a moment a surge of panic rippled through him as he tried to decide whether or not Maryna had asked him to entrust the future of their people to the most naïve man in all the Spheres.

"How should we do this?" Maryna said. "It'll be hard to get in close enough to hurt it."

"I'll go in first," Darken said. "I can handle the fire a bit better than you can. I'll try to draw it over here, and then maybe the ship can stun it long enough for you to seal it."

"Are you sure?" Maryna looked at the Beast, who was now smashing through a block of what looked like residential buildings.

Darken nodded. Sachiel and Maryna took a step back as he spread his wings and crouched down to the deck of the Hawkwind.

Sachiel watched him, studied how he seemed to center his determination and steel himself for what he was about to do. In those few seconds, Sachiel thought about how he felt about Darken.

This is the man who kidnapped Maryna, he thought. Or that's what I thought. This is the man who's trying to take Maryna from me. And he's also the man who I freed to save my people.

I barely know him. I'm not sure if I trust him. But none of that matters right now.

"Darken," Sachiel said. "Good luck."

Darken nodded, and with a wide sweep of his black wings, took to the skies.

* * *

"Did Ka'el tell you anything about the war between the Vampires and the other races of the Spheres?" Tigerhawk asked, his eyes growing distant, as if he could actually see back into the past.

"Some of it," Liandra said. "I . . .know there was a war, and I know Darken's mother and father fought in it, along with mine. And . . .I suppose the Vampires lost."

"That is all of it, and yet none of it," Tigerhawk said. "The truth is, many years ago, the Vampires fell upon our worlds. They had no gates of their own, no way to travel in force as the other races can--they'd sealed themselves from the other Spheres long ago.

"Perhaps it was the light of our Spheres that kept them at bay. Perhaps they were waiting for the right moment. But on that day, many years ago, they came for us, from great rends in the sky."

"Then they had Gates, or something like Darken's Eagle Clasp?"

Tigerhawk shook his head. "No. This was something else. Something worse. They came for my people in the midst of a great storm. It shook the earth below us and threatened to shatter our mountains. We beat them, of course--Vampires, as bright as the days in our lands are, die as soon as they cross over.

"What we didn't know at the time, was the exact same thing was happening everywhere. The Vampires attacked, and with their crossing came some sort of cataclysm. They would attack whoever they encountered, trying to turn them, but for the most part . . .they were suicide missions. Or seemed to be."

"But if the races of the Spheres never mixed . . .how did you know?"

Tigerhawk smiled, bending over and rummaging through a pile of effects in the small den. Bowls, cups, and small weapons tumbled into the floor as his hands closed on a small, flat object. He rose back to his seat, offering the object to Liandra.

"Because even if our races disagree, even if we hate each other, even if we fight . . .we are linked, Liandra. And this crisis would unite us. Someone had anticipated it."

Liandra's fairies circled around the object in his hand. They seemed perplexed at the significance of a simple book, but Liandra's recognized it at once and was utterly stunned.

One of Ka'el's books, she thought.

* * *

"My family valued knowledge above everything else," Tabris' spirit said, her eyes fixed on Alecto. "We were the inheritors of a vast trove it. I read every volume in our library. Several times. History, philosophy, combat magics . . .it didn't matter. I wanted to learn. I loved to learn and discover new things."

Alecto regarded her with a look of concentration. There was something compelling about Tabris, but she couldn't quite define what it was. Physically, she could see a slight resemblance between her and Darken, but he had none of her bearing, none of her obvious force of personality.

Listening to her talk was like being in the presence of the King.

"When the Vampires attacked and the storms came, no one knew why. Not the king, not Sandalphon--"

Tabris saw Alecto visibly flinch.

"You know him?"

"Sandalphon . . .is my father."

"Is that right?" Tabris asked. "I'd never have imagined him taking a wife. His heart was always in his duty. Who was--"

"I donít know," Alecto said. "He adopted me. He's the one who got me my position in the court."

"I see," Tabris said. Something about the way she said that indicated to Alecto that she knew more than she was letting on. Alecto wondered if it was connected to her father's strange reaction when she showed him the Clasp.

"I need to know," Alecto said. "If Darken's your son, and youíre kin to the Royal Family . . .why didnít you raise him here? Outsiders have no status, after all."

"Because the circumstances of his birth made that impossible," Tabris said.

"Circumstances . . .do you mean . . .?"

Tabris' eyes narrowed and she pointed a ghostly finger at Alecto.

"Donít you dare imply such a thing," she said. "My son was conceived in love, and his parents, and those like us, are the reason you, this temple, our entire race--still exist at all."

"I donít understand."

"Representatives of every Sphere except for two were brought together on Deiyara," Tabris said. "We were united by a common trait--each of our families, stretching back to the original generation, had been entrusted with knowledge that this day would come, and the races of the Spheres would have to stand together."

"Against the Vampires, you mean?"

"Against worse than the Vampires," Tabris replied.

* * *

Darken had successfully drawn Xiephon's fire from the Hawkwind, but he hadnít managed to do much else. He was fast enough to stay one step ahead of the Beast's burning eyes, but whenever he tried to move in closer, it swiped its flaming wings at him. As formidable a weapon as the Blackfang was, he still needed to be close enough to wield it successfully.

Of course, if I still had my Eagle Clasp, things would be a little easier, he thought, climbing above a crumbling building. Without it to direct and focus my magics, there's not much I can do if I can't get close enough.

Anything I could do would take too long to cast and leave me a sitting duck.

He rolled to the side, his black wings spinning around himself as he narrowly missed Xiephon's blasts. He gestured and the Blackfang disappeared. It wasn't doing him too much good at the moment.

He banked away from another chunk of building as his mind went back over the battles he'd had with the other two Beasts. There had to be something he'd forgotten about. Something that could stop this creature, or at least slow it down enough to bring Maryna into play.

Come on, he thought as he dove through a quick shot of Xiephon's fiery vision. Think.

He rolled past a swipe of her wings, which cut into the blackened city like a flaming sword.

Think.

He ignored the small bits of stone that blasted up from where the creature's wings had struck that spayed against him as he began to climb, beating his wings in the air as Xiephon attempted to pin him down between its wings and its lethal gaze.

Darken was a small black shape silhouetted against the fiery monster, whose wings snapped closed just under where he'd been like a blazing pair of scissors. At the same instant Xiephon's wings crossed each other, the Beast's fiery beams blazed forth, and rather than incinerate Darken, who was now high above the creature, it instead sheared through the Beast's own wings, snapping them in half.

The burning wings fell to the ashen street, followed soon after by the Beast, who roared so loud in its agony that the few windows nearby that were still intact were shattered by the unholy sound.

Darken smiled despite himself. He'd gotten lucky--he'd been so focused on trying to avoid the monster's attacks and trying to find an alternative to attacking it head-on that the Beast clipping its own wings had been purely accidental.

He had his opening, and he had an idea, but it wasn't one he was certain would work.

All the same, he turned and dove back towards the crouching monster, concentrating on the energy he could feel building within himself. Again, just as when he'd fought Terrane it came to him--purer than the magic energy the Clasp used, and even easier for him to tap into.

He accelerated, the wind positively howling around him. He ignored it all as he reached forward, his gloved hands clenched tightly into fists. The energy within him so suffused him that he couldn't even hear the screaming wind and didnít notice that he seemed to be glowing ever so slightly.

He dove closer and closer to the Beast, glowing brighter and brighter. Xiephon rose to its feat, visibly shaken by the pain of destroying its own wings, just in time to see the irritating black speck it had hurt itself trying to destroy moments before, only now it was glowing like a blue star.

As annoying as the speck had been before, the glow stirred something within the Beast's maddened brain. To something that actually had some comprehension of emotion, they might have called it fear.

The Beast's eyes glowed, preparing to blast more fire at him, but Darken pulled out of his dive at the last possible second, spreading his wings and pulling back up, hands leveled at Xiephon.

Before the Beast could fire, Darken unleashed the energies within him, blasting two brilliant columns of blue energy at the Beast. The Beast howled in agony again, and seemed to shrink from the onslaught. Stranger still, the fires within it were dimming slightly, as if smothered by the strange force at Darken's fingertips.

As Darken pressed his advantage, the Beast began to find its footing again. Unable to grab the hateful thing that assaulted it, it looked for the nearest thing it could find to make it stop. Most of what it clutched was crushed to powder by the Beast's powerful grasp, but finally it found something sufficiently heavy--a piece of its own severed wing, in fact--and threw it blindly toward the hateful blue star.

Darken caught sight of the object was able to shut off the energies he'd been blasting at the creature. Before he could move clear of the spinning wing, he was caught by the edge of it, and, propelled as much by momentum as the impact, was hurled backwards.

Darken desperately tried to spread his wings to slow himself down, but it was no use. He couldnít see behind him at all, and so it was a surprise that rather than being splattered to a pulp against the side of the building, he rolled and skidded to a stop on something.

The stop was painful and extremely jarring--Darken could see here he was, but his momentum caused him to skip and tumble like a stone on the surface of the water.

When he finally came to rest and got his bearings, he recognized that he was lying on the deck of a ship of some sort. He tried to push himself back up to his feet, but the twin exertions of his attack and the Beast's counterattack had drained him.

He could barely breathe, and every bone in his body seemed to cry out in agony as he tried to get to his feet. He managed it--just--and shook out his wings.

Even my feathers hurt, he thought.

His bearings came even slower to him than getting to his feet. He was on a ship--he knew that much. But perhaps the crash landing had jarred him more than he thought, because the Hawkwind now seemed much larger than before, and certainly had more crewmen.

The crewmen were surrounding Darken even now, and leveling their weapons at him. He tried to shake as much of the grogginess off as he could manage, but he couldnít manage much.

"Who are you?" one of the crewmen demanded, his weapon pointed at Darken's heart.

"I'm . . ." Darken groaned. Before he could continue, a silvery light flashed above them all, and everyone turned their head to follow it. The light flashed again, and once more. Darken squinted at the shape at the heart of the light, and in an instant, understood.

Maryna, he thought.

* * *

Liandra handed the book back to Tigerhawk, feeling extremely puzzled. Ka'el had dozens of books very much like it--she'd seen them day after day, neatly arranged on shelves that seemed to groan under their weight, or stacked in the middle of his study, and she could imagine him now, perched on a stone, poring over them, shutting the world out in deep concentration.

It seems like so long ago now, she thought. So far away.

"He told me once that he'd given some of his books to the races of the Spheres," Liandra said. "I never expected to hold one in my hands."

"Ka'el gathered us together at his temple. From all over the Spheres, the descendants of those he'd entrusted with these books, we were to be his champions," Tigerhawk said, staring at the book. "I was there, of course. Dhuron, the leader of the Dragons of Ladon, was there, as was Meralei, from Aquatica. And of course, there were the Angels."

"My parents," Liandra said.

"Your parents, yes. Of all the races attacked, the Angels had the most effective way of dealing with the Vampire assaults--their sunstones. They came in force, anticipating being at the head of a mass assault on Taruga, taking the battle to them Vampires at last."

"That wasn't Ka'el's plan?"

Tigerhawk shook his head. "He explained that the raids were a side effect of something else. The Vampires may have been interested in invading our worlds and making us as they are, but their leader had other ideas."

"I'm not sure I understand," Liandra said. "Why attack at all then? Why waste the lives of their own people? What would they have to gain?"

Tigerhawk set the book down.

"The Vampires had nothing to gain by attacking us, save extinction," Tigerhawk said. "But their Emperor wanted nothing less than the destruction of the Spheres."

"Emperor? I thought Vampires had Kings."

"After him. Gurus was their first and only Emperor," Tigerhawk answered. "A loathsome creature. He cared nothing for his people--they were only a means to an end. He used them to distract us while he tried to break down the walls between the Spheres."

"And that's what the attacks were really all about?"

Tigerhawk nodded. "Gurus had created something he called the Sunder. Unlike the Angels' Eagle Clasp or the Gates, it ripped holes between our worlds, weakening the thing that holds us together."

"And keeps other things out," Liandra said. "Like the spirits."

"Yes," Tigerhawk said. "I didnít think Ka'el had told you about them."

"He told me some things," Liandra said. "How the ferro-mancers bound spirits into their weapons, things like that."

"Yes," Tigerhawk said, silently noticing as the two fairies seemed to blanche at what she said. "Gurus had spent hundreds of years in the very heart of Taruga. It . . .changed him. Twisted his mind and his body, and made him more powerful than any Vampire. And he found allies in the darkness. They called themselves the Sons of the Old Gods, but we knew them as the Skethans.

"They created the Sunder, and the created the body that the summoned Spirit had summoned would inhabit. Gurus intended for this monster to lead his armies through the Spheres and finally to tear down the barriers and release the Spirits into our world. It called itself Mantichron.

"While Ka'el was gathering his forces, Gurus learned what he was planning and sent his new Spirit ally to kill us all."

* * *

"I never knew," Alecto said, staring at Tabris' ghostly form. "Any of this. The official histories only tell about the Vampire raids. Nothing about spirits, or--"

"There's your first mistake--trusting the official histories," Tabris said. "I'm sure they also said it was the Angels who gathered the alliance against the Vampires together."

"Actually, they do."

Tabris grimaced. "Typical."

"So . . .this Mantichron creature attacked you and the rest?"

Tabris nodded. "He was powerful. Spirits are elemental forces, beings older than you can imagine. Wind. Fire. He would have torn through our armies like a hurricane."

"Is that when you . . ."

Tabris shook her head. "He attacked us before we were ready. Caught be surprise, we could barely hold him off long enough to for Ka'el to hurl him back where he'd come from. But he'd already drawn first blood--he'd killed one of our number already. But having seen the face of our enemy, it made us more determined to stop them.

"Ka'el told us we all had a role to play in the battle, and we were each given gifts to help us when the moment was right. Galia was given the power to become a living Sunstone--"

"Galia?" Alecto blinked.

"Galia Skyshade," Tabris said. "Her and her husband Coeus went with me to Deiyara. Donít tell me he--I mean, they--tried to make everyone forget her as well."

"I was told they never returned," Alecto said. "The histories say there was only one survivor of the final battle."

"Of course," Tabris said. "Sandlaphon. I'll come to him in a moment.

"We had the night to ourselves. Understand--none of us had ever encountered any of the other races face to face, never been able to talk to them without the usual prejudices coming to the surface. It was like my world became . . .bigger then. I started thinking in larger terms. Whatever would happen tomorrow, I knew there was no way to run from it, no returning to our parochial little worlds. Do you understand?"

"I . . .don't," Alecto said. "I've never met one of the other races, unless Darken qualifies."

"Darken is unique," Tabris replied, as if it should be obvious. She shrugged it off and returned to her story. "None of us could sleep that night, so we talked. We shared stories of our homes; some of us shared secrets. I remember Galia telling me that she and Coeus were expecting their first child."

"They went on a suicide mission with a baby on the way?" Alecto said.

"They believed it was worth the risk."

"I donít know if I could make that choice," Alecto said.

"They were willing," Tabris said. A shadow seemed to fall over her expression. "And if they would risk that . . .how could I not have stood beside them? I had a lot less to risk, by comparison, and far less excuse.

"There was another I spoke to that night," Tabris said. "Dhuron was the ruler of his people--he'd been the one to unite the various clans of Dragons against the Vampires. He seemed very confident that we'd succeed, and more than just our mutual survival would come of it."

"What else?" Alecto asked.

"He hoped that if we could be the example, that perhaps all the races of the Spheres could work together for more than our mutual survival."

"That's . . .quite unusual," Alecto said. "For a Dragon."

"For anyone." Tabris seemed to be staring at something far away. "But I wanted to believe him, even if everything I knew told me it was a fool's hope. Getting all the races of the Spheres to agree on anything--even mutual survival--was difficult enough. What, I asked him what made him think anything more was even possible?

"He told me there had to be a reason our seven worlds were linked together. And he felt confident that our mission was a part of it. A sign."

Tabris' brow furrowed.

"A sign of our shared destiny," she said. "Maybe it was the passion in his voice, but he began to overcome my cynicism. I began to feel that what he hoped for might be possible, and what's more, I wanted to help him achieve it.

"That was the moment when my heart became his."

* * *

Maryna noticed one major difference between this fight and the last battle. First of all, this Beast seemed a lot easier to damage. Ever since it had severed its own wings and Darken had done whatever he had to it, it had been more defensive, firing wild and attacking with the wild unfocused nature of a cornered animal.

The other thing that was different was Maryna herself. Whereas before summoning and firing the Shining Arrow had exhausted her after the first shot, this time . . .well, she could still feel the muscles her of body burning and the fatigue slowing her down as she drew and fired the mystic arrows at the Beast, but it seemed to come easier this time.

If she'd had he luxury of reflection, she might have questioned things a bit more. Why had magic that had been so difficult to summon suddenly come so easy to her? She hadnít practiced since she'd used it on Ladon--she hadnít used any magic, really since then.

It just seemed to be easier to tap into now. She barely had to concentrate, and there it was. A thought, then another thought to form it into what she wanted--it was that simple.

She wasn't able to go into it in any more depth at that moment. Not with the Beast tracking her with its deadly vision and Darken busily trying to get off one of the ships that had followed to Hawkwind into the war zone

She swooped past Xiephon, barely missing a swipe of its burning claws and gritting her teeth in frustration.

Darken, she thought. Would you please STOP fooling around and getting yourself captured again and come up here so we can destroy this thing?

She sighed and barrel-rolled to the side, ducking another blast. She heard one of the battleships below her fire a volley at the Beast, drawing its attentions away from her and offering Maryna a chance to catch her breath.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see a familiar black-winged shape rising up to her altitude.

The ship Darken was on must be the one that fired, she thought. No sooner had she caught sight of the battleship than Xiephon's burning gaze blasted straight through it. The blast flared out into a fireball that consumed the whole ship.

Those eyes, she thought, watching the flaming remnants of the ship of the crew tumbling to the blackened streets below. She very nearly became the creature's next victim seconds later, barely dodging another blast from the Beast's killing gaze.

She swooped down, far enough away from the Hawkwind and the other ships to draw their fire away from them. Darken had its attention now anyway, and was busy dodging its burning blasts.

Maryna took to a higher altitude, trying to clear her mind.

We need to be close to seal it, she thought. But so long as it can keep this far away, we'll never get close enough to destroy it, unless we can take away that advantage.

Can we?

Can I?

She thought about it. She felt exhausted--the draining effects of the Shining Arrow were fighting the adrenaline rush of combat, and beginning to overtake her. Still, she thought she might have enough for one more shot.

I might, she thought, taking a deep breath as her wings gently beat the air behind her.

I guess I'm about to find out one way or the other.

Without Darken's Eagle Clasp, there was no way he'd know what she was planning to do. He could keep the Beast distracted long enough for her to take her shot, but could he get clear in time? After all, Maryna had no idea of how the Beast would retaliate.

Her thoughts flashed back to the ship it had just blasted from the sky, and her decision was made.

Whatever it took, the Beast has to be destroyed before anyone else dies, she thought. I hope Darken understands what I'm going to do. But even if he doesn't, I have to do this.

She tapped into the magic within her, directing it and gathering the energy within herself. Her eyes narrowed, keeping sight of her target as she became wreathed in silver flame. She pointed both her hands at the Beast, drawing one back as one would draw an arrow against a bow. The effort made her muscles burn, and she could feel her wings straining to keep her aloft.

Below her Darken was continuing to dodge the attacks of the Beast. Time seemed to slow down to a crawl as she waited for her shot. Too soon or too late, and she'd miss her shot.

As Xiephon turned its head to track Darken, Maryna released the Arrow. The silver bolt streaked down from the sky, catching Xiephon just as its eyes turned towards Maryna.

The Beast's head was thrown backwards, enveloped in a tremendous explosion. Darken was blown away, inelegantly but successfully escaping as the Beast's head exploded. It tumbled to the ground again, and emitted a low, groaning sound.

Maryna descended slightly puzzled by its cries. After her last encounter, the Beasts seemed like mere engines of destruction, malevolent things that must be destroyed. So why should she have felt any sympathy for them? Especially this one, which had killed so many and nearly turned her homeland to ash?

Because engines of destruction don't sound so much like wounded animals, she thought.

Darken flew alongside her as they descended closer, summoning his Blackfang. This was the ideal moment--while it was wounded and unable to fight back, Maryna's seal would hold it in place long enough for Darken to destroy it.

But Maryna held back for a second. This close, the Beast's cries seemed to shake the air around them, and the anguish in them was so palpable, it rattled her bones.

I should destroy you right now, Maryna thought, watching the Beast writhing on the blackened ground. I should hate you. Part of me does, for what you've done--I should rain down as many Arrows as I could on you and tear you apart before we finished you.

Instead . . .I pity you. Youíre not a war machine . . .youíre something that was twisted into something monstrous, and driven mad by it. I canít imagine what and who could have done this to you, or think of a way to change it.

All I can do is put you out of your misery.

As she summoned the magic within her to cast the seal, she saw the Beast raise what was left of its head. The Arrow had blown a third of it away--one eye and most of her face was gone.

But one eye remained.

It focused on her, began to glow, and fired a blazing beam of fire at her.

* * *

"Gurus dwelt in the Tower of Darkness, at the heart of his Sphere," Tigerhawk said. "If our peoples had sent all our armies, we couldn't have hoped to breach it, never mind fight our way to the Emperor."

"But Ka'el thought you and the others could," Liandra said. She shifted herself a little--she'd gotten so engrossed in Tigerhawk's story that she hadn't realized how long she'd been sitting there. "He must have known--after all, he never does anything without a reason. How did you and the others get there, anyway?"

"Luck," Tigerhawk replied. "Ka'el managed to get us deep into the heart of the Tower, and your father's skills got us even closer. But once we stormed the main chamber, no amount of stealth would help us--Our battle began in earnest.

"We were immediately outnumbered. Gurus had a legion of Vampires and even more Skethans. They seemed to come from everywhere--they were almost raining down on us at times. The Vampires were easy enough to defeat, but the Skethans . . ."

Tigerhawk tapped his temple with his fingertip. "The Skethans weren't physically very strong, but they speak to you . . .in your mind. A low, persistent voice that you can't easily ignore."

"What did they say?"

"Anything they can think of to undermine you, or turn you to their purpose," Tigerhawk said, his expression becoming more severe. "They can find their way to your secret fears, or play on your darkest thoughts--it took a lot to keep them out. Even people who would seem to be outwardly strong enough to resist could be swayed easily--once you let that voice through, there's no getting it out again."

"But you beat them."

Tigerhawk nodded. "Initially, things seemed to go in our favor. Your mother dealt with the Vampires, and even managed to push the Skethans back. Darken's father and I saw our opening and immediately went for Gurus."

Tigerhawk grimaced. "Gurus was, besides Ka'el, one of the most powerful sorcerers I've ever encountered. He never even turned to face us--just gestured and swatted us aside as Mantichron upon fell upon us. Unlike before, Ka'el wasn't there to help us, and, faced with Gurus' magic and Mantichron, the tide turned against us," Tigerhawk said.

"Things began to look dark."

* * *

"Galia's light was fading," Tabris said. "One of the Skethans had wounded her--her light was becoming a negative version of her sunstone energies. Whatever it was, it was consuming her--painfully. I had to do something.

"I tore my Eagle Clasp from my clothes and put in it her hands, willing it to send her back to Deiyara, to Ka'el, in the hopes he could stop the spread of it."

"Why?" Alecto said. "Youíd be trapped there with no means of escape."

"At the time, our battle seemed hopeless," Tabris said. "I wouldn't let Gurus succeed--somehow, I'd stop them, even if it cost me my life. I wanted the comfort of knowing I had personally saved someone."

"But it wasn't hopeless, was it?" Alecto countered. "You survived."

"It didnít look that way then," Tabris said. "We were being routed, and with the damned Skethans constantly screaming in our minds, everything seemed hopeless. I felt like I was being smothered by the black terror around me."

"What did you do?"

"Something within me . . .came to life," Tabris said, turning away from Alecto. "I have no other way of describing it. This soft, brilliant blue light surrounded me and pushed the Skethans back long enough for the others to push through and help against Mantichron."

"Magic?"

"More powerful than magic," Tabris replied. "The Skethans that didnít scurry away from me desiccated the moment they stepped into the light, crumbling to dust before me.

"I poured every bit of power I could summon into the Sunder," Tabris said. "I can still see Gurus trying to run away as I destroyed it. Then I fought him. As powerful as his dark magics were, whatever this power was within me, I could match him. He knew that, and he must have recognized the power within me, because he feared it."

"Did you kill him?"

Tabris shook her head. "Coeus did. His powers of illusion allowed him to get close enough to Gurus while I distracted him. He put one of his daggers in his back, another through his third eye, and took his head with his sword.

"The Skethans retreated so quickly, they might as well have vanished. It was as if with Gurus' death, everything fell apart and they retreated back into the darkness. That only left one more enemy."

"Mantichron."

Tabris nodded. "Mantichron went berserk when he saw Gurus' body," she said. "Even my power couldn't touch him. I burnt it out trying. He would have killed me, had Dhuron not saved me.

"He took the blow meant for me--Mantichron's poison caught him in the back. Before he could finish him off, Coeus grabbed the its head and wouldn't let go, even though touching him meant being burned and poisoned. As he did, the others grabbed the monster's limbs, using their weapons to gain leverage. Their weapons could kill the spirit within, if they could get through the armor surrounding it.

"They managed to make an opening--just enough for a small blade," Tabris said, speaking faster, as though she were reliving the moment as she recounted it. "The only two people with a weapon free were Dhuron and I, but neither of us could have struck Mantichron alone.

"So we both did. Dhuron and I plunged his Blackfang through the hole in his armor," Tabris said. "I remember its death-scream--an awful sound that seemed to ring in my ears forever. The energies that made up his spirit form blasted outwards, surging through the walls of the Tower. As it collapsed around us we were able to return to Ka'el with Coeus' Eagle Clasp. The war was over."

"And you won," Alecto said. "But none of that explains the circumstances of Darken's birth."

"That comes after," Tabris replied. "When we lost the peace."

* * *

Maryna's Eagle Clasp got her shield up a split-second before the Beast's blast struck her. While the weakened Beast couldnít strike with the full potency as before, the limited shield of an Eagle Clasp could only hold out so long.

So Sachiel decided to buy them some time.

He rushed for the Hawkwind's main gun on the bow, yelling for Archnafel to turn the ship towards the Beast. Under his feet, the timbers of the ship vibrated as its engines trained to turn as quickly as they could.

Sachiel swiveled the heavy gun in the Beast's direction; momentarily surprising himself with the sudden rush of desperate strength he'd brought to bear on it. He didnít even bother to note whether the gun sights were aligned, just pulled the trigger once the Beast was in sight.

Over and over, he fired at it. The Beast quit firing and tumbled backward, howling in pain again as the shots from the Sachiel's cannon rained down on it. Before, when it was at the height of its power, the shots would hardly have registered. Now, wounded and maddened with injury, the shots were punishing rain.

Sachiel fired and fired, propelled by his need to save Maryna and his rage at this murderous creature continued to pull the trigger, holding on tight when the cannon's recoil threatened to hurl him away from it and focusing through the cloud of smoke that seemed to be issuing from the base of the cannon.

He continued to pull the trigger, but nothing was happening. He was so angry and so determined to keep firing that it took him a few moments to register this. It was only when one of the crewmen pulled him away from the cannon that some focus seemed to return.

"Why can't I fire?" Sachiel demanded, kicking and screaming like a child throwing a tantrum. "Why won't it fire?"

"Sir, the cannon . . .its . . ." The crewman pleaded with him, trying to lock arms around the Prince as he dragged him back to Archnafel. "It's melted, sir . . .the cannon won't fire anymore."

"Then keep firing with the other guns!" Sachiel said. "We've got to destroy it! Maryna--"

"I donít think we do. Cease fire," Archnafel said, putting a hand on Sachiel's shoulder. With his other hand, he pointed towards the battle zone.

Sachiel squinted through the smoke; his eyes fixed on Maryna as she once again summoned her magic. She stood before the Beast, ignoring its attempts to attack her as she traced a strange pattern in the air. The ideogram hovered in the sky for a moment, pulsing with light as the creature lunged towards it. The light seemed to wash over the monster, freezing it in place.

Sachiel watched, puzzled, as the Beast seemed to hover, suspended in time for a moment.

A second later, Darken tore through it, shattering its armored form. Sachiel ducked as bits of the Beast tumbled through the skies and clattered to the deck, shielding his eyes from the one final burst of fire that accompanied the Beast's final death-cry.

As awful as the sound had been, Sachiel found the silence immediately afterwards even worse. When he'd ducked down to shield his face from the explosion, he'd lost sight of Maryna.

Fear grabbed him, panic shot through his body.

No, he thought. She can't be dead. Not after all this.

Not before I could tell her she was right.

The fear gave way and Sachiel took a halting, shuddering breath. He smiled the most genuine smile ever as Maryna flew towards the ship, a little slow and not as elegantly as before, but good enough. Sachiel's eyes watered slightly as he watched her land. He tried to bite back the tears as best he could, but instead, he buried them in her shoulder as he rushed to embrace her.

Maryna winced slightly, but embraced him as well as Darken came up, landing to a more guarded reception.

"What happened?" Archnafel said. "Is it--?"

"Destroyed," Darken said, taking a long, relieved exhale.

Maryna kept one arm around Sachiel as she turned to look at Darken, an action that made Sachiel tense up all over again. He shrugged it off, not because he could put his feelings aside so easily, but because, with the immediate crisis over with, there were things to attend to.

And princes of the realm couldnít nurture their jealousy in the face of his responsibility.

Even if they really wanted to.

"Signal the other ships and the King," Sachiel said, turning to Archnafel. "Tell them the intruder's been destroyed and to begin a search for survivors at once. Get the wounded, we need to places of healing as soon as possible. Use the skiffs and lifeboats to get as many as can be safely moved back to our redoubts."

Archnafel nodded and signaled to his officers to send the orders out and Sachiel embraced Maryna again.

"I'm proud of you," Maryna said, repeating what she'd told him at the prison.

"I'm proud of you," he said, smiling at her. "That was . . .amazing. I saw it, and yet, I'm not sure I believe it. Maryna, how did you do that?"

"I did what I had to," Maryna said. "Just like you."

Sachiel held her close, holding her tight and only a little protectively as he turned to Darken.

"Thank you," he said.

Darken nodded. "Just remember--I have your word."

"I havenít forgotten."

Maryna stirred in his arms. "Actually, I havenít forgotten either," she began, looking from Darken to Sachiel and back. "What happens to him now?"
"Back to jail, probably," Darken said.

Sachiel shook his head. "I wonít let that happen," he said. "As much as we owe you . . .I mean, youíre the hero of the day, arenít you?"

"The hero of the day?" Darken repeated. From his tone, it was clear this sounded very strange to him.

"Well, of course," Sachiel said. "We all are. I mean, we won, didn't we?"

* * *

"We'd won," Tigerhawk said. "Gurus and Mantichron were dead, and what was left of the Sunder was at the bottom of tons of obsidian rubble. The war was over.

"But there had been such an awful cost. So many people dead. Those murdered by the raiders, or killed when after they were turned to prevent the spread of vampirism. And for us, there was a personal cost--Meralei and Coeus were dead, Galia and Dhuron very nearly so. I remember Tabris kneeling and weeping over Galia, despondent that their child--you--would never know your father."

Liandra's fangs bit hard against her lower lip. Her fairies pressed close to her, their small arms embracing her as their sand faces looked downcast.

It was as close as she could come to tears now.

"Galia, had been blighted by the Skethans. The black light that seemed to be consuming her could be slowed, but not stopped. Even Ka'el had no cure for it. Tabris pleaded with him to do something--anything--to save the child."

"But if she didn't survive . . .how was I born?" Liandra asked.

"Ka'el slowed the blight down as best he could. It was his hope he could keep her alive long enough to carry you to term. She survived another year, suspended between light and dark, until you were born.

"I remember--I visited her every day," Tigerhawk said. "I never lost faith. Tabris, Dhuron, and I . . .we knew that our past lives were over. There was no going back to the way things used to be.

"We were still seven worlds, but in a larger sense, we were one world, now," Tigerhawk said. "It was time to stop being seven separate worlds, and belong to a larger world. Dhuron and Tabris both understood this, and did what they could to bring the Spheres together through personal action.

"They would suffer for it."

* * *

"Sandalphon told the King Galia and Coeus had fallen in battle," Tabris said. At this point in her story, her expression was less wistful and more resentful. Her elegant features were set in a scowl as she explained it all to Alecto. "Galia's suffering and the birth of her daughter in a strange land he simply . . .omitted. There was a brief, private ceremony in which the King lauded us as heroes, but it was all muted. Unequal to the price we'd paid. Sandalphon insisted that for our people to heal, things had to return to the familiar life we'd led before the war. There could be worlds outside our window, but for ours to endure, it had to be above them.

"I told him he was a fool, and to prove my point, I did all I knew to do to strengthen our bonds with the other Spheres. I filed petitions with the King, I spoke out in public, and when that didnít work I decided I'd use our own traditions to do it. Marriages between royal families had tied the various strains of Angel royalty together in the past. I decided to marry Dhuron. Our children would be a living symbol of the link between our people."

"Children," Alecto said, pointing at the apparition before her. "Darken has brothers and sisters, then?"

Tabris sadly shook her head. "He would have done, had we had more time," Tabris said. "But Mantichron's poison was slowly killing Dhuron. He lived long enough for us to marry, and to know I carried our child, but he never saw him born. On his last day, he summoned his brother, and told him take his body home, keep the Blackfang safe, and wait for his son to come to Ladon. Then, he put his hand to my stomach and held it there until the end.

"I never told him while he was alive, but my actions after the way had cost me," Tabris sighed. "I was disowned, of course. Excommunicated--barred from returning to Nycheladra, my name erased from all our official histories and seldom spoken of. All because out of love and a hope for the future, I followed my heart."

"What happened?"

"I stayed on Deiyara with Ka'el," Tabris said. "And while I waited for Darken to be born, I prepared for the future. For what I felt certain was coming."

"How? The Vampires were sealed off from the other Spheres," Alecto said. "Gurus is dead--you said it yourself. There was nothing left and no one to perpetuate the war."

"Ka'el told me of a prophecy that a child born of two races would either unite the Spheres or destroy them," Tabris said. "He also said others knew of it, and were laying the groundwork to manipulate it to their ends. Gurus had known of it, and had laid the groundwork for it during the war."

"By turning the races he invaded," Alecto guessed. "Creating a power base of Vampires on every Sphere?"

"Worse," Tabris said. "The raiding parties were a distraction. The real invasion forces were colonies of Skethans that he had to infiltrate the Spheres. Unlike the Vampires, the Skethans were there to wait and quietly guide events as Gurus' dictated."

"Interesting theory," Alecto said. "But we never found anything like that here, and we were raided several times."

"They wouldn't announce themselves," Tabris said. "It's not their way. They don't get their hands dirty, not when they can enslave others, make them work against their wills without them even knowing it."

"That's very paranoid."

"Tigerhawk said the same thing once," Tabris said. "Then we destroyed their nest on Deiyara."

"You found one?"

"The same day I gave birth to Darken."

Alecto shifted on the bench.

"Tigerhawk and Ka'el vowed to keep Darken safe, and prepare him for what was to come. I told them I didnít want him to know who his parents were, or the prophecy, anything, until the time was right. I left everything he needed, everywhere he'd need to go, on my Eagle Clasp, so it could point him in the right direction. I thought, one day, he might find his way here, and I could see him, speak to him . . .see what kind of man he'd become. But for the time being, I couldn't be with him. I had to let him go."

"Why?"

"Banished or not, I wanted to warn Sandalphon and the rest of the Angels about the Skethans. However badly they had treated me, they were my people. I had to try.

"I never made it. The Skethans caught me."

"These Skethans . . .I thought youíd killed all of them."

"These weren't from Deiyara," Tabris said. "They'd journeyed here, with another--a black Angel. They had Clasps, or something like them."

"Skethans . . .I donít understand--how could they have gotten Clasps?" Alecto said.

Tabris looked at Alecto, her image beginning to fade and lose resolution. Her pale blue form disappeared into the quiet mists of the Crystal Forever as the red glowing crystal dimmed again, leaving only the Angel's last words, like the whispers of an old ghost, in the air:

"I suggest you ask your father."



back to stories index
on to next chapter