Chapter 19: Between Sun and MoonThe only sound for a long time was the shovel, striking the ruined brick and being lifted away, dumped behind him into a pile behind him. The effort was punctuated with his ragged, exhausted breath.
Other than that, there was an oppressive stillness over everything.
And why shouldn't that be? Darken reasoned.
What happened was so horrible it seems like it burned even the sounds away.
The land around him was a jagged ruin of black ash, pulverized brick, shattered glass and twisted metal. There was only this small clearing, made by his efforts. He'd started at first light, working as hard as he could to do whatever he could to clear it away, to help.
To do something.
He set the shovel aside for a moment, sponging the sweat from his brow with his tunic, which he'd tied around his waist when the work had gotten too hot.
From time to time he'd see people drift through the ruins--mostly Seraphim troops trying to keep the streets clear, but occasionally some civilian would drift through, walking slowly through what no more than twelve hours ago had been a war zone.
Did they live here, he wondered. Did they live nearby? Did they know people on this street?
He'd look into their eyes as they passed, seeing their terror and confusion, and how it seemed to spark over their face like shadows.
And then, inevitably, they looked past him, to his wings, and they frowned, moving on quickly.
They never spoke to him. They didn't have to.
Ka'el had told him it might be that way, he remembered, returning to his work. Angels didn't breed with the other races, as a rule--there were many that did despite that--but in general, they were too proud of their purity to mingle much with the other races--politically, fraternally, or even intimately.
It bothered him for a bit, but Darken pushed it away.
There was work to do.
After the battle, Sachiel and Maryna had swept him up and taken him to meet the King and the Imperial Court. They praised him for destroying the Beast and saving them, and things soon escalated to talks of decorating him for his service, and then, and then--
He'd excused himself as soon as it was polite to do so.
Darken had done what he thought was right. That was the beginning and end of it.
He didn't want a medal for it, or a title, or a commendation.
After all, he thought, heaving another shovelful of ash into the pile, I've already got a monument.
He looked around, sadness etched deep in his face.
With every shovel, every grim movement, he cursed himself for taking so long. If he'd been a little bit faster, or stronger, or able to finish the Beast earlier, how many homes would still be standing? How many people would still be alive?
No, he wasn't a hero.
Heroes--real ones--would find a way to save everyone.
"Shouldn't you be in jail?"
The person behind him hadn't shouted, but her voice was so loud that it seemed like a peal of thunder to him. He felt his whole body jerk, and he sighed, laying the shovel on top of the pile.
"I thought the Prince pardoned me," Darken said, his voice heavy and tired. He brushed his matted and sweaty hair away from his eyes as Alecto walked up beside him.
"He doesn't have the authority to do that," she said, striding towards him. "If anything, I should lock him up in the cell beside you."
"Is that what you're doing today?" Darken asked, frowning. "Collecting prisoners?"
Alecto's mouth became a tight line. She supposed she deserved that.
"Not quite. This morning, I'm returning stolen property."
She pressed something into his hand and Darken felt the corner of his mouth briefly twitch into a smile.
His Eagle Clasp. He recognized the feel and heft of it like he would the touch of a beloved member of the family.
"I thought you confiscated it."
"Until I confirmed your identity," Alecto corrected. "It took some time. I'm sorry."
Darken cradled the Clasp in his hands, staring into its red crystal.
Something in the way it reflected the light seemed . . . different. But there was something else. There was a strange sense when he held it, so different, and so much deeper than anything he'd felt before.
"You're keeping busy, I see."
Darken blinked, as if being pulled back into reality.
"Oh," he said, staring at the pile. His faced hardened into something grim. "I thought it needed doing. And I thought it might keep me away from any parades, or medals pinned on me. I . . don't want that."
Alecto walked around the pile, watching him.
"I would have thought you‘d felt vindicated," she said. "Not everyone comes to us in chains and leaves a hero."
"I'm not a hero."
"There are a few million Angels who might disagree."
Really, Darken mused. Any of those like the ones who walked by me this morning and saw I was a half-breed, and looked away, disgusted?
"They're free to think how they like," Darken replied. "I did what I had to. This is the third one I've helped to bring down. I've seen what they do when they run wild. If I can do something to help, to stop it--I should."
"It's the right thing to do."
"You'll forgive me for saying so," Alecto said, her eyes narrowing as she regarded him. "But that's not exactly the kind of talk that someone who's desperate not to be a hero says."
Darken sighed, reaching for his shovel. Ever the investigator--she was studying him, needling him gently. Trying to learn more about him, probing his drives and motives. Friendly enough, but there was always a little bit behind it. And the bit behind it made him nervous.
"Thanks for giving me back my Clasp," he said, sticking the shovel into the pile of debris. He glanced over his shoulder as he hefted another pile.
"Sorry--I have to finish."
"We have squads out clearing the debris," Alecto said. "Working on your own like this will take you days, and you won't get much accomplished."
"Then grab a shovel and help."
Darken blinked. He hadn't meant that to be so harsh.
Alecto grabbed one of the heavier rocks off the pile of debris and threw it into the pile he'd made.
"I don't see one," she said. "But I'll make do."
"There's a lot of talk about you in the Palace," she said. "They're wondering how you were able to destroy that thing when no one else could."
"I'd been trained to fight them."
"Really? By whom?"
Darken tossed another shovelful behind him.
Yes, he thought. Now I know what you're after.
Or rather, who.
Alecto threw another rock towards the pile.
"I could go through another back-and-forth with you and ask if he had a name, then you'd say ‘yes,' then I'd ask if you were going to tell me, then you wouldn't say anything. That's how I see the next few minutes of this conversation going."
"I didn't know you read minds," Darken said, digging his shovel in deep with a scowl.
"Doesn't take a mind-reader," Alecto said. "I know you're hiding something, and I know from the Clasp that you have a good reason to hide some things. I'm just trying, in my own way, to prepare you. Maybe warn you, a little."
Darken pitched the dirt away from his pile. He looked behind it and frowned, then back to her.
"Warn me? About what?"
Alecto's features softened a little. She gestured around the ruins. "Darken . . . look around you. We've just been through an attack that killed hundreds of thousands of us--two thousand just in this city. The only person who stood a chance again--who finally killed it--is a half-breed from another Sphere who has powers and weapons he shouldn't."
"Says our whole society," Alecto responded. "You're everything that isn't supposed to exist, and you were everything we needed to save us. How do you think a society as closed-off as we are responds to that? Darken, I'm just saying, under those circumstances, knowing you don't want to be their hero . . .
" . . . Don't be their victim."
Darken watched her, taking in her words. The needling that hung behind her words like an invisible threat was gone. Instead there was a genuine worry, and it was one he recognized. He'd seen it flicker over the faces of the people who'd walked by.
He sighed. The pile of dirt and ash in his shovel felt heavier than ever now.
Kirone stood alone on the top of Morgoth, the skies around her swirling with angry orange and violet patterns, like the whole Sphere was drifting into a fitful sleep. The only sound for miles around was the wind blowing the sands over the dunes, like the motion of waves on the sea.
It was beautiful, in a way she'd never quite seen before. On Taruga, there was only the darkest night and the red-sky. She remembered watching from the window of her room in the black tower, looking down at the city below--a dark and lightless iron forest.
Nothing like this, she thought. In the Black City, you couldn't see anything, but you knew there was so much in the dark.
And it was all terrifying.
But here, there's nothing, and it's peaceful.
Monstructor's army was still gestating, and her attempts to make contact with the orb she'd pulled from Morgoth had gone nowhere.
Just the same, there was something within it--a power, for certain. More than that, when the light hit it just right, there seemed to be some intelligence within it, and she had grown ever more suspicious that it was examining her as much as she was examining it.
As things had otherwise ground to a halt, cracking the mystery of the orb had become even more important to Kirone. Everything else--Morgoth, her generals, and soon, her army--were under her control.
Everything except Vertiga.
She was a dangerous wild card, with no loyalty to Kirone, and every reason to kill her. Something would have to be done about that.
The wind wheezed below her, causing her red and black cloak to billow like great dark wings around her. She enjoyed the silence for a moment, until she felt the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end.
She didn't turn to face her.
"Enjoy the sunset?"
"It's very peaceful," Kirone hissed through clenched through her fangs. "And quiet. I rather like quiet."
"Of course," Vertiga said. "That's why you've come up here every sunset for the past three days, haven't you? Little quiet? Little break from your fated destiny?"
Kirone cocked her head. "You've been following me."
"I figure if I knew your schedule, we could find some private time," Vertiga replied.
Kirone smirked. "With your sword at my back?"
"I wanted to be sure you took me seriously."
"I've always taken you seriously, Vertiga," Kirone replied, her tone calm and measured. "You rather demand it."
"You have something that belongs to me," Vertiga spat, the brittle veneer of cordiality finally crumbling to dust. "Give it back. Now."
"I don't know what you mean."
"The hell you don't."
Vertiga brought the tip of her sword between Kirone's shoulders, poking her back gently through her cloak.
It seems we'll be having this out a bit earlier than I'd hoped, Kirone thought with a sigh.
"You're looking for the orb," she volunteered.
"Yes," Vertiga confirmed. "Give it to me."
Kirone didn't move. The thin smile on her face disappeared, replace with stony anger.
"Didn't you hear me? NOW!"
"And what happens if I don't?"
Vertiga's expression became gleeful.
"Oh, I was hoping you'd s--"
Kirone spun on her, the weighted hook in her cloak swatting Vertiga's sword away and knocking her off-balance. As she completed her spin, Kirone had a spell ready and blasted Vertiga backwards, knocking her sprawling.
Kirone glowered at her opponent.
Did you really think I was helpless? That because I used magic I would be at your mercy in a physical contest?
How little you understand me.
And how much I'm going to enjoy teaching you.
Kirone moved on her, throwing another spell out. This one pinned Vertiga to the deck of the beast, crushing her under unimaginable force. Vertiga struggled to breathe, struggled to raise her sword, but the best she could do was squirm.
She let her lie there, helpless, for a few second. She was tempted to smash her flat then and there for her temerity. And what she represented.
Kirone had dealt with people like this all her life. After all, Targuga was a land of predators--everything, at some level, ended up as someone else's meal, and she'd always been considered easy prey.
Because she was a princess, kept in a tower. Because she was a half-breed. Because sorcery wasn't as respected as the arts of martial combat.
They always had a reason not to take her seriously.
And every time, she'd proven them wrong. Made them pay.
On a whim, she lifted the spell, allowing her to give Vertiga time to roll to her feet and reach for her sword.
She didn't get a chance. Kirone twitched her fingers, and Vertiga went sliding off to the left of Morgoth, feet kicking against the deck as she picked up speed, flung away with ever-increasing speed--
--and just as suddenly, stopped.
Vertiga hung in the air, too far away to reach anything. Below her, the sands hissed. Kirone, safe on her perch, regarded her with a wicked smile.
"Right" she said, bending down to scoop up Vertiga's sword. "Let's start this conversation over again."
She glanced at Vertiga, who, understanding what was keeping her aloft.
"You're paying attention now, right?"
Vertiga glared at her.
"Good," Kirone said, hefting Vertiga's sword. As she did, a strange twinge traveled through her, from her hands to the pocket in her cloak where she carried the orb, as if a circuit had been completed.
"I understand, you know. Better than you think," she said. "You're scared. You're alone, and you don't have any allies. Not since Gavelon was taken, anyway."
Kirone cocked an eyebrow.
"You didn't think I knew? The contempt he had for me wasn't knew--I saw it every day of my life. Pure vampires always look down on half breeds and the turned. He recognized my authority, the right of my family, but that's all."
"And you made him a slave!" Vertiga shouted. "I won't let you make me one. I'll kill you first!"
"I believe you would."
"You better let me drop, then! Because I won't stop until I kill you."
Kirone shook her head.
"Tempting," she said. "But no. Because I know something you don't. Come back." Kirone gestured with a tilt of her head, and Vetriga swung back to the deck of the Beast, clattering with great force. Vertiga got to her hands and knees as Kirone stepped towards her, holding her blade in her hand.
"A lot of people think just because they hold one of these--" Kirone began, lifting the sword towards Vertiga. "--that they can enforce their will on anyone. The idea is that the strongest in this world get to make the rules, so whatever they say goes.
"Might . . .makes right, correct?"
Kirone smiled down at the sword. "And that's fine," she continued.
"Until you don't hold the sword anymore."
Vertiga jumped forward, clumsy, wild, and wide open. Kirone jammed her boot into her chest, shoving her backwards on the deck and sending her sprawling on her backside.
"Who makes the rules then? Whoever has their hand on the sword?"
Kirone's hand snaked into her cloak, producing the orb.
"This is what you were looking for, wasn't it?"
Her fingers squeezed the orb. She could feel the power within--she didn't even really have to look or probe it with spells. It radiated from the orb in a steady pulse, the beating of a fiery heart. With the sword in her other hand, the orb was positively humming with energy.
Kirone recognized the phenomena at once:
Kirone cast a simple spell over the orb. Blue lighting sizzled around it, sparkling around the dark jewel.
Vertiga screamed, thrashing in pain.
Kirone's smile became a sanguine, fanged grin.
"You should have let me drop," Vertiga spat.
"Perhaps," Kirone said. "But we're coming so close to understanding each other. It would be a shame to lose that."
Kirone cast the spell over the orb again, a little more powerful. Vertiga thrashed before her, howling in pain and rage. Kirone watched her convulse in agony, her expression turning from bitter, to disappointed, to almost sadness.
"Now," she said, shutting off the spell. "Do you understand?"
"I don't enjoy this, Vertiga," Kirone said, her voice tight. "Do you?"
"NO! I'LL KI--AAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"
Another spell, more screams.
"Do. You. Understand?"
Vertiga's eyes blazed with fury. She scrambled up to her feet.
"You'll pay for this," she croaked. Every breath she took felt like fire filled her lungs. "I'll. . . make. . .you pay. You won't make a slave of me. No one will."
Kirone smiled. She tossed Vertiga's sword to her feet.
"Then I'd say you'd learned your lesson. Go on, pick it up."
Vertiga didn't move at first. Then she squatted, reaching out for it, one eye always on Kirone's other hand, which still clutched the orb.
Vertiga's hand closed around the hilt and she drew it up, in an instant, she spun it up and into an arc, aiming for Kirone's head.
And then she crumpled into a heap, screaming her throat raw as another spell burned around the orb.
Kirone watched as she got to her feet again, defiant to the end.
It took four more times before she finally stopped. By the end of it, Vertiga's eyes were bloodshot, her voice was gone, and she couldn't hold her sword anymore.
After a time, she fled, dragging the blade behind her.
Kirone watched her go, lost in thought. The orb wasn't enough of a hold on her--she knew that. Eventually Vertiga would decide it was worth dying herself if she could slip Kirone's hold on her. Soon enough, this would happen again, and again and again.
Until one or both of them was dead.
Because that was the ultimate lesson of the predator society of Taruga: the weak were victims of the strong, until they got strong and could fight back and they could prey on someone else, and the cycle repeated, over and over again. Life was just one long fight--everyone clawing for an advantage.
That advantage gained by taking it, violently, from someone else.
The way it was.
But maybe not the way it had to be.
No more struggle in the world I'll make, she thought. Only strength. If weak, made strong. If strong, made stronger.
Tigerhawk and Liandra stood at the entrance to a valley deep in the snow-capped mountains. The wind was gentle, but the cold cut deep all the same, and the sunlight that radiated down offered no warmth, but threw rainbows up at them as it reflected on the sheets of ice in the canyon below.
Liandra's fairies huddled against her shoulders. Their link with her eyes was negated, both by the brilliant lights from the canyon, and by the bitter cold, which reminded them of the attack of the Beast.
Finally, Liandra broke the silence.
"Why are we here?"
"Because," Tigerhawk said, his voice equal parts proud and sad. "It's . . . ready. It's ready for you, I mean to say."
"The weapon you were making?"
"It's not a weapon," Tigerhawk corrected. "It's . . . your legacy. I made it from the weapons your parents wielded. Galia's sunstones, Coeus' moonstones, some things I added."
"Is it a sword?"
Tigerhawk shook his head.
He shook his head again.
He pointed to the valley, and the cave at the far end. "It's in there. Go get it and see for yourself."
"I can barely see--" She began. The fairies clung together, shivering. "How am I supposed to get there?
"Plus, the light. . .it hurts," she said. "When the sun hits just right, it . . .feels like it's burning."
"That's the point, Liandra," he said. "Taking up something like this shouldn't be easy. Power wielded for its own sake only ever hurts others, and is only ever used to rule over weaker people.
"Is that why you want this? Is that why you want to learn to fight?"
Liandra shook her head.
"Because," she began, picking her words carefully. "If I can fight . . . maybe I can keep what happened to me from happening to someone else. Maybe I can protect them. Keep them safe"
Tigerhawk's heart warmed at the sound of that.
"Even when it's not easy? When you have to overcome things you never thought you could"
Liandra took a moment, and then squared her shoulders.
Finally, Tigerhawk smiled.
"Then go down there and take your future in hand."
Even though Sachiel had spent the last thirty minutes with his head bowed, he could feel Sandalphon's eyes on him, and while ceremony dictated he couldn't turn his head and see Maryna, who was crouched next to him in the same position, he was pretty sure she felt the same way.
After what felt like an eternity, Sandalphon broke the silence.
"Prince Sachiel, you and the lady Cyclade present us with a difficult decision," he began. He stepped down off the dais next to the king. "On the one hand, you put your life on the line to destroy the intruder in our Sphere, and prevented the extermination of our race."
Sachiel watched the captain's boots pacing back and forth in front of them.
"We balance this with the fact that you freed a prisoner under suspicion from the city jail, commandeered military equipment with no authorization, and conspired with the lady Cyclade's attempts to pry into secure matters. To say nothing of the loss of the line of succession if you had perished."
"I had to do--"
"Do not speak," the voice of his father boomed from above Sandalphon.
"Thank you, my Lord," Sandalphon said. "You present us with an interesting problem, my prince. On the one hand, we should honor you a thousand times over. All of you. On the other hand, we should punish you for your lawlessness."
A moment passed.
"So . . . we must admit here, we're not sure what we should do with the two of you."
Another moment. Then ten more, dragged along like a silent eternity.
"Do I get to talk now?"
Sandalophon nodded. "Very well. Speak, my prince."
"I couldn't see our cities burn our people die," Sachiel said, his voice wavering as he felt his eyes well up with tears. "We may rule the Angels, but we're responsible to them, too. We have to protect them."
"That's why we have the Seraphim," Sandalphon said. "As well as the fleet, and--"
"And they couldn't stop it," Sachiel said. "And . . . and, Maryna said, that she knew that Darken could . . . that the two of them could stop it, that they'd fought it before."
"And you believed her?"
"I did," Sachiel said. "I didn't hesitate. If there was even a chance, I had to seize it."
The prince lifted his head to look at his father.
"I've watched you, listened to you, every day of my life," he began. "And I learned that we have to do what's right for the people we're responsible for. Even if it's against the rules, even if you don't think it'll work, you have to try. For them."
He locked his gaze on his father and his king.
"And if I learned that from anyone, I learned it from you."
"I see," Sandalphon said. He let the moment hang in the air.
"So you're admitting your willingness to break our laws again if circumstances reoccur? Declaring yourself an outlaw in the imperial presence?"
"That's not . . .that's not exactly what--"
"Really?" The captain said, arching an eyebrow. "Because that's how it sounds."
"I just meant--"
"You believe that any action necessary to defend the Sphere and its peoples are justified?"
"Obviously, I do."
"And you, lady Cyclade?"
"Yes," Maryna replied. "I absolutely do."
"Good," Sandalphon replied. "Because we're going to put that to the test."
"How?" Sachiel asked.
"You'll protect our world by working with us," Sandalphon said. "You two have just been drafted into the Seraphim's service."
From above, the canyon was cold, and the play of light along the ice made the vampiric part of Liandra twist in agony. The reminder of what had happened to her, how she'd changed, caused her resolve to falter, the shame of it smothering the fire of resolve she had to keep fueled inside her. After what felt like forever, she found a way past the pain, past the shame, past everything keeping there with Tigerhawk, and went into the valley.
It was even more difficult than it had looked from above. The light from the fairies, coupled with the light of the sun, reflected on the walls of ice and blinded the fairies, which meant Liandra herself was also blind.
That meant walking was treacherous and flying impossible. There was no way to get her bearings and escape. If she wanted to enter the cave, to claim her legacy, to be what she told Tigerhawk she wanted to be . . . she would have to walk in and get it.
There were no shortcuts.
That was easier said than done. The ice was hard, cold, and sharp. The first tumble gashed her knee and sprained her ankle. The second fall sent her flat on her back, knocking the wind out of her.
She got up again, picking her way carefully along the way, taking care to pick her feet straight up and down through the ice to keep herself from slipping.
It worked once, then again, as she kept her hands out in front of her. It was getting easier now, she was getting the rhythm, even with the light searing into her, even with the cold, she was--
She slipped, spun, and hit hard on her side, crying out from the pain. She took a breath, shaking from the force of the fall, gasping for air as the pain from the fall mixed with the hateful light and freezing cold and ground away at her resolve.
For a moment, more than anything else, all she wanted was to be able to cry.
But she couldn't. Not anymore.
So she got up again.
Maybe she couldn't see as other people did anymore, maybe the lights would burn her every moment of every day and remind her of the hunger that gnawed at her, sometimes so insistent that she felt she might crumble and feed, maybe nothing would ever change . . .
But I will always get up, she thought.
A few more steps. Then a stumble. She propped herself up on her wings. A gasp escaped her and hung in the air.
She stopped, and did it again, listening.
A few steps back, the sound caromed off the canyon walls and up into the air, where it seemed to dissolve in the skies above. But now, the sound was different. The echo was deeper, as if it were nearly around her.
Was she close?
She had to chance it.
Liandra took another step, gently coaxing her twin fairies to go ahead, just a little bit further. They protested, wanting to stay close to her, as all three of them were equally blinded, but Liandra tried to explain that if they weren't willing to go a little bit further than they thought they could, they'd never get out of here.
And, after a time, they did. The kaleidoscopic flickering of light gave way, suddenly to a darkened, circular passage, illuminated by the light the fairies generated.
Liandra took another step and slipped on the ice, but caught herself, only sinking to one knee. She clenched her fists.
I'm not going to stop, she thought.
"I . . . won't . . . stop. I can't."
She got back to her feet, and, after a little while longer, entered the cave.
Within, it was easier going, not least because she could see again, as much from the light the fairies cast as the connection not being overloaded.
And she saw it, at last.
It lay on a crude dais hewn from the rock, gleaming gold and silver. Liandra could make out the jewels set into it, especially the sunstone, which let out a soft, warm light.
It wasn't a sword.
She smiled, and touched it, running her hand over the golden armor plates. It looked like a gauntlet but it went all the way up to the shoulder, like armor. It wasn't anything like Darken's Blackfang, but, the more she looked at it, the more she felt it, and felt the strange energy in it.
It was almost comforting.
Her fingertip lingered over something carved into the inside of it, and recognizing the shape of it, let her fingers play across it, reading the words inscribed on the inner rim:
"Not the fist of a warrior--The hand of a protector."
She smiled, and slid it on.
The fit was perfect.