Chapter 20: Prelude to War

The stone peak was the only land mass in Aquatica that rose above the waves, crafted during the last war, back when the races of the Spheres traveled between the worlds and worked together, years ago, built as a courtesy of the air-breathers who came to trade and speak with the water-breathers.

And it had been abandoned for years. There had been no schism; no great argument that split the races apart, more a gradual feeling that they should have been minding their own affairs more than the affairs of others. Having so decided, they began a slow drift apart and never once seemed to look back or think better of it. And so the chamber in the stone peak sat abandoned for years, never a single visitor.

Until today.

Meralei dragged her broken body along the rough floor of the chamber, hauling herself towards the glowing blue crystal in the center. Behind her, dark blue blood--hers--sluiced behind her, smeared along the stone floor.

They'd tried everything. Every weapon in their arsenal had been deployed to stop that hateful creature, and it had survived them all. Even the Charybdis Bombs had only slowed it down and every time it got back up, its power seemed to have increased.

And they'd run out of Charybdis Bombs long ago.

And with every battle and every doomsday weapon used, more and more of their people died. The depths she'd swum in all her life were no watery mass graves, full of the bodies or her friends, comrades, and family.

For all she knew, she was the last one.

And...I almost joined them, she thought, pulling herself up to the dais in the middle of the chamber. I will ...soon enough.

The monster had lashed at her with one of its tentacles, smashing her against the cliffs many fathoms below, nearly crushing her to a pulp.

In that moment, as pain exploded within her, she saw it so clear, as the monster turned its attentions to the rag tag remains of her army: alone, they were going to lose. They could fight to the last man, but they would fall before the monster would, and nothing meaningful would be accomplished.

Or--and this was the hard part--she could run and call for help from the other races. Never mind that the other races never came to Aquatica anymore, never responded to messages, and may not even have the collective power to destroy this thing--in that awful moment, Meralei knew it was the only thing left to try.

Because there was nothing else left but desperate hope.

And through incredible pain and her breaking heart, she made a run for it. Fueled by will alone, she hauled herself above the waves, along the rocks, drowning in the air above, her mind focused on reaching the dais and the communication crystal that was set on a plinth in the center.

She could barely breathe now, but she held the crystal in a death grip, muttering the spell that would activate it. If she were able, she would have cried when the light within the crystal began to pulse. On the swim upwards, doubt nagged at her that the crystal would even work in the abandoned outpost, but seeing it working now was like seeing a miracle.

Having that small atom of faith rewarded gave her the strength to blot out the pain and begin to speak.

"To anyone who is listening," she began, her voice ragged with agony. "This is a distress call from ... from the people of Aquatica. We're...under attack by ...something. Some kind of creature. Huge...powerful...our strongest weapons ...don't even scratch it. It's torn through all our defenses, killed so many of us ... we don't know anything about it, we can't stop it, please--we need help."

She bit her lip, keeping her hands on the crystal. Emotions squeezed at her even harder than the pain. The grief that she'd been able to hold at bay while she fought the demon in the depths was loose within her heart, and it threatened to take her voice from her.

It went against everything she knew to beg for help, and even worse, to beg others for it when they'd spent so many years silent.

But there was nothing else left. Her people were dead, and soon enough, she would be too. What had happened to drive the worlds beyond apart she'd never understood.

But she remembered the old stories, when the heroes of the Spheres joined together to battle the Vampires. Did they still live? Would they come to help?

She began to slip and she wrapped herself tighter around the crystal in a fatal embrace.

Not long now, she thought. It's all up to them.

I hope someone's listening.

"If you receive this, I'll never know," she continued. "I'm hurt badly, and I ... don't have long. But if there's ... anyone who can help, I don't ask this for me, but for those who might survive. For those who might have a chance. Help them. Save them. Please."

Meralei slumped against the crystal. There was a rattling noise from the back of her throat as the last of strength left. The crystal continued to pulse even after she died, and the call rippled out across the Spheres.

* * *

Their swords clashed--thin steel on clear red energy. Every probe was met with a parry, every feint slipped or struck aside. The valley rang out with the swords of the battle.

Cygnus circled Liandra, her motions elegant and flowing, spinning, turning, and shifting in-between eyeblinks into blinding fast strikes. When sweeping aside Liandra's blade failed to crack the angel's defense, she would try rapid pokes, a wall of piercing attacks.

Liandra parried each strike with precision. Cygnus smiled, sizing up her opponent's progress. She'd been hesitant when Ka'El had suggested training Liandra in combat. She liked Liandra--very much, in fact--but wondered if, after everything that had happened to her, if she had the discipline for fighting.

But ever since she'd returned from the mountains with Tigerhawk, something about Liandra had been different. There was a new strength in the young angel--not an armor she wore over herself, but inner steel.

Some of it was the training. Tigerhawk had taught Liandra to make full use of her skills, and her main skill was the wide-ranging sight the fairies afforded her. She could see in multiple directions at once, and she'd adapted her fighting style to make use of it. Coupled with her speed, she could meet Cygnus' attack the instant her blade moved into position.

But there was a flaw. Liandra always defaulted to a defensive posture, and waited for Cygnus to attack her.

Cygnus spiraled inward, drawing arcing slashes towards Liandra. The first strike glanced against Liandra's red sword, who pinned Cygnus' blade, forcing her off balance. Cygnus flicked her wrist, sliding her blade along the angel's, trying for a quick whip-crack strike, but the sword sliced at empty air. Overextended, she fell into the soft grass, her blade tumbling out of her hand.

"Oh no!" Liandra said. "Are you OK?"

Cygnus gave her a thin smile.

"Embarrased," she said with a sigh. "But I'll live."

Liandra's blade vanished, dissolving back within her armored gauntlet (the "vambrace," she called it) and she helped her opponent to her feet.

Cygnus took her hand and was pulled to her feet, thinking as she did.

How easy it was, she thought. To take the hand of our enemies.

Ka'El hadn't told Liandra what Cygnus truly was. Hadn't told any of them. She was grateful he could keep her secret, but still it troubled her.

Because she forgot it sometimes too.

It was easy, in this idyllic place. The blue sky, the sigh as the wind rustled the grass, it was beautiful, it was real, and she felt alive and very far away from the shadow world where they Spirits dwelled.

So at home in the flesh now, she thought, picking up her sword. Her reflection stared back at her with confusion, as doubt kindled within her form.

"Those who live in the world of the flesh are our enemies," she remembered. The first lesson every Spirit was taught, the eternal litany, spoken by those who stood above all the others.

The world of the flesh hunted their kind, enslaved or killed them, and exiled them to that dark hell.

"Spirits only exist to be used, slain, or abandoned."

Every Spirit looked with jealousy at the world of the flesh, and hated those who dwelled there, loathed that the only way a Spirit could live in it was if bound to the metal, or bound to a soul.

"The enemy will only tolerate us in their worlds if we are chained, " she remembered.

She looked at Liandra, as her fairies flitted around Cygnus, making sure she was OK.

Cygnus trembled under their gaze. The fairies were child Spirits, bound into this world, bound to these people. Just as Cygnus was bound in this world.

Where they in chains? Was she?

She didn't have an answer, and that bothered her.

They couldn't know--not Ka'El, not the Spirits, not anyone, how Cygnus had used those chains she'd been taught to fear to ensure her own freedom, and her vow to never return there.

She'd beaten the "rules," used the chains to free herself, and free Cygnus was determined to stay.

But the means of my escape, she reminded herself. The bargain it depends on ...the price ...

She sighed, reaching for her sword, forcing the dogma and the thoughts of contradiction and compromise from her mind.

Her hand choked up on the grip of her sword, easing back into her ready stance. The fairies whirled through the air, trailing light as they returned to Liandra.

In the face of the light they radiated, Cygnus' expression darkened. She wanted to lose herself in the fight, put some distance between her and her thoughts.

The red blade appeared in Liandra's hand again, and they returned to sparring.

* * *

"You've got to do more than defend!" Cygnus shouted, leaping into the air. She dove at Liandra, the point of her blade aimed at her head. Liandra sidestepped, her fairies flashing in Cygnus' face and blinding her for a moment. As Cygnus fell forward, Liandra grabbed her, using her wings to leap high in the air and flip her over, sending her to the ground with a thud.

Tigerhawk grimaced, watching the combat with Ka'El, leaning on his walking stick, silent and pensive. Tigerhawk was impressed--Liandra had come a long way in a very short time, but he, like Cygnus could see her lack of aggression was holding her back.

He understood why--whatever she had been through and whatever the moment demanded, Liandra didn't want to hurt anyone. That wasn't bad, but sometimes you had to. Giving into bloodlust would get you killed, but not giving yourself fully to the fight would kill you just as dead.

It was a delicate edge to walk.

"She's come a long way," Ka'El said, jolting Tigerhawk out of his reverie. "Given what's happened to her ... I think she may be stronger than any of us."

Tigerhawk smiled and nodded. " I've tried to teach her as well as I can," he said. "I do wish she were more aggressive."

"Interesting," Ka'El said. "I find that to be the purest expression of her strength."

"It's not enough," he said, his voice a low growl.

"You would prefer she fought harder?"

Tigerhawk nodded. "She's kind. Even to people who would hurt her. But war has little patience for pacifists. What will she do when it's kill or be killed?"

"The same as any of us. What she must," Ka'El replied. "It's good that she takes it so seriously."

"How are we preparing her for what's coming if we're not being truthful?"

"Killer instinct won't win this war," Ka'El said. "If I--if we're--serious about solving this, we can't meet force with force. It won't fix anything."

"Is that why we failed?"

Tigerhawk saw Ka'El wince. He hadn't meant to accuse the aged being, but the question had been burning in him.

"What do you mean?"

"Sorry," Tigerhawk said, waving it off. "I didn't mean to--"

"No," Ka'El said. "You must be honest. I've asked a lot of you, and the very least I owe you is the answer to a question."

Tigerhawk looked away, frowning.

"Training Darken, and now Liandra for this..." Tigerhawk began, sighing. "Seeing things happening again. War's coming again, and I see what we have to lose, and ... I think about what Dhuron, Tabris, Galeon ...what we fought for, what we tried to do, and it wasn't enough, was it?

"We failed. Our sons and daughters are going to have to fight another war, because we weren't strong enough to fix things last time. Damn it all, we owed them a better world than this."

"You feel you've let them down?"

"Don't you?"

Ka'El nodded. "I always feel there is more that I could have done yesterday, and more I should do today. Every day I live."

"I'm sorry," Tigerhawk offered.

"I should be telling you that," Ka'El said. "I should be telling everyone on every Sphere that, every moment of every day that passes. The decisions my people--the decisions I made so long ago--those ripple through to the present and draw the shape of the future. What I did then, I can never be forgiven for.

"But perhaps in my waning time I can set it right, and those that come after us can write their own future. Create the world we couldn't.

"And then, I'll have done enough at last."

* * *

Alecto stared out the windows of the Crystal Forever's main hall, the prismatic glass casting rainbow fragments over the city beyond.

From here, she mused, you can hardly see the damage. You wouldn't even know what we'd been through.

But she did. In the time she'd been here, she'd checked the communications traffic from her Seraphim a few times, making sure they were maintaining patrol, that the fires were out, that her people were there for those that needed rescue, while she was otherwise occupied. It was a way of being where she was needed even when orders meant she couldn't.

But this was your idea, she reminded herself. You encouraged him to go to the Crystal Forever while he was here, see what you saw. So if you are standing idle when your people are out there doing your job, isn't it your fault?

It seemed the right thing to do, she answered, shrugging her shoulders.

And I always try to do the right thing.

Before she could give herself any more grief, she heard footsteps on the marble floor behind her and turned to face Darken, who was fastening his Eagle Clasp back to the scarf he wore at his neck.

Darken was a hard one to read. Sometimes he was very much the young man--impulsive, wearing his emotions on his sleeve. Other times, like when she'd found him clearing rubble, he seemed older. Sadder.

It was obvious--who wouldn't be in pain, seeing all that destruction?

But there were moments when it seemed he carried a heavier weight even than that.

She walked over to him, reining in her nature to probe, to question, to solve. According to Sandalphon, that particular trait made her an ideal head of the city's guardians. If there was a problem, Alecto would set herself the task of sorting it out and stop at nothing until it was settled.

But he also joked that if someone gave her a day off and a knotted length of rope, she'd spend the entire day trying to untie it.

I'd find that joke funnier if it weren't so true.

They walked out of the Crystal Forever in silence, as she continued to study him. As they passed the gates back into the city, she could restrain herself no longer.

"How did it go?"

Darken looked away and sighed. He opened his mouth to say something, thought better of it, tried again, thought better of it, then sighed.

"It was ... strange," he said. "She was my mother, and I never saw her ... never had any sense what she looked like, and there I was, looking at her ghost."

"She was eager to see you," Alecto said. "She said as much when I accessed the crystal."

She turned to look at him, a little embarrassed.

"I'm sorry. Shouldn't pry into your life."

Darken looked away. "I shouldn't be shocked. That's part of your job, isn't it?"

"Maybe earlier, when I was thought you were guilty of something and took your Clasp," Alecto said. "It was evidence of a crime, I thought. But now that I know different, I ... feel like I owe you an apology."

"It's all right," Darken said. "The way things are here, I guess I can see why you'd think of it that way."

"The job makes it simple," she said. "According to the law, there's only right and wrong, good and bad people. It doesn't see nuance."

"Is that what you're sorry for?" Darken replied.

"No," Alecto said. "I don't apologize for doing my job, or I'd be pretty bad at it. But as a person, when I found out who you were, how your life's been... yes, I felt bad. Duty feels like an ...inadequate excuse."

"Why?" Darken replied. "I'm no one special in the eyes of your law."

Alecto frowned. She was trying to make a connection, to explain herself, but that meant opening up parts of herself she usually kept very tightly restrained.

And opening up that door after so long was a bit scary.

"Maybe it's because we come from similar circumstances," she said, her voice softer than usual. "You see, I never knew my family--they died in the last war. Sandalphon found me, raised me. He's been very good to me.

"But if I were to see my real family again, I don't know how I'd feel," she added. "I don't know--sometimes I wonder if I became so different a person if we'd even still be considered family anymore."

"Family is family," Darken said. "Whether you're bound by blood or not--you find it, you make it. What's the difference?"

"You have one?"

Darken nodded.

As they made their way deeper into the open city, Alecto's eyes searched the crowd, looking for signs of trouble, for any little sign that things were wrong.

Then she thought about Sandalphon's comment about the rope, catching herself with a sad smile.

"Not so easy for me," Alecto said. "Too used to assuming the worst of people."

"I don't think you are," Darken said.

Alecto blinked.

"How do you figure that?"

"You couldn't command your Seraphim without picking people you trust, and who trust you to lead them," Darken continued, looking out at the crowd before them, and if the ones that looked away upon catching sigh of him bothered them, he gave no obvious sign.

"That's a family, of a sort, I think."

"I guess I never gave it that much thought," Alecto responded. "I'm a bit surprised at you saying that."

Darken chuckled. "Well, I--"

Before he could finish, his Eagle Clasp began to flash, as did Alecto's.

A general message, she thought, as it unraveled in her mind, transmitted by the Clasp's magic. There was more--the station house had also received the message and was contacting her on another channel.

General distress call from Aquatica, and while the description was a little abstract, the scale of the devastation and the threat sounded familiar.

No, She thought.

There can't be another one of these...

And as she looked at Darken, she knew he knew it too.

"Did you hear--"

"Yes," Darken said, flexing his wings. "And I'm going to help them."

"Hang on a minute," Alecto said. "Darken, I have my orders. You can't leave."

"I thought your orders were to keep an eye on me," Darken said, spreading his wings. "You want to do that? Then you can follow me, or try to hold me here. But those people need me, and I'm going."

Alecto clenched her fist as he flew off, shook her head, and followed after him into the skies.

"This way," she gestured to him. "Back to the station house."

"That's the wrong way," Darken said, hovering in the air.

"Oh, for--" Alecto said. "Darken, I heard the same distress call you did and I promise I'm not going to throw you back in jail! I need to go back to the station house and see if I can get some of my people to go with us. We'll need all the help we can get."

Darken blinked. That wasn't what he'd expected her to say.

Alecto cocked an eyebrow."Surprised?"

He nodded.

Alecto flew off, muttering under her breath.

"Believe me--so am I."

* * *

"Is that enough?" Liandra said, turning and hovering in the air, her fairies hovering ahead of her.

"Not this time," Cygnus said, flipping her sword to a backhanded grip and rolling forward. Her free hand reached for one of the feathers in her hair and as she rolled to her feet, she hurled it at the angel hovering before her. Liandra had just enough time to realize what was happening and float to the side as the sliver bolt blazed like a brilliant arrow through the sky behind her.

Liandra landed in the grass, one of her fairies looking behind her at the path of the silver feather.

"What was tha--"

Liandra barely had enough time to flick her blade up to parry Cygnus' strike, thanks to the other fairy keeping her eyes on her opponent. Liandra met her attack, keeping her blade blocked with her own.

"It ... was ...a distraction," Cygnus said, gritting her teeth and pushing against the clashing blades.

Liandra felt puzzled. Something in Cygnus' expression had changed. Her silver eyes were a hard steel gray now, and she was pushing her entire body weight against her sword.

Was she testing me? Liandra wondered. Through her fairies, she studied her face. As the fairies circled the two combatants, she could see Cygnus eyes tracking them, and annoyance flickered in her gaze.

Not me, the angel grasped. Them.

But why?

Before she could explore the matter further, Cygnus kicked her leg out from under her and she sank to one knee, one of her wings helping to prop her up. One of the fairies saw Cygnus raising her blade, narrowly dodging the tip as it scythed past it.

Liandra acted without conscious thought, raising her blade and exerting her will through the vambrace. At her command, the clear red energy of the blade seemed to fracture into individual crystalline flechettes, firing forward from where the blade had been like a great red swarm. Cygnus blocked some of them, but one sliced into her thigh, sending her falling to the ground, crying out in shock and pain.

Liandra gasped, halting her attack. At her command, the flechettes returned, re-forming into her sword and then vanishing.

She broke into a run, sinking to her knees before Cygnus.

She felt awful. Whatever had angered Cygnus and caused her to press her attack, Liandra had hurt her friend, and all that mattered to her now was making sure she was all right.

"Cygnus," she said, her fairies circling her fallen friend. "I'm so sorry. Are you--"

The fairies looked shocked at the sight. Cygnus looked at Liandra--not at the fairies, at her--and raised a finger to her lips. Then she loosened the sash she wore at her waist to cover the wound, pressing tight and soaking up the quicksilver blood that stained her hand.

"I'm OK," she said, her voice quiet.

"I didn't mean to--"

"It's all right, Liandra," she said, putting her hand on her companion's arm. "I'm sorry. I guess I lost my head for a bit."


"It's hard to explain," her friend replied. "Will you help me up?"

Liandra nodded, putting her hands around her waist.

"Cygnus," Liandra said. "I--"

"I'll explain later," she replied under her breath. "When it's just the two of us, all right?"

She nodded to Ka'El and Tigerhawk.

"O-of course," Liandra nodded.

"Good," Cygnus smiled, leaning on Liandra as they walked over to the two observers.

"It appears she caught you," Tigerhawk remarked.

She nodded. "A flesh wound. I'll be all right in a little while."

Ka'El raised an eyebrow, but Cygnus fixed him with a cautionary glance.

"You trained her well," Cygnus continued. "She's ... a lot stronger than she looks."

Tigerhawk nodded. "I was afraid she wouldn't press the attack when she needed to."

Cygnus looked back at Liandra and gently squeezed her. "She was fine," she said. "She just needed a push. At the right moment ... she'll do the right thing."

"You think she's ready, then?" Ka'El said, his sad eyes meeting hers.

Cygnus looked to her friend again, a shadow darkening her face. As she held on to her angelic friend she felt a pang of sadness, hoping the very kindness that made Liandra so special wouldn't be an early casualty in the battles to come.

"Yes," Cygnus said after a time. "I think she is."

* * *

"Aquatica," Kirone said.

Monstructor kept his head down, bowing before her as his insects crawled over him.

"Yes mistress," he said.

"And you're sure it's another Beast?"

"Morgoth knows her own," he confirmed. "Even from Spheres away, she knows the scent of her offspring, and hungers for it."

Kirone stared at the night sky. The dead village before her was still, drained dry. It was clear to her that her greatest weapon had absorbed all it was going to from this dead world, and the prospect of feeding Morgoth another Beast could make it strong enough to conquer another Sphere.

In any event, she was tired of waiting. Patience and careful planning had taken her far, but she could feel it. The destiny she'd been born for beckoned to her, offering to slake her thirst for power.

It was all there, all hers.

Waiting for her.

She just needed to go and claim it.

The cool wind blew through her red hair, and her expression hardened.

"Is our army ready?"

"Quite ready, Mistress," Monstructor replied.

"Then summon the generals and Vertiga, and get them here in an hour," Kirone said. "We're going to Aquatica. In force."

"To aid the fish people?"

"To take the Beast," Kirone said. "That's the whole of our purpose. If anyone tries to stop us, we'll slay them too. But feeding the Beast to Morgoth is our primary objective. It'll be the start of... everything.

"Go and gather them, Monstructor. It's time we take what belongs to us."

Monstructor shuffled off, bowing and scraping.

Such confidence. Between this and your little stunt with Vertiga, I am quite impressed with your ingenuity.

Kirone blinked.

"Who's talking?"

Oh come now , the voice responded, its tone mocking. Who else could know of the lesson you taught her?

Kirone's eyes narrowed. She summoned the orb with a gesture.

Yes indeed, the voice replied, speaking in her mind. You are a quick study, aren't you?

"I'm just surprised I can squeeze a whole Spirit in one of these traps."

You didn't, the voice replied, its voice a little indignant. And certainly not a Spirit as powerful as I am.

"And yet here you are," Kirone said with a wicked smile. "Trapped, just the same."

Only for the moment, the Spirit replied. Have no illusions on this--I will be free,

eventually. Your magics can't hold me forever. And when I walk in your world, I will remember my enemies and my allies, and I will repay in full all that both are owed.

I'd like to consider you an ally, Kirone Witchfire.

Kirone stared into the orb.

"Apart from an effective control for Vetriga, I'm not really sure what you can offer me that I don't have."

I can help you control Morgoth, the voice said.

"How would you know anything about it?"

Your lackey said it recognizes her own, the voice shot back. That link goes both ways.

"You're a Beast, then?"

Not exactly, the voice replied. More of a kindred spirit.

Kirone frowned.

"Do better than 'cryptic,'" she said. "Give me something tangible, and I'll consider it."

I can help you cross over to the Ocean Sphere, the voice replied. Using your magics to force a way through the Spheres will only damage Morgoth and most likely get yourself killed before you even make it to Aquatica. But my people know how to slide between the worlds. We do it all the time.

"Why would you help me, Spirit?"

Because Kirone, I want something in return when Morgoth has consumed the beast. Something only you can accomplish for me.

* * *

The sunsets never lost their magic. The slow darkening, the way the sky panted bands of different colors in the air, the simple beauty of it all took Cygnus' breath away. She lay back on the stones of the ziggurat, watching the skies and enjoying the quiet turning of the world underneath her.

The wound Liandra had given her had healed long ago, but the circumstances of it, and what it could mean for the two of them still played her mind. She liked Liandra, more than she thought she would, and liked training with her. Teaching her, watching her learn, it delighted her.

But what happens when she learns about you? Cygnus asked herself. What happens when she knows what you really are?

Whatever else he was, Ka'El was a being of his word--he'd kept her secret, and knowing what she was hadn't changed their relationship at all.

But Liandra was different. Cygnus had seen her at her worst, seen her rise from a very dark place, and she felt protective of her, felt a certain closeness to her.

Because we're two of a kind, I guess, she thought. She's the only person here that when I'm with her ...I'm feel like I'm not alone anymore.

And now ... I've got to tell her that the person that she calls a friend something she's been told to fear.

I'm scared when she knows...she won't look at me the same way anymore.

She sighed and returned to looking at the setting sun, trying to still the anxiety with the slow dimming of the skies would calm her.

Then she heard boots scuffing on the stones.

Cygnus closed her eyes and a smile played over her lips.

"How long have you been there?"

"Not long," Liandra responded, walking close to her. Her fairies flitted around her, their soft firefly glow warm and reassuring. "You went off by yourself since we came back. I wanted to make sure we--you--were OK."

Cygnus pulled herself up to a sitting position, watching her friend move through the darkening night.

"I wanted some time to rest, and to think," she said. "I didn't mean to make you worry."

"I like to check on you up here," Liandra said. "You never come inside and, well, I've wondered what you do when it rains." Cygnus laughed, the tension lessening a little.

"Well, I do," Liandra said, a little defensive. "You're important to me."

Cygnus stared at the well-worn stones under her feet as Liandra came to sit beside her. Her fairies came to rest on her shoulders, watching Cygnus with interest, and she met their gaze with the same pained and sad eyes she always had when she saw them.

"And're important to me," Cygnus began. "That's what makes this hard."

"What do you mean?"

Cygnus took a deep breath, and surprised herself, because it was such a human thing to do.

How easy to act like them, and feel like them, even though you aren't.

"Because of what I have to tell you," she said, her words coming slow, willing herself past the fear. "About what you saw today. About what it means."

"You're that scared?"

Cygnus nodded. "I don't know how you'll react."

"Well," Liandra replied. "I can't see the future But ... have a little faith, maybe?"

Cygnus took a deep breath. "Okay," she began. "About what you saw today--the wound--"

"You're a spirit."

Cygnus blinked.


"You're a spirit," Liandra repeated.

Cygnus fumbled for her words. "How could you know that? Did--"

Her eyes fell to the fairies, meeting their gaze.

"Oh. Of course. They told you, did they?"

"Since I've seen with them, you 'read' a little different," Liandra replied. "The silver blood just confirmed it."

"Then why didn't you say anything?"

"Because what you are doesn't matter," Liandra explained. " Who you are is what I care about. I figured--I hoped --you'd tell me in your own time."

"And it doesn't bother you? What I am?"

"You're a spirit, I'm a vampire," Liandra replied. "We didn't really have anything to do with that, we had no control over it. All we can control is the kind of person we become as a result of that."

"And it doesn't matter?"

"Not to me. What matters is we're friends."

Cygnus' shoulders slouched. She stared out into the middle distance.

"Liandra," Cygnus began. "When the fairies were bound to you--what happened to them? What happened to you? Do you control them?"

The fairies regarded Cygnus with a puzzled expression.

"Where I come from," she continued. "Where the spirits exist--All we hear is how your kind hate us, how you enslave us. Bind us to your weapons, invoke us for your magics. Every day. You're the monsters to us. Enslavers.

"We're raised to hate you."

"And do you?"

"I thought I did," Cygnus said, putting her hands to her face and brushing her hair back off her shoulders. "Do you know what it's like, for us? To bind us to your metal, I mean. We get torn out of our world, out of space without limit, and we're crushed into your small, tiny things. No say in it, no choice."

"It sounds horrible," Liandra said. "I can never know what's that's like. Cygnus, I don't know if it makes a difference for me to say, but ... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. For all we've done to you. I can't fix any of it, but I can be sorry."

Cygnus blinked. She took a deep breath.

"Thing is, now that I'm here ... I'm bound to someone, too," Cygnus continued. She clenched her fists to keep her hands from shaking. "Or more accurately, she's bound to me. She doesn't know about it, I don't think. And I think about what you do to us, and how I'm doing it to one of you and ... I don't know how to feel about it.

"And then, I look at you, and see the fairies bound to you, and ..."

Cygnus took a breath,

"You're my friend, and I don't want to think bad of you, but ... those fairies ... those are our children, Liandra. And they're bound to you."

"Ka'El told they would have died without being joined," Liandra said, lowering her head. "The Beast that attacked the forest destroyed their forest. It was his way of saving what little he could."

"It doesn't feel like that sort of relationship," she began, holding her finger out for one of the fairies to balance on it. "I don't command them, I don't order them. I don't even communicate with them the way I do you or anyone else.

"We're not separate, as such. We're one, not three."

She sighed.

"I don't like to think I could be a part of this," Liandra said. "I don't like the idea that I cause you pain. I never thought about it, and I should have.

"I wasn't given a choice when we were joined. If I had, I would have said no."

"You'd be blind again."

"But maybe they'd be free, " Liandra said. "Just like everyone should be. And their freedom is worth more than my comfort. Living shouldn't be about hurting other people."

Cygnus looked at them. The fairy balanced on her finger looked so sad, and the other sat on her shoulder, looking mournful at the last light of the day sinking away. Liandra faced the stone ground in sullen silence.

Neither of them knew what to say, knowing that no words would make them feel any better.

So as the night closed in, they sat together in silence.

* * *

Sachiel and Maryna stared at each other in the war room, listening to the desperate plea from Aquatica. The rest of the beings in the war room seemed to drop away as their eyes met, digesting the import of the message. The description wasn't very specific, but the grave tone of the message, all the destruction and death ...there could be no mistaking just what it was that was attacking.

"Another Beast," Maryna whispered. Her expression was grave, and Sachiel felt the same fear rush through him. He's been nose to nose with one of them, and Maryna's stories of the others she and Darken had encountered only magnified his fear.

And there were still more, it seemed ...

They looked around at the others in the room--Sandalphon, flanked by his red-robed Palace Guards were gathered around another table, poring over battle plans and proposals for new weapons.

It seemed so ridiculous to Sachiel.

I'm sure he heard the same message we did, he thought. Maryna and I both got the message on our Clasps. So why isn't he moving?

"Sandalphon!" He called.

The angel ignored him, so Sachiel shouted again, louder.

The elder Angel raised his head, his expression etched into something very severe.

"We don't shout, Sachiel" he said, his voice even, but castigating. "Especially not to superior officers."

"Did you hear?" Sachiel said. He'd worry about protocol later--lives were at stake.

"Did I hear what?"

"The attack in Aquatica," Sachiel said. "Maryna and I both think it's a creature like the one that attacked us."

"Yes," Sachiel said. "I heard the report."

"Well, what are we going to do about it?" Sachiel exclaimed. "We have to go, we have to--"

"We're not going to do anything, soldier," Sandalphon. "We're not going."


"Prince Sachiel, before this goes much further, remember that you joining up with us kept you and Maryna from a much worse punishment. You are my subordinate, and I am neither inclined or willing to explain my--"

The young prince stepped to "Sandalphon, I made a promise to--I mean, I told Darken if another one of these things were out there, that we would fight alongside him. I gave my word--"

"You gave your word to him," Sandalphon nodded. "You gave your oath of obedience to me. Both of you did, and--"

He rose up, rigid now. Sachiel could see his black-gloved hand clench in a fist, not in frustration, but something else that puzzled the young prince.

It seemed like he was fighting something.

"--and your oath to serve your people should override any promise to an outsider," Sandalphon finished. "If the monster crosses over, then we'll fight it then. Here. But we will not go."


"None of us."

Sachiel couldn't believe this. He turned to Maryna, then back to Sandalphon.

"He fought for us," Sachiel said. "He didn't have anything to gain, but he put his life on the line to save our people. And now, when the time comes to return the favor, we're not going?"

"Sachiel, we're in no shape to fight anyone," Sandalphon said, his hand shaking. "We barely have an army left after the creature that struck us."

"You don't have to send an army," Sachiel said. "Just Maryna and I."



"Because I've given you an order," Sandalphon said. "We're not going. That's the end of it, and we're done talking about it."

Sachiel watched him with disbelief. This man, this man he'd admired, who'd regaled him with stories of his battles with the Vampires, a man he'd spent his whole life admiring for his courage and bravery ... was refusing to fight.

And in the bargain, forcing Sachiel to break his word.

"Do you understand your orders?"

Sachiel stiffened. He glanced at Maryna, eyes burning. She looked as frustrated as he was, but reading her expression she was just as puzzled about what to do as he was.

And he had to figure out what to do.

"I'm waiting for an answer, soldier."

His eyes squeezed shut, choking with fury.

"I ...understand, sir," Sachiel lied.

* * *

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