Chapter 21: Impending CrisisIn a flash, they were gone.
The fading glow of the spell closing the portal cut deep shadows into Ka'El's wrinkled face, making his sad red eyes shine for a brief moment before the dark night closed in again. Then he resumed his slouched position, shuffling around the ziggurat as he always did-carrying an enormous weight.
He sighed. This was a moment he'd never wanted to see, and here it was, happening again. Almost twenty years ago, he'd sent a group of extraordinary beings to clean up a mess he'd made, another desperate improvised fix for a disaster of his own creation. And now he'd sent their sons and daughters to fix the same mistake.
And in the end, he thought, it's all my fault.
Ka'El leaned on his cane, feeling very tired.
Every awful moment that had brought them to this moment flashed before his eyes: The war with the sky dwellers, creating the Beasts, the deaths, the fracturing of the world into the Spheres, always trying to fix it, to do it right, and never quite getting there.
Every hard choice led to ten more hard choices and by the time it was done, he was even further from fixing the mess he'd made of things so long ago. Years piled mistakes, and regrets on top of the mistakes, and the weight of it was crushing him.
It always had been, it felt like.
He felt cold, but made no move to go inside.
No, he decided-he'd stay here, and keep watch. He could do that, at least.
He owed everyone as much.
People assume the major events that shape our existence happen with grand thunderous noise, he mused.
But so many are just quiet choices made in the dark.
Darken, Cygnus, Liandra-where this goes now, I can't see. And very soon now, I won't be here to help you anymore. It seems unfair to you, to burden you with all this, right when your lives are just beginning. This wasn't what I wanted or you. For any of you.
I can only pray I taught you well, that I helped in some way to make you the people who could do what I never could:
To make the right choice at the right moment.
His hand tightened around his cane. Incalculable waves of grief cracked his defenses for a moment, and a vast sadness swamped him, bringing tears to his eyes. Tears that Ka'El didn't try to push back.
I'm sorry, he thought.
I'm just so sorry.
The water churned and bubbled, heralding the Beast's rise. It broke the surface tension within a rain and spray of saltwater, throwing faint rainbows in the light. It raised its arms to the sky as its tentacles writhed, grasping with uncertain anxiety at whatever was beyond the sea.
The bodies of the dead that had been pulled along in its wake bobbed up and broke the surface, some stuck to the creature's underside like barnacles, grim souvenirs of its long murderous journey to the surface.
The Beast paused, confused. In all its time in this strange world, the depths were all it had ever known, and as far as it knew, was all there was. And now, it was in new territory-alien and unnatural.
Memory flickered with the creature, searching for a similar experience. Its thoughts clutched for a memory long ago, of being ripped from the world of spirits and stuffed into the shell that now gave it form, before being plunged into the deep.
Time had taken most of its memory, but there was an overwhelming feeling of peace and contentment at the thought of it. In that world had been harmony, life, peace, and contentment.
In the world of the spirits, there was no strife. Every spirit lived in connection with one another. No conflict, no misunderstandings, no battles. Time long ago stole the details of that world, but there was enough of a memory of how it felt to be there, peaceful and contented, with its own kind, connected in perfect harmony.
A place of no strangers.
But here? Everyone-everything was a stranger, and everything was strange. Every moment spent in its metal shell was pain already, and compounding that, it seemed every element of this accursed world aggravated that discomfort, magnified it, and never left it at peace. Even the water it dwelled in was salty, and ate away at the metal that bound it. But the Spirit wasn't trapped inside the shell, it was part of it. So the salt and the cold only caused more pain.
There was no escape. At the end of the hateful ocean, and the beings that lived in there that had tried to stop it from rising, after everything it had endured, after all the pain ... what was there?
Open sky, and a rocky promontory.
And no more water.
The Beast, thrashed its arms and its tentacles in a sudden tantrum, slashing the water and sending a few of the dead bodies flying through the air to smash on the rocks beyond.
Panic and terror seethed in the Beast's mind. It had fought so hard to get away from those tiny awful things that attacked it over and over again to get away from them, to find a place where they weren't, and now that it had found it ... there was nowhere to go.
Except back down.
It was so unfair. It hadn't wanted to be brought here, hadn't wanted to be imprisoned and used to kill and to destroy. All it had ever wanted was to return home.
Another horrible thought intruded: did home even exist, anymore? Time meant little to the Beast, but it was aware it had been here a long time, and whatever had pulled it from its home could have destroyed the world of the spirits if it so chose.
In any case it didn't matter, because if the world was there, it couldn't reach it. The Beast was made to swim and to fight, and past the water's edge it could do nothing but look at the world beyond, close enough to see, but forever far away.
All it could do was rage and thrash its limbs in the direction of the rocks and sky. But neither the rocks nor the sky seemed very bothered.
It froze as it contemplated the bleakness of its predicament, the anxiety of escaping one trap only to find another, more horrible one beyond it held it in a terrified stasis.
Then, something began to form on the horizon. The grey-blue skies above seemed to warp, then tear, as jagged black shadows carved into it, peeling the blue sky away and revealing a blue-white light. Before the Beast's eyes, the white light inverted, becoming black and seeming to tear its way into the skies above.
The black void expanded, and then a shape seemed to tear loose and become distinct, become solid and three-dimensional. It drifted through the passage as the void behind it snapped shut, leaving a corona of black lightning behind it for an instant as the sky became blue again.
The Beast looked up at the vast shape in the skies. It radiated great power, for certain, but it didn't feel like a threat. Not like the hateful little ones that had tried to stop it from rising.
No, this felt ... familiar.
A feeling rose within the Beast, a flicker of the connection it remembered from the world of the spirits, it was another like itself. Feelings of joy flooded it, blotting out the constant pain and the tragedy of its quest. Whatever else, it was not alone.
It reached for the shape in the sky, its arms and tentacles reaching for connection and possible salvation.
But the shape hovered there below the clouds.
Almost as though it were waiting for something.
Sachiel stared at the documents on the table before him, sighing with irritation at details contained within.
Maryna sat across from him, reviewing her own sheaf of papers. Sachiel felt embarrassed. He didn't know he'd sighed so loud.
He stopped, then picked the paper up.
"Actually, it's Sandalphon's plans for the defense of our cities," Sachiel said, gesturing to the paper with his free hand. "I'm supposed to review them and sign off."
"Why you?" Maryna asked. "We're conscripts; it's not as if we have any rank or place in the chain of command."
"Not in the defense force," Sachiel explained. His eyes darted around as they kept their voices low. "But the seal of the royal family expedites things and speeds the process along. I'm not that important beyond cutting out some red tape."
"And that's ... bad, somehow? You're not still mad that he forbade us from going after that distress call?"
Sachiel shook his head. "Not from him. He didn't act like he even remembered it when he dropped them off. No reason for him too, really-I mean, he won."
Sachiel glanced at the sheet again, his brow furrowing.
"It's ...it's the orders. Re-arming the defensive forces, re-building the fleet, expanding the army, specialized soldiers, it's all ... reactive."
"It seems like the right thing to do."
"If you never went further than this castle, I guess," Sachiel said. "But I saw this thing destroy our ships, tear through our fortifications and vaporize our army-our people-like they was never there to begin with. It didn't stop it with this one-why would it stop the next one?"
"They're not all like the one that attacked here, though," Maryna said. "Trust me, I know."
Sachiel nodded. The memory of coming face to face with the Beast flashed in front of his eyes like a waking nightmare. In an instant, he was face to face with it again, watching, helpless, as it burned his people alive. And just like every time before, the smell of burning flesh and smoke filled his nostrils, even now, far from the site of the battle.
The idea that there were more of them out there terrified him.
"It just feels like the wrong thing," Sachiel whispered. "And ... and I counted on Sandalphon knowing better. He's one of the heroes of the vampire war. He went to Taruga and fought Gurus. Took the fight to him. He wasn't afraid then.
"Why is he acting like it now?"
Maryna offered him a smile.
"Are you sure this isn't hurt feelings?"
Sachiel blinked. "Over what?"
"Being outmaneuvered. You tried to rally everyone to go help Darken, and he smacked you down."
Sachiel considered it, and Maryna watched with sympathy as the argument played out across his face and his eyes.
"I don't know," he said, after a time. "I wasn't thinking about my pride. I just want to do the right thing for them. For our people."
Before, Maryna would have scoffed at the idea. But seeing him now, the pain in his eyes, she could see he meant it. Something in him had changed. She'd caught a glimpse of it before, when they were before the king, but now ... he was different.
She smiled at him. And in that moment, she was proud of him.
Sachiel smiled back, and after some silent shuffling, he went back to his work. Back to the papers and his doubts-both with the plan, and the man who'd made it.
Sandalphon had always been his hero. As a child, he'd asked him many times to tell him the story of the final battle with Gurus, and while the captain had always seemed a little reticent to return to those days, he regaled him with the story every time-of how the races of the Spheres set aside their distrust and banded together to fight the vampire threat.
It was nice to have a pleasant memory to push out the terrifying images of the battle. To push away the fears hearing the distress call had brought back before him.
He paused. It was strange that the memory of Sandalphon's story should be on his mind so much today.
He mused over the details of the old story, and how the captain had told it. He compared the lesson of the story, and his doubts about the plan. For a single world alone, under threat from the outside, fortifying and staying solitary made sense.
But during the last crisis, Sandalphon had worked in concert with other races, been willing to take the fight to the enemy and not wait for them to strike. And to destroy this monster they'd needed help from outside as well.
Sachiel was no expert in warfare-Sandalphon had forgotten more than he'd ever know on that score. But even the prince could see the holes in it, and he wasn't looking that hard.
It'll work, Sachiel thought. Right up until the moment it fails.
He eased back in his chair and sighed.
Sandalphon was an expert in warfare, and in strategy. In the alliance with the other races, it was he who'd found a way into the tower.
This plan before him might as well have been written by an entirely different person.
But that's impossible, Sachiel thought. And Sandalphon's no fool.
So what is this-really?
I have to do it-I've got no choice but to follow orders, but ... I think I better find out what that reason is.
Kirone suppressed a tremble as Morgoth tore through the walls between worlds. Something about the energies of this crossing seemed to disturb something within her on a fundamental level. Her ephemeral ally had been as good as their word-they'd managed to cross into Aquatica with their power fully intact, but the experience was quite different than how she'd crossed Spheres before.
Remembering her history for one brief moment, she mused that it seemed very much like the Sunder that Gurus had used to rip through the Spheres.
That should have been impossible. Gurus' rebellion against the vampiric royal had been disavowed, their names scorned and their knowledge forgotten. No one on the Spheres would have held onto it.
Not that a Spirit would have been a signatory to that, she thought. Or that they'd even honor their word, once given.
She stood atop the mother Beast, staring at the creature below. The winds that the portal had stirred up caused her black cloak and her red hair to swirl in the breeze she stood at the top of a new world to conquer.
And what's more, this one didn't seem that aggressive-floating in the water, looking up at Morgoth's skull face, it seemed as if it were expecting the return of an old friend and welcoming it with open arms.
If it only knew.
She narrowed her focus. It was hard to make out at this height, but she could see things floating around the Beast as it surfed atop the waves.
What luck, she thought. It seems to have taken care of any local resistance for us. That, plus how docile it seems to be, means we picked our moment well enough, I'd say.
This went better than I thought it would.
Resolving not to waste any more time, Kirone brought the communication crystal she wore around her wrist to her lips.
"Monstructor," she said. "You know what to do."
In response, the glistening pink lamprey-like mouths of Morgoth slithered out of the recesses in its skull, reaching for the Beast below as the larger structure descended through the skies.
Kirone watched with curiosity. She'd seen Morgoth devour one of the Beasts before, and the creature being consumed had tried to fight all the way to the end. But this one made no effort to resist, even as the fanged circular mouths of the mother Beast closed in.
Kirone watched the creature below with morbid fascination. Was it really going to let Morgoth consume it without a fight? How could it not know the fate that its "mother" had for it?
Or perhaps it's been so long that it doesn't care anymore, Kirone pondered. Maybe it's just ready for a release from this world. Perhaps consuming it, releasing it from this world, is mercy of a sort.
Kirone smiled. It was in interesting hypothetical. In the end it didn't matter. The Beast was one step on the path to an simple goal: power. Kirone had long ago committed herself to doing whatever she had to in the name of achieving the power she needed, that would in turn allow her to claim the destiny that was promised to her.
Whatever she had to do-whether warlike or merciful-she'd justified to herself long ago.
Over her shoulder, she became aware of a flash of light that sparked in the skies behind her, shining like a second sun and irritating her enough to pull her focus away from Morgoth claiming the final Beast.
She bared her fangs in rage at the sight before her.
It was a portal-more natural than the voyage that brought her people here. The golden disc opened up and a handful of beings with wings-Angels, or perhaps dragons. The light was so bright it was hard to make out much more than silhouettes.
Whatever they were, whatever their intent, she knew enough to know they were trouble. Kirone lifted her crystal to her wrist, commanding her forces to join her stop these interlopers.
I fought too hard to get here, she thought, glaring at the new arrivals.
You aren't taking this from me now.
"Monstructor," she ordered. "Rally our forces. Whoever that is, I don't them to interfere with our work."
"At once," her lieutenant assented. "Generals-order the Nomen to take position."
From the empty sockets of Morgoth the Nomen poured forth, black and blue armored beings, their faces obscured by black masks, crawling over the skin of the Beast and taking up positions. A few became ten, tens became dozens, and before long, a hundred of her faceless legion was arrayed atop the beast, flanked by her generals-Svarog, Teratos, and Cauldron, formed from what remained of her honor guard when she'd first crossed into Sirroc.
At their command, all of the Nomen took aim with the weapons mounted to their wrists at the shining disc in the sky above as the fanged mouths slithered down to the Beast below, which sat on the surface of the ocean, unaware of the danger.
Sandalphon stared down the blue-uniformed Seraphim standing before him, his eyes burning two holes through the guard as the captain sat behind his desk.
"And you say she just ... left you in command?"
"Yes, Captain," the Seraphim answered back. If he was afraid, he didn't show it. "With orders that I was to report to you her decision and coordinate with the royal guards if another attack occurred. Until she returned, I was to consider myself and the city guards under your command."
"I see," Sandalphon hissed. His face was a tight scowl of disapproval. "Well, then. Here is your command: maintain your present patrols and state of readiness. When my daughter returns to you, I want her to report to me at once, do you understand?"
"You're dismissed, officer."
The Seraphim excused himself and left the room with efficient haste as the two royal guards posted outside opened the doors and let him out.
Sandalphon turned and looked out the window as the day's light began to ebb.
Alecto, he thought. What have you done?
Bad enough to abandon her post, bad enough to go running off with that ...interloper Darken, but to defy him like this? To throw away her life in a strange place, where he couldn't protect her ...
He sighed, leaning forward and sinking his face into his hands. His vision blocked, he missed the strange play of shadows on the walls, moving against the light outside.
But he didn't need to see it. He could feel it.
He knew they were there.
"You have turned from the work you were charged with. What are you doing?"
The voice hissed from the shadows, seeing as if to come from nowhere.
"It's ... not your concern," Sandalphon responded, sitting back up. His body stiffened. "It's personal."
"You have no personal concerns," the voice responded, cold and unsympathetic. "You belong to us."
Sandalphon pushed against it. He focused on Alecto, hoping she was all right. To his surprise, it seemed to dull the voice's effect on him.
"We allow you the foundling as a distraction," the voice continued. "But if she interferes with our plans, we will remove her, and force you to watch. Is that what you wish?"
He ignored them and focused on her.
"Defy us, and others will suffer for it.
"You know our every word is an order."
Sandalphon let go. Alecto faded from his thoughts.
"Better," the voice responded. The room grew darker. "You will learn your place, instrument."
"I've done what you asked," Sandalphon responded. "Kept the Angels away from the fighting."
"Not all of them."
"I'm not in command of all of them," Sandalphon hissed. "Perhaps if I knew why you-"
"It's not your place to know," the voice sneered. "We have our own plans for the battle on the ocean sphere. Your role is to facilitate our plans for the Angels. Flesh will not question, flesh will do what it is ordered to do."
Sandalphon winced. His thoughts drifted to Alecto again. Fear shot through him. She was right in the middle of whatever they were planning, and he could do nothing to help her.
Damn it all, he thought. Doesn't she know how important she is?
The voice must have felt the thoughts pushing against their influence, because they pushed Sandalphon. Hard. He groaned and leaned forward. He felt a tearing behind his eyes and a cold trickle from his nose dribbled onto his glove.
"Your pledge to us is older than the one you gave to the foundling, instrument. What you were given can be taken away. Do you understand?"
Sandalphon stared at the blood dripping onto his glove.
There was silence for a moment. Sandalphon sat, frozen in place like a frightened animal. The voice seldom wavered from the tense, contemptuous hiss of command he'd learned to fear the past twenty years and had grown familiar to Sandalphon.
But he'd never known them to yell.
"Then we understand one another," the voice said, its tone satisfied. The bleeding stopped, and Sandalphon eased back in his chair.
"Get ready," he remembered Alecto saying. "We're making a blind jump. Whatever we find when we're there, we may not have time to react before the fight begins."
Mirroring the rest of the Seraphim he was flying with, Darken kept his shield up, protecting his face. He flew at the front of the vanguard, Blackfang in his other hand, keeping his gaze straight ahead as the rippling blue light of the space between worlds shimmered out around them.
The blind jump had been Alecto's idea. It was risky, but given their ability to fly and the terrain of Aquatica, the plan was to take the stone peak and establish a beach head. If they were lucky, they'd beat the monster to surface, and they could keep it occupied while they called reinforcements.
If not, then they'd go with Darken's plan-think of something when they got there.
The space in front of them rippled and parted, like a soap bubble popping and the grey skies of Aquatica spread out before them. Darken blinked a few times, his eyes adjusting to the light as the sharp salty air filled his lungs.
In an instant, several things were clear. They'd been too late to beat the Beast to the surface. Even more critical, they hadn't counted on the presence of another Beast, which now was hovering above the other, and which, at sight of the flying warriors streaming from their passage in the sky, opened fire.
There was another one? Darken wondered, the strikes from their weapons rattling the shield like a hard and lethal rain. He folded his wings tight against him, going into a dive as the other Seraphim streamed behind him, some getting cut down by the continuous fire from the Beast.
"Darken," Alecto's voice rang from the Eagle Clasp. "I thought there was just supposed to be one of them."
"So did I," Darken said, rolling to avoid a salvo of fire, as he dove closer. "I didn't know about this one!"
"Are there ...are there people on this one? We're seeing movement on its outer shell."
"What-" Darken began, cut off by having to evade another fusillade. He'd been trying to penetrate the curtain of fire to get a closer look. The Beasts he'd encountered before had been capable of mass destruction before, but with larger-scale attacks than this, and not this precise.
This was targeted to beings like Darken. Like how a ship would repel boarders.
And I can't imagine a Beast having a crew, Darken pondered, diving in tight, pressing closer. They usually attack anything on sight.
So this is something else.
He drew his wings in tighter. The fire against his shield was so thick and concentrated it was slowing him down and he could see hairline cracks beginning to form. Too much more, and his shield would be gone, assuming he didn't crash against it because he didn't pull out of his dive in time.
Through his disintegrating shield, he could see them, crawling over the skin of the Beast-hundreds of faceless blue armored soldiers, arms raised, a strange gold device on their arms.
Darken came in low enough to see his face reflected in the helmet of one of them before he swung his arms and wings wide, breaking out of the dive at the last minute. The soldiers continued firing, and part of his clothes were ripped by come close shots as he used the momentum to go back into a climb, streaking over the soldiers at a speed too fast for them to track with their fire.
"You were right!" Darken shouted. The wind was howling so much at this speed he could hardly hear himself think. "There's an army on this thing! I've never seen anything like it."
"That's not good," Alecto said. He could hear grunts of exertion from her. "They've got us pinned down-we can't get close. We knock down some of their fire, more fills the breach. Can you give us an opening?"
He soared up, past the jagged teeth and horned protrusions of the skull-like beast, rolling to avoid the hungry snake-like heads that slithered from gaps in the monster's armor. One got too close and he drove the edge of his shield into its eye, causing it to squeal away as he used the momentum from the strike to increase his altitude.
He soared straight up, trying to clear the Beast's mass and attack from above. If he could get high enough, he could hit them from a position they couldn't return fire.
But as he reached the very top of the Beast, he found something strange. A woman, just about his age, stood before him, her black cape billowing in the salty air like black wings. The arrogant confidence of her stance and sneer of contemptuous command indicated someone of importance-the commander of the soldiers, perhaps.
For a split second, their eyes met across the wind and waves-burning red eyes meeting a curious blue gaze, and something passed unspoken between them.
Darken raised his shield and flew towards her as the woman raised her hands. Kirone hurled a bolt of magic at the charging figure, annihilating his shield in a burst of violet flame. Darken bounced backwards, driving the point of the Blackfang into the Beast's armor to anchor himself as he got to his feet. He felt her follow-up attack singe his outer feathers as he shielded himself with his wings.
"That should have burnt you to a crisp, Angel," the vampire sorceress hissed. "What are you?"
"No one special," Darken said, raising the Blackfang. "Who are you?"
"Kirone Witchfire," she replied, hurling another bolt of magic at him. Darken spun the Blackfang in a circle as the bolt of magical force struck. While the impact did hurt him, he was dimly aware that his actions had blunted the force of the attack.
The Blackfang? Darken thought.
My father used it against the vampires-it makes sense that it would counter their magic.
Kirone looked shocked. That was one of her strongest spells. The man should be cinders.
"You're stronger than the average Angel," she said. "I'll give you that."
"I'm no Angel," Darken said, getting to his feet.
Kirone summoned more spells.
"I'm intrigued. Where did you learn how to defend against magic?"
"How did you hijack a Beast?"
Kirone's eyes widened.
"You know ... what this is?"
Darken nodded. "I've been destroying a few of them on the other Spheres. And I'm here to finish the job."
Of course, Kirone thought. If he's strong enough to destroy a Beast, then he's obviously strong enough to resist my magic.
And there's only one place he could have learned it...
"Then you're definitely not an Angel," Kirone said. "And I think I know what you are now, if not who:
"My opposite number."
Magical power surged through her fingertips through the armor of the Beast, running through the floor and into Darken's body. Blood red lighting shocked him, forcing him to one knee. He held tight to the Blackfang, but it didn't seem to offer much protection against this attack.
"I heard prophecies about you," Kirone said, increasing the force of her assault as she walked forward. "About us, I mean. ‘The child of two will unite the Spheres; the child of two will destroy the Spheres. ' Did you ever hear them?"
Darken screamed in agony, now down on both knees.
"Don't feel like you have to answer me-It's a rhetorical question," Kirone clarified. "I wondered about you all my life-if you were real, how we'd meet; that kind of thing. I hoped we would.
"I suppose everyone looks at their reflection with curiosity."
She poured more power into the spell, enjoying Darken's screams and convulsions of pain.
"But the moment's passed now, and I really have a lot to do to today," Kirone said. "So I'm going to kill you, forget about this stupid prophecy, and focus on my destiny.
"If that's OK with you. And really-even if it isn't."
Darken seemed to be devoured by the red lightning, the energy arcing around him with such violence that it drowned out the screams. In a few more seconds, he would be consumed by the spell, dead at his hand.
Kirone whispered a final farewell under her breath, but before the final second could claim the life of her opposite, he was knocked away by someone else and sent sprawling.
Kirone's eyes blazed with fury as she glared at Vertiga.
"What are you DOING?!"
Vertiga faced Darken, sword at the ready, glaring over her shoulder at the sorceress.
"NO!" Kirone screamed. "He was-he is-"
"He's MINE," Vertiga snarled, gripping her sword tighter.
"You don't even know who he is!"
"I know that you want to kill him," Vertiga said. "So I'm going to kill him first, Kirone. Just to deny you. Just to hurt you.
"Just like you did with me."
Let her go.
The voice in Kirone's mind was so calm it was like a shout.
Let her go, the voice repeated. She and the Halfling are irrelevant. We have bigger issues before us.
We can't leave it to her, Kirone responded with exasperation. He told me he'd destroyed Beasts, and without you she's nowhere near strong enough to-
If we finish our work here, what he can or cannot do means little to us, the voice replied. And if Vertiga keeps him occupied, he can't interfere with us. Return to the work, Witchfire. Everything else is irrelevant.
Even Vertiga? Kirone pondered. She was your-
She was an instrument, the voice said, caution in its cold clarification.
An instrument. Nothing more than that.
Darken gasped for air, using the Blackfang to pull himself up to one knee. The pain of the spell made it difficult to get a deep breath, his body shook with pain worse than he'd ever felt. He wanted to call for Alecto, for Ka'El, for Liandra for anyone, but he was, alone, with a war raging all around him.
"Get to your feet," the girl before him said, the point of her sword aimed at his head. "Kirone would kill you while you were down, but I won't."
His eyes fixed on the massive sword, scratched and nicked, but it still had a keen edge. Darken could hardly believe she could even lift a weapon that heavy with ease-it obviously wasn't built for her.
That was unusual, but not unheard of. After all, the Blackfang hadn't been made for him and he was able to wield it. But there was something else, something in how she looked, how she stood ...
It reminded him of Cygnus.
"Wh-why?" Darken gasped.
"So I can kill you," Vertiga said.
"I don't even know you," Darken groaned, getting to his feet. "Why are you fighting with her?"
"I'm not with her," Vertiga sneered. She cocked her head back in Kirone's direction. "But she wants to kill you, and I want to screw her out of the satisfaction."
Darken raised an eyebrow. "That's ...that's ... really petty."
"Well, it's kind of our thing."
Vertiga rushed him, and Darken had just enough time to raise the Blackfang in a crossblock. Steel met steel with a thunderous noise and Darken's knees buckled under the force of the blow, but he was able to force her back, knocking away the warrior's follow-up strikes as she stumbled back.
Darken tried an attack of her own, but she knocked it away and sent him stumbling back, swatting away his follow-through attack with such force it threatened to knock the Blackfang from his hand.
He tried poking at her from a distance, but she smacked it aside, advancing on him.
She's really good, he thought. Strong. That sword is a heavy block of iron and she's throwing it around like a light blade.
But... she doesn't have any concept of defense. She meets every attack with an attack.
Again she brought the blade down on him with an overhead swash, her eyes blazing with fury even silhouetted by the light. Darken rolled away, trying to drive her back and get some space by doing quick attacks. Vertiga got in even closer, catching her in the side with the edge of the Blackfang.
She cried out in pain and surprise, then backhanded Darken with her free hand. She nearly drove the point of her blade through his face, but Darken brought up his weapon and leaned into it, pressing his weight against it.
She'd need momentum and distance to make an effective strike, but with her sword pinned, she couldn't get loose and hit him. On the other hand, he couldn't attack either.
They were stalemated.
Vertiga shoved against the block, trying to force a break. Again and again she tried, snarling and growling like a trapped animal.
"Come on," she demanded. "Don't die a coward. This kind of thing won't save you."
"I'm not ... trying to," Darken said, holding fast. "But we don't have any reason to fight. You don't like her and I'm trying to stop her! We should be together."
Vertiga's eyes narrowed, staring daggers at him through their weapons.
"I don't care," she said. "It doesn't matter."
"M-maybe not to you," Darken said, hanging on tight. "But what about everyone else? Everyone she could hurt? Hurt like she hurt you ... or worse?"
"Y-You," Vertiga began, her voice quavering with rage.
"YOU DON'T KNOW ME!
"YOU DON'T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT ME!"
She let go of her sword and grabbed his hand. In an instant, purple flames engulfed the pair of them and both were consumed in an explosion that blew them away from each other.
Darken got to his feet, bracing himself with his wings and the Blackfang. It wasn't quite as bad as the sorceress' attack, but not far from it.
My own fault, he thought. I underestimated her, and she made me pay for it.
Vertiga stomped towards him, sword at the ready, murder in her eyes.
"You're going to die," was all she said, and most of that was drowned out by the exertion of her raising her sword high above her head.
Darken adopted a defensive stance, trying to ignore the exhaustion and pain that surged through him. He felt his muscles tremble. He'd been able to get up and keep going after taking some heavy hits, but he could tell he didn't have much left.
The next exchange would tell the story.
Before Vertiga could strike, red streaks of light cut through the skies, then through Vertiga, sending her to the ground with a cry of pain. She tumbled to the deck, cut down.
Darken looked around in surprise. No one was firing up here, and it the shots didn't have the same signature as the soldiers below.
The sorceress, he thought. Did she-?
"Should have known we'd find you in the thick of things," a familiar voice said, cutting through his confusion.
Liandra swooped in, her black wings folding behind her as she and the person she carried, got to their feet, standing between Darken and Vertiga.
One of Liandra's fairies looked over her shoulder to make she he was all right as the vampire angel gestured, and suddenly a brilliant red sword shimmered into existence.
"Liandra-" Darken began. There were a million questions he wanted to ask, but this wasn't the time.
"We heard the distress call," Liandra said. "We're here to help, and we know what we have to do."
Darken glanced over at the other person Liandra had carried in the fight He hadn't focused on them at first-so surprised by their arrival and the change in his sister, he was having trouble taking it all in.
Cygnus stood beside Liandra, sword at the ready. She glanced over her shoulder at Darken. Something flickered in her silver eyes-concern for him, and something else, like she wanted to ask forgiveness for something from him.
Then she turned to face Vertiga, who was scrambling to her feet.
"Why are you getting involved with ... something that isn't your business?" Vertiga snarled, using her sword to rise to her feet.
"Because you and I have business, Vertiga," Cygnus said, standing forth.
"Isn't that right?"
Darken watched this play out with fascination, as did Liandra. As the two faced off, the sorceress' words returned to him, what she'd said about opposites, and reflections, and he could see that Cygnus and Vertiga were the same-negative images facing one another down.
He didn't say anything, and neither did Liandra. In the end, the only thing that broke the silence between the four of them was the screaming cry of Vertiga's opening attack on Cygnus.
Below, floating in the ocean, the Beast reached out, hopeful for release to its comrade above. Slimy tentacles slithered down from the creature above, so close now that its shape was black against the sunless sky. The only thing it could make out was the heads on the end of the tentacles, and their wide disc-like mouths.
At first, this didn't bother it-the shape of a thing didn't matter, only the spirit within. There was no need to fear. Even the faint signs of battle above were of no concern-so grateful was it to see and feel the presence of another of its kind again, at this moment, it feared nothing.
Until the moment the tentacles' fanged mouths affixed to the skin of the Beast, their sharp tongues ripping through the outer armor. Once they had torn through, it began to leech the life from the creature.
The beast's armor began to dent, as if imploding from within. Agony on a scale it could not comprehend flared within it as it began to thrash and struggle to free itself from the vampiric embrace of the interloper.
But it couldn't get free. If anything, its struggles pulled it in closer, and more tentacles latched on and began sucking the Beast dry. The will to fight ebbed in its crumpling form, and there was only one action it could do, at last:
The very air shook with the Beast's agonizing scream.