Chapter 22: Fire in the SkyTo anyone else, the keening cry of the Beast below being devoured by Morgoth was an obscenity, so loud and disturbing it seemed to transcend sound and made the air shudder with its ancient, dying agonies.
To Kirone, it was the sound of victory, a song meant just for her. She looked down from Morgoth's highest peak, watching the snakelike heads pulse as they sucked dry the last precious drops of life from its fellow creature.
Her heart fluttered in her chest. It had been such a long road, getting to this place, to this moment. Everything she'd feared, every delay, every inconvenience, every force that lined up to stop her or frustrate her ambition was contained, pinned down, destroyed, or dying. Even her opposite number had been a non-factor in the end.
That last lingered in her mind for a moment longer like a sour taste on her tongue. For all that she'd been told of their destined antagonism, it had all been rather anticlimactic, and not just because Vertiga had interceded in their battle. Having seen no sign of either the mad swordswoman or the black-winged boy, Kirone imagined she'd succeeded in killing him by now, the idea of which annoyed her more than she'd expected; or that they'd killed each other, which a more pleasant outcome to imagine.
If that's the case, at least I won't end up owing Vertiga anything, she thought.
Still--it seems a shame. After all that buildup, all this talk of a shared grand destiny, I suppose I thought he and I would have more of a relationship.
She set that aside and raised her arms high above her head, summoning the magic to flow through her. Whatever destiny's whim, there was still a battle to win.
* * *
Alecto grimaced as her Seraphim tried once again to fire from their position within the rocks. As before, the beam dissipated well before it got close to the Beast. Moving closer hadn't helped much-the curtain of fire kept them pinned down. Moreover, while their weapons were sufficient for policing a city, for fighting a war at long range, they were somewhat wanting.
Sandalphon controlled most of those weapons, however, and Alecto had the distinct feeling that asking him for assistance after disobeying his orders might not be the best idea. Then she decided that was an understatement.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," the Serpahim said. "Unless we can break their flank and get in close, we're pinned down here. Our weaponry ..."
Alecto nodded, raising a hand to reassure him. "It's all right. I had a feeling. We're stuck here until something changes. Keep looking for an opening; be ready to move as soon as you see one."
Her hand closed around her Eagle Clasp. The fact of their impotence might have been a bit easier to take if Darken would just respond, but there had been no word from him since the initial attack. He'd made it through, but the rest of his wing was dead or had been pulled wounded from the waters below.
Since then, nothing from him. And nothing she could do.
Her mouth was set in a hard line. The feeling of being stuck, of being able to do nothing, was the absolute worst.
She was about to try to call Darken once more when there was a shimmer from behind her. She recognized the signature even before she turned around-the scent of ozone in the air, the strange tingly energy that seemed to sizzle in the air, it was a gate formed by an Eagle Clasp.
Her mind raced with possibilities. Had Sandalphon sent reinforcements? Had someone else?
Hope flickered in her eyes as she spun around, and then died in an instant, replaced with confusion.
"Alecto Lightningfrost," the massive warrior standing in front of the gate said. She knew him in an instant, even though they'd never met. In so many of her father's stories she'd pictured him in her mind's eye-the broad striped wings, the snow-white fur.
Tigerhawk was standing before her. And knew her name.
This battle had been frustrating seconds before. Now it was becoming surreal.
Tigerhawk nodded. A thin smile came across his face.
"Hello, Alecto. You are just as your father described you."
"My father?" Alecto began. "I, you-oh, right, of course you do."
"We've come to help," he continued.
"'We?' Who else have ...
The dragons streamed out of the gate, crawling on all fours over the jagged rocks with ease, surrounding the Seraphim and regarding them with a sort of amused curiosity.
"City guardians?" One of them-a red and gold dragon-said, his voice gruff and contemptuous. He loped towards Alecto, thrusting his snout into her face. "The Angels sent their police to fight? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised they aren't taking this seriously."
"The Angels didn't send anyone," Alecto said, regaining her composure. "I did."
The red dragon snorted, breaking into a toothy grin. Tigerhawk looked a little embarrassed for his comrade's rudeness.
"You chose this fight? You've more spirit than I give your people credit for, girl," the dragon said. "I'm impressed."
"Grune, we don't have time for this," Tigerhawk said.
"No, we don't," Alecto said. Any awkwardness or embarrassment left her, and she snapped back to her duty in an instant. "Darken's fighting over there-between the two creatures. I don't know how he's doing, and we're pinned down on the rocks. We need to break through their forces and back him up."
Tigerhawk nodded, drawing his sword. Alecto turned to Grune.
"Can you break through their fire and give us a chance to get a foothold?"
"Easily," Grune sneered, offended that she thought it was even in question.
Alecto cocked an eyebrow. "Good," she said. "Because you just volunteered to be our vanguard. Once we break through, the Seraphim will try to locate Darken and link up."
"He's not fighting alone," Tigerhawk said. "Two more of our people came in early while I gathered Grune and his men."
"All right," Alecto said. "You all know what to do. Break their formation, get entrenched, find Darken and his people. If you can determine a command structure or how these things are directing the battle, I want to know. Once we're through and link up, we'll regroup and make a stand. Everyone got that?"
She looked at them-Seraphim, Dragons, heroes--and nodded, gathering her resolve.
"Until then, stick together. Watch out for each other."
And if we're very lucky, she thought, I'll see you on the other side.
* * *
The Beast screamed again, its armored form crumpling as it was drained dry, causing Morgoth to thrash around as it sucked the marrow from its companion. Darken braced himself on the Blackfang, trying to stay upright, his body still aching from the battles with Kirone and Vertiga. His mind drifted, and the sounds of battle drifted far away for a moment.
This was what I'd been groomed my whole life for, he thought. And it's out of control. I can't do anything. They're too strong, and I--
"Darken," Liandra's voice came over his shoulder, gripping his shoulder and shaking him a little. "Darken-stay with me. Focus."
"I ...Liandra-I'm sorry," Darken replied. "I was..."
"I know. But we need you here and now," she said, squeezing his shoulder. "The Beast, Darken-we've got to stop this thing. How did you destroy the others?"
Darken's brow furrowed. He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. "There's ... there's a spell. You have to seal them first," he began. "Once they're hit with that, I can destroy them with the Blackfang."
He paused, studying Liandra's reaction to that. Why did she have to ask me that?
Something terrible occurred to him.
"He didn't-Ka'El didn't teach you the sealing spell, did he?"
"No," Liandra said, her fairies shaking their heads.
"I don't understand," Darken said. Things were spinning out of control again. "Why wouldn't he? He taught Maryna, and if he sent you, he knows we need that, and-"
"Is there another way?"
"No," Darken grimaced. "If there is, I don't know it."
"Well, we've got to do something!"
"I don't know what to do!" Darken said. He felt so overwhelmed, the icy fear gripping him whispered in his mind that this was his fault--every decision that brought him here had been the wrong one, and they were going to die.
"I don't know how to destroy it without the spell."
Liandra grabbed him and spun him around, her fairies coruscating with energy as they glared at him.
"Well, we don't have that," Liandra said. "And we don't have the time for you to come apart right now. We've got to do something. Everyone is depending on it. On us. Think. If we can't destroy it, what can we do to stop it? Can we tear the two of them loose?"
"I..." Darken began, still afraid and ashamed for losing it. "Y-yes. I think if we can break the connection, we can buy ourselves some time."
Liandra summoned her sword. "Then let's do what we can," she said.
Darken couldn't help but smile. The fear and the shame had gripped him, and held him fast for a few moments, but Liandra's quiet confidence and certainty had brushed it aside in an instant.
There was still hope. There was still something they could do. And he wasn't alone. And as long as he wasn't, there was hope.
"All right," Darken said, spreading his wings. "Let's go."
They leapt off the edge of the Beast and soared into the war torn skies.
* * *
The dragons were as good as their word. If the constant volleys of fire from the Nomen bothered them at all, they gave no sign as they glided in a flying wedge, their broad wings bringing them in low along the Beast's tentacles, as their fiery breath strafed the Nomen, blasting them off their perch and into the waters below. Grune extended his legs and dug deep into the chest of one of the Nomen, slamming him into the surface of the tentacle and using the shattered body of the soldier to skid to a stop as he exhaled a stream of fire, sending more of the monsters flying as his brethren came to rest, burning a landing zone for the rest. Grune's lips split into a bloodthirsty grin as he drew his weapon and charged into the fray while Alecto and Tigerhawk came to rest, the other Seraphim forming up, weapons and shields at the ready.
A group of Nomen charged their position as they came in, but they were ready. Tigerhawk decapitated two of them with his sword and used the claws on his gauntlet to smash through a third. Alecto froze the four behind him solid and waved everyone off as she called down her lighting and shattered them in a glittering shower of debris while her Seraphim charged forward, breaking this group of reinforcements as another group surged against the dragons at the front of their assault.
"Girl," Grune's voice growled over her Eagle Clasp. "You wanted someone in charge? I believe we've found him. Get up here!"
Alecto rolled her eyes "Grune, I have a name-You know what? Never mind." She gestured to Tigerhawk "Come with me. The rest of you--get looking for our people and get them down here or get us up there, understand?"
The Seraphim nodded, and Alecto rushed forward, past the shattered and scorched remains of the Nomen the dragons had taken care of, scaling the tentacle like a long and winding staircase.
They hadn't gone too far before they saw what Grune was talking about. Flanked by another squad of Nomen was a horned metal giant, wielding a mace and an axe in each hand, and doing significant damage to the dragons in his way.
Grune hopped over to them, spewing another ball of fire in the direction of the metal giant who walked through it and split the skull of one of the dragons with his axe, brushing past the dead creature as the body dropped.
"He's killed five of mine," Grune snarled. "Our fire doesn't even slow him down, and our strongest blows do nothing. If we can't get past him, we go no further."
"Not an option," Alecto said, concentrating on the metal giant's attack pattern.
"Then what do suggest, girl?" Grune hissed. "I doubt barking orders will entice it to change allegiance!"
"Be quiet," Alecto said, concentrated on their opponent. "I have an idea." Grune rolled his eyes.
"Get your dragons to fall back out of range of his weapons, then tell them to concentrate their fire on the monster. As long and as intense as you can manage."
"I told you, his body is proof against our fire."
"Just do it, Grune!"
Grune nodded, and gave the signal. In perfect sync, the dragons fell back, each breathing a stream of fire towards the metal giant, who kept pace as if the flames weren't there. As his body glowed red, he began to slow his brisk walk, then as his skin became yellow and then white, he took even slower steps, leaving melted footprints in his wake.
Alecto took a deep breath as the now white-hot enemy kept walking.
"Okay Grune, get your dragons clear," Alecto said. "And both of you get behind me-it's going to get very cold very fast. Keep moving forward, but get as far away as you can. Except for you, Tigerhawk."
Tigerhawk's brow furrowed. "What are you planning?"
"You'll figure it out," Alecto said, extending her hands. "Be ready-when he stops, you strike."
Tigerhawk nodded, feeling the air pressure begin to sink as Grune and his compatriots flew away, finding another squad of Nomen to demolish. The white-hot exterior of the giant's armor began to his with stream, then glaze over wet, then begin to frost.
The giant paused, confused, and then pressed forward again. With every step he took, a brilliant blue bolt of lightning surged into him, scorching his armor with angry black smudges that iced over. The rippling metal began to abrade, then crack with every step and lightning strike. The giant's progress became a stumbling gait, then a crawl.
Angered, the giant lunged back, meaning to hurl its mace towards Alecto, but the metal of his arm twisted and spun off at the shoulder, bouncing on the slick ice that covered the surface before it tumbled into the ocean below, as more and more lightning struck him, forcing him to one knee, which immediately froze to the tentacle.
Alecto was burning up-she was drawing more magic through her than she ever had, and she could feel herself overheating, but she forced herself to keep sending more.
All she needed was a few more seconds.
The giant tried to pull himself up, but he was frozen fast, and soon more and more ice formed on him. The giant continued to struggle for a time, but soon enough, he was frozen solid. In a split-second, Tigerhawk leapt to the sky, spreading his wings and bringing the edge of his blade down into the frozen shape of the giant. Its armored hide, weakened by the extreme heat and cold and the lightning gave way under the force of the strike and the giant shattered into a million pieces. One of the pieces flew straight at Alecto and caught her in the temple before she could get her arms up, and she reeled as she tried to stay on her feet.
"ALECTO!" A voice growled from somewhere above her. Grune had seen her take the hit and cried out as the remainder of his dragons scaled the surface of the Beast.
Alecto reeled as Tigerhawk and the Seraphim formed up around her. She tried to shake off the shrapnel hit as best she could, but her exhaustion gave her little resources to hold on.
A familiar voice growled over her Eagle Clasp.
"Are you all right, Alecto?"
"I'm ...ok," she groaned. "Just ... just glad you remembered my name."
Grune answered back something that sounded guttural, yet respectful.
"Now ... now, you remember what I said," Alecto continued. "We don't stop. Now that we're here ... we don't stop."
* * *
Darken went into a power dive, driving the point of the Blackfang into the surface of the creature's tentacle, just behind its head. The hope was that he'd hit some critical part of the Beast's nervous system and force it to let go of the other one, like a reflex action.
The most response he felt was the surface of the tentacle stiffen, like the involuntary twitch of an animal's hide trying to make a fly go away. Darken jerked the point of the spear free, searching for any sign that he'd done some damage.
But there was none.
That was a problem-the Blackfang had been designed to injure the beasts, sealing spell or not, it should have left some mark, but there was nothing.
Before he could consider the implications, he saw a plume of fire out of the corner of his eye and swept himself up into the air, turning to face where it had come from. A strange masked creature, clad in strange armor unlike anything he'd ever seen before leapt down from one of the Beast's horned protrusions down to him. Where his right arm should have been, a dragon's head was attached, and the creature directed the strange appendage like a gun, blasting fireball after fireball in Darken's direction.
Darken stayed above it. He wasn't so afraid of the fire, but this was delaying his main objective in getting the Beast to release its grip. Another howl of pain came from the steadily dying Beast below, and the violent thrashing of the joined creatures was subsiding as the other Beast's prey began to weaken.
There wasn't much time, and this battle was a distraction he couldn't afford.
Darken willed away the Blackfang and drove his body into his opponent, knocking him off his perch and sending him falling. The creature rolled to his feet, stunned, and raised his dragon-arm to fire at Darken, who was diving at him full force.
In a flash, Darken willed the Blackfang back into his hands as his power dive hit terminal velocity. The dragon's head slid from the creature's arm only seconds before Darken skid to his feet, spun his spear, and took the creature's head. The creature's twice-decapitated body fell to the surface of the tentacle, leaving a trail of fluid as the tentacle bucked the spent flesh off itself.
* * *
Their blades clashed again and again-Vertiga's ferocity met by Cygnus' elegant counters. Vertiga was far stronger, but her ferocity and lack of discipline made her predictable, and her straight-ahead attacks were easily swatted aside.
But she was determined. She never relented, and her inability to break her opponent's defense only seemed to increase her fury, and along with that, her power.
And over and over, every attack was met with the same demand.
"Give BACK what you stole from me!"
"I didn't take anything from you!" Cygnus replied "The vampires did this to us-to you. Think, Vertiga!"
"Shut up!" Vertiga screamed, smashing her blade into Cygnus' weapon again and again, tears of rage streaking her face. "I don't care! You stole from me! You did this to me!"
Cygnus locked their blades together. Their eyes met, and the silver in her eyes lost all their warmth.
"I didn't do this to you," she replied, keeping Vertiga pinned. "You know who did. The one who was trapped in your sword. The voice in your head. Where is he, Vertiga? Where did he go?"
Vertiga's expression softened for a moment.
"Lanicrus," Cygnus said. "His name is Lanicrus. And he's just like me. Where is he? What's he doing in this world? How did you set him free?"
Vertiga shoved Cygnus down, sending her tumbling.
"Set him free?" Vertiga repeated, lifting her sword up. The rage that fueled her had dissipated for a moment, leaving only confusion. "I didn't. He ... he left. He left me alone. With nothing.
"Just like you."
Cygnus' eyes narrowed. Breaking the seal binding a spirit to a weapon should be impossible for the spirits-their power needed a conduit in this world, as they were.
It was why Cygnus had done all she could to keep the weapon she'd been bound to safe, after attempting to break the connection on her own proved impossible.
The air began to get very hot. Vertiga advanced on her, charging up another explosion of power, as she'd done before with Darken, summoning all her rage and turning it into destructive might.
"I didn't ask for this," Cygnus said, getting to her knees. "Any of it."
"Didn't ask for what?"
"To be in this world," Cygnus continued. Vertiga's slow walk forward didn't seem to intimidate her. "To see the people who stole us from our home, the people I only knew how to hate. I didn't want to fight this war. I didn't ever ask to be here. And believe me, I tried to leave!"
" Don't worry, Vertiga said, a corona of fire appearing around her as her power entered its critical phase. "You'll be gone soon. I'll make sure."
"I didn't want to be here," Cygnus repeated. Her voice was steady, not clouded by fear. "And I didn't want to hurt you, Vertiga. I still don't."
"The feeling isn't mutual."
"But I have someone keeping me here, now," Cygnus said. "I'm not just anchored to a weapon. I'm not anchored to my hate. Can you understand that? I have a reason to fight, and a reason to be here. I'm free.
"And what's between you and I ... I can't let that stop me, now."
Vertiga lunged forward. She'd had enough of this. She'd hoped for fear from her double, for contrition, for her to beg for her life, and that she was getting none of that made the fury that burned within her finally go critical.
"BURN IN HELL, CYGNUS!"
Cygnus scraped the tip of her sword against the skin of the Beast and where she struck, a cyclone whipped up, blasting Vertiga off her feet and into the sky. In her panic, she unleashed the energy she'd been storing up and for an instant, the sky was lit with violet fire, and Vertiga was gone from sight.
The winds stilled as Cygnus rose to her feet. She clenched her gloved fist, as if testing how solid her grip was.
Still here, she thought. Which means Vertiga is too.
Just one more thing to do, then.
Cygnus sheathed her sword, walking to the edge of the Beast. She looked down at the war raging below as she plucked one of the feathers that were tried in her hair, gripping it tightly as she searched the skies below for Darken and Liandra.
"I can do no more," she remembered him saying. "If a better world is to come, if we're at last to break the chains of history that hold us, we have to choose a new way.
"And that decision isn't mine to make. I have been wrong. What I have done, was wrong. No apology would encompass it. So I do the only thing I can-the last thing.
"Only you can make this choice."
Cygnus looked from Darken to Liandra, her keen eyes picking their shapes soaring through the battles below, weaving through the firestorm that raged below. Below them, the Beast screamed again, its agonized death cry shaking the entire world around them.
There wasn't much time.
Ka'El, she thought, sending a silent call beyond the bounds of worlds, I've made my decision.
The feather in her hand began to glow, with a brilliant silver-blue fire, changing into something else. Cygnus' silver eyes narrowed on the black-winged shape turning and turning in the war-torn gyre.
She closed her eyes. What she would do next would change everything. Not just for her, but for everything and everyone. With this feather, a new history would be written.
Cygnus opened her eyes, fixing on the black-winged angel below.
If ever you ask me, if we ever speak again--I'll tell you why. I did it for love.
She threw the feather.
* * *
As Liandra made for one of the tentacles to knock it loose, she was met by a squad of Nomen and one of their generals, a squat armored thing that seemed to be pouring fire from the vents of its armor and spewed a huge gout of flame at her when she tried to approach, trying to pin her down and keep her away.
But the creature, while powerful, hadn't reckoned on the advantage that Liandra's fairies gave her. With the increased field of vision their symbiosis gave her, she analyzed the flaming monster's attack pattern and found a weakness.
Liandra drew his fire higher and higher, keeping the infernal creature's vision fixed to the sky, higher and higher until she slipped over and behind him, looping around the tentacle and picking up speed as she soared up underneath.
There was a brilliant flash of light as the fairies flew in front of the creature, strobing their lights to distract him as Liandra crashed into him, knocking him off balance as she bounced off him, her fairies circling around her.
The monster stumbled and rolled off the tentacle, tumbling head over heels down to the water below as it bounced off the dying beast below and hit the water, snuffed out like a candle. After that, it sank without trace to a watery grave.
Liandra busied herself sweeping the rest of the Nomen away as Darken came up alongside her. The expression on his face indicted he'd been no more successful than she had in getting the Beasts separated.
"I couldn't get it loose," Darken said, flapping his wings to match her altitude. "It won't let go."
Liandra grit her fangs in frustration. "Is there anything we haven't tried?"
"I can't think of anything. We're just not strong enough to do it."
Liandra wasn't giving up. "Maybe both of us on one them at the same time?"
"LIANDRA!" A voice called from below them. One of her fairies turned to look, as the other caught a glimpse of something in the sky above, a blue-white shimmer, before it too turned to look.
And with their attention below them, Liandra missed Darken getting struck.
* * *
Darken screamed as the bolt of energy plunged into his chest, a plume of blue-white fire spreading from the point of impact and engulfing him. Pain, unlike anything he'd ever known set every nerve aflame, and he squeezed his eyes shut so hard that tears of blood began to drip from the corners of his eyes. After the initial electrifying surge of agony he felt every muscle in his body go slack. As a conditioned reflex, he curled into a ball, wrapping his wings around himself, preparing for impact with whatever was below him.
He had the dimmest feeling that he should be falling, but he didn't. He hung in the air, suspended, glowing like a newborn star. The change came in waves, pulsing like starlight through him. The black taloned wings changed, turning from their dark solid shape into wings of flame and feathers, which wrapped around Darken's body like a cocoon, changing him, remaking him, and catalyzing something within him that had lain dormant since the day he was born.
The light was so intense that Liandra found it hard to see what was going on-it was more like she felt the change in her brother more than she could see it.
There was something else at work here. Something that was changing her brother-no, that wasn't it. Something that was changing everything. Liandra could feel the fundamental rules that had governed their lives and their existence had just been changed.
Something new, and more than a little terrifying, had been added.
It seemed to go on forever, but was over in an instant.
In a blaze of light, Darken's flaming wings snapped open and he stood revealed, clad in black and gold armor that shone bright even in the dull gray skies of the ocean Sphere. Where his placid blue eyes had once peered was a gaze of burning fire.
The godlike power that radiated from him made the hairs on her arm stand up. She didn't know what had taken hold of him, but it left her both awestruck and terrified. It felt like a miracle, amazing and horrifying at once.
The burning angel rocketed into the skies, soaring above everything, wings spread wide against the stone-gray skies. The merciless white-hot gaze seemed to take it all in, his thoughts racing faster than he imagined possible. In an instant, he could grasp it all.
He knew what he had to do, and there was no hesitation.
The burning angel pointed himself downward, streaking like a blazing bird of prey between the two beasts, a brilliant wake of fire trailing behind him as his brilliant wings burned through the tentacles holding the other Beast, which tumbled into the ocean, sending sea spray high into the air as it splashed into the waters from when it had come.
Darken dove into the water with a hiss of steam, his brilliant light so bright a faint glow could be seen even in the turbid waters beneath them. A brilliant glow came from underneath the Beast as it bobbed in the water for a few seconds, then was launched out of the water as the brilliant light of the burning angel smashed through the Beast like a blazing meteor, shattering it into a million pieces. Debris from its remains splashed in the water below like a light rain of shrapnel as the burning angel ascended into the skies again, hovering in the skies before Morgoth, his burning eyes fixed on his next prey.
* * *
Liandra's fairies strained to see the battle above them. Something at the peak of the Beast was hurling magic at Darken, keeping him from getting too close. The Nomen, those that hadn't been shaken into the sea when the Beasts had been torn apart were breaking off their attack, withdrawing into the interior structure of the Beast.
"LIANDRA!" a familiar voice called again. She ignored it. She was trying to decide if she needed to fly up and help Darken.
Not that it seemed like he needed help. Not that she was sure she wanted to give it. Something about the swift mercilessness with which Darken had annihilated the Beast terrified her. There was no hesitation, no pity, just absolute destruction.
And that had never been Darken. Even for things he hated, he'd always tried to find compassion, to empathize.
Had all that been driven out of whatever he'd become?
"Liandra," the voice called again, much closer now. Her fairies jerked away, flying towards the sound of the voice calling her.
"Tigerhawk!" Liandra cried, in grateful surprise. He was flanked by Grune and his Dragons, and some Angels she didn't recognize.
She ran into his arms at once.
"How are you, angel?" Tigerhawk asked.
"I'm OK," Liandra said. "I'm not sure about Darken, though."
"We saw it," one of the angels said. She pushed her way closer, eying Liandra's fairies with curiosity. "What ... did you see what happened?"
Liandra let go of Tigerhawk, her fairies circling her shoulders. She tensed, uncertain of this newcomer.
"Liandra, this is Alecto Lightningfrost," Tigerhawk said. "She knows Darken and brought him here to fight the Beast."
"I saw something hit him," Liandra said. "Then he ... well, he changed. And then ...he destroyed the other Beast."
She shook her head. "I have to get up there," she said. "I have to help him."
"Does he need help?"
"I think so," Liandra said. "In any event, I need ... I need to know what happened to him."
"Why don't we all go together?" Tigerhawk offered.
"No," Liandra said. "I'll go alone. There's one more person with us, and I haven't seen her."
"Liandra, are you sure?"
"Yes," she said, her voice tight and determined. "Get everyone clear of the Beast and protect yourselves. I'll try to get them back and I'll find you after."
"What if you can't?" Alecto asked.
"You saw what Darken did to the other Beast" Liandra said, taking to the skies. "He might not wait for you to escape before he destroys this one too. Get to safety!"
Tigerhawk watched her fly up towards the peak of the Beast, thinking over her words. He'd never seen anything like what Darken had become, and the power to do what he'd done dwarfed anything he'd seen or could imagine, and the notion that something like that existed now, and could so effortlessly wreak its will upon the Spheres ...
It scared Liandra, he knew. And it scared him, as well.
* * *
"YOU'VE RUINED EVERYTHING!" Kirone screamed, hurling another bolt of mystical force at Darken, who dodged it with ease. He'd been doing that for a while now, daring her to take her best shot and then sidestepping it with embarrassing ease. This wasn't the same pitful ruffian who she'd humbled before.
He was powerful. And he was playing with her.
What was he waiting for?
Witchfire , the voice growled in her head, we don't have time for this. Withdraw.
I'm not withdrawing, she said. He cost us a chance to consume the Beast. I want to-
--We have enough, I assure you, the voice snarled back. Don't forget your agenda. Settle for half of something, rather than all of nothing.
"No," Kirone answered aloud.
"I said NO!"
"Really," a voice called behind her. "To whom?"
Kirone blinked. Her red eyes glared at the black-haired swordswoman who walked towards her.
"Who were you talking to?"
"I don't know what you mean-"
"Of course you don't," Cygnus said. She raised her sword and pointed it at Kirone. "You can't answer, because he didn't tell you his name, did he? He wouldn't, because true names are very valuable to our kind.
"That's right, isn't it ... Lanicrus?"
"You have me at a disadvantage," Kirone said. "I'm afraid I don't know any ‘Lanicrus.'"
At the same time, a thought flashed to her silent partner.
You certainly got quiet in a hurry, she thought at her ephemeral ally. Who's your friend?
Kirone weighed her options. Lanicrus was silent, Morgoth had suffered critical damage, all but one of her generals had been destroyed, and if the Nomen could have slain these fools, they would have done so already. And Monstructor would run and hide from his own shadow.
And she was running low on energy. Too much magic in too short a time with no chance to rest meant she didn't have too much fight left in her. Casting the spell to send them back to Sirroc would finish off what little she had. And the few prepared artifacts in the pockets of her clothes were not practical weapons.
She ground her fangs in frustration.
Only one option, then.
"He's not answering?" the swordswoman said.
"If he wasn't, and that's not an admission, what is that to you?"
"Not much," the swordswoman responded. "I'm just trying to send him back where he belongs. We don't have any place in your little war."
Ah , Kirone thought. This sounds like leverage.
Put it out of your mind, Witchfire, the voice-Lanicrus-shouted in her mind. His tone was less confident. Guarded. Almost worried.
We are outmaneuvered. We must go.
Before Kirone could act, another stranger flew in on black wings, coming to rest besides the swordswoman. Kirone could sense the new arrival's vampirism-turned, not born (the scent was unmistakable)-but winced at the presence of the glittering fairies that surrounded her.
"Cygnus," the newcomer said, drawing a red blade from thin air. "What are you doing up here?"
"Cygnus," Kirone repeated. She stiffened her posture to emphasize her regal bearing. "I'm glad to finally learn someone's name. And who are you, vampire?"
"My name is Liandra Skyshade," the new arrival said.
"Your name is nothing to me," Kirone said. "Don't you recognize your betters? You're in the presence of royalty, my little turned friend. Show the proper respect."
"Not to you," Liandra said. "Never to you."
Kirone's brow furrowed. This was a shock. The nature of vampirism should have given her an influence over the turned's mind-even as a half vampire, it should compel her to obey her. That it didn't seem to be working was one more inconvenience on a day Kirone didn't need any more.
But she was determined to walk away with something from all this.
"If you won't listen to a command, then ... perhaps a favor?"
Cygnus blinked. "What are you talking about?"
Kirone tilted her head towards Darken, who floated, behind them, waiting.
"I want his name."
"Why?" Liandra asked, stepping forward, sword at the ready.
"I gave him mine, earlier, but he didn't return the favor," Kirone said, a thin smile playing over her lips. She glared at Cygnus and bared her fangs in a wicked grin. "And ...well, it's complicated, but I think we know each other."
Kirone's eyes cut to Cygnus "And true names have power ... don't they?"
Liandra tensed up.
"Cygnus what is she-"
Kirone fished a hand into a pocket, her hand closing around a small stone, which she yanked free and threw at Cygnus and Liandra. It was nothing special-just a small sun-stone, but the brilliant burst created the distraction that Kirone needed and as they flinched from the sunburst effect, she opened the spell to move between the worlds.
The sky darkened and a black tear split the sky above them, a terrific cold wind howling around them as the blackness expanded.
Cygnus recovered from the shock of the sunstone and pierced the Beast's hide, anchoring her to the skin of the machine as she grabbed Liandra's arm and held fast.
"DARKEN!" Cygnus screamed, past Kirone, her eyes fixed on the brilliant angel who hovered outside the distortion field. "FIND HER! FIND VERTIGA! FIND HER AND PROTECT HER, UNDERSTAND?!"
Kirone's looked over her shoulder, where Darken floated in the skies above them, her eyes fixed on her destined opponent who, it seemed, had won the day and proved himself more interesting than she'd thought.
Darken , she thought, burning his name and the image into her mind. What a pleasure to know you a bit better.
This isn't over, do you hear me?
I'm coming back.
You won't take what's mine.
There was a rumble of thunder, and shadows engulfed Morgoth, and the shadows flung themselves apart, revealing only the empty gray skies.
* * *
Later, after an extended period trying to persuade Alecto to rest, Tigerhawk and Grune had settled for her sitting down and overseeing their attempt to gather up all the flotsam they could. They were all exhausted, ragged, shell-shocked, and scared.
None of them talked about what they'd seen, but everyone thought about it. Whenever their eyes met the others they could see their own wonder and terror reflected back at them. But none of them said. None of them had the words.
"What have we got so far?" Alecto asked, sitting hunched over on the tallest rock overlooking the rest.
"Not much," one of the Seraphim said, tossing some things onto the pile. "A few bits and pieces of the soldiers, some of the metals. Oh, and this."
He produced a large sword, battered and chipped but still looking like a formidable weapon. He leaned it against the rock, staring at it.
"I didn't see them used by the soldiers, or any of the creatures that we fought," he said. "But it ... it feels different, ma'am. I can't explain it more than that."
"If it's not theirs, whose is it?" Alecto asked. She leaned over to Tigerhawk, who was tending to one of Grune's dragons and pointed towards the blade.
"One of yours?"
Tigerhawk shook his head. "No, but I recognize the style. It's from Sirroc, I think."
"Sirroc," Alecto repeated with a sigh. She'd hoped that with the fighting over there'd be a few less mysteries, or at least they'd have some answers, but all they had were more questions.
She tried to connect everything up in her head and came up with nothing, then tried harder, and while doing that, she became annoyed that there was so much noise and bright light around her while she was trying to concentrate and was about to say something.
Then she looked up, and saw Darken floating above them, carrying someone in his arms. He descended to a landing, radiating coruscating fire as he landed on his feet, his fiery wings folding behind him, setting the person he'd been carrying down before him.
Alecto dragged herself to her feet, ignoring the pain and fatigue. It was a human-a young woman. She'd been battered quite a lot-burned and bloody and Alecto imagined, half-drowned, but somehow, she was still alive.
This of course meant more questions, but before that, she needed to ask just the one to the burning angel before her.
"Darken?" Alecto asked. "Are you-can you ... hear me?"
Before Darken could answer, or react, he seemed to waver, and the brilliant light within him dimmed. Like brilliant sunlight on water, his golden armor and blazing wings seemed to dissolve away in a glittering column, and in an instant, he was back to how she remembered him.
Then he fell forward, exhausted. Only Alecto diving and catching him kept him from hitting his head on the rocks.