Chapter 23: The Journey of The Person Who Was Destined To DepartChapter 23: The Journey of The Person Who Was Destined To Depart
The dark night at last gave way to dawn.
Ka'El watched the sun begin to creep over the far mountain, throwing warm orange light over first the mountains in the distance, and then the miles of forest before them, and soon enough, he felt the warm light of breaking day on his face for what he knew was the last time.
He set his golden staff aside, letting it clatter to the stone floor of the ziggurat. His bones ached, and he still felt that deep tiredness that had seeped into his bones for longer years than he'd cared to count, but if this was to be the last day, he would see it on his feet, with hope in his heart.
They had prevailed. Cygnus had made her choice, and in doing so, set the Spheres on a new course. The cursed past had been broken with her choice, and Ka'El hoped that that one small unpredictable element could create a new way forward.
It seemed like a small thing, he mused. One tiny decision in the heat of a moment. But that tiny thing might change everything.
In the end, it's the only thing that ever does.
He sighed. He'd begun the long night in tears, full of guilt about the world he'd made for them, and the course he'd had to set all of them on. He'd done the best he could, but what drove Ka'El see was the regret of the past, all the fears and the mistakes of what had come before. Whatever solutions he had, he knew, looked backwards, and even with the best of intentions, would only continue the cycle and keep them all imprisoned in the cursed past.
Something has to change for everything to change, he thought.
Darken, Kirone, Cygnus, Liandra, all the others, were the solution, or could be. He'd given them all he could, and on this last dawn, he sent them all the hope in his heart.
This road won't be easy, he said to them in his mind. There's so much pain, and struggle, and sorrow to come.
But know, my children, you go with the best parts of me. And I am always-always-wishing you well.
As the orange dawn gave way to the brilliant light of the direct sun, he smiled wider now. And if the presence of the black-winged angel standing behind him disturbed him, he gave no sign.
* * *
Alecto stood ramrod straight, staring at Sandalphon's wings. Outside, platoons of armored soldiers were fortifying the palace walls, mounting gun turrets on the golden walls. The frantic pace of construction outside belied the quiet tension of the meeting inside, which had so far consisted of Alecto reporting on the battle and its aftermath, and Sandalphon listening in silence, and never once turning to face her.
When he wouldn't even look at her, Alecto knew, he was angry. The anger was diffused through protocol and ritual, as always. But it was there, no matter how hard they pretended it wasn't.
Finally, after an unbearable span of quiet, Sandalphon spoke:
"And the people of Aquatica?"
Alecto's eyes cut away from his back for a moment. It stunned her how much the flash of memory cut through her cool reserve.
"We ... found bodies," she began. "Corpses the monster dredged up when it surfaced, I assume. We encountered no one native to that Sphere alive. I can only assume the monster exterminated them, or forced them so deep into hiding we'd never find them again."
"I see," Sandalphon said, his tone neutral. "So for all we know, unless any survivors are willing or able to reveal themselves, Aquatica is a dead Sphere."
"It ... fits the available facts, sir," Alecto said. "But if I might speak frankly ... there's a lot of that experience I found inexplicable."
"I'm certain you did," Sandalphon said. "But you acquitted yourself well. The king has told me he's going to commend you for your valor in battle. The people are already talking of your heroic stand. To them, you're a hero."
"And ... " Alecto started, the words catching in her throat.
"And ... To you?"
"To me? As I see it, you disobeyed orders, put the people under your command in danger, and involved the Angels in a war that was not our own. You not only exceeded your authority, but mine as well, and as your commanding officer, I should-"
"I'm not finished. You engaged a force with insufficient resources, you might well have been killed and had the battle gone against you, you could all have been killed, and that-that ... "
Sandalphon paused, looking at his black-gloved hand, clenched in a tight fist. He took a deep breath and straightened his posture, turning to face her.
"This isn't a formal disciplinary action, so there's no need to read all the charges. You know what you did."
"Sir," Alecto began. "If I may speak in my defense?"
"In my judgment, I was following your orders," she replied. "You instructed me to follow Darken and observe and report upon him."
"I didn't mean for you to follow him into a shooting war." "Then with respect sir, you should have said that. You can give me a command, but it's my responsibility to use my training and judgment to interpret that and execute it to the best of my ability.
"I could have tried to stop Darken, perhaps even thrown him back in prison, but what good would that have done? Better to give him free rein to observe him as naturally as possible and determine his purpose."
"Interpreting orders to a superior officer can be considered insubordination," Sandalphon hissed. "Watch yourself. Even if I agreed with your interpretation, how do you justify using our forces to assist him and involve us in armed conflict?"
"By the time the hostile force appeared, we were under threat. Fighting our way out seemed our only option."
"You could have held your squad back to a safer position. Waited for the fight to resolve herself."
"Where would that be, sir? We were trapped between a monster similar to the one that attacked us here, and an army bent on capturing it, and they'd brought a monster of their own. One of those things was powerful enough to devastate the city. Where would we have been safe with two of them loose?
"Circumstances compelled me to choose a side."
"You should have called me, and I would have made the decision," Sandalphon said. "You made a command level decision. And you are not, Lieutenant. You don't get to interpret orders as you like, and you certainly don't make command level decisions in the middle of a conflict you should never have been in middle of."
Alecto absorbed it all, trying to soothe the hurt of what he was saying and the cold cruelty of it by repeating to herself that he was speaking as her superior, not as her father, that in his heart, he felt different.
But duty had no room for feelings. She could only hope that would come later.
"So, you've left me with a problem, Lieutenant. You have flagrantly violated direct orders, and dragged us into a war with an unknown enemy. At the very least, I should break you in rank, and strip you of leadership. At worst, you should have a cell right next to Darken's."
His brow furrowed. "However, Darken's too popular with the king to jail and ... I cannot deny that you have achieved the objective of my original order, and brought back valuable intelligence on this new enemy, and you did conduct yourself with courage and valor under fire. And you've given us an important morale victory in the wake of the attack on the city. You're a problem, Lieuenant. One I am compelled now to solve."
"I'm ... in your hands, sir."
Sandalphon sighed. "Things are changing. The war that's coming ... the things that may happen ... it will require more from us than ever before. A lot of things will change.
"As your role must now change."
"The king has instructed me to put our forces on a more active footing than before," Sandalphon said. "I will retain the rank of Captain of the Royal Guard, but my role has expanded to overall commander of our armies. My day to day roles must be attended to, and I have elected to promote you to that position."
"Promoting you," Sandalphon said. A threat of a smile pulled at the corners of his lips. "Alecto Lightningfrost, you are hereby promoted to the rank of Commander, with all the rights and privileges thereto. Congratulations."
"I don't really know what to say, sir," Alecto breathed.
"Let's drop ranks and speak freely," Sandalphon said. "As your father, I was terrified for you, Alecto. You could have been killed. You could all have been killed. We don't know anything about this new force, and ... I don't want to lose you. You're too important to me."
"But you trained me well enough, father," she responded. "I ... I was scared, but I knew what to do. What I needed to do."
"No," Sandalphon said. His rigid resolved seemed to slip, just for an instant, and for the first time in many years, Alecto saw the man she'd called father as not the iron man who commanded armies, but a man terrified by the fear of losing something vital.
"You don't understand ... "
Alecto looked puzzled. She didn't know how to react.
"Since the last war, I've been charged with keeping our people safe," he said. "And I've been up here so long ... I'm a little cut off from them, from all of that. But you, Alecto, are the living example of that vow, of that responsibility. You're living proof of that promise I made to them. Can you see it?"
Alecto shook her head.
Sandalphon smiled a sad smile and sighed a bit.
"Perhaps one day you will."
* * *
The points of Kirone's fangs dug into her bottom lip as she stomped through the chambers of Morgoth, flanked by Monstructor and Dirge. She gripped the jewel in her fist so tight that the setting for it dug into her gloved palm, her footsteps echoing down the hallway as she made her way to the heart of the Beast.
Her red eyes glared forward, her thoughts on the gem in her hand, and the spirit in that gem, and how she would, very soon, enjoy seeing both shredded into atoms in the engines of the Beast.
I sense you're angry, the spirit dwelling in the gem whispered in her mind.
"And why would I be angry, Lanicrus?" Kirone asked, the sarcasm hissed from bare fangs. "Could it possibly be because this supposedly foolproof scheme you explained to me has left me with a barely functioning Beast, only a little energy taken from the other one, most of my army destroyed, all but one of my generals dead, and whatever else I had left forced to retreat back to this rock, with nothing but a talkative spirit stuck in a trap-jewel?
"Why in the world would I be angry about that?"
You know my name, then?
"Yes, that strange woman who dealt with Vertiga for me filled me in before she disappeared too. Also, thank you for reminding me, because it gives me a chance to point out that I only ever kept you around for leverage against her, and you know--now that she's not here, I find myself wondering ... "
Is this where you tell me I've outlived my purpose? Lanicrus purred in her mind. If Kirone's veiled threats bothered him, he wasn't showing it.
"That was where I was going with this, yes."
Before you make that decision, perhaps I can suggest-
"I've had enough of your suggestions," Kirone spat. "You promised me everything, delivered nothing, and cost me everything. Give me one reason why I shouldn't destroy the trap-jewel and scatter your disgusting spirit all over the Spheres?" I observed the battle, and I may have a suggestion. Victory was very nearly yours, but the sudden burst of power from the half-child turned the tide. "Lanicrus-everyone who was at the battle observed that much. Do better."
The half-child's power is even greater than he knows, Lanicrus began. Power on that scale will counter every tool you have at your disposal, and if he can rally the forces of the other Spheres against you, eventually they will defeat you utterly.
You need something equally as powerful. Or perhaps, I should say, some one.
"I'm a ‘half-child,' same as he is," Kirone said, sneering at Lanicrus' use of the slur. "I am his equal, if not his superior."
You are neither. The mirror-twin has connected him to something more powerful than you can imagine. That power will only grow in time.
Kirone was livid. "And you can, is that it?"
I believe so. In the last war, my brother, Mantichron, served Gurus when he waged his rebellion against your family and the two of them very nearly conquered the Spheres. Give me what he had-a body, a means to interact with the physical world-and I will have the power to counter the half-child's every move.
"There you go again," Kirone sneered. "Making promises you can't keep."
The gem went quiet as they entered the engine chamber of the Beast, the heat radiating off the conduits in hazy waves. Tossed into one of the vents, the trap-gem might last ten whole seconds before annihilation.
Are you willing to risk that I am not telling the truth? Lanicrus countered. You don't have the soldiers, the power, or the resources for another assault on the other Spheres. Beyond my own power, I know of allies, those who aided Gurus and my brother. They are quite powerful, and may have allies of their own, to aid our cause.
"Are you scared, Lanicrus? You're doing a lot of talking to save yourself."
And one more thing, Lanicrus said, ignoring her. I give you my word I will serve you and your cause faithfully. And as an insurance policy, keep the trap-jewel as a control, if my word is not enough bond for you.
Kirone paused, staring at the gem.
"It's not," she said. "You're lying."
Can you take that risk?
Kirone looked at Dirge and Monstructor. The tight red line of her mouth split and bared her fangs as she shook her head. She was being played--that much she knew. This was about more than Lanicrus talking himself out of being destroyed.
But he was just a conduit for the fear that gripped her when she saw the other one, coruscating with power as he soared through the sky. She'd taken his measure and walked away, convinced he was no real threat.
And that bought him time to come into more power than she'd ever seen anyone handle. Raw power that all of her knowledge couldn't match.
And that scared her, and that, even more than Lanicrus' words, compelled her to act at last.
"Monstructor," she said. "Get your machines ready."
* * *
Darken and Maryna stood on the edge of the castle wall, looking down at the troops patrolling in the skies above and manning the checkpoints below. In front of them was Sachiel, foot propped up on the rampart, taking in the view below.
For as long as he could remember, the castle had been his playground, his home, a place of only good memories. He would stand on the rampart, just like he was now, looking down at the city, and it felt like the whole world was before him. He spent hours looking out, wondering about the people in the city and in the skies beyond. Who were they? What were their lives like?
There was always something new to see. Bazaars in the marketplace. Festivals through the streets, the rainbows thrown over the whole city when the light from the sun hit the Crystal Forever, bathing the streets and buildings in prismatic color.
But he'd never seen soldiers in the streets.
Or, if he had, never this many.
It soured the scene, and dragged his thoughts back to reading the Sandalphon's war plans with incredulity, wondering how this was supposed to protect anyone. Putting the royal seal on every requisition thrust under him, even though Sachiel didn't believe a single one would make their people any safer, but having to do it, because he was ordered to, and feeling like a traitor because of it.
That great golden adventure and boundless skies felt a lot smaller and darker now.
He half sighed and half groaned.
"Sachiel," Maryna's voice called behind him, from what felt like miles away.
Sachiel didn't hear her. He was too much here, and too far away.
"Hey, Sachiel--You still with us?"
Sachiel jumped. "Huh? Sorry," he fumbled. "Sorry about that-I really should have been paying attention. Got distracted. What were we talking about?"
"The fight on Aquatica," Darken said. His blue eyes narrowed on the prince. "I was telling Maryna about what happened to me during the battle.
Darken moved his head to meet Sachiel's gaze.
"Are you okay?"
Sachiel's eyes cut away from Darken's. "Yeah," he said. "Just ... been working hard. Nothing like you've been doing, obviously, but ... it's a lot."
"I've been working right next to you, and I'd almost swear you were working harder than me," Maryna said. "Come on--What's on your mind?"
"Nothing," Sachiel lied. He glanced back up to Darken, looking glum.
"No, that's not it. I guess I just ... I feel like I let you down. Maryna and I should have been fighting alongside you."
Maryna tried to interject, knowing where this recrimination was going. "Sachiel, you know we didn't-"
"-have a choice, right," Sachiel sighed. "I know that. But I promised you, Darken, when I let him out of jail, that I'd help anyone else these things attacked. I ... honestly wanted to."
He looked Darken in the eye.
"You were right, you know," he said. "Whatever this is, whatever it means, we can't survive it alone. They're too powerful, and we don't know anything about them. We can't just wait for them to come here and hope we're ready for whatever they throw at us. We've got to stand together-all of us-and fight."
"Protecting people isn't always about fighting." Darken said. His expression grew troubled.
"Then why did you go fight?"
"Because I could, because I was trained. Because I said I'd be there for the people I'd promised to protect."
"Were you afraid?"
"I'm always afraid, " Darken replied. "Even more, now that I've seen what these battles cost. And now that I've seen people who went with me, who didn't ...
The words caught in his throat for a moment.
" ... who didn't come back."
He furrowed his brow, pushing down the despair the memory summoned in him.
"I had to be there. You were needed here. They can't lose you."
Did they? The prince wondered. It seems like any idiot who could hold a stamp could do what I do. Nothing very heroic about it.
And I should be doing more. Even if I can't be a hero like Sandalphon was ... there's got to be something I can do.
He took a deep breath, willing himself back into the present and out of his own head, turning to Darken and fixing him with a question.
"You said you changed, during the battle," Sachiel began. "That you became strong enough to destroy the Beast on your own. How?"
"I don't really know," Darken said, staring out at the city below. "It was really what Cygnus did, I think. I'm not even sure I could do it again without her here, and, well since she's ... um ... "
"Sorry," Sachiel said, realizing he'd pressed things a bit too much. "I didn't mean to be pushy. And I'm sorry for reminding you of it. I was just-"
"It's OK," Darken said, his expression hardening. "I have to believe they're still out there, and they're all right, and I'll see them again."
"It's a shame she's gone," Sachiel mused. "She might be able to tell us about her twin."
Maryna blinked. "Sachiel, no one really thinks the prisoner is Cyngus' twin-"
"You said they look alike, though. That's more than coincidence."
Maryna nodded. "I did, but they're not like your cousins in Arios, Sachiel. They're more like ... opposite images of each other."
Darken was surprised, and almost grateful for the change of subject.
He raised an eyebrow towards the prince. "You have twin cousins?"
"Oh yeah--It's really strange," Maryna said, as Sachiel nodded. "Their parents even dress them alike."
"I asked one of them about it, once," Sachiel said. "They said they hated being dressed alike, but they did what was expected, and never questioned it."
"You have a strange family," Darken replied.
Sachiel shrugged. "When you have it drilled into your head almost from birth that all sorts of things you find ridiculous are part of scared duty and honor, it seems normal enough after a while."
He shrugged, then stared back out over the city.
"I tried to bring that up to my cousin again, later, and asked them about it. This time, they acted like they didn't remember and had no idea what I was talking about.
"It was the other twin," he said, smirking.
"Obviously I couldn't tell them apart either."
The prince's smirk became a smile, then Maryna giggled, and even Darken started laughing. And for a second, they forgot about everything and shared a giggle. But it the laughter soon evaporated, swallowed up in tense silence.
The prince's expression saddened again.
No matter how hard they tried, no matter how much they pretended, there was no holding back the change that had hit them all. The world they remembered was gone, and Sachiel wasn't at all certain that he liked what was replacing it.
And what, he thought, staring at another column of soldiers filing out of the castle, is it turning into?
* * *
Liandra rose from the cot with a start, gasping.
She couldn't see anything.
The panic of being blind again gripped her-her eyes weren't only gone, but the constant connection between herself and the fairies was gone, and the absence was so total, it made her feel hollow inside, terrifying than anything she felt since being turned.
She tried to get a grip on her surroundings, focusing on what she could feel, what she could sense, hoping it would dampen her shock and anxiety.
The air was hot and dry, and it felt like there was a grit in the air. She seemed to be lying down on a cot, roughly made, with a lumpy burlap cushion underneath her.
And there was a familiar voice in her ear.
"Liandra," a familiar voice said, and she felt a gloved hand on her shoulder. "It's all right, you're safe, I promise. Just-don't try to move too much."
"I'm right here," her companion replied, giving her shoulder a squeeze.
"I can't see, " Liandra said, panic causing her voice to quaver. "I can't ... I can't feel them. What's happened?"
"They're right here," Cygnus said. Her other hand took Liandra by the wrist and lay her hand on the body of one of the fairies.
"Still alive," Cygnus replied. "Something about the way we crossed over ... I think it made them ... sick, somehow. I'm not really sure how to explain it. But when they went down, so did you. You've been resting for two days."
Liandra was still trembling, but tried to steady her emotions.
"You said we crossed over?"
"Caught in the wake of that ... thing," Cygnus said. "We're on Sirroc."
Liandra frowned at the name. Too many bad memories came from Sirroc, and as many good memories that went bad.
Before she could get pulled too deep into that dark hole, she was pulled free by a realization. The darkness before her was lightening, replaced with a gray haze.
"Wait ... " Liandra said, touching one of her fairies. She could feel a warm pulse radiate through her glove.
"Something's happening. I can ... kind of see, but I need you to tell me what they're doing."
Cygnus looked at the fairies as they lay beside Liandra. "They're glowing. Winking in and out, but ... no, hang on, they're getting steadier. Whatever happened, I think you might be coming out of it."
Liandra sat there. Cygnus had gone from a blurry and indistinct shape to a blurry but recognizable shape. The link between herself and the fairies went deeper than anyone knew, it seemed.
"Tell me everything that happened," Liandra said. "I don't remember what happened at all after that storm swallowed us up."
"We hung on to the ship, through the crossing, but when we hit the other side, we were thrown clear and we landed in the sands. After that, I picked you up and carried you here."
Liandra nodded as the the fairies climbed up her arms and perched on her shoulders.
"And where is ‘here?'"
Cygnus' face clouded over. She allowed herself a selfish moment and hoped that Liandra couldn't see it.
"It's ... just a remote settlement. The door was open, and it doesn't look like anyone's been here in a long time. I-I thought that ... this would be as good a place any to recover and get our bearings. Figure out what to do next."
Liandra's fairies stared at Cygnus.
"Okay ... What's the truth, Cygnus?"
"I don't understand? I'm not lying to you-no one's been here for months."
"I believe you," Liandra said. "I didn't say you were lying, but I know there's something else you're not telling me."
Cygnus looked at the fairies with pleading eyes. Then her eyes drifted closed, and she sighed.
"What gave it away?"
"That black bloodstain on the floor you've been standing in front of, trying to cover with your shadow."
Cygnus looked at her, raising an eyebrow.
"You don't miss anything, do you?"
"Not with people I care about," Liandra said. "Not even when they're trying to change the subject. I'll ask again-where are we, and what happened here?"
Cygnus sighed again. She looked as uncomfortable as it was possible to be, and Liandra watched her in silence, counting the number of emotions that flickered over her companion's face. Guilt, shame, regret, fear-they all took a turn.
And then she spoke at last:
"Okay," she began with a deep breath. "This place used to belong to a man named Carib Scylla. He was a ferromancer-he made weapons powered with magic."
"What he didn't know is that he was binding spirits into the andric metal he forged his weapons from," she said, frowning. "Trapping them in this world, in constant pain.
"But it made powerful weapons, so what's a little slavery, more or less?"
"You killed him?"
Cygnus flinched. It didn't sound like an accusation, but she didn't want to think about it again. She would have given anything never to be here again, never to re-live that traumatic night, and yet ...
She closed her eyes.
... you have to be honest with the people you care about, don't you?
"No," she said. "He was attacked in the night by a band of vampires led by Kirone Witchfire. That's right-the same one we fought. They wanted his weapons, and to feed on whoever was inside."
"He wasn't here alone?"
Cygnus shook her head. "He lived with his daughter. Vertiga Scylla. You met her yesterday, too."
"But she's still alive, isn't she?"
"Last I saw," Cygnus nodded. "The vampires attacked, and she tried to fight them off, but they were too strong. They used one of her father's weapons to mortally wound her. It was dark, so they just grabbed anything and struck her.
"If they'd looked a bit closer, well ... " she let the thought drift off. "Vertiga found another sword and killed them all. Then she went hunting for Kirone."
"That's why you look like her, sort of," Liandra said, the pieces together. "But not like her sister ... "
Cygnus shook her head.
"They struck Vertiga with a mirror blade," she said. "Vertiga walked away, but the reflection created by the blade stuck around, and ... well ... "
Cygnus waved a hand at herself, indicating that she was the reflection.
" ... you might say I was born here."
* * *
To her captors, the only name she had was "the prisoner." No matter how many times she told them her name, no matter how often she demanded to be seen and addressed as a person, the guards only referred to Vertiga what she was to them, and even then only when necessary, which was once a day, every day, when they fed her.
After all, she couldn't do it herself. The harness they kept her in immobilized her, and the runes carved into it blocked the energies she'd been able to summon before. Without the sword to draw it in and concentrate it, it seemed beyond her reach. Whatever power she had prior was all gone.
And there she was-suspended in the middle of the room, powerless. If she spoke in the darkness, no one heard her, except for the guards who fed her, and they never listened.
There was nothing much to see around her-the cell was rough-hewn obsidian, and the only light she saw every day was the sun-stones her keepers carried to light their way, and that was only as bright as was needed for them to do their work.
But after so long in the dark, it felt blinding to her.
How long had it been, she wondered?
How long had it really been?
She was beginning to lose track of time. The days felt like weeks, and the formless shapeless, suffocating time and darkness was obliterating her fundamental perceptions.
At first, the fear that gripped her was that she would be left to rot in this place. To die-forgotten and defeated, trapped in this cell, a long way from home in pretty much every way possible.
But that fear had grown, fed by the darkness and the long hours alone. Now the fear was that she would rot in this cell, yet somehow survive. To live past the crumbling of the world outside, the end of everything ... ... the thought made her blood run cold.
* * *
Darken watched as the two attendants lined up the two halves of the andric metal lock close over Vertiga's sword. Once it was properly aligned, they slid the loop of a lock where the two halves joined and sealed it with a special magic.
"That will hold, right?" Darken asked. "I'm speaking from experience-it's a powerful and very dangerous weapon."
"It should, based on what I've read," Maryna said, watching the attendants carry the weapon into a high security vault beneath the palace. "Tigerhawk helped a bit with the overall design, but ... yes. It should lock down whatever magic that's in the sword quite effectively."
"It's not exactly like our andric weapons, or the ones they make on Sirroc," Maryna said. "I mean, in terms of materials and composition, it's obviously from Sirroc, but the strongest weapons they make usually have spirits bonded to them."
"And this ... didn't?"
"As near as I could tell, it used to."
Darken blinked. "Used to? I didn't think you could pull a spirit out of andric metal."
"Ordinarily, you can't," Maryna said. "But we've both seen it done. When I used the sealing spell on the Beasts, it worked on the same principle--breaking the connection between the Spirit and the andric metal and allows both to be destroyed."
"But only two people know how to do that," Darken said.
"That we know of," Maryna countered. Her brow furrowed as she considered what else was on her mind. "There's something else to consider."
"It's not just the process of removing the spirit that's similar," Maryna said. "The process of bonding a spirit to the andric metal ... it's a lot like the way the Beasts functioned. The technique is far cruder, but ... there's definite similarities."
Darken's face twitched, and his expression became more grim.
"The Beasts are gone," he said.
"Maybe so," she said. "But we thought the Beasts were ancient, forgotten technology. And yet, someone on Sirroc-probably more than one-is working along the same lines. It's like ... they left a legacy."
Darken tensed so much Maryna could feel it even standing a few feet away.
"Sirroc's a rough Sphere," he said, his tone a little defensive. "I suppose they need strong weapons to survive living in the sands."
"Ka'El told me what happened when his people created the Beasts," she replied. "They were created to protect them, but when you need bigger and more lethal weapons to protect you, there's a danger they can turn against you. Or be turned against you." Darken sighed. "So, what, then--there's an arms race in the Spheres?"
"Are you surprised by that? You know our history--it's happened before. The war with the tree dwellers and the sky-dweller, the last war with the vampires, whoever this new threat is ... and ... "
Maryna decided to be direct.
"What happened to you on Aquatica?"
"No, I know you don't talk about it," Maryna said. "Every time Sachiel or I bring it up, you do exactly what you're doing now-you deflect, or change the subject. Darken, what happened to you out there?"
"I won," Darken said. The gruff flatness of his tone indicated he wasn't happy about it. "I survived. Isn't that all that should matter?"
"You don't see it, do you?"
Darken stared at the now empty hallway.
"See what?" Darken asked, sharper than he meant to. "What am I supposed to see?"
"They're making newer and deadlier weapons on Sirroc," Maryna said, ticking off each detail on her fingers. "The Beasts returned and nearly destroyed this city. This ... Kirone Witchfire managed to tame a Beast and raise an army with no one knowing until it was too late. Sandalphon is militarizing our society. And you suddenly get the power to destroy a Beast single-handedly from someone you barely know.
"Things are changing, and I don't like what it's doing to the world, or to us. They've turned me into a functionary, Sachiel is ... I don't know what this has done to him.
"What is it doing to you, Darken? What are you turning into?
* * *
Monstructor scurried over the machine he'd built in the middle of the three engine vents, checking the tubes snaking from the vents into the bulbous jagged shape mounted in the center. Kirone watched him work, preparing herself for her part of the task and trying to shut out her worry that this was a mistake.
Lanicrus had tried to appeal to her lust for power and knowledge of her people's history by bringing up Gurus' rebellion and his alliance with Mantichron during the last great battle. But he'd also betrayed his poor knowledge of how that history impacted her. In his rebellion, Gurus had butchered members of her family, and while she held no particular love for any of them (the predatory nature of vampiric society left no room for family ties, after all) Gurus' rebellion had always been a cautionary fable.
Gurus, exiled from the true royal blood, allied himself with a spirit to gain power. Spirits were feared in Vampire society-they had no blood to drain, no will to subvert, no body to slay. If the other races of the Spheres feared the vampires, the vampires feared the spirits.
To make a deal with one was a deal with the devil. Only a fool would even try.
And here I am, she thought. Queen of the fools.
At once came the rationalizations to her mind: You have to do this. You can't fight Darken on equal footing-he's too powerful, you felt it when he flew past you.
With your resources gone, you need strong allies.
Besides, with him linked to the material world, you can affect him, control him more easily.
Every one of the rationalizations was meant to make her feel better.
None of them did.
But what else could she do? Once she committed herself to this path, there was no turning back.
Destiny, or annihilation.
Whichever one I earn depends on which one I'm strong enough to reach for.
She raised her arms, summoning the magic within her as Monstructor clicked the trap-jewel into place on the chrysalis, and then skittered to the controls, throwing a number of relays, so the engines' full power funneled into the chrysalis.
As the air grew hot and the chambers within Morgoth began to shudder, brilliant red fire arced from Kirone's fingertips, forming glowing ideograms in the air. Once they had fully formed, she shot them into the trap-jewel, forcibly binding the essence to the blank form within, as if carving something onto a stone tablet.
The chamber darkened, and then there was a flash of red lighting than burst from the chrysalis, and then darkened, becoming purple and illuminating Monstructor, who was hunched against the machine and trembled with something like fear as a terrific gust of wind rustled through the chamber.
Then, everything was dark, still, and very quiet.
Kirone kept her eyes on the chrysalis. Her vision, not affected by the dark could still make it out, even with the smoke pouring off it. The outer layer had been burned away, revealing a shape lying in the smoking remains. It was breathing. Slowly, as if waking from a deep sleep.
The lights began to come up, slow and dim. To charge up the chrysalis, they'd fed what little energy they had absorbed from the other Beast on Aquatica, and if it didn't work ...
The being's eyes opened. The lights were high enough now that they could make out its shape. Jagged skeletal metal pierced smooth violet armor plating sketched over a huge, thin frame. From its horned skull-like face two red eyes stared with blazing intensity, one of which was half-formed and machine-like. Its mouth was a mess of sharp fangs that linked together like an angry snarl.
As it rose to its feet, its movements were slow and languid, as if it were sensing everything around it for the first time. Behind it, a whip-like skeletal tail twitched.
Monstructor tried to slip behind it, but the machine turned on him suddenly, its misshapen left eye sending out a beam of red light between his eyes, tracking him as it growled-a harsh metallic rasp. Monstructor hunched over, squeezing past as the monster snarled at him, extending a clawed hand.
"M-mistress," Monstructor called, trembling as the creature loomed over his hunched and slight form. He leaned forward, bowing and holding the trap-jewel in his hands.
As Kirone snatched the jewel from him, the creature wheeled on her, snarling again. Kirone's eyes narrowed and she raised the jewel up in front of her.
Looks like you got what you were after, she thought, staring at the creature.
Now let's see if you're of any use to me.
"You know what this," she said. "And you know what it means."
"Yes," the creature said, the growl turning into a grinding, humming, purring noise.
"Then tell me who you are," she commanded.
"I am Lanicrus," it said, as it sank to one knee before her, lowering its head.
"And I am your ... servant."
* * *
"I know why you've come," Ka'El said, staring out at the morning sun, keeping his back to the other being. His cane still lay at his feet, discarded. "I know who sent you, and I know why they sent you."
The black-winged angel didn't move or acknowledge that he was being spoken to.
"You have my thanks, for giving me time to see the dawn," Ka'El said. "For seeing one more morning and knowing ... things might be better, now. Not that means anything to you, or your mission, of course.
"But appreciated that mercy," Ka'El continued. "It was perhaps more than I deserved."
He took a deep breath, gathering his courage as he filled his lungs with air, bringing himself up to his full height for the first time in years. His bones and muscles ached and joints crackled in protest, but he ignored it.
"When you report to the person who ordered this," Ka'El began, turning to face the black-winged angel. "Tell them you accomplished your mission. Tell them at the end, Ka'El was grateful. He lived long enough to see the curse broken, and that he wasn't afraid anymore.
"And that he left this world with hope in his heart."
The black winged angel drew two large knives from their scabbards on his belt, crossing them in front of themselves, before driving the points of the blades into the sides of Ka'El's throat, driving them deep within before being yanked loose.
There was a snap and a hiss as his major arteries burst with blood like a fountain, and Ka'El's body hit the stone floor of the ziggurat, his blood spraying and finally seeping as it pooled around his body and began to run between the cracks of the stones. The assassin wiped the blood from his knives on his sleeves and took to the sky, leaving Ka'El's body to the scavengers.
END OF BOOK ONE