Chapter 4: The Illusion of Careless Flight

Liandra made her way down the steps of the temple, pondering her next move. Ka'el had cautioned her in the years he'd taught her and looked after her that confusion was a poor advisor when it came to decision-making.

However, it was all she had at the moment.

Liandra could barely remember her life before she got here. Her first memories were here, stretching back to before her wings came in full, and the two of them had looked after her. For all intents and purposes they were her family, and the only one she'd ever known.

And now Darken's gone, she thought, looking up at the skies. The pink streaks of morning had given way to the pale warm blue of midday by now. She'd spent the morning going in circles about what to do next.

From what Ka'el said, Darken's left Deiyara, she thought. Where would he have gone?

What she knew of travelling between Spheres was limited--Macabro had told her of the way his family traveled back and forth from their Sphere to Deiyara, but she'd always gotten the impression that was the only place travel was possible.

That's gate's in Skycity, at least a half-day's flight from here, she thought. And Iíd have been able to catch sight of him before I went to see Ka'el. Is there another way? There'd almost have to be--so far as I know, the Gate in Skycity's one-way to Sirroc and back. Nowhere else.

She sat down on one of the steps, staring at the sky. Every sensible voice in her mind told her not to follow the thread her mind was taking. After all, if all the Spheres were as large as Deiyara, and she had no way of homing in on Darken, a search could take years. Logically, it was a long shot.

Unfortunately for logic, her heart had ever ruled Liandra.

I'll go to Skycity, she thought. From there, maybe I can find Macabro and he can explain to me how these gates work. If they travel back and forth through the gates, then surely they'll have more information about it than Ka'el's books.

Ka'el, she thought, her resolve ebbing slightly. Oh, I didnít think. What should I tell him? He hasnít moved all morning since Darken left . . .maybe I should stay with him?

She chewed on her lip, pondering how mysterious and inexplicable his actions were. Ka'el once chased them back here simply for staying out at the river too long gathering fish for supper once. If Darken had left without his knowledge, or was playing hooky, surely Ka'el would have raised a lump or two on his head for it.

He's certainly done it enough times to me, she sighed.

She heard a stirring behind her, the scrabble of cloven hooves on stone and the tinny strike of metal.

Oh look, she thought. I think I must have one coming right now.

"It is a beautiful day, isnít it," Ka'el said, sidling up beside her and squatting down next to her. His hands folded over his cane and a slight, weary smile etched over his face.

"Yes, Master," she said. "It is. I was . . .just wondering where Darken was. And . . .what I should do about it."

"You will go," Ka'el said.

"I won't say I haven't thought about that."

Ka'el nodded. "Of course. With Darken gone, you must go too. To find him?"

"I thought I might try," she said. "What I donít understand is why you arenít doing anything about it . . .er, Master."

Ka'el nodded. "An excellent question," he said. "Tell me, Liandra, in all these years . . .I have been good to you, yes?"

"Well, apart from a few lumps on the head here and there," Liandra said.

Ka'el chuckled. "It was necessary, sometimes," he said. "You Angels, if I let you, would forget there's ground below your feet, you would spend all day with your head in the clouds.

"Though . . .you seem to, regardless."

Liandra blinked and looked down. "It's strange you say that, Master," she thought. "In all this time, since I've been here . . .I never felt like I was an Angel. Or like I belonged with them. I only felt like I belonged here. With you and Darken."

"And you never dreamt of places elsewhere? Like Sirroc, where you friend is from?"

Liandra's dead-white skin blushed a slight pink "You knew? Did Darken--"

"Darken told me nothing, Liandra," Ka'el said. "And I would not ask him to. But I will tell you a secret of mine, in exchange. Despite the fact that you and he are as brother and sister, you were never intended to be here, Liandra."

Liandra blinked. "Master?"

"Darken was given to me, by his mother and father, to watch over until the time was right," Ka'el said. "For all these years I did as they asked, protected the child of destiny until his moment came. That you found our way into this place was . . .unanticipated."

"Unanticipated," Liandra repeated.

Ka'el looked at her, his eyes tired and weary. "It sometimes happens with those whose eyes are firmly on the path of prophecy," he said. "Tunnel vision. I had to be protector and master to him, but I was that and father as well to you, and I wanted you to know, whether you decide to stay or go, that task meant as much to me as protecting Darken. More, in some ways."

Liandra blinked, trying to restrain tears. Even after so many years, it was sometimes difficult to truly understand the being she'd called "Master" all these years.

"I want to go to him," Liandra said.

"Then go you should," Ka'el said. He rose up as she got to her feet, hooking her elbow with his cane. "But remember what I said--Darken is bound by prophecy created long before the circumstances of his birth. You are not. You stand outside of destiny, and if you remember that, at the right time . . .it could save your life as surely as the skills I have taught you."

Liandra looked down at him and nodded very slowly. She didn't exactly understand what he was talking about, but better to think it over on the way and leave on good terms.

"I will," she said. "And thank you, Master . . .or should I call you Father."

"You may call me either, Liandra," Ka'el said.

Liandra nodded and smiled, spreading her white wings wide and taking to the sky. While her thoughts were on Skycity and what awaited her there, she knew she'd left a piece of her heart back with the only man she'd known as father, and silently, she pledged to return when her task was done.

* * *

The chuffs of the shovels scraping the fine sand away finally gave way to the sound of their rough edges striking metal. Kirone's lips parted into a sanguine fanged grin.

Apparently, she wouldnít have to be made to look the fool in front of Vantiga after all.

"Get back," she said, pushing her cloak off her shoulders. "I donít want you scratching it any more than you have."

"What is it, my lady?" Another of Vantiga's men called.

"Mine."

Her clawed fingers traced shapes and forms in the air as she closed her eyes, concentrating, willing herself to tap into the magical energies that were bound in every Sphere.

Ordinarily, a spell like this would have taken a supreme effort, leaving her drained and exhausted, but Sirroc's magic felt different from Taruga's. If anything, it was easier that it had ever been. Almost as if the magic were urging her forward.

Magical tendrils of energy slid between the sand that still covered some of the object, like a blind man's hands reading raised print. Only these fingers could see the shape underneath it, could feel the smooth surface, could search every dent and crack in its armor for . . .

Wait, she thought. There it is.

The tendrils traced the outline of the door. Kirone closed her eyes, willing the tendrils to probe deeper and find the mechanism.

"You might want to cover your heads," she said quietly.

Then she opened her hand.

A column of sand blasted high into the sky, raining the fine dirt over her thralls as she used her free hand to deflect any from her. The hissing of the rain of sand gave way to another sound. A heavy metallic clunk, followed by a hiss of released air.

Vantiga and his men walked over to the hole. Kirone closed the spell-circle, shutting off the flow of magic, then rushed to join them, shoving them aside as she looked down into the darkness below.

"I will go first," she said.

"My lady," Vantiga said. "Perhaps I should--"

"Be quiet," she finished. "I said I will go, and you will obey."

Before he could stop her she'd leapt down into the dark hole. She looked around. Apart from the small square of light from above, the chamber inside was near-suffocating in its darkness.

She clenched her fist, reveling in her triumph. Not simply because of the discovery of what she'd read about actually being here, but the presence of the darkness. After so long in the sun, she felt it's implacable midnight reinvigorating her. Almost as much as the spell had.

Perhaps Sirroc isnít as godforsaken a Sphere as I thought, she mused. Still, I didnít come all this way for one dark hole. I'll need some light to find my way around.

She touched the orange brooch where her cloak fastened around her. It began to pulse with an inner glow gradually shining bright enough to fill the chamber with a little more light.

"Come on," she gestured to her guards. "Use your fire-gems until we can find the lights."

Her guards leapt down into the chamber after her, forming a circle around her as they began walking along the long twisted hallway, Vantiga by her side.

"Lady Kirone, if I might ask--" he began, his voice a quiet hush.

"Where we are?" Kirone said, her black lips still in a thin humorless smile. "That's easy, Vantiga. We've found one of the Beasts."

"The Beasts?" Vantiga said. "But they're a myth."

"Myths are the names the ignorant give to their ignorance," she said. "The Beasts exist, Vantiga. Unless of course you have another explanation for where we are?"

"I will tell you where you are," a voice echoed down the corridor.

The guards hands went to their swords. Kirone's eyes narrowed.

The lights in the corridor game on in a white flash. The guards shielded their eyes, taking their hands off their swords for a moment.

"You have guaranteed your own destruction," the voice said again.

The corridor began to echo with another sound. Several thousand tiny ticks, like the silent grind of machinery.

Or the crawling of insects.

In a second, the corridor was full of flat green scorpion-like machines, skittering along the floor. Two of them leapt on the guards with impossible speed, one of them driving its stinger between the eyes of the guard, another wrapping itself around the guard's head and constricting it until it exploded.

Kirone grimaced.

"Vantiga," she said. "Move the rest of the guard behind me."

"My lady--"

"DO IT."

Kirone's red eyes picked out the source of the attack. Hiding behind the scorpions was a man, smaller than she was, his hunched, over posture making him seem even smaller. Though his mode of dress was unusual, she recognized his species.

A Fallen, she thought. Obviously from before the time the humans moved to Sirroc. More powerful than any Fallen I've known of, however.

"This is your only warning, Fallen," she spat. "The Beast belongs to me. And I donít suffer attacks on my person gladly."

"This is my place," the strange man hissed, squinting at her through red-lensed spectacles. "It always has been and shall be!"

"No," Kirone said, watching as the scorpions began swarming up her legs and pulling on her cloak. She concentrated, opening the flow of magic within her, and with a wave of her hand, slammed every single scorpion against the wall.

"This place has always been mine," Kirone said, walking towards him. "And I should ell you--I dislike squatters."

The peculiar man looked at her with horror, his eyes widening behind his spectacles. "My lovelies," he said. "You've hurt them!"

Kirone stopped two feet in front of him. Closer still, he looked even more peculiar. One of his arms was replaced with another machine, like the scorpions. It looked similar to flesh, but was larger and heavier, perhaps explaining his strange posture.

"You power's bound up in machines," Kirone said, waving a finger. The man's mechanical arm fell off with a plaintive thud. "Hardly worth noticing. But if youíd like to see what real power looks like . . .I'm more than happy to show you."

The mechanical hand's fingers began to grasp and clench, moving forward like the legs of the scorpion. The man tried to run, but found he couldnít move. Something was holding him in place.

The mechanical arm closed around his throat, it's grip cold, hard and unyielding. Kirone smiled thinly as she stepped forward.

"This is real power, little man," she said. "Life and death. I have power over yours, and thus I have power over you. But you'll find me a beneficent ruler, and I give you a choice now. Serve me, or I'll tear your head from your shoulders with your own arm."

"I . . ." The man's eyes opened wide in horror. Tears began to stream from his eyes. "Forgive me . . .I . . .didn't . . . I didnít know it was you!"

"You were expecting me?" Kirone said, raising an eyebrow.

"The one who would come . . . to unite all," he said. "Please, my lady . . . have pity."

"I'm afraid I don't have any to show you," Kirone said. She pondered things and then waved a hand, his mechanical arm going slack and clattering to the floor. She looked over her shoulder at Vantiga and his remaining soldiers. "But never let it be said I donít favor those who show me the proper respect."

"Oh thank you, my lady," the strange man said, crawling on his stomach to genuflect at her feet. "Forgive your humble servant. I lost faith . . .it had been so long and I had been kept here, waiting . . .forgive my faithlessness, my lady."

Kirone sighed, closing the spell-circle again. "Yes, yes," she said. "Rise, and put your arm back on. I'll forgive your faithlessness."

"Thank you--"

Kirone's eyes narrowed. "Do you have a name, Fallen?"

"I . . .was called Monstructor in the days when I cared for the Beast, my Lady," he said. "I've been down here so long . . .I've forgotten my own name. My lovelies wouldn't tell me, it, and--"

"Monstructor?"

"Yes, my lady?"

"Shut up," Kirone said. "Use the breath in your lungs that I gave you back to tell me about the Beast."

"Of course," Monstructor said, clacking his mechanical arm back into place and bowing. Kirone looked at the corpses of the two vampire soldiers, her lips curling in disgust.

"Oh, and get that cleaned up," she said.

* * *

Darken sat on a rock outside the cave, cradling his Eagle Clasp in his hands. His wings were gathered around his shoulders. Despite the heat, he still felt cold.

What am I doing here?

It wasn't the Dragon's noisy behavior, their taste for barely-cooked meat, or the way they seemed to be unable to finish a sentence without hitting each other as hard as possible and laughing about it immediately afterward.

No, he thought, I'm pretty sure they're like that all the time.

Except for Grune.

He thought back to when he'd been urged by the others to join them in the caves for a meal (their fifth of the day) and had initially been welcomed by all of them.

Except for Grune.

One of them, a dragon named Arkus, had been telling a story about the last war. A war where the Dragons and the Angels had stood together against the Vampires. The way Arkus had told it, it hardly seemed as though the angels had been necessary for the victory.

"The Vampires have no stomach for our blood," Arkus growled, chortling around the chunk of meat he was presently chewing. "The fire in our blood destroyed them faster than those Angel's sun-stones, I can tell you!"

Then he laughed and punched the Dragon next to him as hard as he could, and the two of them began laughing even louder.

"Uh," Darken said, trying to find it in himself to talk over the laughing. "This war . . .what happened . . .after?"

"What happened after?" Grune repeated, drawing himself up to his full height. "You dare to ask?"

Darken tensed up. "I only want to know what happened to my father," he said.

"Your father was betrayed," Grune said, his voice so tight the laughter died down and all the sound seemed to be sucked out of the cave. "We all were. The Angels did not want peace with us. We were useful as soldiers, but afterwards we were less than nothing to them."

Darken gathered his legs underneath him.

"Your father was executed by them," Grune said, his eyes angry but a little sad now. "Executed for cavorting with one of . . .them. He is . . .a martyr to our people. And a reminder to me, that your kind are not to be trusted."

"My people?" Darken asked. "I'm not an Angel."

"Youíre certainly not a Dragon," Grune said, walking towards him. "Nor are you an Angel. Youíre a mongrel. Less than either. And every time I look at you, I see only the image of the people that took my brother from me, and a leader from our people. And what do we have in his place? A half-breed."

Darken's fists clenched.

Grune shoved his face into Darken's. "You want to fight me, mongrel?" Grune sneered. "You havenít the will. You havenít the blood, and you certainly haven't the strength. I took it easy on you before, because I recognized something of my brother in you. But I was wrong. There is nothing, and you have no business here. Leave."

Darken sighed, tumbling the Clasp in his hands.

I'd hoped, wherever you were taking me, Iíd find out something about were I came from, he thought, addressing the strange device in his hands. Hoped that you'd explain a few things that Ka'el couldn't tell me, because he had no way of knowing about them.

But so far, you havenít been much help.

He looked at the strange device that Ka'el had told him had belonged to his mother. It seemed odd that such a small thing could have the power to cross Spheres and carry knowledge.

His white-gloved fingers found a small switch on the back of the golden eagle's head. The eagle's beak opened the red jewel tumbled out into his hand. Darken gasped for second.

Oh no, he thought. I've broken it. I . . .

A strange flickering light shone from inside the jewel. Flashing, like it had during the fight with Grune. He blinked, remembering something Ka'el had said to him long ago.

"The Spheres are held together with magic," Darken remembered. It's the beginning and end of everything. Or so he said.

Magic powers the machines; magic can be summoned at will. Maybe . . .magic can communicate with magic.

He calmed his mind, pushing the business with Grune out of his mind, calming himself and tapping in to the magic of the Spheres.

In a flash, his magic and the magic of the jewel linked. In an instant, images, information, things he couldnít even put words to flooded his mind, and he understood.

It was over in an instant. Darken closed the flow again and stared at the jewel.

That's why it wasn't doing anything, he thought. It wasn't linked to me, yet. It didnít recognize who I was.

He snapped the jewel back into the eagle's head and fastened it back around his red scarf. He stood up, looking out at the volcano-strewn landscape of Ladon. In an instant, he knew what he needed to know about it.

He looked back at the cave. The thoughts of Grune and what he'd said returned to him, and he walked back into the cave. The Dragons were still there, still gathered around the fire. They'd stopped eating, and even the noise had died down a bit.

The jewel didn't recognize me because I didnít know how to "talk" to it, Darken thought.

Grune's the same way. Time to speak his language.

"Well, it appears the mongrel's returned," Grune sneered. "I told you, you had no place here, half-breed, and--"

Darken cut him off with a kick to the jaw. Grune's head snapped back, his taloned hand touching where the young man had struck him.

"I've been thinking about what you said," Darken said. "If you have doubts about who and what I am, I thought we might settle our differences like Dragons."

"I told you, boy, you're no--"

Another strike from Darken, across the jaw.

Grune's eyes blazed with anger.

"You throw the challenge in my face, then?"

"I should be asking you, that, Grune. You made the challenge, and I just gave you my answer."

"There is one answer for that!" Grune shouted, leaping for him. Darken's wings swept out, propelling him backward as Grune slammed into the rough-hewn wall of the cave.

"Come on, then," Darken said. "Let's settle this."

* * *

Maryna stood outside the Crystal Forever, quietly going through the information her descendant had infused into the Eagle Clasp. Her head swam with the knowledge she'd gained.

It was a lot to take in.

It's not that there arenít any other Spheres after the war, she thought. For some reason, they destroyed all the gates, and restricted travel as much as possible. Genra didnít know why, but he seemed really surprised when I told him we couldnít go between Spheres anymore.

And now I know what and how to get there. The question is which one first?

Taruga was right out, of course. The Sphere of Darkness was so reviled a place that the Angels religion considered it a kind of hell. But there were others, the volcanic Sphere Ladon, the oceanic sphere of Aquatica.

No, she thought. Achromurcra. Genra called it the Machine Sphere.

Machines, she thought. Real machines, not just the clockwork magical stuff that we have now. Supposed to have been destroyed before there were even Angels. And there's a whole Sphere full of it?

Why?

She pondered all this, walking into the garden of the Crystal Forever. She'd gotten some answers, all right, but they only led to more questions. She walked along the smooth stone pathway, oblivious to the winged shadows above her.

This is turning into a lot more than just a hobby, Maryna thought. She would have continued in her reverie, had her way not been blocked by two crossed lances, held by two Angels, clothed in blue. She couldnít see their faces, or even their eyes, but their golden winged helmets told her all she needed to know about who they were and why they were here.

These were the Seraphim.

Maryna felt her blood freeze. Why were the Seraphim accosting her? Never mind information in the Crystal Forever was supposed to be sacred and private, but she was the consort of the Prince, and while she knew that didnít put her above the law, surely they'd think twice about stopping her in a public place.

The lances slid apart, and a woman stepped in between them. She was about Maryna's age, maybe a little older. Her auburn hair had a bright white streak that seemed to glow in the pale light of day. Unlike most Angels, including Maryna and the Seraphim, she was clad in a tight-fitting suit, black and silver, crisscrossed with a lightning bolt.

Her silver eyes met Maryna's.

"Lady Cyclade," she said. "My name is Alecto Lightningfrost. I'm afraid you must come with us."

"Why?" Maryna said. "I've done nothing--"

"No," she said. Her voice was cool, but anger seemed to crackle underneath it. "But you might. If you come with me, I'll explain. I give you my word you'll not be detained, unless you attempt to resist."

Maryna sighed. This was definitely more than a hobby.

It was trouble.

* * *

Vertiga was about to snuff out the lamps in the upper courtyard when she saw the shadows, just outside of her father's workroom. He'd been working late, trying to finish the last of the swords her uncle wanted.

The shapes moved quietly and slowly, trying to attract as little notice from anyone who might be about as possible. But Vertiga had spent far too much time staring out into that sea of sand not to know what belonged out there and what didn't.

And they didnít belong, whatever they were.

She reached for the knife at her belt, falling to the sand as they came closer. They were a little easier to see now, large hulking creatures, with cloaks pocked and streaked by the sandstorms they'd undoubtedly walked through on the way here.

They don't look like any nomads I've ever seen, she thought. For one thing, nomads donít wear armor like that. Theyíre scavengers, and they know the desert better than we do. Armor would be a hindrance when trying to move in stealth. They know how to move quietly, but theyíre not used to the desert.

She sighed, getting to her feet quietly.

And me with nothing but a knife. I'd better warn my father.

She walked swiftly but quietly to her father's workroom, gently pushing on the door.

Outside Vertiga and her father's muffled conversation could be heard as the two creatures, seeming to slide through the darkness like viscous matter, moved ever closer. They quietly crept in through the door, slamming it shut behind them.

The workroom became a cacophony of noise, the orange light of the foundry flickering in the small narrow window. There was a rustle of activity, lots of shouting, and loud clangs of metal. The loud clangs gave way to screaming, then more clanging.

Then, inexplicably, just a little longer than it took to blink one's eye, the outside and inside of the workroom seemed to ignite in a cold purple fire that lit the night sky for an sudden instant, then just as suddenly extinguished.

Then a terrible, sudden, silence.



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