Chapter 6: Complicated Questions

Liandra's wings beat slower and slower as she came to rest in the verdant meadow on the edge of a small range of mountains. She'd tried to push on through the night and succeeded, barely. Her entire body felt like a great lead weight and the effort of keeping herself aloft had greatly slowed her flight.

I have to rest, she thought. I may not get to Skycity in time to find him, but I just can’t go anymore.

Her feet sank into the grass and she got her footing somewhat unsteadily. She'd never flown for that long before--it had never been necessary back at the temple, after all. And the few times she'd gone as far as Skycity she'd gone with Darken, who had carried her through some of the flight.

Not as strong as I thought, I guess, she mused. She looked over her shoulder, finding a great tree, surrounded by soft grass that looked more inviting than any bedding she'd ever known. She padded over to it, resting her back against the strong truck and wrapping her wings around herself.

The breeze from the mountains was only slightly cold, but her exhaustion made her feel alternately overheated and frozen solid. Besides, at the moment, she needed someone's arms around her.

Maybe that's the whole reason I left to find Darken, she thought. Am I that frightened of being alone?

She gathered her knees up to her chest and folded her arms, resting them on her knees and closing her eyes. The urge to sleep crept at the back of her eyes and she very nearly drifted off at that moment.

The scraping she could hear behind her stopped her short.

Her eyes opened. More scratching. Sounding like claws on rocks. She took a deep breath.

Another sound, now. The rustling of the tall grass as something darted through it. Something light on its feet and very concerned, it seemed, about keeping quiet.

Keeping her wings folded around her, she began to quietly rise to her feet as well, ready for anything.

The rustle and clawing noises began alternating, almost as if whatever it was was leaping from the rocks into the grass. Slowly, Liandra opened her wings . . .

. . .only two find two creatures flanking either side of her, weapons drawn. Before she could react, another one flipped down from the tree, its weapon drawn as well.

Darken's a much better fighter than I ever was, she thought. I've always tried to avoid it whenever I could.

The sunlight filtering through the leaves of the tree gave her a general idea of who they were. Their soft white fur, striped with a deep blue-black seemed almost ghostly in the shady light. Their hard green eyes never left her, even though their pointed ears and tails twitched with nervous tension.

Jakyra, Liandra through. One of them twitched his weapon at her, ordering her out from under the tree. Liandra raised her hands up, eager to avoid a fight as she stepped out into the sun again.

"Why have you come here, Angel?" The lead Jakyra snarled. "Our mountains are sovereign territory. This is our hunting ground. Outsiders are not welcome."

"I just stopped to rest," Liandra said, a huge shadow passing over her. "I didn't mean to disturb your hunt."

Another of the Jakyra stepped forward. "It is a grievous insult to us to interfere with the hunt," he said, raising his weapon. He looked at her. "Do you know what cats do to birds, little Angel?"

The shadow passed over, closer now. Liandra saw two of the Jakyra look up and almost immediately fall to their knees, curling into a ball. Curious as to how they went from threatening to subservience, she looked up.

And smiled.

He was so huge to her he seemed to block the sunlight, and what his body couldn't his great broad wings did. He slowed the flapping of his wings somewhat and came to rest before her.

Liandra ran to embrace him. Though the armor he wore made him somewhat difficult to embrace, she was nevertheless glad to see him. His great hands folded around her, and his wings did as well.

"Hello Tigerhawk," she said.

"Liandra!" The Jakyran responded, embracing her tighter. Liandra groaned just a bit. "You've grown up, girl--My sons hardly recognized you."

Liandra looked up from his arms. "These are your sons?"

Tigerhawk gave his cowering children a withering look. "Yes they are," he said. "Perhaps I should spend more time teaching them manners and less on the hunts, hm?"

"We're sorry, Father," the one who had threatened her said.

"You wouldn't have remembered her, Kiba," Tigerhawk said. "You were newly born the last she came to see us. Still, no excuse for your rudeness." Kiba cowered as he turned back to Liandra, letting her go and clasping his hands on her shoulders. "What brings you here, my dear? Come to hunt with us?"

"Ah . . .not really," Liandra said. "I'm looking for Darken. I was headed to Skycity--I figured that's where he might be going. Ka'el said something about him leaving this Sphere and, well, I thought he might have used the Gate there."

"He's left?" Tigerhawk repeated. "That is strange. None of my people saw him come this way, and surely he would have stopped to say hello, as you did."

"Surely," Liandra said. No reason to tell him the only reason I stopped was because I was tired.

"In any case, you look exhausted," he said. "Tried to fly straight through, did you?"

Liandra nodded.

"Common enough mistake, it is," Tigerhawk said, rustling his own wings. "I can tell you from experience--sustaining flight for a day is near impossible. I understand the Angels wanting to honor me, but I would have settled for a barrel of wine, really."

"I just need to rest for a bit," Liandra said. "I can make it."

"You should rest for far longer than a bit, my dear," Tigerhawk said. "Rest here--I will watch over you and my sons will see you refreshed. But first, my sons await their first etiquette lesson"

Tigerhawk pulled Kiba to his feet, dragging him by the ear to face Liandra. Kibra thrashed a bit, but got to his feet, his eyes and ears downcast and his expression shamefaced.

"I'm . . .sorry for threatening to eat you, Liandra," he said.

* * *

"I thought you said," Vertiga began, gasping as she ran through the sand. "I thought . . .you said . . .it wouldn't take all day to find him."

I can’t help how slow you are, the voice in her mind replied. Besides, it's taking all we have to keep you running at this speed, or do you think you could have crossed the desert this fast yourself?

"I'm just . . .I don’t want to wait anymore."

Of course you don't. So be quiet and do what I tell you.

She ran for a time, in silence, her white-armored legs a blur beneath her as she tore a huge wake of sand behind her. Except for the dust she kicked up it was almost impossible to follow her with the naked eye.

But the silver eyes following her from the deserted building could see her just fine. To those eyes, it was as if Vertiga was standing still.

An easy enough target.

Delicate fingers produced a silver-white feather, balancing it between the first two fingers. With a flick of the wrist, it was gone.

Vertiga saw a flash of silver, like a metal glinting in the hot sun out of the corner of her eye. She ignored it, pressing on, only to find that not two steps later she was blown backwards by a great explosion. Vertiga landed in the soft sand, feeling its grit already slipping between her armor plates and her clothes.

She drew her sword, her violet eyes searching for where the attack had come from. Did the vampire know she was coming? Was he hiding from the sun, waiting to pick her off from a place of concealment?

"Well?" Vertiga asked, her lips pulling back from gritted teeth.

Well, what?

"What was that all about? Does he know we're coming?"

No, the voice in her head said, the anger and annoyance well gone. This is something else.

"What else could be out here?"

"No one," an all too familiar voice said. Vertiga blinked.

Where had she come from? How had she managed to get the drop on her?

As she moved closer and the heat haze resolved into a sharper picture of her attacker. She was as tall as Vertiga, her black hair, trimmed with silver at the end whipping in the hot wind of the desert. Unlike Vertiga she wore no armor, only simple black, white and silver clothes, and recognizable ones too.

"That's my favorite shirt you're wearing," Vertiga said to her attacker. "Where did you get it?"

"I think you know," the other said, calmly. She moved closer. Vertiga saw the thin sword she carried at her hip, hanging there, not drawn. "I'm here to help you."

"The only help I need or want from anyone is the location of a certain Vampire," Vertiga said. "Unless you know where I can find him, you’re wasting my time, and I'm afraid I don’t have it to waste right now."

"I'm afraid I don't," she replied. "By the time I woke up, you and he were long gone. I saw to your father and came to find you."

Vertiga, this woman lies, the voice in her head said. Don’t listen to her. She's with them.

Vertiga's hands tightened on the hilt of her sword. "That was hundreds of leagues back," she said. "I've been running--"

"I'm faster than you," she said, her voice never waving from its calm dulcet tone. She looked Vertiga in the eye, looking for any sign her words were understood. "You might as well try to outrun your own shadow."

She's lying to you, Vertiga. Trying to confuse you. That's what she does. Don't let yourself be fooled.

Vertiga bit her lip.

"Put the sword down Vertiga," the woman said. "Let me help you."

"I told you," Vertiga said. "Unless you know where the vampire is, I don’t WANT your help!"

Vertiga slashed at the woman with her sword. The woman seemed to vanish in the blink of an eye, slipping behind her and grasping her sword-arm at the wrist as she slipped another arm around Vertiga's throat.

"Put it down, Vertiga," The woman said quietly.

Vertiga, she's trying to get rid of me!

"You don’t need it, Vertiga," she said. "I know what he's saying to you--I know what he's doing. Don't listen to him. Ignore him long enough to drop the sword. Once you hear what I have to say, then, if you want, you can pick it back up."

Don’t listen to her. You know how I care for you.

"I . . ."

Vertiga, I'm the only one who can help you get your revenge. I told you that in the forge. When you reached out, I was there, wasn't I?

Vertiga's eyes began to water. She dug her heels into the sand.

"Vertiga, listen to me . . ."

Who knows you better than I do?

Vertiga stiffened, almost hesitating for a moment.

"Get . . .OFF ME!" Vertiga shouted, hurling the woman over her shoulders, sending her crashing to the sand. She landed silently, rolling to her feet and almost reluctantly drawing her sword.

"So now you want to fight, do you?" Vertiga demanded. "I'll kill you if you try to stop u--stop me."

"I won't fight you," the woman replied.

"Then get out of my way," Vertiga said, breaking back into her run. The sand sprayed furiously, raising a cloud of dust, and she was gone.

Vertiga laughed cruelly as she looked over her shoulder.

"She wasn't much of a threat."

You wouldn’t have won against her, the voice in her mind said. It was better you didn’t waste time fighting.

"You know who she is, then?" Vertiga said, breathing heavier as her muscles settled into a running rhythm. "Why she looked like a negative version of me?"

Shut up and keep running. We should find the other vampire before daylight.

* * *

"Only five?" Kirone squinting at the arcane scribbles. She, Vantiga and Monstructor were gathered around one of the machines in the Beast's command center.

Monstructor had been explaining rather ecstatically that he'd made contact with some Beasts still dormant after the War. Kirone had been equally intrigued, somewhat less so when she'd worked out her potential force was a paltry quintet.

"I'm afraid so, my lady," Monstructor said. "Most of them were destroyed in the war. To create more I'd need raw materials we don’t have yet."

"What would it take?"

"I'm not sure if I can replicate the process, as we did it back in the War," Monstructor said, rubbing his chin with his metallic hand. "Our enemies beat the Beasts by sealing their energies and destroying the machines, freeing the spirits within them."

"That's simple ferromancy," Kirone said. "These backward savages in the desert below us do it all the time. It's how they make their weapons."

"Forgive me, my lady, but that is merely binding a spirit to a weapon, borrowing a mere fraction of its power," Monstructor said, his eyes squinting through his spectacles at the readings below. "A Beast is a spirit existing within our realm, completely in harmony with the machine, As a glove must fit a hand."

"So what's the problem, then?" Vantiga asked bitterly.

"After the War, my people's ability to contact the spirits was diminished," Monstructor said. "With enough power, and, of course--our Lady's help--we can break the seals on the Beasts that survived, but until I can modify the process, I cannot create more."

Kirone sighed, turning in a huff to Vantiga. "Between your scouts' glacial slowness and his excuses, I'm beginning to wonder if either of you are capable of delivering on a promise."

"Forgive me, my lady, I--"

"Shut up, Monstructor. I want results. Not excuses." Kirone turned on her heel and began to leave the room, looking over her shoulder at Vantiga.

"And as for you--your scout had best find us soon, or you'll join your two men in the engine room of the Beast."

She walked out of the room, fighting the urge to bite her lip and dig her fangs in. Even now, patience was still a problem. And why not? From the very moment she'd been born, she'd been anointed as a child of destiny. Told over and over again that someday she would rule the Spheres. With a prize like that waiting for her, how could she not want to hasten her reaching it?

She'd been barely born, and the mother that gave her life devoured, before Cryptonus raised her high above his head before the multitudes and proclaimed her Princess of the Vampire Race and the Child of Destiny.

Before I'd learned to walk I'd been taught what my role would be, she thought as she made her way through the empty catacombs of the Beast. Before I held any toy, I held a blade. Once I was old enough to walk, I began learning magic.

By the time I was ten, my father had given the whole story--his version, at least. How he'd kept my mother alive and unchanged after the war with the Angels. How she lived alone in the only tower of light on Taruga, carrying me to term.

"After the war, a child of two races will unite them all," Kirone remembered, stepping out of one of the passageways onto the outside of the Beast. She was sheltered from most of the desert's stinging sandy winds, but there was enough of a breeze to blow her cloak from her shoulders. It billowed behind her like black and red wings.

Father had never given me much time, and for years, I never understood why. Then his vizier told me. He'd been my teacher in politics and magic both, and, I suppose, my only friend.

The truth was, Cryptonus was perfectly willing for the prophecy to go unfulfilled--to ride out the goodwill of his people by siring the Child of Destiny until he died. His only interest was reflecting some of the glow from my light.

And one other thing.

"He saw a vision of you standing over his body," she remembered the Vizier saying. "He can’t have you killed, nor can he afford to send you away, but he fears you, Kirone. He fears prophecy as he fears your growing power."

Kirone made a fist with her right hand.

They sent him to the Tower of Light for that little revelation, she thought. I pretended to forget, but I never have. I committed myself even more to amassing power and knowledge, determined one day to fulfill my father's prophecy.

And now that I'm so close, I refuse to tolerate any more delays, dismissals, or setbacks.

"Lady Kirone," a voice hummed from one of the jewels on her wrist.

"Yes, Vantiga, what is it?"

"I've just hear from Lumekh--he has found a place. We're making for it now."

"Excellent," she said. "I'll be there shortly."

* * *

Maryna Cyclade couldn’t believe how peaceful and quiet it was here. She looked down, her shadow drifting over the endless waves of green grass that seemed to blur at her rate of speed.

It's so different from the Imperial City, she thought. Usually the skies are so clogged with people you can’t enjoy the flight. I can't remember the last time I flew through the sky and looked at everything, like I can do here.

It's like I'm the only person here.

For all she knew, she was. And lucky to be here, besides, though she hadn’t thought that way at the time.

"I can’t believe this," she'd said, pacing back and forth in front of Sachiel who sat before her on a small bench just outside of the guard tower. "First I get dragged out of the Crystal Forever by Lightningfrost and her goons just because I wanted to know why we couldn’t travel outside the spheres, then I get threatened with imprisonment, then you come in and get me off with . . .a furlough."

"It seemed like the best way to satisfy everyone," Sachiel said, resting his elbows on his knees and rubbing his face. "This way, you get to travel--"

"For a day, Sachiel. And they get to pick the place. I stay there for a day, and then, I get taken back automatically, they wipe the information from the Clasp so I can’t go back again."

He looked up, a little annoyed. "Would you rather they jailed you?"

"No, of course not," she sighed, looking down at her feet. "I just . . .I just wanted to go and see the Spheres on my own. The whole reason I started looking into it, was so I could do something for and by myself."

"Yes, I remember you saying," He said, looking up from his hands. "I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t now, Maryna. Why isn’t this enough?"

"Why isn’t what enough?"

"This. The Sphere where we both grew up. The Court. Knowing it's all going to be ours one day," he said. "Why isn't that enough for you? It's more than most people ever have."

"Is it enough for you?" Maryna asked.

"Honestly? Yes," Sachiel said. "I like knowing my future's secure, and stable, and trouble's not on the horizon. I like knowing that they'll keep to their side and we'll keep to ours. No more wars, no more acrimony --"

"No adventure, no curiosity, not much to look forward to," Maryna said. Sachiel looked hurt for a second, looking back toward the guard tower.

"What?" She asked.

"Nothing," Sachiel said.

"No, what did I say?"

"It's just when you say "this isn't enough for me," I get the feeling what you’re saying is that I'm not enough for you," he said finally, rushing through it before he lost his nerve.

"I'm not saying that at all, Sachiel," Maryna said. "I just saw life as doing more than court functions."

Sachiel looked away again. Maryna sighed and took her hands in his.

"Hey," she said. "I'm not rejecting you, or the life. I just want more for myself than just to be queen and not have to do anything for the rest of my life. I look at people like Genra--people who were in the war, people who did something, and I wonder what I'm going to do."

"Be Queen?"

"That's by virtue of being married to you, Sachiel," Maryna said. "It's not something I did. Our marriage was arranged when we were children. I need to know--before I settled down, that I did something for me. My own thing."

Sachiel sighed. "I thought you might say something like that. That's why I pushed for you getting to go away."

I'm sure he thought he was giving me something so I’d get it out of my system, come back and settle down, she thought, passing a strange structure. I don't know how else to explain to him that I never asked to be betrothed to him. I never asked to be in line to be his Queen.

I love him, she thought, but it's everything around him that bothers me, and having no choice about any of it.

I want a choice, he wants stability.

I guess we want different things.

She blinked, banking over and circling back around.

Wait a minute, she thought. Is that . . .?

She dove slightly and banked over it. The Clasp glowed slightly, reading details of the stone, recalling the histories she'd read and her time in the Crystal Forever had revealed.

It is! The Temple.

The few books she'd been able to find about it had claimed it was a myth--a relic of the time when there had been nine Spheres and a great war with the Beasts had wiped out the two dominant races.

I'd have thought the war would have left it as rubble.

She flew in closer, her eyes searching the temple from the sky, looking for any signs of damage, turning and diving to come in for a landing.

Suddenly, Maryna's trip had gotten a whole lot more interesting and she was already regretting the time she'd wasted flying around the Sphere.

She spread her wings, slowing her descent and extending her feet to come in for a landing. She landed with a slight slide, leaning forward and stopping herself with her hand.

This stone, she thought, steadying herself and running her hand back and forth. A temple this old should be covered in moss or mold, or have turned black.

This is fresh. Someone . . .lives here.

Behind her, someone cleared their throat. Maryna moved slowly into a crouch, ready to leap into the sky the moment she looked behind her, assuming it was a threat.

She looked around, blowing her dark brown bangs from her eyes.

He looked like a fellow Angel, younger than she, but certainly Angelic. Except for his wings--those were black, with a red streak around the inner feathers. That in itself wasn't unusual--Angels with wings other than white were uncommon, but not unheard of.

No, his were different--the structure of them looked more like feathered dragon wings, the clawed tips almost exactly like them.

Dragons with feathers, however--that was unheard of.

"You mind telling me who you are? And what you’re doing here?"

"You first," Maryna said, rising slowly to her feet and turning to her. She didn’t want to take off immediately--she could tell he was certainly skilled enough to catch her, and even the defensive arts she'd been taught at court wouldn’t help her in a straight fight. The rather vicious-looking spear he was carrying made that abundantly clear.

No, she thought. Best way out of this is to talk.

I guess now I see how good I really am at that.

"My name is Darken Blackangel," he said. "I live here."

"Here? Really?" Maryna said. "That's great! I've read about this place for ages, but I never thought--"

Darken looked confused. "You’re telling me you’re a sightseer?"

Maryna's smile softened a bit. "You don’t get many visitors?"

"Not many," Darken said. "Few enough that when I see someone I don’t recognize I assume they're up to no good."

"I promise I'm not up to no good," She said. "I just . . .want to look inside. Er . . .if it's all right with you?"

Darken looked to either side of her. He looked equal parts weary and annoyed, and not eager to get into an argument with a total stranger on the figurative doorstep of his house.

Finally, he sighed, as if giving up.

"I don’t suppose if I say no, you'll leave," he said.

"Not immediately," Maryna said, smiling. "I’d like to give you a chance to change your mind."

"Well, you won't have to," Darken said. He started down the steps of the temple and beckoned for her to follow him. "Come on. Just don't expect much from me--I'm not much of a tour guide."

"That's fine," she said, shuffling after him. "I'm just happy for the chance to see it."

Darken sighed. He walked for awhile in silence as she trailed along behind him.

"You sure do talk a lot."

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