Chapter 7: Fight or Flight

Lumekh had needed a way to mark the town he'd chosen in a way that could be seen from the sky. The simplest way would have been a signal fire, but until the others arrived to support him, the idea of building a fire in the middle of the day on some poor fool's roof seemed like a tactical misstep, at best.

Besides, Vampires were terrified of fire, or had been for as long as they'd known about Dragons. And he'd survived this long by keeping as hidden and unobtrusive as possible.

He'd sneaked into the town quietly, holding up in the dark corner of one of their houses. When the children came home, he'd attack one, killing it and draining it's blood. The child, in turn, killed and turned its parents when they came to check on them. He'd created three houses worth of thralls in a short morning's work.

Because the nature of these humans was to be clannish and keep to themselves, the disappearance was hardly noticed at all.

But now his work was done. Now all he had to do was bring Vantiga and Kirone to the town. And that required one more unobtrusive sign.

Lumekh had just the thing. He'd kept one of the few he'd managed to turn alive--a small child. Carefully tapping into the small human's jugular, he severed it, bathing his hand in the arterial spray and beginning to draw an ideogram on the flat roof. The young child died before he began, and in any case, wouldnít have understood the import of it--it was the central root word of the Vampire language.

The vampires had over three thousand variations of the word "dark" in their written and spoken language, but, living as they did in a sphere of perpetual darkness, had only one to describe the condition of darkness coming, or more appropriate for what Lumekh was doing, darkness falling.

And it was that which he wrote on the roof.

* * *

"Look," Maryna said, walking nervously behind Darken as they descended down the temple steps. Her eyes were fixed on Darken's weapon, the point of which he kept tapping on the steps as he went down them. "That's a really impressive weapon, but could you put it away? You know I'm no threat, and besides which . . .honestly, it's a little frightening."

Darken stopped and looked at the Blackfang. His brow furrowed. He'd been carrying it with him ever since he'd gotten it, never really letting it leave his grasp for long, as if by keeping a tight hold on it, some tangible piece of his past was always there, and somehow more real because of it.

"Oh," he said. "Sorry. I donít mean to scare you. I didnít realize it was."

Maryna looked at him as if he were mad. "You didn't realize you were carrying a big and very dangerous looking spear around with you?"

Darken frowned. "It's more than a weapon, all right?" He retorted, a little defensive. "Look, if it bothers you that much . . ."

He gestured with his hand. There was a flash of blue, and it suddenly vanished.

Maryna smiled. "That was amazing," she said. "How did you--"

Darken tapped the Eagle Clasp. "It told me how," he said quietly.

Maryna brushed her hair back, revealing hers. "You mean you have one too?"

Darken looked at hers. The head of the eagle was the same basic shape as his own, but cast in silver, and not the gold of his. Moreover, hers had a blue gem set in the eagle's beak.

"I . . .how did you get one?" Darken asked. Maryna noticed that in addition to stopping his pace, his attitude towards her had suddenly thawed considerably.

"It's an inheritance," Maryna said. "I'm a cousin of the royal family. Every Angel who's even tangentially related to the royalty has one. Theyíre heirlooms. You must be related, if you have one."

Darken snorted. "That's not very likely," he said. "If it were, I wouldnít have grown up in hiding here, would I?"

"Oh I donít know," Maryna said. "I've read plenty of stories with princes raised in secret. They were my favorite stories when I was small, actually."

Darken sighed. "I'm no prince, secret or otherwise" he said, irritated. "Whatever else I might be, I can promise you that. Or aren't these"--here, he gestured to his wings--"enough of a clue?"

Maryna shrugged. "I see Angels with different kinds of wings all the time. What difference does the color of your wings make?"

Darken sighed. He started back down the stairs again, suddenly certain he and Maryna weren't having the same conversation.

"You can ask Ka'el," he said. "He's the one you came to see, after all."

"Surprisingly enough, he wasn't expecting visitors today," a voice called to them from below.

Darken smiled and stepped off the staircase, his wings fluttering gently as he slowed his descent down to the main chamber, where Ka'el stood, leaning on his cane and standing on his own, looking up and smiling at him.

Darken smiled too, but a look of confusion crossed his face. Something about Ka'el's smile seemed a little weaker, a little more sad now.

I wonder why, Darken thought. I wasn't really gone that long, was I? It only seemed like a day and a half at most, but the Clasp mentioned that time flows differently from Sphere to Sphere, so a day here could be two on another Sphere.

He frowned. It's amazing how confusing and complicated things can get in just a day and a half.

Maryna floated down behind him after watching how he had done it. Darken looked over his shoulder as he landed quietly on the stone floor of the chamber. She seemed a little less at ease with flying in the somewhat close quarters of the inside of the temple, but she seemed to adapt well enough, stumbling only a little when she came to a landing.

"And who is this?" Ka'el asked, gesturing to Maryna.

"My name is Maryna Cyclade," she said, stepping forward. She looked puzzled for a second. "Youíre Ka'el?"

Ka'el raised an eyebrow. "What makes you uncertain I am who I claim?"

"You don't look anything like the way you looked in the books," she said. "I donít mean to offend you, but well . . .I've done a lot of reading in the libraries and the older stories made you look . . ."

"More like an angel?" Ka'el asked.

Maryna nodded.

"Hm," Ka'el said. Another wan, sad smile crossed his fame as he considered this. "And what brings you here, Maryna Cyclade?"

"Curiosity, really," she said, brushing her hair from her face and trying to stand as easy as Darken was. Unfortunately she was so excited to be here and finally see all the history she'd read about, that was a little difficult. "I . . .wanted to see this place. See another Sphere."

"You mean you just canít go wherever you like?" Darken interrupted.

Maryna shook her head. "Not anymore. Travel between Spheres is difficult--I'm actually only here for a day, and even that took some doing. They very nearly threw me in jail just for trying to find out more about the other Spheres." She looked at Ka'el. "It also took some doing to find out about you, and the history of the Spheres. There's a lot of things being kept secret. Even from someone like me, and I canít see a reason for it."

"They donít even trust their own Princesses?" Darken asked, smirking a little.

"I'm not a Princess," Maryna shot back.

"Enough," Ka'el said quietly but firmly. He looked at Maryna again. "And somehow, you managed to get them to allow you to come here. Why?"

"I guess I wanted to know the truth," Maryna said. "To understand what's going on."

"I hate to interrupt, but I'd like to know that myself," Darken said. He turned to Ka'el. "Where's Liandra? Why didnít she meet me outside? How come she didn't find the Princess skulking around outside?"

"I'm not a Princess and I wasn't skulking," Maryna said.

"Are those your only questions?"

"They're a start, Master," Darken said. "For now, I'd be satisfied knowing what's going on the present before I start in on past history."

"Who's Liandra?" Maryna asked, shrinking from Darken's reproachful glare. She took a step back, deciding to pick her moments and silently cursing the 24-hour time limit she'd been giving for making her so pushy and impatient.

"She left yesterday," Ka'el said. "To search for you."

Darken was aghast. "And you let her go? By herself?"

* * *

He is below. In that small town.

"Youíre sure?" Vertiga asked, laying on her stomach on a rocky cliffside overlooking the village below. She squinted at the drab tan adobe houses. "We've been through two towns already where you swore he'd been. Between that the business with that woman--"

Silence. I'm certain of it. Look closely--there's a symbol written on one of the roofs.

Vertiga squinted some more, covering her eyes with her hand to cut the glare of the sun a little. "I see some black mark on one of the houses, but it doesnít look like writing to me, or any kind of writing I've seen."

It's Vampire language.

"If I knew what Vampire language meant, I'd have picked it right out," she said, gritting her teeth. "Remember--I didnít know what Vampires were at all until last night. Most of the rest I've learned from you."

Then you should pay some mind to what you've learned from me. That word could be a call to rally more of his kind to that village.

"More vampires," Vertiga said, her voice flat with dull hatred.

Yes. But gathered in that town, they would be trapped. Easy prey for you, especially with my power aiding you.

"What about the villagers?"

Most of them will have been turned by the time the other vampires get there. Death would be a mercy to them.

Vertiga stiffened.

You doubt that?

Her fists clenched. "I don't like killing my own kind," she said. "I'm after vampires. Not humans. I know this village--these people have it hard enough."

Theyíre already dead.

"Not all of them . . ."

Listen to me--they are either prey or they are already vampires, in which case they are less than human already. Thralls for the true vampires. Or worse yet, a meal.

"No . . ."

LISTEN! Had they turned your father, you would have killed him, rather than see him turned into their slave.

"I would have . . ."

Would have what? You couldn't hope to change him back--once the change has set in, death is the only release. Would you have let him feed on you? Turn you in to one of them? Could you have lived like that, looking at your reflection and seeing the face of those who slew you and your father and made you in their image?

"No," Vertiga said, shaking her head. "I'd rather die than let that happen."

Of course you would. You would die as a human being.

"Yes."

That's why the villagers must die, Vertiga. They must die as human beings. It's what they would want, as surely as you'd want it for yourself. You understand that, do you not?

Vertiga grabbed the hilt of her sword and hauled herself to her feet. She looked down on the village below, her eyes set, her expression grim but determined.

"Yes," she said. "I understand. It's the only way, really."

* * *

"Where are you going?"

Darken sighed, walking away from Ka'el and Maryna.

"Where do you think?" Darken asked. "After her."

"Darken, she wanted to go, and I had to let her," Ka'el said gently.

"Had to?" Darken repeated. "You didnít have to do anything, Ka'el. She'd have listened to you if you said no. Or did you fill her head with a lot of destiny talk to get her to love, like you did with me?"

Ka'el sighed. "I could not stop her, Darken," he said. "She made her decision to go, and the time is fast approaching when you will both have to decide for yourselves what you must do, not just for yourselves, but for something . . .greater than yourself.

"That is why I let her go."

"That's not much of an answer," Darken said. "And it's not enough of one to keep me here. I'm going, and I'm going to bring her back."

"I wonít stop you," Ka'el said. "I will be here when you return, and perhaps then, we may talk better."

Darken grit his teeth. Nothing Ka'el could say could make him change his mind right now, but somehow by choosing not to argue or forbid him from going, it only made Darken angrier, somehow.

"Uh, Darken?" Maryna asked, immediately regretting speaking up when Darken glared at her.

"Do you . . .want me to go with you?"

"No," he said. "I donít. I donít need any help to bring her back, and besides which, I'm not sure how much help you could be. I donít have time to slow down and sightsee, Princess."

"For the last time, I'm not a--"

Before she could finish, he'd spread his wings and flown upward at top speed through the top of the chamber. Maryna looked up, frowning as he flew away.

"I guess I shouldn't have been so pushy," she said, more to herself than to anyone else.

"He means no insult," Ka'el said. He began to walk around the chamber, his staff clanking on the stone floor. "He has spent the past few days doing much what you have--learning about the past. However, his search is more personal than yours, and that tends to stir the emotions."

"I suppose," Maryna said, remembering how angry she'd been at Sachiel's compromise that made it possible for her to be here in the first place. "I started out reading up on history as a hobby, really. But it's gotten personal for me too. How much . . .did he know?"

"About the past? More than you," Ka'el said. "About his own? Precious little. My choice, and perhaps, my mistake. Because my time is short now, and there is so much more he needs to know and understand before the end."

Ka'el turned to her. "And I suppose, now you must, as well."

* * *

The massive Beast moved over the village, the spheroid shape blocking out the sun and casting the village below into darkness, the artificial eclipse an ill omen and dark premonition of the worst to come. Some of the villagers, never having seen an eclipse of the sun, which was always hot and blazing, stepped out of doors, trying to understand why the day still burned hot even when shrouded by darkness.

At the very top of the Beast stood Kirone, her cloak billowing in the high, hot winds. She stood in the middle of a scrying circle, crudely drawn by Monstructor's little beasts with a kind of acid from their stomachs that seared the inscriptions into the very metal of the living weapon.

She raised her hands, closing her eyes and chanting under her breath. She concentrated inside herself, willing her words, gestures and her very determination to tap into the source of all magic and let it flow through her, be collected and focused inside the scrying circle, and down into the village below.

She'd cast death-spells before of course, but they'd been small-scale. One or two people. Never an entire town. Already the effort of concentration and willpower made her movements slow a little.

But she redoubled her efforts, willing more and more magic to flow through her and collect in her circle. Magic that would sweep below and take the lives of whatever humans and vampire humans were there and tear their spirits away from them.

That spirit energy, borne by her magic, would reawaken the rest of the Beasts, sleeping and buried on the other Spheres. The spirits within them would immediately weak havoc and their efforts, their power, bound back here by this spell, would add to her own.

And with any luck, anyone who could stop her would be too busy trying to save themselves from the Beasts' reawakened assault.

She allowed a thin smile to cross her lips. It was coming easier now. The power was easier to handle and direct, and she felt a rather profound sense of satisfaction flowing through her, almost as a by-product of the spell. Once again reality had proven to her what destiny foretold:

She was its master, and her assumption of destiny, her accession, began today.

* * *

Skycity was very much as Liandra remembered it--busy, loud and crowded. The city was full of medium sized buildings, defining very narrow streets and alleyways and choking the alleyways with street vendors. It was so crowded she and Darken had gotten impossibly lost the first time they'd come--if it was cramped quarters for a normal human coming to sell his wares, people with wings had to squeeze tight, or risk getting turned around or carried along by the mass of people somewhere she hadnít intended to go.

She came to light on one of the landing areas on the outskirts of the city proper, landing lightly on the wooden deck and immediately wrapping her wings around her, like a white cloak. She began to walk along the well-worn pathways that sloped down into the city.

Even from the distance, the din was terrific--a great wall of noise that seemed to push on her eardrums. Skycity never slept, after all--there was always someone coming through the gate, with something to sell or trade.

Now I just have to figure out how the traffic's monitored, she thought, squeezing her way through the crowded thoroughfare. It must be--after all, I've never heard of anything dangerous coming through, but I've never seen anyone actually guarding it.

She came to the central area of the city, a round clearing surrounding the gate. The gate itself stood tall, a skeletal metal trapezoid enclosing a swirling area of blue energy. Every now and again there was a flash of light as someone came through the gate. None of them seemed out of the ordinary--more humans, much like Macabro, carrying rolls on their shoulders of the goods they'd made and wished to sell.

She walked over to a stand she recognized. Behind its wooden counter a balding man in a dirty white shirt pushed plates of food at paying customers. Catching sight of her, he pointed to a handwritten menu.

"Oh no," she said. "I'm not here to eat . . .I wanted to know if youíd seen someone who looks like me--older, with black wings--"

He waved his hand and rubbed two fingers together. Liandra sighed and reached for the bracelet she wore on her arm, pulling one of the jewels on it loose and placing it in his hand. The man looked at it, then shook his head.

"Havenít seen anyone like that in days," he said. "You're the first Angel I've seen this week, actually."

"Oh," Liandra said, crushed. The man, noticing her disappointment, offered her a small piece of food, waving her off when she tried to offer him another jewel in payment. She sighed and took the food, walking over to a quiet spot and eating, chewing sullenly.

I can't believe it--I came all this way, and he's not even here. And I was so sure, too. Liandra pondered glumly. Well, if he didnít go through the gate, how else could he have left the Sphere?

She sighed, finishing the food and rubbing her hands together. She'd wait here for an hour and try to rest up for the flight back. There wasn't much else she could do. Wherever Darken was--he wasn't here.

* * *

The sun on Cirroc never eclipsed, it was like an unblinking fiery eye. Not even clouds drifting across it offered a relief. The humans on the Sphere knew that and had adapted accordingly--doing everything they could to work around the omnipresent sun that blazed relentlessly in the daylight and whose absence made the nights hatefully cold. It was always going to be there, there was nothing to do really but to accept that.

The humans of Cirroc could be forgiven, then, for the panic that gripped the village when the sun suddenly blacked out in the middle of the day. It started with confusion--people walking out of doors and looking up at the sky and wondering why and how night had come so swiftly.

That confusion had boiled over to panic swiftly when the other problem facing the village presented itself. The growing vampire population, emboldened to make their way outdoors thanks to cover of darkness that prevented the sun from annihilating them where they stood, began venturing out and attacking people who weren't their families.

Macabro Darknova pondered all this as he held a hand to his neck, trying desperately to stanch the bleeding as he made a run for the gate. The day had started so quiet, and now seemed to be steadily going from bad to worse to apocalyptic in short order.

The vampires had been bad enough, and the response to them hadnít been swift enough--too many of the villagers were still paralyzed with fear and panic from the eclipse.

Then the storms had begun. Somehow the skies darkened even more and a freezing wind began to tear through the village, literally--sand borne along by the winds began eroding holes in the walls of buildings, creating heavier debris that blew through and pulverized more of the town.

He ran faster towards the gate, willing his fear and panic to keep himself running. There was a way to activate in emergencies like this, he knew. He could escape to Skycity and find a way back to help the others. Whatever was happening, he couldn't do anything by himself, he knew.

Besides--and he felt so guilty for thinking this--right now Iíd give anything to see Liandra again.

I donít want the last thing I remember to be this. I donít want to die seeing everything I know in ruin. I donít want to die.

He was about to turn the corner down the main thoroughfare when he plowed into someone else. Someone who was wearing armor, if the painful way his teeth bit down on his lip when he'd been stopped short were any indication. He hit the dirt hard, landing on his backside, scrambling to get back up, the hand he'd been using to stop the bleeding at his neck matting with sand as he looked up to see who he'd run into.

She was only a little taller than he was, but something about her was absolutely terrifying. Maybe it was the deliberate way she stood in the center of the storm presently destroying the village, the only sign it even affected her was the wind whipping her silver-white hair around her face.

More than likely, it was the twin elements of the massive sword in her hand and the trio of headless villagers she was standing in the middle of.

"You've been bitten," she said, her voice a ragged shout above the wind. Her eyes seemed to blaze with a murderous rage.

Macabro got to his feet, crouching before her like a scared animal.

She raised her sword over her head, her eyes narrowing on him. For a second, Macabro froze--his legs wouldnít move at all. All he could focus on was the idea that he was seconds away from being cut down by this strange woman. He would never reach the gate, he would never find help.

He was going to die a mere ten steps from the gate.

"Vertiga, STOP!" A voice called from the darkness.

And then, the brightest light struck the woman in the side, and in a flash it seemed, another woman had joined the fight. She blocked the woman's sword with her own blade, looking quickly over her shoulder.

"Wherever youíre running to--GO! NOW!" She said, leaning against the force the other woman was bringing against her. Macabro found the will to run again and made a long circle around them, reaching for the mechanism that opened the gate.

Behind him he could hear the sounds of metal striking metal. They were getting closer, if the shouting they were doing at one another was any indication. He ignored it as best he could--he could feel the fear that had nearly stopped him dead attempt to still his fingers from opening the gate, but willed himself to keep going.

The gate opened with a flash of energy that threw a long stream of light along the thoroughfare. Macabro lurched through the gate just as the woman who'd saved him got shoved against the gate. The blue energy rippled as she struck it, like a stone disturbing a still pond.

The woman leaned against the gate for a second, before looking behind her. Vertiga leapt high into the air, raising her sword for a killing stroke. She screamed a wild scream, drowning out the now-screaming wind for a moment, as the woman below made her choice.

She leapt into the gate as fast as she could go, just as Vertiga slashed through the metal frame of the gate. The swirling blue energy blasted outward, and for a second there was a flash of somewhere else, before the whole thing exploded. Vertiga stood there, glowering and leveling her sword, her face a mask of thwarted rage and madness.

She'd escaped. After interfering with her for the second time today. She'd intended to make her suffer for that, but now she was gone.

And someone else would have to take the punishment Vertiga had intended for her.

She looked over her shoulder at the eclipsed sun and turned to face the storm.



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