Chapter 8: The Rising

The Sphere of Aquatica was limitless ocean, an entire world underwater. Only a thin strip of sky and a small bar of land offered any relief from the relentless and restless ocean beyond it. From that stretch of land, clear crystal-blue seas lapped at the banks, the vast civilizations that lived beneath the waved hidden behind an opaque liquid curtain.

Below the waves were cities, sprawling interconnected floating cities made of living coral that puled with color, depending on the light that filtered down to them. This was the seat of power for the Mermen, the dominant race of Aquatica. They were a peaceful, if hermitlike race of beings, who had never bothered anyone and had little contact with the worlds above or outside, reasoning that if their creator had meant for them to talk to anyone above the waves, they would have made Mermen able to breathe air, or for the other to breathe water.

So they left the worlds beyond alone, and assumed they would do the same.

Beneath the cities, deeper than the dark blue where the mightily Leviathans swam and devoured the unlucky and unwary, deeper even than the black depths where the strange creatures who fed on whatever could survive down there hunted with their own lights, deeper than the blackest depths, where the lack of light seemed as crushing as the great pressures, something stirred.

It had no concept of time. It awoke, opening its glowing green eyes and seeing only the black depths around. Instinctively it knew it was in its element, and nervously, tentatively, as if stretching after a long rest, it began to move. Hands grasped, tentacles thrashed and its tail whipped out, whipping a powerful vortex in the inky black depths.

Once it knew it could move again, it began to rise. As much as it could be said to remember anything, its thoughts were full of madness. Old wars, old destruction, and the pronounced, unshakeable feeling that it was not supposed to be there. Whether that meant itself or the world it found itself in mattered little.

All it knew was a maddened hate. Its only desire was to lash out at it.

Light began to penetrate, as if meeting its ascent. It squinted and slowed its rising for a moment. Two Leviathans drifted towards it, attracted by the motion of his swimming. Their long slender bodies moved with serpentine grace towards it. They opened their mouths, their jagged teeth and gaping, almost moronic expressions attesting that this was simply another feeding to them.

The creature stopped and extended his arms. In an instant, the Leviathans froze in place. A fizzing sound began to fill the water. The fizzing rose to a hiss, and were anyone there to witness it, they would have seen something the natives of Aquatica would never have imagined possible.

The creature was dissolving the flesh of the Leviathans. It bubbled off the skeletons of the mighty and ancient sea creatures, leaving their blackened skeletons to sink deeper into the depths, the first victims of an ancient evil now returned.

God Poseidon, the Beast of the Seas, had returned.

* * *

Lumekh had never believed in gods. The Vampire theology was full of them, of course--There was the Father of Darkness and the Mother of Blood, and the Son of the Red Moon, and he'd heard many entreaties and sacrifices to them over the years.

But he never believed, feeling himself too smart for that kind of childish superstition. No, Lumekh was a soldier through and through, and all he believed in was his skill with a blade and his own might.

That was before the young woman, a mere slip of a girl had blasted him through the wall of one of the now-deserted houses. He picked himself out of the rubble quickly, seeing her silhouetted against the stormy darkness. He could feel her burning enraged glare, and dimly remembered seeing her the night he and Ragesh had rummaged through a ferromancer's stores for weaponry.

She'd tried to stop them, and Lumekh was certain he'd killed her. Sliced through her stomach with some thin, shiny blade he'd immediately tossed aside because it didnít look powerful enough.

The sword the girl held now looked powerful, however. The glowing runes set into the flat of the blade seemed to burn hotly, like hateful eyes glaring through him. That she could lift the sword at all, much less one-handed, was amazing.

That she seemed to have power well beyond that was terrifying, even to Lumekh the hardened soldier, so confident in his own skill and strength.

And now Lumekh desperately called for all gods he could think of to aid him, and felt dismayed by their silence.

He reached for his sword--one of those he'd stolen from the ferromancer and gripped it tightly, gathering his feet underneath him and waiting for his moment, praying his glib tongue would buy him some time, as the gods seemed disinclined to help him.

"You're the girl from the ferromancer's . . .aren't you?" He said, his tongue moving about in his mouth and finding the stump where one of his fangs had been broken off when he'd smashed into the wall.

"But you're dead . . .we . . .I . . .killed you. I remember it!"

The girl was silent, moving towards him with deliberate purpose, her eyes glowing with something more than hatred, now.

Lumekh brought his sword up, intending to call upon the lightning spirit within and blast her backwards. The blade flared, illuminating his assailant's young face, set in a mask of blind rage.

Her blade met Lumekh's lightning sword with a mighty crash, snapping it in two. She stomped down on his wrist, grinding her heel into his wrist. Lumekh felt his grip loosen on what was left of the sword as she brought the point of the blade against his throat.

"No," she said. Her voice was cold and thick with rage. "I'm not dead, Vampire. But you soon will be. You will die and there won't even be enough pieces of you left to go to whatever hell you Vampires end up in."

She nearly slashed this throat open as she raised the blade above her head for the killing stroke. Lumekh readied himself for the end, praying to the gods who had been frustratingly inactive and silent during this whole mess.

"DIE," She said, enraged.

It was just then that a flash of light illuminated the ruined building they were in. Silhouetted in that light was a billowing bat shape.

"I was just surveying my new seat of power, and look what I find," a female voice said coolly. "Fighting in the streets. How vulgar."

Lumekh smiled. It wasn't divine intervention, but Kirone's arrival on the scene was the next best thing, surely.

* * *

It awoke, like its cousin, into an unfamiliar place.

It rose unsteadily to its feet, it's black hooves finding purchase slowly, tentatively dragging itself up to its full height. It wobbled on its legs until it shifted into a steadier stance.

Its hollow black eyes stared at its hands, their red and gold armor gleaming dully in the reddish volcanic light. Nervously it reached out and touched its own face. As it "read" its features, its body began to tremble. Memories, however vague began to flood into itself again. Memories of incredible pain. Memories of being ripped from another place and forced into the body it found itself in.

Those memories flowed into other memories. Memories of how, once the full horror of its violation and imprisonment in this . . .thing, this machine shell, it had gone insane.

And then, memory and reality overlapped.

It's body stiffened for a moment and it rose up on its back legs, its head and body thrown back, as if it was screaming, though it made no sound.

Until it slammed its forelegs back down on the ground. A shockwave blasted through the hardened volcanic rock, causing the very ground to rumble, pulverizing the ground to a fine black powder. The walls of its prison suffered a similar fate, the hard thick stone cracking and the magma it had restrained flowing through, beginning to cover the now pulverized ground.

Beyond the place of its imprisonment, the effects of its cry of rebirth were more widespread. Canyons filled in as mountains collapsed in on them. Long dormant rivers of lava began to flow again.

The sphere of Ladon seemed to shudder in agony at what had been unleashed on it.

By this time, the mad being was gone, however, driven to a gallop by the mad urge to destroy everything, every beat of its hooves a mild tremor presaging a greater disaster to come.

Terrane, the Beast of the Earth, had returned.

* * *

"One thing I've never understood," Maryna asked, watching the strange creature pace back and forth in front of her. "The Spheres. Why are there only seven?"

"Seven," Ka'el said, sighing. "Not exactly true, of course, but a necessary deception. One of many I have committed in my life time."

He sighed, resting on his cane and closing his eyes. For a moment Maryna could almost discern the countless years he'd carried as a burden settling over him. Then he smiled and opened his eyes again, smiling a little.

"Now that my time is short, I can embrace truth again," he said. He looked at Maryna, raising an eyebrow. "So . . .you wanted to know the history of the Spheres, did you? Then I will tell you. Before there were seven, there was only three, bordered by two other spheres.

"One was a place of infinite energy, the power of life itself. Its existence has never and perhaps will never be explained, but its power is undeniable. The other was a darker place, a disunited swirl of angry spirits and forgotten gods from a time before time, forever locked away, always searching for a way back.

"And between them, paradise. The two races that lived there lived their first few centuries, ignorant of the pull between these two worlds."

He sighed. "I remember those days. I often wish they could have lasted forever."

"Ultimately, the races chose sides, one side embracing the limitless energy of life, developing itself and its technology to harness its power and potential, building great gleaming cities that hung in the skies and sang a low beautiful song. Below them, the other race, fearful of the great power and what it had done for them, they hid among the rocks and trees, in the shadow of the floating cities and hated them. Their name has been forgotten.

"It deserves to be forgotten.

"And then, the spirits found them, promised them great power, equal or superior to the race in the skies," Ka'el continued, his eyes turning inward. Maryna watched him and suddenly became acutely aware this was no simple story, no remembered history.

"As soon as they proved themselves worthy, of course," he said. "So war came to this paradise. War made by the race in the trees against those in the skies. War that required new and more powerful weapons. Weapons like the Beasts. Little did these poor ignorant tree people know that every spirit they pulled into their world, the more they cracked the barrier that held the spirits in check.

"But they had their victory. The cities crashed to the ground, burning and screaming as they fell. The trees burned to cinders and the sky was blotted full of ash, and spirits, Beasts, and those spirits who should have been destroyed forever."

"But," Ka'el said, pointing the tip of his cane at Maryna. "They . . .we . . .I . . .won, did we not? And the scorched ground and ash-choked skies testified to what a splendid victory it was. And yet, we still were not worthy of the power they promised. We were a means to and end. To be used and thrown away."

"You were part of the race that made war on the sky-people?"

Ka'el nodded. "And when I saw what we had done and what we had one, I was sickened, and sickened by my part in it. I rebelled against the spirits. I learned how to lock them away, seal them back in their cursed netherworld."

"But again," he said. "They were more clever than I was. As I drove them back, they took the lives of every man woman and child of my race. And they cursed me with their lifetimes, added to mine, vowing that I would live long enough to see the beginning of the end. I would see the dawn of their return and die, unable to stop it all from happening again, and go to my grave knowing the Spheres were doomed."

"I can't . . ." Maryna stammered. "How did . . .how did you even survive that?"

"You could perhaps say that I didn't," Ka'el said, a thin, slightly rueful smile crossing his lips. "In truth, I nearly went insane. The spirits left the world barren and ruined, my only company the bodies of the dead. Worse still, the world began to fracture, to divide itself. Like a broken mirror, everything I saw became faceted and crystallized.

"And that gave me the strength to do what needed to," he said. "Do you understand?"

Maryna shook her head. "Honestly, I can barely comprehend this, much less understand it. Youíre saying you saw the Spheres split off into seven?"

"Six, actually," Ka'el said. "I had little to work with, save our own technologies and those of the sky-dwellers. I created a seventh Sphere, the Machine Sphere, to maintain the others. Here, let me show you."

He pointed the tip of his cane at her Eagle Clasp. It began to glow and pulse. In the air between them a familiar diagram began to form.

"The gear shape, in the center," he said, pointing the tip of his cane at the center of the diagram. "That is the Machine Sphere. That holds the other six in place, allows travel between them along the lines of binding. The two circles here--" He gestured to the two circular shapes offsetting the map. "These represent the Spirit Sphere and the Sphere of the Souls."

"And you can't travel to those?" Maryna said.

"Why would you?" Ka'el said. "Those circles enclose the other Spheres--we live in them as much as we live in our own. Like a machine--small cogs that turn bigger gears. Both science and magic brought us here and allow us to survive. All inextricably tied together."

The symbol disappeared and they stared at each other in silence for a long time.

"Here's what I donít understand," Maryna said. "If you did all that, if you created the Spheres, if you figure all this out, then why have you isolated yourself like this? Why are you here?"

Ka'el leaned on his cane. "If my story has not explained the reason already, child, I can do little to embellish the point. People we saw as gods manipulated my people into annihilation. To your people, to any of the races who came after me, knowing what you know of what I have created . . .how would I be seen?"

"As a god," Maryna said. "In fact, I'm not sure I donít see you that way right now."

"Yes," Ka'el said, regarding her with curiosity. "How do you feel, when you look at me?"

"Confused, a little awed . . .scared, I guess," she said. "Part of me knows there's no way a person not so very different from me could do what you say you've done but . . .something deep inside tells me it's the truth."

"Then you have answered your own question, Maryna," he said. "I have never wished to be anyone's god. I only wished to protect those who came after me from experiencing what I have.

"The spirits wanted that glory. They wanted mortals to live knowing their boot was on their throat. All I ever wanted for those who came after me was that they would be safe and would be allowed to live free. I resolved to protect your people--all people--in secret."

"By maintaining the seal," Maryna said.

"Yes," Ka'el said. "The spirits are constantly pushing against the seal which holds them, and the power they wield is considerable. Every crack in the seal, every time a spirit gets through or the binding which holds the Spheres together is damaged, they come a little closer to their freedom."

Ka'el turned away for a moment and walked over to a pile of things he'd stacked over close to where he'd been standing when she'd walked in the room. He came back with something in one hand and tossed it to her.

"Do you recognize that?"

Maryna blinked. "I . . .yes," she said. It was a large flat book, with wooden covers. Over the pages was a lock, emblazoned with the same map-symbol on the cover. She hefted in her hands, which despite her best efforts, were shaking. "I saw a drawing of it once. I thought it was a myth."

"Nothing mythical about them," Ka'el said. "They are one of the means by which I have protected the Spheres for these many years. There are thousands of volumes on technology, history, philosophy, magic, politics, poetry . . .in my time I've had occasion to write something about everything."

"How do you protect people with books?"

Ka'el smiled. "For a long time after I created the Machine Sphere, there was nothing. I retired to this place and woke up every day, walking along the same barren pathways I had the many days before. Then one day, I saw a small green shoot breaking through the soil. And I understood.

"Powerful as the Spirits and their ravaging of my world were, life always, always, finds a way," he said. "Just a still pond is disturbed when a stone is dropped in returns to stillness eventually, I knew that if the ground beneath my feet could restore itself, then one day there would be other races, other beings. I tend to think of them as my children. And as large as the Spheres were, I could not be everywhere at once.

"So I gave the books to certain members of those races, and those people became my eyes and ears."

"Disciples," Maryna said, raising an eyebrow. "I thought you said you weren't a god."

Ka'el smiled. "I granted knowledge to a trusted few," he said quietly. "Beyond that, I stayed as invisible as possible. There were no miracles involved."

"But you worked invisibly to shape my race . . .well, all races on the Spheres' lives?"

"As any decent god would," Ka'el said. "I never told them how to use the knowledge, I merely entrusted it to them, and entrusted my secret to them. They helped me, and I helped them. Generations of people--Angels, Dragons, Vampires, humans--hold books like the one you have now."

"But you never intervene," Maryna said.

"I am available to them for counsel," Ka'el said. "As I am to anyone. I have done so many times."

"So," Maryna said, looking down at the book at choosing her words carefully. "When youíre gone, what does that mean? For us, I mean."

Ka'el looked away, pondering the question. "The Machine Sphere will maintain the Spheres as they are. I used the last of my personal power to set it in perpetual motion long ago. But the seal would eventually fail, and the spirits would return. And for my betrayal and their anger at seeing how the world restored itself, I have every reason to believe they will revenge themselves on the world. They would leave nothing this time for life to eventually return to."

"So you'd need to find someone to seal them again?"

Ka'el nodded. "But that would simply push the problem further down the road. The only hope for freedom and life is to redress the balance my people upset ages ago. The world must be reunified--not simply the seven Spheres, but the Sphere of Souls and the Spirits as well. All must be one, or this hateful cycle of tragedy will repeat itself again."

* * *

Deiyara was evergreen. Paradise. There was no government, no one race that ruled over it, just an endless stretch of blue skies and green meadows, bordered by mountains and streams here and there that seemed as close to freedom as most visitors from other Spheres under tighter control ever knew.

So free and so unspoiled was it that it had never been entirely charted. There were places that not even Darken, the native Jakyra, or anyone else knew about.

And it was in one of these lush green pockets of hidden beauty that something terrible woke up.

As its brothers had, it woke up feeling dislocated, confused. Nothing about its reality, new or old--it wasn't sure which--made any sense.

Why was the sun so bright? Why did the sky seem so deep and blue, and what was all this awful green growth? Like a fish out of water, it felt as thought it were desperately gasping for air as it tried to adjust to this new reality.

When that failed, the madness took over and explained it all.

Damn the hateful sun, damn the green, damn the blue sky above. It was unnatural. All of it was unnatural and had to be destroyed.

And it knew how to make it right.

It opened its crystal blue eyes and raised its hand to the heavens. Around it, the grass blackened and withered. Further off, plants began to wilt, and a nearby stream's flow began to slow as pockets of ice began to form.

Then it summoned all of its returning vigor and clenched its blued metal fists at the sky. There was a brighter and whiter flash this time and all around it was covered in snow and ice.

It seemed to relax, standing and surveying its handiwork.

Yes. That felt more like it. But this was just the beginning. There was still more to do.

It began to trudge towards the green in the distance, its footfalls crunching in the silent frigid white.

Artica, the Beast of Winter, had returned.

* * *

"This boy needs help!" The woman cried, supporting Macabro's limp form on her shoulder. The crowd that had gathered to see the commotion at the gate alternately surged forward at her and then back as she moved forward. Gradually she became aware that the crowd's eyes seemed to be more on Macabro than herself.

Specifically, the wound on Macabro's neck.

"Get him away from here!" a voice cried out from the throng.

"We'll help him, all right!" Another man said, brandishing a piece of wood.

"He's wounded!" She shouted. "If he doesn't get to a healer, he'll--"

"He's as good as dead already!" The man with the stake cried, pushing forward. "Now let me do what must be done before that filth gets loosed on our city!"

He pushed through the last ring of the crowd. She could see now that the piece of wood she'd mistaken for a staff was more like a spear--the tip facing her was jagged, as if it had been hastily sharpened.

She grit her teeth and drew her sword.

"I saved this boy's life," She said, pointing the sword at the man with the stake. " I will not see him killed."

The man pushed forward. His grip on the stake was so tight his knuckles were white. "Donít you know what he'll become?"

She furrowed her brow. "A corpse?"

The man looked confused, and then exasperated.

"Stupid woman! Stand aside!"

He tried to shove her aside, but she sidestepped and sliced the stake in half with the point of his blade. Then she raised her blade and summoned the power within it.

A concentrated blast of wind threw the man backwards, blowing him off his feet into the crowd. Almost as suddenly, the winds calmed down and she leveled the point of her sword at the crowd.

"If you want his life," she said. "You'll have to take mine in the bargain."

"Macabro!" A voice called to her from overhead. A shadow passed overhead and the woman looked up to see a younger woman, oddly enough with wings, floating overhead. She landed behind her and the woman looked over her shoulder at her, regarding her warily as she kept one eye on the throng.

"Do you know this boy?"

"I . . .yes," the angelic girl replied. "He's . . .well, a friend."

The woman stared at her, weighing the truth of her words.

"Can you fly him to safety?"

The angel nodded and she shifted Macabro's now heavy and motionless body to hers. Her wings swept wide and with muscles straining, she carried him up to one of the rooftops, her feet barely missing being struck by some debris the very angry crowd was hurling skyward.

She laid Macabro down, a little less gently than she wanted to, and immediately fell to her knees to cradle his head in her lap. Unlike the woman who saved him, she knew full well what that particular wound meant, and why the people were so determined to see him dead.

And right now, she didn't care.

There was a gentle breeze and suddenly, the woman who'd carried him through the gate was with her.

"How'd--?" The angel asked.

"It would take too long to explain," the woman said. "Thank you for helping me with him, er . . ."

"Liandra Skyshade," the angel girl stroked Macabro's head. He felt so cold, now. "He's . . . special to me," she said. She looked down at him, her violet eyes very sad and gloomy, then she sighed and looked up at her.

"You can call me Cygnus," the woman said, hoping the strangeness of her name wouldnít be apparent to Liandra. "Donít worry. I'll watch over the both of you and protect you if they decide to come for us."

"Thank you," Liandra said quietly. She folded Macabro's arms over his chest, feeling them stiffen and refuse to move. She'd never watched someone die before, and she certainly had never wanted to see Macabro this way.

He's the only boy I ever kissed, she thought. I think of that afternoon we spent down by the water and how happy he was and how I liked his smile and how I liked him and knew he liked me.

Everything seemed so right, and now . . .

Was it really only two days ago?

* * *

Sirroc, it could be argued, had enough problems before the reawakened Beast tore through its hot sands in a fury. Bad enough the initial Beast had been awakened, its power used to wake up the others taken from the lives of those below, and a virtual city of the dead created from what was left.

Now, one more monstrous thing was let loose. Rather than screaming its fury in a birth cry of rage and insanity, this one was born in a storm. Howling winds shrieked from all directions. By and by those winds picked up the sands and became a ferocious, withering sandstorm, and the sand, coupled with the winds, caused surging bolts of static electric lightning to surge through the wind, the sand, and the ground beneath.

Rocks were spent to dust under its onslaught, doing in seconds what would have taken centuries of erosion. What few creatures survived in that part of the desert were spent to dust, leaving not even a shadow under the storms.

Like its relatives, it had awoken to confusion and madness, but rather than quietly contemplating its new reality and trying to piece together the whys and wherefores of their birth and resurrection, it lashed out at whatever was in its path.

And one of those places was a small settlement, five houses almost crouched in hiding amongst a circle of rocks. The storm broke over the rocks, shearing them apart, then roaring into the buildings, smashing them and those inside to powder with the gusts.

The roar of the winds began to slow to a howl, then to a mild sigh. A shape emerged from the wild winds of the dust devil. Its taloned feet sand into the soft sand, the golden and silver parts of its armor glinted in the afternoon sun as the giant jet-fans on its shoulders hummed and cycled down. In the center of its chests was a single, unblinking eye, glaring outward with fierce malevolence, small arcs of lighting sizzling from its jet-black pupil.

The eye of the storm.

Tornadron, the Beast of the Storm, had returned with a vengeance.

* * *

"Your man killed my father," Vertiga said to them. "A life for a life. I'm here to collect on that."

There was a tense standoff for a few moments. Vertiga was eager to slay Lumekh and have done with it. Having the object of her vengeance so very close made her shake with anticipation and almost fear.

Not of the woman who'd caught her attention, or the retinue of creatures that flanked her, weapons drawn and ready to attack her should she bring the blade down on Lumekh. No, those she was convinced she could handle.

It was the strange and sudden silence of the voice of the blade. The voice that had filled her mind for so long and urged her on to greater and greater violence in the name of completing her mission of vengeance.

Kirone, for her part, regarded the new arrival with interest. There was no mistaking her power. The physical aspect of it was clear enough, but she could sense the power within her.

It controls her more than she controls it, she thought. Fascinating. To give oneself over completely to absolute power like that. To have it dominate you, rather than you dominating it.

What a seductive concept.

She looked at her fallen subordinate. Lumekh stood, frozen like a freshly-turned vampire transfixed by a spell-circle. Lumekh was expendable, as far as she was concerned, but allowing her to walk in and slay him didnít suit her purpose, for several reasons.

For one thing, Vantiga won't suffer a human killing one of his precious troops, she thought. And I need him on my side until I can find more powerful and more useful supplicants.

But perhaps there's another way . . .

"My lady," Monstructor whispered, his head bowed in submission. "A word, please."

Kirone stared at Vertiga, feeling Vantiga's incredulous rage radiating like a burning fire behind her, beamed the most false and patronizing smile at Vertiga and Vantiga both in a vain attempt to defuse the growing tension.

"You must excuse me for a moment," Kirone said. "I'm going to take counsel about how I should resolve your claim."

"There's nothing to take counsel about," Vertiga said, her voice ragged and thick with anger. "Either I kill this man--" she leveled her sword at Lumekh's head. "Or I kill all of you. It doesn't seem like a question that needs a lot of deliberation."

"I only ask a moment's indulgence," she said, a little less warmly this time. She spun on her heel, her cloak blocking her and Monstructor.

"What is it?" Kirone hissed.

"The human's blade, my lady," Monstructor said. "It's been bound to a spirit. A powerful one, too."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"I . . .need it, my lady."

"If you keep me delayed, youíre liable to get it in a fashion where it would be exactly what you donít need," Kirone said. "Why?"

"I could create a new Beast, my lady," Monstructor said. "I could perfect the ancient process, create one we could control. No mere berserker weapon, as the spirit has made this woman, but a powerful warrior under your command."

Kirone was suddenly intrigued. Having that much power would aid her immeasurably. Certainly more than Vantiga's ever-shrinking detachment of weaklings and one half-functional Beast. "Can you do it?"

"I will my lady," he sad. "In your service, all things are possible. But I will need a Spirit. That Spirit is precisely what I need."

"And the woman?"

"She's just a shell," Monstructor said. "The Spirit works through her. Take that away and she is nothing. Fodder for the Beast."

Kirone looked at him, his manic eyes full of jittery fear and awed reverence. She stood up straight, gathering her cloak around her and turned back to Vertiga, who had raised her blade up higher, forcing Vantiga to stand between her and Lumekh.

"Vantiga," Kirone said. "Stand aside."

"Lady Kirone, this human scum canít just cut down one of my men."

"She can," Kirone said. "And she will. I grant you your right of vengeance, human."

"My Lady--"

"If you value your life, not another word, Vantiga," she said.

Vanitga stiffened, his eyes red with fury as he stepped aside. He couldn't glare at Kirone, of course--it was her right to sacrifice his men as she wished. So he glared at Vertiga.

Vertiga smiled, her eyes growing dark with malice. She raised her sword high above her head and brought it down on Lumekh's defiant face, shearing through his flesh like tearing through paper. His black blood sprayed over her, staining her white armor.

She slid her blade out of what was left of him and held it there, unable to move for a second. For several disturbing seconds she pondered her vengeance. It was everything the sword had told her it would be--swift and powerful.

Everything but satisfying.

"Well, vengeance has been satisfied," Kirone said.

"Yes," Vertiga said, her voice distant. "I . . .suppose it has."

"Would you entertain a small proposition?"

Vertiga's eyes narrowed.

"What do you mean?"

"You obviously have tremendous power," Kirone said, smiling. "It's a power to be respected. Feared, even. As one who wields great power herself . . .I must say, I'm very impressed. Impressed enough to propose we . . .join forces."

Vertiga's eyes narrowed on Monstructor. Her lips curled into a snarl that sent Monstructor scurrying off behind Kirone.

"I'm no one's minion," she said. "Forget it, not interested."

"I would never demean you by calling you a minion," she said. "I'm proposing an alliance. Between . . .equals. For our mutual advantage, of course."

"Uh-huh."

Kirone watched her carefully, looking for some sign her words were finding purchase.

"You expect me to work with the same vampires who killed my father?"

"You've slain them already, have you not? You could hardly lay the actions of two unruly members of a race on the doorstep of the entire race, could you?"

Vertiga's expression hardened.

"Besides," Kirone said. "I'm only half vampire. I have no allegiance to that half of my bloodline. In fact, I consider it my lesser half. No one's perfect, after all."

Vertiga took a breath. Had she really said what she thought she'd said?

"You'd sell out your people like that?"

"I told you," Kirone said. "I make little cause with my Vampire half. And I'm very impressed by those who wield power so effectively."

Well, Vertiga thought, calling to the strange and suddenly silent voice in her head. You've taken me this far. What do we do next?

If you say no, she'll kill you out of hand, it replied. She hesitates, because she fears you. Take advantage of that. Wait and bide your time. Eventually she'll turn her back to you.

Perfect time to put the blade between her shoulders, Vertiga finished.

Youíre learning, the voice replied, scarcely able to contain the glee in its voice.

"All right," Vertiga said. "But no tricks. I canít stand people who are dishonest."

"We already have common ground, then," Kirone said, smiling and showing her fangs. "I positively loathe dishonesty and deceit. Partners?"

She offered her hand, and Vertiga took it, her hand still soaked with Lumekh's blood.

"Partners."

* * *

Nycheladra's limitless skies spread as far as the eye could see, and were the idea place for a race of beings like the Angels, who took great delight in their ability to fly and saw it as a mandate by their creator of their dominance of the skies.

Not just their own, of course, but any sky, anywhere. After all, they could fly, truly fly. They didnít glide along like the barbaric Dragons, theirs was genuine flight. And considering themselves thus blessed with this gift, they were blessed also by a world where the sun never set. The illusion of night was provided by the floating cities in which they lived.

In the center of that sphere, there burned a sun. Distant, but bright enough to fill their world with light. Bright enough to be collected and used as a power source, or to be used to power weapons. To the Angels, the sun was like water. Its light was their life.

Had the Angels had any instruments to look closely at the sun, perhaps they would have seen the small black spot on the surface, the quiet roiling storm that marred its perpetually burning brilliance. Perhaps they might have seen the form that rose from it, its jet-black silhouette illuminated by the lashing solar flares and prominences. They might even have seen it spread the wings that grew from its head and fly away from the corona of the sun, trailing fire like the Phoenix itself.

Had they looked, they would have seen the fires burning away, the red and gold armor of the machine under the fires shining in the skies. It flew along, as graceful as any Angel, but with an aura of powerful menace that seemed to sear the skies.

Its red eyes blazed with a quieter madness than its brethren. Only a cold determination filled its being. Like the other Beasts, its only emotion was a maddened rage; it's only ambition, destruction.

In this case, to burn the skies down.

Xiephon, The Beast of Fire, the last of the Beasts sealed away in the time before time, had returned.



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