Chapter 9: Close Your Eyes

The great wooden sky-ship Falchion sailed through the silent skies, far from the gigantic floating cities. Despite being constructed for the war and still possessing most of its rather fierce armament, its mission for the past few years had been one of exploration, charting the apparently endless skies of Nycheladra for potential sites for new cities and settlements.

This suited Captain Sahaquiel much better than war. The simple satisfaction he gained by standing on the deck of his ship and surveying the seas of clouds that the prow of the Falchion cut through with ease was compelling, and in truth, he preferred it to flying.

Angels are born to fly, he thought. It's so easy to take that for granted. But something like this, which by all rights shouldnít be able to fly . . .making this soar through the clouds, is an achievement greater than our birthright.

He smiled, shielding his eyes from the piercing sun as the ship leaned to port, and another satisfying morning of charting the boundaries of the Angels' dominion lay before him. He blinked against the harsh light, not because it hurt his eyes, but because he could swear the light was in the wrong place for this time of day.

He looked to the center of the ship at the sundial mounted near the helm.

No, he thought. The sun should be well behind us now. Have we drifted off course?

He looked back at the glaring light and reached for his spyglass, his eyes already squinting against the piercing light. Strangely, and uncharacteristically for the sun, the light began to flicker.

And for a moment, he was certain he saw a shape in the flicking firelight.

"Helm, make a course for that light off our starboard side," he said, closing the spyglass and clipping it to his belt. The helmsman set a course for the light, the ship's timbers groaning slightly as it made its hard turn against the momentum carrying it in the opposite direction.

Sahaquiel walked over to the helm, handing him his spyglass.

"Can you tell me what you see, there?"

The helmsman gave the wheel over to Sahaquiel as he took sight.

"It looks bright enough to be the sun, Captain," the helmsman replied. "But it's . . .moving."

"You mean we're moving towards it."

"No, sir," the helmsman said. "It's coming towards us."

"Hm," Sahaquiel said. He activated the alarm to bring the crew to ready stations. Whatever it was, it wasn't the sun. Besides being in the wrong position, the sun wasn't given to moving on a collision course with a ship.

The timbers shuddered as the Falchion's crew got to their battle stations. There was every chance it was nothing, of course, but it didn't pay to go in unprepared.

"Send a message to command," Sahaquiel said. "Inform them we've seen something unusual and intend to investigate."

"Aye, sir."

The Falchion completed its turn and headed for the brilliant light. Sahaquiel commanded his men to put on their battle helmets as the lighting was becoming blinding and no amount of shading with one's hand would allow them to see.

"Sir!" One of the lookouts called. "I can see it! It's--"

The light boiled away in a flash, and a shadow in the center of its corona became apparent. It was the shape of a woman, generally, though much larger than any Angel. The shadow effect gradually faded as the light around it evened out, revealing the red, gold and black armored being within.

Xiephon.

It stopped just off their bow, regarding the ship and the strange beings on it with curiosity. The Beast of Fire had never seen creatures like this, never mind whatever strange device they seemed to be flying in.

"What is that . . .thing?" Sahaquiel's helmsman muttered. As if turning to the sound of his voice, the creature's head snapped around, the golden mask of its face completely impassive, save for its red eyes, which seemed to burn with a cruel fury.

Xiephon raised a taloned hand, its fingers glowing with fiery claws and sheared into the Falchion's starboard engine. Sahaquiel felt the ship rumble and scream under his feet, as the engine was ripped free. The other engine, suddenly doing the work of two, threw everyone to the deck.

"ATTACK!" Sahaquiel shouted, rising to his feet. The Falchion's remaining guns erupted in a volley of fire against the monstrous creature. Unfortunately, the creature burned so hot their heaviest shots dissolved well before they struck it.

"Give us some distance," Sahaquiel said. "Signal command we have encountered something extremely hostile! All hands, prepare to fire on that . . .beast on our next pass."

The helmsman managed to shout all this into the communication crystal before twin piercing beams of red light flashed from Xiephon's eyes, cutting across the helm station and through most of the lower decks. Only the Falchion's supports kept the ship from breaking in two at that moment.

Another salvo erupted from the Falchion--fewer guns than before, but those that fired did their best. Once again, they had no effect at all on the creature. Its face remained expressionless as it reached for the ship, it's eyes flashing another twin beams of fire, this blast cutting into the ship from bow to stern.

Sahaquiel felt the explosion of the engines several decks below him, and only by hanging on to the wheel did he prevent himself from being hurled to the deck. His helmet had been jostled loose and he tossed it aside, looking around him. On the deck lay scores of dead angels, whether burned or cut by the creature's assault or caught by the explosions rocking the ship, the gruesome price for his curiosity lay around him.

"All hands, abandon ship!" Sahaquiel shouted, holding tight to the wheel as another explosion threatened to collapse the deck. "Get as far away as you can!"

Xiephon sank its fingers into the bow, and the main deck finally collapsed Sahaquiel spared one last glance behind him, seeing the beating wings of Angels evacuating the Falchion, he smiled and hung tight to the wheel, satisfied he had done his duty, awaiting the end.

Xiephon now had the Falchion by both ends and it leaned in for a closer look, as a child might regard a new toy. Sahaquiel took the opportunity to reach for a piece of debris and hurl it up at the monstrous, burning beast.

It felt short of the mark, but got the creature's attention. Sahaquiel and the wheel he'd held tight to were incinerated by a blast of fire from Xiephon's eyes in an instant. The blast punched through the center of the ship as it finished ripping it apart as casually as one might rip a sheet of paper in two.

Xiephon stood suspended in the sky, the burning embers of the once-proud Falchion drifting along like burning ashes. Its eyes fixed on something in the distance.

More of the strange flying people. Some had escaped from the ship before its destruction. Were there others? Where did they come from?

Lacking any ready answers, it spread its blazing wings and followed them.

* * *

Vertiga sat alone atop the Beast, cradling her sword like it was her child. A gentle breeze whipped through her hair. Above her the skies were blue and peaceful and, of course, blazingly hot. Were it not for the fact she was on a strange machine floating above a city torn to pieces by dark magic, she could almost imagine she were home. Before the past two days (Had it really only been two days?) had happened.

Well, except for every other thing, she thought.

Don't lose your resolve now Vertiga, the voice in her mind said.

"I don't really see why I need resolve at all right now," she said quietly. "I've paid back the men who killed my father and tried to kill me. I just . . .can't figure out what I should do next."

You have to ask? What about this Kirone woman and the other vampires she has under her command?

"She didnít kill my father," she said.

But she gave the order. Shouldnít she suffer for that?

Vertiga sighed. "I donít know. I'm tired. I want to rest, and . . .I can't."

Because you know there's still more to do. You've shown such amazing strength up to this point. Donít lose it now.

Vertiga's brow furrowed. She gripped the sword tightly and stared at it.

"Why does it matter so much to you, anyway?" Vertiga said. "When we came to this place, you got quiet. Then ever since we ran into Kirone you've been . . .different."

Different? How so?

"Angrier," she said.

The voice in her mind seemed to shift somehow, as if trying to evade her question.

"Well?"

I donít know what you mean.

"You know exactly what I mean," she said, smiling. Sometimes it was good to have the upper hand. "Youíre holding out on me. What is it about her that makes you so angry?"

What do you care?

She stood up, tapping the point of her sword against the skin on the Beast. She looked around at the symbol carved into the skin, the formerly smooth lines now smudged with ash that blurred them carelessly.

"It's this . . .thing, isn't it?" Vertiga asked, smiling thinly. "That's what makes you angry."

You exaggerate. I am not capable of rage.

Vertiga laughed, throwing her head back to the sky. "You mean you're capable of little else. I can feel it. There's something in this thing, like you. It's trapped. Just like you."

It is suffering, the voice said darkly. And that is all we will speak of on this subject.

"No, it's not."

Silence. Vertiga bit her lip. Her sanguine expression fell apart and was quickly replaced by something more ashamed and desperate.

"Come on," she said, the steel evaporating from her voice. "Don't do this. Talk to me. Please."

More silence.

"I'm sorry. Say something!"

"Well, I was going to ask who you were talking to," a voice called from behind her. "Will that do?"

Vertiga turned around, her hand on her sword, flicking her wrist and bringing the heavy blade into a ready position. Her rage-filled eyes fixed on the voice from behind her.

"That's . . .hardly necessary, Vertiga," Kirone said. She stood before her, her black cloak wrapped around her, caught slightly by the gently breeze. Her red eyes regarded Vertiga with equal parts bemusement and interest.

"I guess it isn't," Vertiga said. "After all, if youíd wanted to kill me, I suppose I'd be dead already, wouldn't I?"

"Hardly the way Iíd treat an ally," Kirone said, walking up to her. She stood beside her, staring out at the sky next to her erstwhile compatriot.

"Of course," Vertiga said.

Kirone looked at her curiously, as if wondering whether she was talking to her at that moment.

"This is a very different place than I'm familiar with," Kirone said. "I'm not used to blue skies like this."

"I suppose where you come from it's dark all the time," Vertiga responded curtly. "Like your city of the dead down below."

"The vampire side of my family prefers it that way," she said, smiling and showing her fangs as she turned to Vertiga. "And it's a city of the living dead, now. What few survivors you left alive are held in a state somewhere between life and death. Painful for them, but useful for my purpose."

"Good for them and good for you, I guess," Vertiga said. "I suppose they'll make good subjects for you, being that's what vampires are."

"Only those that are turned," she said. "Vampires that are born well, they simply prefer darkness. Much like how the mer-people of Aquatica can only live in water. Turning others is a side effect of how we feed."

"Useful, though," Vertiga sneered. "You eat, and get a bunch of slaves out of the bargain."

"Simply carrying the idea of conquest though to its conclusion," Kirone said. "When you take a city, naturally one would make adjustments to suit the new tenants. I see no reason why one wouldn't adjust the citizens to make them more like their rulers."

"That's a funny way of justifying it."

"I like to think I raise them up that way," Kirone mused. "Being ruled by me, I elevate them up from the unwashed rabble they were before. Slightly."

"By making them vampires," Vertiga said, shaking her head. "But you donít raise them up too high."

"There's only so much I can do for them," Kirone said. "They weren't born to power. I was. They should be grateful for whatever I can offer them. I think giving them that is very magnanimous on my part, actually. And in time, everyone will come to know that."

"Hm," Vertiga said. "I can't see why you'd care. You either have power or you don't. Why would you care what those people down there think?"

Kirone turned to her as if she were insane.

"What good is power if there's no one to wield it over?"

Vertiga rolled her eyes. "So it's not enough that you want your boot on everyone's neck, you want them to love you for it."

"Doesnít everyone?"

"I donít care about wielding power, or ruling anything," Vertiga said. "It's absolutely meaningless. What does ruling a small village of the de . . .living dead, sorry . . .in the middle of a barren desert mean, anyway?"

"Well," Kirone said, folding her arms over her chest. She looked out at the skies. "One has to start somewhere."

* * *

"So how do you stop it from happening again?" Maryna asked, still clutching the book in her hands. "I mean, if you've done everything you can . . .what hope is there?"

Ka'el pondered the question for a few moments. "Darken," he said. "He is all our hopes."

Maryna blinked. "Him?"

Ka'el nodded. "'One born of two will unite all,' or so the prophecy says. I should know. I wrote it, after all. Only one who symbolizes our fundamental interconnectedness can finally break the cycle of tragedy. I have raised him, trained him all his life for his moment, and that moment is coming.

"I could be no prouder of him were I his own father," Ka'el said. "My only regret is that when his moment finally comes I will not be there to aid him with what must be done."

"I donít understand," Maryna said. "How does Darken fix something as complicated as the Spheres? You said it took you hundreds of years to set them up. Even I can't grasp what it must have taken to accomplish it. You'll forgive me for saying this, but Darken doesn't strike me as . . .well, a genius."

"Genius will not save the Spheres, Maryna," Ka'el said. "It was necessary to raise him here, in secret, away from prejudices and preconceptions that would limit his thinking. Away from any mention of prophecy that might tempt him to seize power for his own purpose."

"You didnít want him thinking that the Angels were the preeminent race of all the others in the Spheres," she said. "Things like that."

"Exactly," he said. "But the time has come now that he must leave here, leave the safety of the temple and travel outside. And he will need help. To unite the Spheres, he must have the aid of someone who understands the larger world at work around them."

Maryna raised an eyebrow. "Me?"

"You are intelligent, inquisitive and have the integrity to push forward to the truth," Ka'el said. "Can you think of anyone better?"

"What about Liandra?"

"Liandra has a different destiny," he said. "Darken has great potential, but he must go to places he has no knowledge of or understanding about. He needs someone to advise him, someone to help him understand things I hadnít time to teach him. I cannot go. If I leave this place I would be recognized and confront the races of the Spheres with one they would recognize as a god . . .and a god powerless to save them from a doom that's coming. I would drive off those he must unite."

Maryna looked at the floor, setting the book aside.

"I don't know if I'm the right person to do what you ask," she said. "You may have noticed he doesnít like me very much. I mean would he even listen to me?"

"He means nothing by it," Ka'el said, waving off the excuse with a gently sweep of his hand. "This . . .myself and Liandra . . .it is all the life he's ever known, and that has given him peace all his life. But he understands what is coming and will do what is needed. Though he regrets the loss of this place and this time. Innocence and love, and a time when the larger world was further off. Forgive him his need to hold on to the familiar."

"And me showing up . . .a larger world intruding on his peaceful life," she said. "I donít know if he'd let that go. If I lived like he did I know I wouldn't. My entire life I've been directed towards a certain life . . .Consort. I always knew what was expected of me and did it as best I could. But I resented it, because it never felt like what I wanted."

"And what do you imagine Darken feels like, knowing what he must do and what he must give up to achieve it?"

"I'd imagine he would hate it just as much," Maryna said. "But I'd give anything to do something better, more important than just marrying into power. From what you're telling me, Darken would do anything to avoid power at all, if it meant he could live in peace."

"I offer you that power," Ka'el said. "And a life beyond that kind of choice. But I would make no judgment against you if you elected not to take it. Only you can weigh that decision, Maryna Cyclade."

Maryna thought about it for a moment, turning away from Ka'el and wrapping her wings around herself. It was a lot to take in. She'd come here really just to see a different Sphere, to expand her knowledge and pursue a hobby more than anything.

When had it become more than that? Maryna wondered. It hadn't struck her until that moment the weight of all she'd risked to get here, to see him, and why? A hobby? No, it had to be more than that.

It is something more than that, she thought, sighing. I wouldnít have followed the trail of clues, talked to Genra, risked being thrown in jail, just for a hobby. I just told myself that to avoid realizing what I was doing and the consequences of it. After all, hobbies never hurt anyone. They're just something to pass the time.

No one would risk this much for a hobby. It was something I wanted, or needed to do. And it took talking to a stranger to get me to realize it.

A stranger who just happens to be a god, of course. And a god who's asking me to help.

She sighed, her wings slipping from around her shoulders. Slowly, she turned back to Ka'el, her eyes meeting his.

"All right," she said. "What do I have to do?"

* * *

Vantiga stood alone in the darkest part of the beast, as much out of self-preservation as his own desire. Despite his duty and vow of fealty to her, it was clear to him at the moment that Kirone neither needed nor wanted his services at the moment.

He hadnít taken part in feeding of the villagers yesterday, though he hadn't begrudged his men the pleasure. Something held him back, even from the precious blood they required to survive.

Fear. And suspicion.

He snapped a piece of his armor's shoulder off, regarding the swollen sac he held in his hand. He'd felt ill at ease in this place ever since they'd set foot on it. Not from the sun--that was something every Vampire learned to fear from almost the time they were born.

No, I fear the woman I serve more than anything, he thought. And those who serve her. And the Beast I find myself hiding in. And Monstructor, and now this Vertiga woman.

None of them Vampires, he mused. None of them with any allegiance what I built my life around. To Kirone, it hardly matters if the black wings of the Vampires spread across all the Spheres--it's her own dynasty she wishes to forge.

Power is all that matters to her.

And from what I've seen of the town below, she seems to be willing to sacrifice anyone for that ambition.

He sank in fangs into the blood-gorged sac he held in his hands, taking a small ration of blood from it and reattaching it to his armor.

Vantiga had no idea about Beasts or technology. His only fighting had come in the wars with the Dragons and the Angels, when the Vampires still had their Gate and sought to spread their influence across the Spheres.

His mind drifted back to the battles with the Dragons and the Angels, remembering how the armies had met face to face, and the strength of the soldier and the might of the individual warrior carried the day.

That kind of war I understood very well, he mused, staring glumly at the cold metal chamber of the Beast he sat alone in. I became so skilled I was commended for my bravery and aptitude. But this . . .Beast, the power Kirone and Vertiga wield . . .I understand none of that. Individual skill and valor cease to matter much to beings that have the power to decimate entire villages in a matter of minutes.

He sighed. At one time he might have thought all of this was necessary and right, so long as his side was victorious.

But the way Kirone treats me now, and how she's callously sacrificed my men to that odious Monstructor, how she spat on her heritage as a Vampire to make a pact with a human . . .

I'm unsure what side I'm on, or even if I have a side. Perhaps all my men and I are to Kirone is cannon fodder, to be tossed aside whenever the whim takes her.

He tried to push it out of his mind, but was unsuccessful. Doubt, an emotion he'd worked hard to hold back all his life, was difficult to shrug off now that it had sank its fangs into him.

All my life I have served the Vampire Royalty. For the first time I've wondered if they are worth my service and devotion.

And if not, what I should do about it.

* * *

They could divert it, but they couldn't stop it. Much like an onrushing river of magma, it was like a force of nature.

Only it was alive.

The first group of Dragons, a group of Poison Dragons from the East has spotted the strange machine stampeding through their obsidian canyons sometime after their breakfast, his every hoofbeat sending shudders through the rock walls of their dens.

Terrane, the Beast of Earth had picked their particular domain to rampage through on his blind quest to wreak destruction on the Sphere.

The Dragons didnít recognize Terrane as a Beast, nor did they recognize the peculiar, centaur-like shape it possessed as anything other than an intruder, and a hostile one at that. The acid they'd breathed in its direction gave it pause for a moment, or seemed to as it dissolved some of the strange beast, who reacted in rage, bringing the high ground on which they'd ambushed it down in a powerful landslide, killing half the clan in the avalanche.

The remaining clan members took it as a sign and sent a signal to the other clans, as they had in the days of the war with the Vampires, when every Dragon from every clan had stood under the banner of Calladrius Dhuron.

Dhuron of course, was years dead, but his brother Grune heard the call, bringing his clan into the fray as they watched the Beast advancing forward in a straight line. He seemed to have no clear destination in mind--his path would take in close to no other clans that Grune knew of.

But the destruction the Beast left in its wake could not be countenanced.

There is always the chance it could suddenly change course, he thought. Or decide to turn and attack us all on its own.

No, it must be stopped.

He signaled for another clan, this one a group of Water Dragons from the southern land to create enough of a fog to confuse the Beast. Once the stream of water they'd breathed on the hot rocks hissed and formed a cloud of steam, he raised his spear and signaled his men to join the battle.

He took to the sky, his men following in a line behind him. They skimmed the ground, each in turn hurling their spears at the Beast. They clanged off its armor, but achieved the desired effect.

Terrane followed them into the cloud of steam. Grune pushed his men forward, trusting that Dragon eyes, used to seeing through hazy heat and smoke and conditioned to see the dangers their Sphere presented, would be their advantage.

They led the Beast into a canyon, a small quarry just below a small volcano. There was one way in or out walking in--back the way they'd come.

If one could fly, of course, there was the option of flying up and out.

He was counting on this monster being unable to do that.

Grune and his clan pulled up, flying above the lip of the canyon and the now rapidly dissipating cloud of steam. He snatched at the lip of the canyon with a clawed hand, almost cartwheeling to a landing. Around the canyon were all the Dragons they'd been able to enlist, and with a mighty shout, he signaled them to begin.

The Dragons around the canyon began pounding the ground with their tails, hurling boulders into the canyon or breathing fire, poison or water on the Beast below them.

Terrane thrashed and bucked, furious. He raised himself high into the air and brought his front hooves down on the rocky floor of the canyon. A tremor shot through the rocks as it had when the Beast had been reborn, and the Dragons took wing as the Canyon opened wider, sending more rocks tumbling in on the beast.

Terrane stomped the ground again, creating more of an earthquake, but this time, instead of merely causing more rocks to slide down, it opened a fissure in the nearby volcano. A geyser of lava erupted from behind Terrane, the glowing rock sweeping in like a leak in a dam.

Not fully comprehending what was happening, he stomped the ground again, ripping the fissure open even more. The lava flowed into the canyon, rushing over the rockslide and the Beast at the center of it all.

Grune watched the spectacle intently. Only a lunatic dared to open more rivers of lava on the Sphere, but in the face of their weapons and their fires being ineffective against the monster, what else was left?

After all, he thought. What on this Sphere could possibly ignore the lava? It consumes everything, eventually.

The lava turned the canyon into a glowing molten puddle. The Dragons hovered above it, watching the shape of the Beast begin to sink beneath it. There was a rustle of jubilation among the Dragons. Some where even beginning to cheer.

The Terrane began to rise, and the cheering stopped. It couldnít rise very far above the lava, but it had stopped sinking. It reached a now white-hot armored hand out, reaching for the safety of rock that lay several feet away.

Grune's brow furrowed.

Their gamble had failed.

* * *

"What was he to you?" Cygnus asked Liandra, still cradling Macabro's lifeless form in her lap. Her wings were folded over him, as if shading him from the sun, despite the fact he was long beyond either heat or chill.

"He was . . .special to me," Liandra said. "My first kiss . . .maybe he could have been more, but . . .he's gone now."

Cygnus watched them with some curiosity. Had Liandra paid attention to her erstwhile protector she would have seen the flicker of confusion pass over her face several times.

"Now I guess I have to decide what to do," Liandra said, sighing. "In a few moments, he'll come back."

"Come back?" Cygnus said.

Liandra nodded. "As a vampire."

"A vampire," Cygnus said, trying to sound more confident and mask her ignorance. "Of course."

"You know, I didn't come here looking for him," Liandra continued. "I actually came here to find my brother. I went off blindly looking for him and couldnít find him. But I found Macabro, and now he's just as lost as my brother."

"You have a brother?" Cygnus asked.

Liandra nodded. "I've lost him and now I've lost Macabro," she said. "When he comes back, the pain of dying will drive him mad. I doubt he'll recognize me as anything but something to slake his thirst though the madness.

"That's why the people down below wanted him killed," Liandra said.

"There's nothing we can do?" Cygnus asked.

Liandra shook her head as she reached for the choker around her neck, unsnapping it and holding it in her hands. "I canít find my brother," she said. "And I really cared about him and all I could do was watch him die.

"I grew up thinking there was always some other way, but now . . .now I just feel powerless.

"I could do this for him . . .give myself to him," she said. "Help him in his new life the way I couldn't in this one."

"LIANDRA!" A voice called from above. Cygnus looked up in time to see a shadow pass over her. Silhouetted against the sun, she couldn't make out much more than the figure of a man, a winged man, but she caught something else, a trace of something she recognized.

And feared.

He landed between Cygnus and Liandra, trying to push Cygnus away with a sweep of his great black wings. He caught sight of Macabro lying on her lap, his eyes zeroing in on the wound on his neck and the paleness of his body.

He gestured with his right hand and a large black spear shimmered in a burst of blue energy appeared in his grip, as if he'd drawn it from an invisible sheath. He pointed the blade at Macabro.

"Liandra," Darken said, taking a step forward. "Get away from him."

Liandra looked up, flicking her hair to get it out of her eyes.

"Darken . . .?"

Cygnus launched herself forward, kicking Darken hard enough to send him two steps backward. He balanced himself on his wings to keep himself from falling over and brought his spear to a ready position. Cygnus planted herself between them, pointing her sword at Darken.

"I told those people down below, now I'm telling you," she said. "That boy is under my protection. As is the girl. You will not harm them."

"Cygnus, he doesnít want to harm me," Liandra said, setting down Macabro's lifeless body and standing up, the heart-shaped choker she wore slipping from her hands and clattering to the rooftop.

"This is my brother, Darken."

She ran to embrace him, and Darken wrapped his free hand around her. She held him tighter than she ever had before, as if by doing so she could anchor him to her for all time.

"I've been looking for you everywhere," she whispered, tears streaming from her eyes. "When Ka'el said you'd left the Sphere I came here . . .because it was the only place I knew that had a gate."

"Shhh, it's OK," Darken said. "It's . . .it's a long story. What happened here?"

"Macabro," Liandra said. "He was hurt . . .this woman rescued him."

"Liandra tells me he was wounded by a vampire," Cygnus said. "I'll admit, I'm not familiar with the condition or the species. I was just trying to get him away from what was happening."

"Where?"

"The . . .other Sphere," Cygnus said. "These . . .Vampires attacked his village. I got him through the gate just before it was destroyed. The people below attacked him on sight. Liandra helped me get him away."

"Uhh . . .Liandra?" A voice asked weakly. All eyes turned to the form of Macabro, who was now stirring and attempting to get to his feet. He groaned in pain as joints stilled by rigor mortis tried to move once again. His body trembled as he rolled onto his stomach, joints grinding sickeningly as he tried to push himself up to his feet.

Darken moved forward, letting Liandra slip from his embrace.

"Stand back," he said. He turned to Cygnus. "I don't want her to see this."

"See what?" Macabro asked, trying to speak and finding it difficult. He felt his face. His jaw felt heavier, somehow. He ran his tongue over his teeth.

"What's happened?" Macabro asked. He felt sick, not just from the pain of moving, which was lessening somewhat, but from the very air itself. It seemed to be burning him. And despite the nausea that rippled through him every time he tried to move, he felt very hungry suddenly.

He took a step forward. As he did, Darken raised his spear, only to be stopped short by Cygnus' sword.

"Liandra, I thought you said he'd go mad when he turned," Cygnus said to her.

Liandra squeezed out from behind Darken's wings.

"I thought he would," she said. "Macabro . . .do you recognize me?"

Macabro nodded, opening his arms and trying to step towards her.

"NO," Darken shouted. "He's changed."

"Yes he has," Liandra said. "But not as we expected. Maybe he's still himself. I can reach him, I think."

"Changed?" Macabro asked, his arms falling slowly to his side. "Liandra, what is he talking about?"

"What's the last thing you remember happening to you?" Liandra asked, walking towards him and taking his hands in hers.

"I remember . . .the village . . .my family . . .darkness . . .you," he said, taking her hands in his. Something at the back of his mind was thrumming insistently, a primal drive that he'd never experienced before that seemed to be getting louder, slowly drowning out the rest of the noise in his head.

That and the pain it had become a minor itching but now it felt like a burning, as if he'd held his hand to close to a candle.

"I've had just about enough of this," Darken said, wrenching his spear free of Cygnus' restraining move. He stepped forward and thrust his blade between Liandra and Macabro.

"Look at it, Macabro," he said, holding the shining flat of the Spear's blade in front of his face. "Look at it and tell me what you see."

"I don't . . .see anything," Macabro said, blinking as he stared at the blade. Not even a blurry reflection of himself stared back at him. Darken pulled the blade back in angry satisfaction.

"You know what that means, don't you?"

"Darken . . ."

"Not now, Liandra," he said. "It's too late for him."

"That's not for you to decide," Cygnus said, poking Darken between his shoulders with the tip of her sword. She moved closer, whispering. "Not a good idea to turn your back on someone who could still be dangerous to you."

"Take you own advice," Darken said. "Liandra, he's gone. Let me do what I have to."

"I . . .he's right, isnít he?" Macabro said, touching his face again. "I'm . . .a vampire now. They turned me, in the village. Oh God, no. Please no."

"Shhh," Liandra said, putting her arms around her. Tears flowed from her eyes. "Yes they did, but we can help you. You havenít lost yourself in it . . ."

Macabro shut his eyes, trying to squeeze the pain and the increasingly loud voice in his mind out. Hands shaking, he reached for her, wrapping his arms around her tentatively, as he had two days ago when they'd kissed for the first time.

Liandra tried to comfort him, moving closer to him. The shaking of his hands seemed to still somewhat and he embraced her more naturally, and for a moment it seemed he had come back to himself.

Darken's fist tightened on the hand of his spear. He was only two steps away from the pair of them.

I have to stop this, he thought, the point of Cygnus's blade between his shoulder blades a reminder of the potential consequence. No matter what happens to me, I have to stop this.

I wonít lose her.

In the blink of an eye, two things happened. To Darken's horrified eyes both seemed to happen in slow motion.

Macabro pulled Liandra closer. His hands, which had been caressing her shoulders up until this moment, suddenly gripped her tightly. There was the sound of skin ripping and Liandra shuddered for a moment as Macabro held her tight.

At the moment his hands had tightened around her, Cygnus' took her blade off Darken and Darken moved forward, flipping the spear around and smashing it hard against Macabro, shoving him off Liandra and sending Liandra falling to her knees, the muscles in her wings too limp to steady her.

Darken struck Macabro with the butt of the spear, the vampire's face smeared with the blood of the girl he'd called sister. Cygnus stood with him, her sword in one hand, one of the feathers she wore in her hair in the other.

"S-stop . . ." Liandra stammered. She put a hand to the gaping wound on her throat. "Macabro . . .don't . . ."

"Donít look at me," Macabro said, blood dribbling from his chin, darkening his dirty clothes. "I'm . . .a monster. I don't want you to see me like this!"

Darken raised his spear above his head, ready to bring it down in an arc and cleave the vampire's head from his shoulders, giving him a more peaceful and more dignified death than the half-life of a vampire.

"NO . . .Darken . . .!"

Liandra leapt forward, lurching between them, the loss of blood weakening her as it had Macabro. The vampire caught her, dragging her up on her knees. She looked into his eyes, now blood-red, lacking irises or pupils and knew he had been completely taken over now.

Macabro Darknova was gone forever. What looked at her now only wore a twisted version of his face and her own blood drooled from its mouth.

It was the last thing she would ever see.

"I SAID DON'T LOOK AT ME!"

Macabro's hands, now clawed and gnarled, sank into her eye sockets. There a moment of resistance, then they gave way.

Darken screamed.

Liandra screamed.

Macabro screamed.

The three screams seemed to bleed all the sound of out of the moment, throwing it into a silent, almost dreamlike relief.

Cygnus slashed at Macabro, sending one of his arms flying off. Darken stabbed forward, cleaving his other arm off at the shoulder. He moved between Cygnus and Macabro, cutting off the mysterious woman's ability to attack.

Darken had never killed anything or anyone in anger before, but he was so horrified and so enraged, anything that might have stopped him from acting on his murderous impulse was gone.

An impulse stoked by something his uncle had said.

He jammed the butt of his spear at Macabro, sending the armless vampire into the dirty rooftop. He shook with fury as he jammed the blade into the creature's stomach pinning him where he lay.

"You want blood, you damned monster?" Darken said. He reached for the other end of his spear, gripping the bladed edge. The razor edges made small cuts through his gloves with little resistance. Darken bit through the pain, clenching his cut hand into a fist and holding it over Macabro's gaping mouth.

"Take mine, then. Take it and burn."

Drops of his blood struck Macabro's face, eventually dribbling in to his fanged mouth. Once satisfied, Darken planted his foot on his chest, shoving him off the blade.

Macabro began to scream again, thrashing about and holding the gaping wound in his stomach. The screams became louder and more piercing as he began to gesticulate wildly. An acrid burning smell filled Darken's nostrils as he glared at the creature.

Macabro, or the vampire that wore his face, was burning alive. From the inside.

"That's why they never drank the blood of a dragon," Darken remembered his uncle saying. "Our fire is in our very blood. The taste of it burns them like the sun."

Macabro burst into flame, his flesh becoming a black silhouette among the blaze of fire. In a second, it had burned through, and all that was left of him was an ashen shadow and a horrible smell that turned Darken's stomach.

Cygnus pointed her sword at the pile of ashes.

"Darken, is he--"

"Shut up," he said. He gestured with his bleeding hand and the spear was gone again. He fell to his knees in front of Liandra, gathering her in his arms. The blood from her throat and her eyes stained his armor as he held her close.

"I could have saved her, if it weren't for you," he said. "I could have stopped him if youíd let me."
"I didnít know."

"No, you didn't," Darken said. "And you should have stayed out of it"

Cygnus looked away, unsure of what she should say; of if she had anything she could say for herself. It was true--she didnít know. She didn't know a lot of things, and that ignorance had consequences.

Grave consequences, she thought.



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