Provenna’s face was almost expressionless, but her green eyes flashed. “My father hated me. Aiden left me. Kozan used me. And the whole of the Realm despises me. Soon they shall learn to fear me.”
Mystia sat alone in Kozan's chambers. She was dressed all in white–a maid not going to her wedding but to her death. Kozan had left very early in the morning, and she had seen no one else save the slave-girl who had brought her dinner. The food, long cold, still rested upon the table before her, for Mystia had not the stomach to eat. She had long ago flung her veil aside–what reason had she to hide her face any longer when death was so near? Her head was bent, her hands covered her face, and her whole body shook as she wept tears of anguish and terror.
"Joretham," she sobbed and could say nothing more.
Presently, she began to regain her composure. She sat up a little straighter, and began to take slow, deep breaths. Her whole body was shivering, and she held herself tightly. She felt colder than when she had been in Kozan's dungeon.
At that thought, tears sprang once more to her eyes. She could picture Orion, beaten and broken, lying chained to the dungeon walls.
"Joretham," she whispered with a pleading, trembling voice, "if you can hear me, help Orion. I know that I am going to die, but please help Orion. Kozan says he’s the son of Norenroth, and, though Kozan is an evil man, I find myself believing him. I do not know if there is any way to free him of the curse which binds him, but I know if there is a way, you know what it is. Please help him. I fear death, but if it meant he would live I would gladly give my life up."
She was silent for a long moment, and when she spoke again her voice was so soft it could barely be heard. "I love him."
* * *
The first, faint hints of sunlight were showing in the sky as Orion stopped his riding–his wandering–and stood still. He found himself in an open place, surrounded on all sides by cold, gray buildings. In the middle of this quiet courtyard stood a fountain, its softly bubbling water a peaceful undertone to a meditative retreat. Orion's horse occasionally shook its head and struck its hoof against the cobblestone. Other than that the place was still and silent. A cool breeze blew across his face.
Orion sat upon his horse for a long a moment, looking at the fountain. All his anger seemed to disappear at the sight of that solitary object, and he felt only loneliness. He dismounted and, taking the reigns in his hand, approached the fountain where he stood for a time staring down at the clear liquid surface and the soothing, hypnotic ripples. He reached out and brushed his fingers through the water. As he did so, a hundred different memories rushed unbidden into his mind of that night–it seemed so long ago–when he and Mystia had sat at the edge of a similar fountain, conversing.
Anguish filled him like a sickness spreading out from his belly, gripping his chest so that he could not breathe. His legs grew weak and he sank to his knees. Would that he had fled Zaren as she had bidden and never looked back.
He reached for the ring which she had given him, but when his hand pressed against his chest, he did not find it. The ring–the ring Mystia had told him never to lose–was gone. Fear filled him, and for a moment he continued to hold his hand to his chest as if the precious object would miraculously appear beneath his palm. He racked his brain, trying to figure out where it could be.
He leapt to his feet, for he remembered what had happened to it. He spun to face the palace of his mother, just visible over the tops of the buildings. His eyes burned with rage.
He turned to his horse and, with a growl, began to mount. Even as he did so, he stopped short, one foot in the stirrup, and listened. Through the early morning stillness spread a low rumbling. It was like far off thunder, but, though it could barely be heard, the ground trembled with it.
* * *
Mystia sat unmoving, her arms resting upon the table, her head cradled in her arms. She could not sleep, but all of the emotions she had experienced during the night had left her exhausted. She could hear nothing, save the sound of her own soft breathing.
Through the stillness, the low, mournful sound of Balor's horn broke. She started at the noise and looked wildly around as she sat up straight. She realized what it was and, pressing her hands to her breast, began to take deep breaths to slow her racing heart.
The sound of the horn died away, and the princess was left once more in silence, but presently she realized she was not in silence. Though hard to hear she could make out a sound of something like far distant, rolling thunder. She sat still, her head tilted slightly, holding her breath…and listened.
* * *
The morning had just broken. Its pink rays spread across the sky, and there was not a cloud in sight, yet still it thundered. Orion’s horse gave a nervous shake of its head as the thunder began to grow, and the warrior stumbled back and looked around in confusion as the ground began to shake violently. He was thrown to the ground, his hand and arm scraping against the uneven cobblestones. As he scrambled to his feet, he looked up at the sky where he saw a surprising sight. Above the city hundreds of eagles soared through the air. Their voices were lifted up in croaking shrieks of war as they sent balls of fire raining down upon the city. Already flames were spreading throughout the buildings and rising to the sky.
* * *
Mystia ran to the window and pressed her hands against the glass as she tried to see what was happening. She could see nothing, but she could hear the savage cries of men, and she could feel the city shake with the pounding of thousands upon thousands of feet. Her heart was thumping in her chest, and her whole body was trembling. She barely dared hope an army truly was attacking Nolhol.
Lightheaded, she rested her brow against the cool glass, which vibrated with the commotion outside.
"Joretham," she whispered, "let it be."
* * *
Orion stumbled back, and his eyes widened as the ground before him continued to shake and buckle. His horse reared back and he threw his hands up to protect his face as the ground suddenly erupted in an explosion of earth and cobblestone.
The dust had no time to settle before fierce goblins and men began to emerge from the hole now gaping in the ground. Orion was the first thing they saw. It was readily apparent that he was a warrior, and the emerging soldiers seemed prepared to treat him as such, but before they could attack him, Orion, who had neither weapon nor armor leaped onto his horse and galloped out of the square. Fighting was already beginning to break out in the streets as the citizens of Leilaora and the many guards stationed throughout the city rushed out to meet this unexpected enemy.
Orion charged through narrow, twisting streets only to have his wild ride precipitously ended by a tall, unmoving alley wall. The walls on either side of him were too close together to allow him to easily turn his horse, which neighed and pranced nervously with excitement and fear.
Behind him, Orion saw two soldiers–a human and a goblin–running down the alleyway after him. With a snarling battle cry, he sprang from his horse and charged toward them. His attackers stopped short at the sight of this furious, beast-like man bearing down upon them, and Orion took full advantage of their momentary surprise. The human tried to raise his sword, but Orion barreled into him, sending him sprawling to the ground. With one swift motion, Orion broke his neck.
In another moment, he was on his feet again, facing his other attacker. The goblin bore a huge battle axe, but he could not swing it in the narrow alley, so he dropped it, and, growling, met Orion. The two tumbled to the ground. With a howl, Orion scrambled madly onto the goblin's stomach and grabbed his neck with his hands. The goblin grunted and reached up to tear the warrior’s arms away, but he could barely make Orion's arms move.
The goblin's eyes grew wide with terror, and in a desperate attempt to save his life, he reached up and grabbed hold of Orion's neck. The warrior's mouth twisted into a mocking grin as slowly his grip tightened. The goblin gave a choked grunt as he struggled desperately, but it was no use. Orion's grip continued tightening until, finally, the sickening sound of bones crunching reached his ears. The goblin's arms grew limp and fell from Orion's neck.
Behind him, his horse neighed in fright and pounded the pavement hard with his hooves.
"Fool!" the warrior cried then gave a spiteful, desperate, bitter laugh. "Did you think you could defeat a half dragon?" He began tearing at the goblin's armor. "Did you truly think you had any hope of defeating me?" There came another sickening crack as Orion yanked the helmet off. "I, who am the son of Norenroth?"
He stripped the goblin of his armor and put it on himself. The fit was decent, though not nearly as good as he would have liked. Still it fit far better than the armor of the human would have.
With one swift movement, he picked up the huge battle axe the goblin had dropped and then turned to his horse, but as he approached, the horse neighed and reared and would not allow him to draw close. With a growl of disgust, he turned around and stalked out into the city.
* * *
Aeneas held tightly to the saddle as Nightfall cut his way swiftly through the low-hanging clouds. The young prince shivered, for the cloak he wore offered little in the way of warmth. It seemed that the closer they got to Nolhol, the colder and bleaker it became. His heart was pounding and his face was taut with anticipation and anxiety. The griffin continued on, calm and steady, with large, slow beats of his wings, but inside he too burned with anticipation, for every flap of his wings brought him closer to what he hoped would save Orion.
Presently, through the stillness and the fog, they heard a sound. It was very faint–nothing more than a soft murmur–but it did not die away. In fact, as they continued flying it seemed to grow louder. It sounded like a huge waterfall far off in the distance.
"What...?" began Aeneas, but he did not finish. Even as he spoke, Nightfall flew out of the clouds and the young prince could see the surrounding countryside. It was all gray and empty and barren; not a thing of green could be seen. As he looked ahead of him, he saw Nolhol, standing on the horizon, its black towers and palaces rising into the gray and empty sky. His mouth fell open, for, though the city was yet far away, he could tell immediately that it was under attack.
"Come on, Nightfall!" he cried. "We have to hurry!"
* * *
Provenna stood upon an open terrace at the top of a tall tower of her palace. Her green eyes flashed with fury as she looked down upon her golden city, decimated by fire and bloodshed. She could feel the strength of hundreds of Magics pressing down upon her–struggling to hold back the might that she, as a Power, wielded. But though they could hold her back a little, they could not completely overcome her.
Above her she could see scores of eagles flying over the city, raining arrows down upon her men. She drew back her hand and with a cry flung it upward. She could hear the shrieks of agony and terror as the two nearest eagles were engulfed in flames. Even before they had fallen to the earth another eagle burst into flames, then another, and another.
One by one they fell to the earth, and as each fell Provenna's fury grew. There was no escape. Her wrath was certain. Was she not a Power? Did they not owe her allegiance? She looked down and saw a group of horsemen. She had never wanted to be a Power, yet they hated her for something that was beyond her control. She flung her hand out and the horsemen were engulfed in flames.
Her face twisted in bitterness, and another eagle fell from the sky. She too could hate.
* * *
Tnaka stood alone by a window in an empty room of the palace, high within a tall tower. None of the death and destruction filling the city was lost to him. If he looked up he could see the tower upon which Provenna stood. It was very near, and it would take him little more than a minute to run there, but he did not do so.
The cries of the battling men filled his ears, and he shuddered. He squeezed his eyes shut, but he could still see the fire and smoke rising into the sky and the blood-filled streets.
When would it end?
* * *
Mystia nervously paced back and forth in Kozan's chambers. She could hear the sounds of battle, loud and terrifying, right outside the window. Freedom seemed maddeningly near, but she could not leave the room. When the battle had first begun she had tried to escape, but the door was locked. She had used all of the magic she knew, but Kozan had evidently protected his chambers from such measures. Now she was left there, fearing that at any moment Kozan or the Dark Sorcerer would walk through the door.
All day had she been there as the minutes slowly turned into hours. She had jumped in terror when, through the roar of the battle, the sound of Balor's horn broke, signifying the midday sacrifice. The sickness which filled her was nearly over-powering as she realized that even in the midst of pitched battle, sacrifices were being offered to Balor.
She continued pacing back and forth across the whole of that dark and dismal room. She had reached the door, turned, and was almost half way back across the room when she heard a key being placed in the lock. She gasped and spun around.
She heard the key turn, and she ran to the table. Grabbing hold of it, she looked in terror at the door.
A small cry escaped her lips as it was thrown open and the Dark Sorcerer strode in. He stopped just inside the door.
"Come with me," he ordered.
Mystia held even tighter to the table and said nothing.
He walked toward her and, holding his hand out to her, again said, "Come with me."
"No." Her face was white and her whole body was trembling, but there was something in the way she stood that told the Sorcerer it would be a struggle to bring her out. He stopped short, surprised by her sudden defiance. A look of realization crossed his face. "You misunderstand me, Princess. I've come to rescue you."
"Get away from me," she said, her voice low.
"Mystia," he said, his voice growing dangerous as he took another step closer, "if you want to live you’ll come with me now."
"I said get away from me!"
He took another slow step toward her, his arm still held out. "I’m not here to take you to Kozan, nor am I here to take you for myself. I have a love, and I’m no servant of Kozan's."
"Stay away from me!"
The Dark Sorcerer's face darkened.
"I left Leilaora for you!" he cried. "I put off, once again, my only hope for happiness just to come and rescue you. Now come with me!"
With a lightning fast move, he sprang around the table and grabbed her by the arm.
"Let go of me!" she shrieked, striking him hard across the face with her free hand as she did so. She dug her nails into his skin and dragged them across his face. The Sorcerer cried out in pain, and Mystia herself squealed in disgust and horror as she felt one of her fingers dig into his eye. He flung her from him, and she screamed as she fell hard to the floor.
The Sorcerer swore and turned away from her. His shoulders rose and fell with painful, labored breathing. After a long moment, he turned back to her. He covered his eye with his hand, but Mystia could see blood running down his cheek.
He took a deep breath and then began to breathe more evenly. After another moment, he took his hand from his eye. He had cast some sort of spell, for his eye appeared relatively intact, but it was very red, and the Sorcerer was looking at her so oddly that Mystia wondered whether he could see out of it.
He took another breath, and his anger seemed to leave him.
"Get up," he said, "I want to help you escape."
Slowly the princess rose, keeping distance between him and her.
"I am not here to hurt you," he said.
She looked distrustfully at him for a moment before she finally said, "I am not willingly going anywhere with you until you tell me why you want to help me escape."
The Dark Sorcerer was silent for a moment as he considered what he should do.
"Very well," he finally said, "I see we shall go nowhere unless I tell you." He took another breath. "I’m Darus, enemy of Kozan and son of the last true king of Delovachia."
Mystia looked at him in shock.
* * *
The battle raged all around Gideone. He coughed as smoke filled his nostrils. He was covered with dirt, and sweat and blood streamed down his body. Strands of hair stuck to his face and hung down in front of his eyes. He gasped for breath. His whole body screamed for rest. All day had he battled, and he felt as though he would drop from fatigue, but he pressed on, knowing that if he fell he would surely be killed. Slowly, Tmalion's army was closing in upon Provenna's palace, but the closer they came the greater the opposition grew until they were barely able to advance at all. But they continued to fight; they could not stop now.
* * *
Nightfall made his way as quickly as he could down the long, twisting stairs that led to the Kozan's dungeon. It had taken longer than he had expected for him and Aeneas to reach and enter the palace. When they finally had, they had split up and were now searching desperately for the princess. The griffin shook his head and gave a soft hiss of annoyance, for his large body could barely fit in the small space between the two walls. Still, he continued downward. Step upon step, turn upon turn, deeper and deeper he went, the smell of blood and death growing stronger the further he went.
He found himself suddenly at the end of the stairs, and he walked out into a small but open room. Looking around only enough to notice the door leading to the long hallway of cells, he spread out his wings and stretched out the whole of his body. Even as he did so, he heard a man cry out. His head shot up, and he looked around to find the source of the noise. A hissing croak escaped his beak as he felt the sting of a whip upon his back. He spun around and found a man, lash in hand, standing behind him. With his body low to the ground, the griffin narrowed his eyes and opened his beak in a snarl. The man's eyes filled with fear and he turned to run, but, even as he did so, Nightfall pounced on him. With one swift swipe of his forepaw, he finished him.
He could hear the cries of other men, and, spinning around, saw them running through the corridor of cells. With a hiss he charged toward them, and they screamed in terror as he advanced. The corridor was narrow, however, and he could move but little. He cried in pain as he felt the blade of a sword dig into his shoulder then sent his paw smashing into the head of the man who had pierced him. He could feel the bones crack beneath him.
The cries of the prisoners filled his ears as he struggled forward.
The guards ran before him, and he managed to push his way out of the small hallway into the room beyond. He hissed in disgust as he found himself in Kozan's large torture chambers. There were only two guards left, both of whom ran when he appeared. He fell upon one and broke his back, then, spinning, walked menacingly toward the one remaining guard. The man stood, pressed against the cold, dark wall and stared in terror at the huge, black griffin. Nightfall's eyes narrowed as he growled, "Release the prisoners."
For a moment, the guard stood petrified.
"I said release them!" Nightfall snarled.
The guard started and ran forward. He quickly found the body of the dead chief jailer, and, taking the keys from him, began to do as the griffin had ordered. Nightfall watched him closely as first the prisoners chained in the torture room were freed, then one by one the cells were opened. He watched expectantly, each moment hoping to see the princess emerge from one of them. When she did not he shook his head and began to make his way once more through the cell-lined corridor, through the room beyond, and up the long, winding stairs into the palace above.
* * *
Aeneas stood in one of the corridors of Kozan’s palace and slammed his fist against the wall in frustration. He had searched every room he had come across for Mystia but had yet to find her. He struck the wall once more before turning and beginning his search afresh. He felt certain that if he found the harem he would find Mystia, but he had never before laid eyes upon his father's palace, much less entered it and become acquainted with its corridors and chambers.
He opened a door and looked in only to find it was nothing more than a servant's barren room. With a growl of disgust, he and slammed the door.
"Mystia!" he shouted. "Where are you?"
* * *
"Sit down and I will tell you the tale," the Dark Sorcerer said. He could hear the battle raging all around. The glass of the window shivered beneath it.
Slowly, Mystia did as he said, looking up at him all the time with her black eyes. Her distrust was still evident, but she waited silently for him to begin. The Sorcerer sighed in disgust, for he realized he would have to tell the tale in its entirety for her to believe he was who he claimed.
"I was born in a country far away across the sea," he began. "I have no recollection of my true mother or father. My oldest memory is of the streets and the darkness they held." He paused. "Fate, however, sometimes smiles on even the most unfortunate. When I was scarcely more than a babe, it became apparent that I possessed great magic power–at least as much as an arch-sorcerer, if not more. But I knew nothing of how to properly wield it, so I remained a child on the streets, unable to raise myself above that position.
"When I was nine or ten my father, Constans, the king of Delovachia, came and waged war against my country. My country was completely overcome; the king was killed as were most of the nobles, and the few lords who yet lived were forced to pledge themselves to my father.
"Constans left, taking with him hundreds of people whom he had captured and made slaves. I was one of those." He paused. "We traveled across the sea to Delovachia where I served in the palace. I did well and soon became one of my father's most trusted slaves.
"He had no wife and no children. He was distant from almost all, and most considered him proud and selfish. But he was a good and honorable man who ruled firmly and justly, and I would have given my life for him.
"He had many enemies, and, during an assassination attempt, I saved his life. It was more accident than intention, for it was by my magic that I saved him, and, as a result my father learned of the great power I held. He made me his son and heir and had the greatest teachers of magic come and instruct me in the use of my power." He paused again, as a look of sadness filled his face. "I became great; I was young and yet my magic was strong. With such strength, I could bring greatness to Delovachia such as it had never before possessed." A look of pain filled his face. "But, it was not meant to be. When I was about thirteen it was all taken from me. To this day I do not know how. I was taken with a fever and almost died, and when I finally grew well, all of my power was gone." He struggled to speak. "It seems impossible; there’s not one record of anything like that ever happening before, but it happened to me. My magic was gone, and I was left weaker than even the weakest warlock."
* * *
Kozan rode upon a black charger through the streets of Nolhol. Soldiers lashed out at him, trying to cut him down, but how could they kill him, a Power? He struck them down with his magic before they even touched him. All around him the city burned, and, above it, the sky was filled with dark, foreboding clouds. Occasionally, he could hear the soft rumbling of thunder–sign that a storm would soon break. What did he care? Let it burn; let it storm. His army was slowly emerging triumphant. At the end of the day, Nolhol would still stand, and his enemies would be destroyed.
The evening approached quickly and with it the time for the evening sacrifice. The dark king made his way toward his dark, towering palace. All day had he waited, but he could wait no longer. Balor's altar screamed for blood, and Balor's Law demanded the death of all High Elves. Mystia would be sacrificed.
* * *
The princess looked at the Dark Sorcerer as he continued his tale.
"My father loved me, and he did not throw me out because I no longer possessed magic strength," the Sorcerer told her. "I redoubled my studies in the subjects other than magic. When I came of age, I left Nolhol and, with my father's blessing, went out into Lairannare in search of some way to regain my lost power.
"For six years I searched, but I found no answers. I traveled the length and breath of Lairannare and finally concluded there was no hope, and I was making my way back to Delovachia when I met a people–a race I had never seen before, a people that existed only as villains in all the stories and all the histories stretching down from the beginning of time, your people–the Shallee.
"They took me into their midst and showed me things I had never dreamed existed and taught me how to use magic again. For one year I resided among them, my magic growing ever stronger. I had yet to grow as powerful as I once had been, but I hoped that in time I would reach that point."
His face darkened. "I left them and returned to Delovachia, but when I did I found my country subjected and my father murdered by Kozan.
"I joined his army," he continued quickly, trying to force from his head all that Kozan had done. "I hoped that I’d be able to destroy him from the inside. I was a good soldier and an able leader, and I rose quickly through the ranks, until I was made the High General of all his armies. I worked even harder toward increasing my magic power and my standing with the people so that when the time was right I would be able to kill him and take his place with as little rebellion as possible."
He paused for a moment then said, "So, you see? I’m no friend of Kozan, and I wish to help you because you’re of the Shallee, the people who helped me regain my magic strength. Now, will you please come with me?"
Mystia's black eyes were filled with tears as she looked at the man who had killed her father and destroyed her country.
"You are the only one here willing to help me," she told him, "so I will go with you."
* * *
Provenna sent yet another blast of fire down upon her enemies. For a moment afterwards, she stood gasping for breath. Her head throbbed with pain as hundreds of Magics pressed down upon her with their power.
She saw an eagle flying toward her, and she forced herself to straighten. With her face twisted into a look of anger and agony, she drew back her hand and unleashed another fiery blast of magic.
She looked wildly all around her. Where was Tnaka?
"Tnaka!" she cried with all her might. "Tnaka!" But there was no answer.
With a growl, she continued to battle.
* * *
The Dark Sorcerer walked so quickly through the corridors of the palace that Mystia was out of breath trying to keep up. The halls were almost completely empty, though occasionally they would pass a terrified slave. The sounds of war were muffled by the many rooms and the thick stone walls which separated the Sorcerer and the princess from the outside world, but they could still be heard, and they seemed to lend speed to the steps of the two.
The Sorcerer led Mystia through a door and out onto the balcony which overlooked the banquet hall. They walked along its length and down the stone steps at the end into the hall itself which they quickly crossed, making their way through the long dinner tables.
Mystia gasped as she noticed King Rolfaren. He was no menace, for he lay unconscious at one of the tables–a pitcher of wine beside him and an overturned goblet before him. The Sorcerer paid him no attention but stalked past him to the doors which he threw open. Mystia cast one last look back at the drunken king before she followed the Dark Sorcerer out of the hall.
* * *
Kozan, his clothes torn and dirty, ran through the corridors of his palace. His hair fell in a disheveled mess around his face, and, with a growl of anger, he brushed it away, only for it to fall once more before his eyes. The cries of war filled his ears but he paid them no heed. He had to get Mystia.
* * *
The Dark Sorcerer and Mystia walked quickly down a long, open balcony that ran along the outside wall of the palace and looked down upon a courtyard two stories beneath it. The cries of war and screams of pain could now be fully heard through the open air.
The princess started as a crash of thunder broke through the sounds of battle. The clouds, which all day had threatened to storm, had finally broken and now sent light rain down upon the city.
* * *
"Where is she?" Aeneas cried as he struck the wall in frustration. He had found the harem, only to then remember that Mystia was a High Elf and would therefore never be loved by his father. He had checked to make sure, and, just as he had expected, she was not there.
With a growl of anger he turned and began to run back to the main entrance of the palace where he and Nightfall had agreed to meet. Hopefully, the griffin had been more successful than he had been.
* * *
Mystia paused for a second to catch her breath and shivered as the rain struck her. The Sorcerer, seeing her discomfort, slowed somewhat. Both of them turned their faces toward the sky above the courtyard, for the battle had drawn quite close and the sky was filled with eagles and harpies all spinning and cart-wheeling against the forbidding clouds.
Their brief reverie was broken by the sound of footsteps pounding against the stone floor of the arcade. Mystia’s face turned white as she saw Kozan running toward her.
After that, everything seemed to happen in a moment. The Dark Sorcerer started forward to stop the king, but Kozan had already seen the Sorcerer with Mystia and was in no mood to ask questions.
Kozan’s spell was already half-completed before the Sorcerer even started his attack. The force of the magic blast threw the Dark Sorcerer back into the stone railing of the balcony, and his head struck the stone hard. Before he could rise, Kozan was already crying out another spell.
Wide-eyed, Mystia watched as the Sorcerer raised his hand in a useless gesture of defense and was struck by another blast of magic. The balustrade burst apart, causing the Dark Sorcerer to fall off the arcade and, a look of surprise upon his face, tumble through the empty air to the courtyard below.
Kozan did not stop to gaze upon him but spun toward Mystia, his arm snaking out toward her.
"Let go of me!" she screamed as his hand closed upon her arm.
She struggled against him as he pulled her tighter, but he subdued her with a blow that almost knocked her unconscious. He flung her limp body over his shoulder and walked from the arcade.
* * *
Tmalion stood in a makeshift command station where he conferred with several soldiers, one of whom was Gideone. The day had been long and arduous; tempers were short, and the discussion was already growing heated.
"She's killing us," one of the generals declared. "I don't care how much of the city we've taken. If we don't kill her soon, by day's end we'll have nothing left."
"'Tis a fool's battle," growled another, "and one we aren't going to survive."
"I wonder you can say that," Gideone exclaimed. "The men are fighting well, and we've gained much ground.
"But the fact does remain," Tmalion stated, "she's slowly destroying our troops, and none of us can even get near her."
"Then we should try again," Gideone answered. "It's late in the day and if we're all weak and tired she must be more so. If we can't do it now, we never will."
* * *
Orion ran down an alleyway so narrow that both sides of his body brushed the walls. He was covered in sweat and blood. All day he had battled his way through the crowded, tumult-ridden streets, sometimes barely able to move forward because of the crush of men. The whole time Provenna had stood upon her tower, within eyesight but maddeningly out of reach.
He burst out of the alleyway and nearly ran into a tall, white, stone wall. He paused for a moment as he leaned against it, trying to catch his breath. He looked around, attempting to figure out exactly where he was, and his heart began to beat louder as he realized the wall in front of him was that which surrounded the royal palace. Long forgotten images began to return from the days many years before when he had lived in Leilaora, and he remembered that there was a small, little used door into the palace grounds only a short distance away. He began to run along the wall toward this entrance.
He looked up at what little he could see of the palace. Provenna was no longer visible, but he knew she was there and his face hardened. He would soon make her regret she had ever been born.
* * *
Gideone leaned low in the saddle, and turned his face slightly so the wind would not be blowing directly into his eyes. It had been several years since he had last ridden an eagle, but he still remembered how, and now he was one of five men winging their way toward Queen Provenna. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Tmalion, to his left and a little above him.
Provenna saw them approaching and turned her full fury upon them, first trying to knock them from the air and then attempting to incinerate them with a blast of magic. Tmalion, however, had prepared for that and had as many magics as he could find on short notice on the ground casting a protective shield around the attackers.
The five eagle riders were now very close to the queen. Splitting apart, they attacked her from all sides, making low passes over her head. Though she was prevented from attacking them, she had any number of defensive spells at her disposal, and none of them succeeded in touching her.
* * *
Tnaka knelt beside the window in the same empty room he had been in all day. He knew neither what to do nor what to think. With a sad smile, he turned his gaze once more to what lay beyond the window. The battle still continued and the blood still flowed through the streets. His gaze traveled slowly upward until it came to rest upon where Provenna battled.
When it did, the elven Power started, for he saw that she was being attacked by several eagle riders. Though she fought back they did not immediately fall, and they seemed to be pressing her hard.
* * *
Gideone, breathing heavily, wheeled to face the enraged Power who was throwing the full force of her magic strength at her attackers. Although Gideone was not a Magic of any merit, he could still tell that the shield protecting him and his fellow eagle riders was weakening.
Gripping his sword firmly, he urged his eagle forward. Provenna saw him coming and directed a fiery blast of magic toward him. He tried to dodge it but was not quick enough. The fire curled around him but did not touch him, though the force of the blast nearly knocked him from his mount. He held his seat, however, and kept his gazed fixed on Provenna. He swung his blade at her as he passed, but as he did so, she struck him with another blast of magic. He flew from his eagle and, with a cry, landed roughly on the stone tower about ten feet away from Provenna. He scrambled to his feet and, not giving her any time to think, charged at her with sword in hand.
* * *
Tnaka watched first in relief as Provenna downed one of her attackers and then in growing concern as it became apparent the fallen warrior was not dead. Tnaka's hand jerked instinctively to his sword as he saw the warrior charge. In the split second that he saw Provenna's life was truly in danger, he made the decision he had put off the entire day. He ran to help her.
* * *
Gideone saw Provenna, wide-eyed and white-faced, staring at him, frozen, as he approached. Then everything around him exploded. In a storm of rocks, he was thrown once more to the ground. With a groan he rolled to his feet and looked at her across the small crater left from her attack. She stared at him, tight-lipped, not doing anything, waiting for him to attack once more. But, before he did anything, the other four eagle riders swooped down on her. A sharp cry of anger escape her lips as she turned to face this other foe. As her attention was diverted, Gideone charged again.
It took only a couple seconds to cover the ground between them, and this time he would have struck her. But he was thrown back once more, this time with great force. His sword skidded across the floor, and his face contorted in pain as the wind was knocked out of him.
Whatever magic had been protecting him was gone. He looked up and his face paled, for next to Provenna, strong and unwearied, stood Tnaka.
* * *
Eagle ran into the palace armory. The battle was drawing near and soon, she feared, the soldiers would storm the palace. There were few weapons left, but, when she reached the place where the swords were supposed to be, she found one remaining. She paused for a moment, breathing quickly with excitement, then reached out and grasped the hilt.
She held the weapon up and looked at it for a moment. Its steel blade shone with the orange glow of the torches lighting the armory. The sword was obviously too small and light for any soldier to use, but it was almost perfect for her. She took a few simple practice swings, then, her confidence growing, flipped it around and pretended she was battling an opponent.
She heard footsteps echoing in the corridor outside the armory. She turned and ran to the door and, looking out, caught sight of the powerful form and wild, auburn hair of Orion. He ran down the corridor and disappeared around a corner. For a moment Eagle stood and stared after him, then, taking a breath, set off down the corridor in pursuit.
* * *
"Kill him," Provenna ordered before she walked from the top of the tower and disappeared into the palace below.
Tnaka stood, sword in hand, looking down at Gideone.
The prince reached for his weapon, but Tnaka knocked it aside with his magic.
"Fight me like a man," Gideone growled, pushing himself up off the ground.
"I think we both know a sword is not going to help you," Tnaka replied as he stretched his hand out toward the prince. Gideone's face paled and twisted in pain as a strong, unyielding pressure gripped his chest and slowly began to squeeze.
Gideone could barely breath, but he managed to gasp out, "What are you going to tell Eagle?"
Tnaka did not respond, but the pressure seemed to lessen slightly.
"D'you think she'll ever love you if she finds out you never even gave me a chance to defend myself?"
Tnaka's face hardened. "She'll never love me anyway."
Gideone clutched at his chest as the pressure resumed and squeezed his eyes shut. He did not have enough air to cry out. His ears were ringing, and everything around him seemed to grow distant and hazy.
Suddenly, through the fog, he heard Tmalion's voice, steady and authoritative. "Leave him alone, Tnaka."
In a rush air returned to his lungs as Tnaka released his grip.
"I don't want to fight you," the Power told Tmalion.
"You're going to have to," Tmalion replied.
"Gideone may be nothing, but you're the father of my wife."
"A wife you forced to marry you," Tmalion countered, a hard look on his face. "You can't expect to subject my kingdom and run roughshod over the people of Lairannare and not have to fight for the privilege."
Tnaka opened his mouth to say something, but the words caught in his throat. With his sword arm hanging at his side, he stood and simply looked at Tmalion.
* * *
Provenna stood in the corridor outside the tower. Her whole body trembled with rage. Tmalion and all who fought for him would pay for what they had done; she swore it. She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. She heard the sound of feet pounding against the stone floor and, looking up, saw Orion running toward her.
"Orion!" she cried, "Where have you..." but her voice trailed off as he drew close and she saw the look of raw, visceral hatred in his eyes. Her face grew completely white, and a scream escaped her lips. She turned and fled.
* * *
"Please, listen to me," Tnaka pleaded. "I never wanted to do you any harm. I never meant to do Eagle any harm. I never wanted to do any harm to anyone."
"'Tis too late for apologies," Tmalion answered as he raised his sword.
Tnaka started as a scream suddenly rang out from nearby within the palace. He cast a quick glance at where Provenna had disappeared; it must have been her.
Tmalion took advantage of the momentary diversion and charged Tnaka. The Power started and barely had time to raise his sword before Tmalion was upon him.
"Stop this!" Tnaka shouted. He tried to strike Tmalion down with magic, but the elven mage was a much stronger opponent than Gideone had been and deflected the blow.
Gideone snatched his sword up from where it lay on the ground and ran to join Tmalion. "I have no time for this," Tnaka said.
"Then make time," Gideone growled.
The elven Power answered by throwing Gideone roughly to the ground with magic. Tmalion attacked him with renewed vigor, but Tnaka defended himself just long enough to give himself an opportunity to dash to the tower door. He slipped through it and caused the stone to crumble behind him, sealing off the door and preventing Tmalion from giving chase.
He flew down the tower's twisting stairs until he reached the first door. He ran out into the corridor beyond and looked wildly around for Provenna. She was nowhere to be seen, but he could hear the sound of feet striking the floor. As he looked down the corridor he caught a glimpse of Orion disappearing around a corner. A cry escaped his lips as he realized what was happening, and he took off with all his might down the corridor after the retreating warrior.
Tnaka skidded around the corner and, once again, could see Orion before him.
"Orion!" he cried, in a desperate attempt to stop the wild warrior, but Orion did not slacken his pace.
"Orion!" Tnaka howled again.
A figure stepped out from one of the side passages and barred his path. Tnaka skidded to a halt and stared up in surprise as he saw who blocked his way. It was Eagle. She stood, feet planted, sword in hand, jaw set firm.
"Get out of the way!" he cried desperately as he saw Orion disappear around another corner.
Her voice was steady and her face filled with determination as she said, "Tnaka, leave him alone."
* * *
Aeneas paced back and forth near the main entrance of the palace, every so often casting a quick glance up in hopes of catching sight of Nightfall. The clash of steel and the cries of men rang in his ears so loud it seemed the battle was being waged right outside the doors.
Aeneas reached one end of the huge, intricately carved set of doors then spun around and walked back the other way.
"Where is he?" he muttered.
He reached the other end of the doors and immediately turned and started back. He had almost reached the other side when, behind him, he heard a soft thumping. Spinning, he found himself looking at Nightfall galloping up the corridor toward him.
"Did you find her?" the young prince cried, but, even as he did so, he saw that Mystia was not with the griffin.
Nightfall skidded to a halt, and for a moment the two simply looked at each other.
"Now what do we do?" Aeneas finally demanded.
"Calm yourself," the griffin said. He cocked his head to one side. "We have to think. She’s not in the dungeon..."
"Or the harem..."
"Or anywhere in between, as near as we can tell. So, she’s either dead or held somewhere that we have yet to find."
"This is hopeless," Aeneas moaned, slumping against the wall.
"'Tis not hopeless. We have simply to think harder."
"What good will thinking do?" Aeneas demanded. "You yourself said she's not in the dungeon. She has to be dead then; where else would my father keep a High Elf?" He stopped suddenly, and he and Nightfall looked at each other.
"The temple!" they exclaimed together.
* * *
Mystia struggled against Kozan as he dragged her through the twisting, torch-lit corridors of Balor's Temple. The sounds of the battle, seemingly far off, still filled the place, echoing off the cold, stone walls. A choked sob of fear escaped Mystia as they emerged from a hallway into the sanctuary of the temple.
The pyramid of steps leading up to the altar towered over her. Kozan began to ascend, Mystia struggling against him the whole time, her legs scraping against the stone steps, her fingers clawing for any sort of anchor. In a moment they reached the top, and Kozan threw her onto the altar. King Ibrahim's staff was knocked from the foot of the altar and went clattering to the ground.
Kozan held her fast and chained first one hand, then the other. She kicked at him as he tried to chain her legs. He grabbed her bare ankle, and she howled in pain as he twisted her leg hard and chained it also. She kicked at him one last desperate time with her free leg, but that too he took and chained.
For a moment, he stood, breathing heavily, looking down upon her.
"Kozan, please," she begged, "stop. Let me go."
She pulled against the chains. Her whole body was shaking, and her breast rose and fell with great, sobbing breaths.
"No," he murmured and shut his eyes and turned away. His voice rose. "You must be sacrificed."
* * *
"What are you doing?" Tnaka cried in horror at his wife.
"Defending Orion," she answered, her gray eyes flashing.
Tnaka tried to step past her, but she held her sword up and blocked his path. "If you want to kill Orion, you have to kill me first."
"But he's going to kill her." There was desperation in his voice.
"You did nothing when Provenna treated him with gross injustice. Why should you rush to her aid when she faces the consequences? I don’t want to fight you," she told him, her voice trembling, "but if I have to I will."
He struck her sword, trying to knock it from her hands. "You don’t know what you're doing."
She lunged at him forcing him to jump back. "I know exactly what I do! You yourself said he's the son of Phyre. How can you even think of killing him when you know what death will do to him?"
Tnaka struck at her. "If he kills Provenna, Lairannare is doomed!"
She could not hide her incredulity. "Look around you. We're already doomed and dying, and it's Provenna's doing, and Kozan's doing, and yours."
"It's not true," Tnaka denied as he tried to run forward. As he did so Eagle sent her sword slicing through the air and nicked his chin. The pain of the wound and the undeniable reality that Eagle had inflicted it brought him up short. He could feel the blood pouring down his face and neck, and he could feel poison entering his body. The poison he banished with a wordless, motionless spell, but his horror remained.
Eagle's voice trembled, but her face was filled with determination. "I said leave him alone."
* * *
Provenna ran through the corridors of the palace, her slippered feet making but a faint sound against the stone floor. Her breath came in short, quick gasps, and she cast terrified glances behind her. She had managed to evade Orion, but with every step she expected him to suddenly leap out from behind a corner and slay her.
She rounded a corner and found herself in the corridor that ran before the throne room. Her whole body was trembling as she pulled open the great oaken doors. She ran through, then turned around and closed them as softly as possible. She winced when she was not able to keep them from booming shut.
She stood, gasping for breath, sweat dripping down her face, her back pressed against the doors. The beating of her heart began to slow, and she started to breath more easily. Was this not her palace and her throne room? Was she not a Power? What had she to fear? She walked across the floor and made her way toward her crystal throne.
She was just mounting the dais when she heard something pound against the great doors behind her. She spun around. Even as she did so, the doors were thrown open, and a sharp cry escaped her lips as Orion entered the room. His clothes were torn, and his body was covered with dirt and blood–both his and that of others. In his hands he bore a huge battle-axe. His auburn hair fell wildly around his face, and he looked up at her with cold, blue eyes filled with murder.
* * *
Aeneas crouched low upon Nightfall's back as they sped across the city. The rain had stopped, and now the sky was simply filled with mist. Every now and then a low rumble of distant thunder would pierce the sounds of war. Before him, Aeneas could see the temple of Balor rising ominously into the gray sky. With each beat of Nightfall's wings they drew closer, but they flew not fast enough for the young prince.
"Hurry," he whispered.
Finally, the temple was below them, and Nightfall, lifting his voice up in a shrieking cry, began to descend. The top of the temple was composed of many levels and balconies, and it was difficult to find any doors leading to the interior. The griffin landed at the topmost level of the temple roof, for it was the widest and most open.
Aeneas slid off and the griffin spoke. "If we split up we’ll have a better chance of finding her."
Aeneas nodded. "All right." Before he could say another word, the griffin leapt into the air and sped off toward the main entrance of the temple.
* * *
Mystia looked up in terror at Kozan. He stood over her, his jaw clenched tightly shut, as he looked down at her with cold, unfeeling eyes.
"Let the ceremony begin," he murmured.
The princess pulled desperately against the chains which held her. There was a spell to break bonds, but terror had driven it from her mind. What was it?
Kozan opened his mouth and began. "Powerful is Balor and mightily he conquers." Mystia turned her head away as he stretched his hands out over her. "Feel the fire of his power."
At those words, pain filled her body. It was like a searing fire that emanated from her heart and spread across her body to the very tips of her hands and feet. Her iron bonds dug deep into her skin as her whole body convulsed.
"Joretham!" she shrieked. "Stop it!" But the pain only grew. It would not throw her into unconsciousness, so she was forced to endure, writhing and twisting beneath it, screaming in agony, begging for mercy. "Stop it, Kozan!"
Suddenly, she felt his hand upon her cheek–so cool against her burning skin–and slowly the pain began to die away. She lay, trembling in terror, sobbing softly. She looked up at him with tearful black eyes.
"Please let me go," she pleaded.
He laughed bitterly and pulled his hand from her cheek. "The pain you feel is not that great."
He added softly, "Not as great as what I feel."
She burst into tears and strained against her bonds. What was the spell?
Kozan bent and picked up a jar of oil which lay on the ground beside the altar. With trembling hands he opened it and dipped the fingers of his right hand into it. Mystia shuddered slightly as he reached his hand out to her and ran his fingers across her forehead.
"Clean of mind," he murmured.
He hesitated, then touched her lips. "Free of blasphemies." His fingers lingered for a moment longer before he finally drew them back and reached for the dagger on his belt. He held it up, and Mystia nearly choked when she saw it.
"No," she groaned. She pulled against her chains–if only she could remember the spell.
He reached out with his left hand–it was trembling–and forced her to turn her head so her right cheek was exposed. She struggled against him, but he held her firm.
"Great Balor," he said softly, "we give you the blood of your enemy."
She sobbed as out of the corner of her eye she saw him bring the knife to her cheek. She felt its blade against her skin, and gave a choking cry as he pierced her with it. He dragged it across her skin carving the symbol of Balor into her cheek.
Finally, he let go of her, and, sobbing, she turned her face from him. Pain shot through her head, and she could feel the blood pouring down her cheek. She yanked against the chains; Joretham, what was the spell?
Her eyes widened as she saw Kozan raise the knife above her, and for a moment she could do nothing save stare at him. Then she began screaming in terror, crying out unintelligible words in a desperate hope that somehow the words of the spell would just spill out.
Instead of the cold, blade of the dagger digging into her chest, she felt Kozan's lips upon her neck. Terror gave way to fury, and she howled in rage. She could feel his hands upon her breast and his tongue upon her skin. He held her tightly, half lying upon her, pressing her against the altar, covering her with his saliva. She could feel his hands running across her body, touching her breasts and her hips and traveling down her legs. She could feel his hands upon her thighs as he pushed aside the skirt of her dress.
"Joretham!" she shrieked. "Help me!"
As if in answer to her cries, she suddenly remembered the words to the spell. With all her might she screamed them out over and over again. Her shackles flew apart, and she pushed Kozan from her with all her strength. As she sprang from the altar Kozan reached out in a desperate attempt to pull her back.
Running from him, the princess looked wildly around for some way to escape. Her gaze fell upon her father's staff, which lay upon the floor. She leapt toward it, Kozan close behind her. She snatched it from the ground and, spinning, struck him with it. More from luck than any conscious attempt on her part to cast a spell, a blinding flash of light ignited from the staff as it connected with the king. Kozan went flying backwards. He landed at the edge of the topmost step and rolled down several steps before he caught himself.
He scrambled to his feet and walked back up to the top. Mystia stood ready, her father's staff in hand, the diamond in its head shining bright with magic light. Her flowing white dress was torn, and her body trembled, but her black eyes flashed with determination.
Kozan's lips curled in a sneer. "So, the little wench can use magic."
"I am no wench," Mystia said, her hands tightening around the staff, "and I’m not your slave. I am the princess of Nor, and if you dare come near me I swear I’ll kill you."
* * *
Nightfall swooped down and landed upon the steps of the Temple of Balor. Men were battling in the street below, but they paid no heed to the griffin. He turned toward the main entrance of the temple and began to walk up the steps. As he drew closer, he noticed the two statues of the Baltuil standing guard. They stood even taller than he, their granite faces twisted in hideous grins as they stared out with unblinking, ruby eyes that glowed red with evil. His steps grew smaller and smaller the closer he drew to them until he stopped all together and simply stared up at them. They seemed so lifelike, as if they were ready to spring upon him the moment they saw him. He shook his head and tried to banish the thought.
With a flick of his tail and head held high he walked forward. He could feel their gaze upon him, and it made his fur stand on end. He passed from under them as quickly as he could then paused briefly to let out a long breath before continuing forward.
He had gone not three steps when he suddenly heard a noise behind him. He stopped short not daring to move as he heard a great cracking and creaking behind him, followed by the sound of stone scraping against stone. Slowly, he turned his head. His eyes grew wide and a slight squeak escaped him as he saw the Baltuil–alive–standing behind him. They crouched low to the ground, their granite lips curled back to reveal granite teeth, their glowing red eyes narrowed and fixed upon him.
With snapping snarls they sprang toward him. He shrieked in terror and jumped away, then turned to flee into the temple. One of the monsters growled and lunged toward him. Nightfall shrieked as he was thrown hard to the ground. He could see the beast raise a giant stone paw above his head, and a croaking cry of pain escaped him as his wing was crushed beneath the Baltuil's paw.
The griffin tried to scramble to his feet, but his wing was held by the stone monster. He lay upon his back, eyes wide with terror. With all his might he clawed at the Baltuil. His claws scraped against the stone, not even leaving a scratch.
The second Baltuil slowly approached. His hideous stone face was twisted in an evil grin of delight as he drew back a paw and struck Nightfall hard across the head. The griffin looked weakly up at his attackers and could see the second one raise its paw to deal him the final blow. He watched in terror as the paw came crashing down through the air toward him.
Then, a shrieking cry filled his ears. He saw something red streak through the air toward the Baltuil; with a loud snarl it rammed into the second monster, knocking it to the ground, barely saving Nightfall from being struck.
The first Baltuil turned in surprise toward the attacker and let go of Nightfall. The griffin struggled painfully to his feet and looked to see who had saved him.
Before him he could see Glorious Dawn crouching, her black eyes narrowed as she looked up at the two creatures, a low growl coming from her throat. With a snarl, the monsters charged her.
"Dawn!" Nightfall cried as he ran to help her, his wing dragging useless behind him.
Glorious Dawn leapt into the air even as the Baltuil lashed out at her. She hissed as she saw Nightfall leap toward the stone creatures.
"Fool!" she cried. "Run!" But even as she did so, the Baltuil turned and lunged toward him. Dawn struck one of them hard across the face, and it turned and lashed out toward her. She landed and bounded quickly out of the temple and onto the open steps leading to the entrance. The Baltuil, his teeth bared, chased after her.
Nightfall was struck once more to the ground by the other monster, and he scrambled to his feet, trying desperately not to be struck again. He turned and fled the temple, the Baltuil close on his heels.
Dawn leapt up high into the air. With a shriek, she turned and sped down toward the creature chasing Nightfall. Hissing, it faced her. She crashed into it, sending them both sprawling to the ground. As she scrambled to her feet she could see Nightfall running back to help.
"Run!" she cried. For a moment he hesitated.
"Run!" she shrieked as she leapt once more into the air. The Baltuil leapt toward her, and she hissed as his claws dug into her. With a snarling roar it pulled her back to the ground as the other monster charged to his aid. With all his might, Nightfall rammed into the Baltuil holding her. The stone monster went tumbling forward, and Dawn leapt to her feet.
"Nightfall, come!" she screamed. She turned and began to make her way down the steps toward the street, stopping every moment to look back to see if Nightfall was following.
The black griffin jumped to his feet and turned to chase after Glorious Dawn. The fallen Baltuil gave a snapping snarl and, twisting, clawed at him, barely missing his hind leg. The standing creature charged after him, but Nightfall paid no heed. He ran after Dawn with all his might, and together they galloped down the remaining steps and charged into the crowd of battling men. The Baltuil sped after them, sending soldiers fleeing in terror.
"Dawn!" Nightfall huffed as he ran. "Why are you here?"
"To help you of course."
Glorious Dawn's eyes sparkled as she continued. "Lyght has turned. Even now he’s racing here to save Princess Mystia."
She laughed as she continued charging forward. "Is it not wonderful?"
* * *
Kozan looked at Mystia gauging his options. Then, with one quick motion, he drew his sword. His lips curled up in a sneer. "If the little wench wishes to battle far be it from me to refuse."
Mystia's face paled, but she held her staff ready.
Kozan did not even bother to raise his sword but simply walked toward her. The princess, trying to keep calm, slowly backed away. Her feet were bare and she could feel every chink and crack in the cold hard stones beneath her.
Kozan laughed. "You'll have to fight better than that."
Even as he spoke Mystia gasped as she stepped back but found no stone beneath her. Her foot fell back to the step beneath her, but her balance was lost. Even as she struggled to regain it, Kozan struck her with a blast of magic, throwing her backward.
She struck the ground hard and rolled down the stairs. She struggled to stop herself and hold onto her staff at the same time. She could see Kozan leaping down the steps after her, and with a growl she scrambled to her feet and spun to face him. He was almost upon her. With all her might, she sent her staff smashing into him, and he howled in pain as he was thrown back. The princess gave him no chance to rise but charged, striking her staff against his head. With a cry, he held his hand up to shield himself.
Mystia tried to strike him again, but as she did so, he reached out and grabbed her ankle. She started and jumped away, but not before pain shot through her leg. She stumbled and sank to the ground. Clutching at her ankle, she looked up in anger and fear as Kozan rose.
"We," he spat as he reached out and grabbed her by the arm, "have unfinished business."
He started to drag her up the steps. The staff tumbled from her hands and clattered down the steps to the ground far below. With a cry she wrenched herself from his grasp. Kozan snarled and lunged after her, but the princess evaded his grasp and ran down the steps, crying out a healing spell as she did so. When she reached the bottom the pain in her leg was entirely gone.
She leapt toward her staff, grabbed it, and spun to face the dark king. His face was twisted in a snarling cry of fury as, sword raised, he rushed toward her. In a blinding flash of magic, they crashed together.
* * *
Provenna gripped the back of her crystal throne tightly and looked in terror at Orion as he walked across the wide, empty floor toward the dais. He held his huge battle-axe ready. His hair, matted with blood and sweat, hung wildly around his shoulders, and he was covered with wounds, dirt, and blood.
"Orion, what are you doing?" Provenna asked with a trembling voice.
"What I should have done a long time ago," Orion hissed. "I’m going to kill Kozan, Tnaka, Aeneas, and Phyre, but first–" his blue eyes flashed–"I’m going to kill you."
Her grip on the throne tightened.
"But, Orion," she pleaded, "I’m your mother."
Orion's eyes narrowed. "Tell that to the scars on my back. Or tell that to Mystia whose soul you wear upon your finger."
"But Orion...” She stopped short as she realized what he had said.
"I never..." she began as she looked down at her hand. As her gaze fell upon the ring, she suddenly realized what it was.
She looked up at Orion, her green eyes wide, as he continued toward her. Then she looked back down at the ring. Her mind turned back to the day she had conferred with Zenas and he had told her that perhaps a High Elf could touch her son with magic.
Orion was almost upon her. She threw her hand out toward him and channeled all her magic strength through the ring. A blast of fiery, blue-white light shot through the air and struck Orion in the chest. He howled as he was thrown back across the throne room. His axe went flying from his hand, and he struck the doors of the room and fell to the floor.
For a moment he lay, clutching at his chest, staring in astonishment at her. He struggled to his feet and reached for his axe, which lay on the ground nearby.
"I know not how you did that," he said softly, still struggling to breathe, "but if you think that’s going to stop me, then you’re mistaken."
He started to run forward, only to again cry out in pain as he was struck once more to the ground.
"You little fool!" Provenna cried as she walked to him. "Did you think you could kill me?" She struck him again with her magic. "Did you actually try to murder me–I who am the ruler of the whole Realm of Earth?"
Orion lashed out at her but convulsed as he was struck once again. He struggled to rise but could not. Provenna's magic filled his body, sending pain shooting through him. He clawed at his chest in a desperate attempt to somehow battle the power which held him. His skin scraped against the stone of the floor as he struggled to rise, but his mother's magic held him fast. There was nothing he could do but lie upon the floor and howl in agony as it took hold of him.
* * *
Mystia’s staff fell from her hands as she clutched at her chest. Pain filled her, shooting out from deep within her into every part of her body, threatening to overcome her. She sank to her knees, her eyes wide with agony.
Kozan looked scornfully down at her and kicked her hard, sending her sprawling. She lay upon her stomach, her whole body trembling.
"Stop," she groaned.
Her body shook with sobs.
"Stop," she murmured again, but it seemed not to be Kozan she pleaded with.
The dark king looked down upon her and held his sword above her head, but he hesitated, uncertain what to do. He looked up at the altar high above him then back down at the princess who lay at his feet. She seemed not to see him, but lay sobbing, clutching at her breast. Her long, black hair fell all around her, and dark red blood flowed from her wounds.
He could feel the sacrificial dagger where he had shoved it in his belt. He clutched the hilt with his left hand and slowly drew it. He looked at the blade, shining orange in the light of the torches, then down at Mystia. His face hardened in a look of anger. Had not Orion stolen his wives from him? Was it not then right for him to take Orion's woman?
He dropped the dagger and fell to his knees.
"No," Mystia groaned as he pulled her to him, but she had not the strength to struggle; the pain which held her threatened to sink her into unconsciousness.
"Joretham," she murmured as she felt his hands upon her.
"Kozan!" The cry rang through the sanctuary.
She opened her eyes and saw the Dark Sorcerer running down the steps toward her. His sword was drawn, and a look of fury filled his face.
Kozan pushed Mystia from him, and she rolled onto her stomach and for a moment simply lay there. Finally, with her palms pressed to the floor, she rose to her knees. She heard a terrifying crash as Kozan and the Sorcerer clashed together.
"Run, Mystia!" the Sorcerer cried.
His words seemed to fill her with new strength, and she staggered to her feet and began to run. She heard Kozan cry out, and she screamed as pain suddenly shot through her leg. She stumbled and fell. Looking down she saw the hilt of the sacrificial dagger buried in her leg. Gasping, she pulled the blade from her leg. The pain knocked her to the floor, and she lay trembling, unable to move.
She heard the clang of steel upon steel as Kozan and the Sorcerer battled.
She forced herself to sit up. Blood was pouring from the wound. She held her hand over it and cried out the words of a healing spell. Over and over she repeated them, but the wound would not close all the way.
"Run!" the Sorcerer cried again.
Sobbing, she struggled to her feet and began to limp away as quickly as she could. She staggered and stumbled across the floor of the sanctuary until she reached the wall. A cry of relief escaped her lips as, in the shadows, she caught sight of a door. She ran through it into the dark corridors beyond.
Before her the din of the battle raging outside grew stronger, but that was preferable to what lay behind. She continued forward, stumbling through the corridors and up flights of stairs, until she could no longer hear Kozan or the Sorcerer. Her breath came in short, terrified gasps. Blood poured from her wounds, and she could feel the sting of sweat entering them. Her long, black hair fell down in front of her eyes, and she tried to brush it away only to have her fingers get tangled in it. She tripped upon the long white skirt of her dress, but she caught herself and continued forward. The cries of the battle outside were very near now, but she could hardly hear them over the beating of her heart and the sound of her own breathing.
She plunged through a door and unexpectedly found herself standing in the cold, gray light of outside. She looked in wild bewilderment around her. The cries of men filled her ears. Smoke filled the sky, and all around her she could see eagles and harpies speeding through the sky. The cold wind rushed over her.
She stopped running, not knowing where to go, and looked up. The rest of the temple rose high above her, and she could see no way to get down, other than going back the way she had come. She held herself tightly as she began to shiver with cold.
She stood up a little straighter as the normal discordant jumble of noises associated with battle slowly began to change into one, uniform cry of surprise and then panic. At first she could not tell what brought the change, but her eyes grew wide and her mouth fell as she turned and saw a gigantic dragon rise up into the sky. His innards swirled with billowing smoke and raging white and orange flames.
For a moment she looked silently up at the huge, terrifying dragon, then she fell to the ground and burst into tears.
* * *
All movement left Aeneas, and for a moment he could do nothing save gaze up in amazement at the fiery dragon in the sky above. He had never seen anything like it. The creature spread his wings to their full extent and, with a roar, began speeding across the city toward the temple.
Aeneas turned and fled. He had made his way down from the roof, and now he ran across a long, open balcony, searching desperately for a door leading into the temple. There was no wall or barrier of any kind to keep people from falling off the balcony, and Aeneas yelped in surprise as he reached the corner and almost went charging over the edge. He screeched to a halt and tumbled to the ground, rolling over the floor until finally he stopped with his chest pressed against the floor and his shoulders and head hanging out over empty space.
He gasped and, for a moment, dared not move. He could feel himself growing dizzy, and he took a deep breath before slowly beginning to inch his way back. As he did so, he looked down at the lower levels of the temple and caught sight of a woman far below on the lowest roof of the temple.
She was far away, and he could discern little detail. As he leaned forward to get a better look, he almost succeeded in sending himself tumbling into the empty air. He scrambled back and to his feet and cast one last look down at the woman below him. He could see none of her features save her long black hair, but he knew it had to be Princess Mystia.
He turned, looking frantically around for a way to get down to her, and caught sight of a door leading into the temple. He leapt toward it and disappeared into the darkness beyond.
* * *
Mystia hugged herself tightly as she sat upon the ground and leaned against the wall of the temple. Her whole body shook with great sobs of terror and anguish. Above her she could see Phyre circling the temple. She wanted to run, but she dared not enter the temple again so she pressed herself even closer against the wall and hoped against hope that he would not see her.
She groaned softly, for the pain within her had not abated; if anything, it had grown.
"Orion," she sobbed. At times, if she closed her eyes, she could see him, lying upon the ground, convulsing in pain, his cries of agony echoing faintly in her head. She covered her ears with her hands, but still she could hear them.
"Stop it," she sobbed, but still they continued.
She looked up again, and shuddered at the sight of Phyre still circling in the sky above. He was searching for her, she knew, but there was nowhere for her to hide.
Suddenly, she heard the sound of feet pounding against the stones of the floor. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth fell open as she saw, running toward her, a man dressed in armor made of red dragon scales.
"Orion?" she cried, but, even as she did so, she looked at his face and saw he could not possibly be Orion.
"Mystia!" he yelled as he ran to her.
She pressed herself tightly against the wall. "Who are you?"
Gasping for breath, he stopped before her. "I'm Aeneas, Orion's brother. I'm here to rescue you."
She looked at him in confusion.
He reached out and took her by the arm. "Just come."
He turned and began to run across the wide stone balcony. The princess allowed herself to be pulled after him, but when she saw he was running toward the door of the temple she stopped short in terror.
He turned to her and pulled at her arm. "Come on!"
Her whole body trembled, and she was too frightened to speak. Shaking her head, she began to back away.
"Mystia!" Aeneas cried and jumped after her. He stopped short and looked up at the sky, a mixture of surprise and fear upon his face.
Mystia spun around, and her eyes grew wide as she was met by the sight of Phyre towering above her, gazing down upon her with glowing red eyes. He gave a roar that shook the temple to its foundation and dove down through the air toward her. She screamed and turned to run. Aeneas grabbed her arm and pulled her quickly toward him. He pushed her behind him and, drawing his sword, faced the fiery dragon.
For a moment he stood petrified with terror, but as the dragon drew nearer, his senses returned to him. Realizing he did not stand a chance against the beast, he turned to follow Mystia who had already fled.
He cried out in anger when he saw that, instead of running back into the temple, she had turned and run down the balcony. As he charged after her, he heard a loud crash behind him. He fell to the floor as the whole temple was shaken and threw his arms over his head to protect himself from the rocks that were falling through the air. He looked back to find a huge portion of the wall and balcony destroyed. But it was still possible to get back to the door. If he could only get Mystia, he could still bring her to safety.
He scrambled to his feet just as Phyre sprang up from the rubble of the building. Aeneas stood, breathing heavily, not knowing what he should do. He watched as Phyre sped up through the sky and prepared to dive back down again.
Through the cries and screams of battle there broke another roar–a deep, growling sound that spread across the whole city. Aeneas started and looked wildly around, for the sound had not come from Phyre. His mouth fell open with surprise as in the sky he saw a second dragon–a creature at least as large as Phyre and with a body made entirely of the clearest crystal. This new beast sped through the air, claws outstretched, toward his fiery opponent. With a hissing snarl, Phyre plunged down through the air toward Lyght, and they crashed together in the sky above the city.
* * *
Kozan brought his sword smashing down upon the Dark Sorcerer. The clang of steel against steel rang through the sanctuary. Slowly they circled each other, their eyes burning and their swords pressed together. The Sorcerer grunted, picked up his foot, and sent it slamming into Kozan's knee. The king howled in pain and stumbled back.
The Sorcerer sliced his sword through the air toward Kozan, but Kozan held up his hand. There was a blinding flash of light, and the Sorcerer was thrown backward. He struck the ground with a hard thud, and his sword went sliding across the floor.
Shaking his head, he struggled to his feet only to see Kozan charging toward him. He looked wildly around for his sword, and found King Ibrahim's staff lying a few feet away. He lunged for it and, holding it like a club, spun around to strike the king. Kozan raised his sword to ward off the blow but was only partially successful. He reeled, but did not fall.
The Sorcerer struck him again, and Kozan's sword flew from his hands. With a cry, the dark king lunged forward and grabbed the end of the staff. His face twisted in fury as he sent his magic coursing through the staff and into the Dark Sorcerer. The Sorcerer's eyes widened, and he slowly sank to his knees, letting go of the staff as he did so. Kozan took the staff in both hands and, with all his might, struck the Sorcerer across the head with it.
The Sorcerer groaned and fell to the ground. He struggled to rise, but Kozan kicked him hard in the side and sent him back to the floor. He rolled over and found his sword lying by his hand. He grabbed it. With a grunt he scrambled once more to his feet and faced Kozan. "It’ll take more than that to kill me."
* * *
Tnaka gasped for breath and stared at Eagle who still blocked his path. She also breathed heavily, but she gave no other sign of tiring. Her long blonde bangs hung down in front of her face, and from beneath them she looked up with determined, gray eyes. Tnaka knew not what to do. He did not want to hurt her, yet he needed to pass. So he fought her, though he used neither magic nor all the skill he possessed with the sword, but Eagle was such a skilled fighter that with neither of those two assets he was unable to defeat her.
"Eagle," he begged, "let me through."
Her eyes narrowed. "Over my dead body."
“Stop this!” Her face twisted in frustration, and her eyes filled with tears. "Think of our child."
Tnaka ran forward and their swords clashed together. "I do think of him! Why do you think I do what I do?"
"I know not why you do it. But I know you do it neither for him nor for me."
She swung at him, and her blade just nicked his shoulder. He could feel poison enter his body, and he pushed it back with his magic.
"If Orion lives Lairannare will be destroyed," he told her.
"Provenna and Kozan have ravaged Lairannare, and you never stopped them. I know you’ve at least some honor left. If you kill anyone kill Provenna, but leave Orion alone."
Tnaka swung at her. "Let me through!"
* * *
Mystia looked around, dazed. Phyre and Lyght battled above the city, slashing and clawing at each other and sinking their teeth deep into each other. Fire poured down from Phyre's wounds onto the streets of the city. The bloodthirsty roars of the two dragons shook the temple. Mystia groaned and held her hands over her ears, but still she could hear their terrible cries.
She turned to walk away and found herself standing at the edge of the balcony. There was a low stone wall to keep people from falling off the edge, and behind that empty space–and the sea far below. The choppy, gray waves were tipped with white, and foam sprayed through the air as the waves crashed together. She leaned against the wall and stared down at the water; her pain and exhaustion were such that she could do nothing else. She pressed one hand against her breast.
"Orion," she murmured.
She could hear the sound of someone approaching, and she could feel somebody's hand upon her arm. She was pulled gently away from the edge of the balcony.
"Come, Mystia," Aeneas said. "We have to get away from here."
She looked at him in confusion. She could barely hear what he said. He did not bother to repeat himself but held her hand and began to lead her along the balcony back to the door of the temple. She limped after him; the pain in her leg was almost unbearable, but that was nothing compared to the pain that gripped her soul. With a soft groan she stumbled and fell to the ground. Aeneas turned and knelt by her side. He reached out to help her rise, but she pushed him away.
"Leave me alone," she moaned.
She curled up into a ball and with a choked sob murmured, "Just leave me alone."
Then even softer she said, "I want Orion."
* * *
Orion knelt upon the ground with his palms pressed against the floor. His long, auburn hair fell down over his face. He struggled to rise but, as soon as he did, was thrown once more to the ground by Provenna's magic. He rolled onto his back and gasped for breath.
"Mystia," he groaned.
His mother laughed a cold, spiteful laugh. "You’ve your little mistress to thank for this."
Orion gave a strangled cry; he felt as if every bone in his body was broken.
"You could’ve returned to me," Provenna spat. "You could have been my son again. You could have been the prince of the whole Realm of Earth! You could have had any other woman you wanted. But no! You had to have her!" She struck him again and her lips curled up in a sneer. "Who would have thought 'twould be through her you died?"
Orion's spectral eyes flashed as he looked up at her, and, with a growl, he began to rise once more. She lashed out at him with all the magic she possessed, but he managed to struggle to his knees. Against the pain he struggled forward toward his mother. She was toying with him–torturing him–but she would regret not killing him.
* * *
The Dark Sorcerer lunged toward Kozan. Their swords crashed together, and they circled each other, sweat pouring from their brows as they stared into each other's eyes. Kozan's lips curled up in a sneer.
"You love her," he laughed.
"Do you think love’s the only reason I’d fight you?" the Sorcerer demanded as their swords clashed together again. "What about revenge? Revenge for the murder of my father and the oppression of my country!" His face twisted in fury as he sent his magic rushing into Kozan. "Revenge for the plunder of my kingdom and my position!"
Kozan growled low as he struggled against the Sorcerer's spell.
"Do you think I care?" he hissed.
The Sorcerer struck him hard. "You will when I finish with you!" Kozan reeled beneath the blow. "I’m Darus; Delovachia is my kingdom, and I swear you'll pay for what you've done to it."
Kozan regained his balance and rushed toward the Dark Sorcerer, and they both went tumbling to the floor.
"Another day perhaps," Kozan growled as he struck the Sorcerer with a huge blast of magic. The Sorcerer cried out in pain and struggled against the magic holding him. Kozan rose to his feet and raised his sword. He sent it slicing down toward the Dark Sorcerer who barely managed to roll out of the way. He slammed his foot into Kozan's knee, and the king stumbled back with a cry of pain. The Dark Sorcerer scrambled to his feet and rushed toward the king Kozan opened his mouth in a howl of fury and threw his hand out toward him.
The Sorcerer’s sword slipped from his hands and went clattering to the floor. Clutching at his chest, he stumbled and fell to his knees. He felt as if a hand was grasping his heart with a slowly tightening grip. He gave a slight choking sound and fell completely to the ground.
He saw Kozan approaching and reached weakly for his sword as he rolled onto his back. Kozan stood above him, sword raised. With a cry, the king let it fall toward the Sorcerer. The Dark Sorcerer raised his arm and gave a strangled cry of pain as Kozan's blade sliced through it just below the elbow. The severed part fell to the ground where it lay, the fingers twitching.
Kozan raised his sword again and stabbed it through the Sorcerer's stomach. The Sorcerer's mouth opened but no sound came as the dark king twisted the blade hard then withdrew it.
"Die slowly," he growled as he stepped over him and walked toward the door through which Mystia had run.
* * *
With one arm Aeneas held Mystia tightly around the waist, half-carrying her, as he made his way across the roof of the temple toward the door. He looked nervously up at the two dragons as they battled in the sky, Phyre ever trying to get to the temple and Lyght ever keeping him back.
Mystia groaned softly and whispered Orion's name, and Aeneas looked down in concern at her. She shivered as the cold wind struck her. Her torn, bloodstained dress had slipped from her shoulders and barely covered her breasts. Her body was covered with bruises and streaked with dirt, blood, and sweat. Her mouth was open slightly as she took shallow breaths, and blood trickled from the side of it. Her eyes were closed, and Aeneas doubted she was even aware of what was happening around her.
As another roar broke from Phyre‘s mouth, Aeneas turned and looked once more up at the sky.
Aeneas started as a voice filled with surprise and fear suddenly broke through the cries of battle and the sound of the wind. He turned and found himself staring at his father who stood in the doorway but a few feet away.
Mystia opened her eyes. When her gaze fell upon Kozan, a look of confusion and despair filled her face.
When Kozan saw it was Aeneas who stood there and not Orion, all fear left his face and his lips turned up in a false smile.
"Aeneas!" he exclaimed. "So, you've come to help your father, have you?" He held out his hand. "Let me have her."
Aeneas let go of Mystia and pushed her behind him. He held up his sword and looked steadily at Kozan. "I came to help my brother."
All hints of a smile left Kozan's face as his features twisted in anger.
"If that’s how you want it," he growled. He threw his hand out, and Aeneas flew backward. His sword spun from his hands, and he hit the ground hard.
Mystia sobbed and began to limp away.
Kozan rushed forward, sword raised above his head. Aeneas squeezed his eyes shut and waited for the deathblow.
Phyre let out a huge roar. The whole temple shook beneath it, and for the first time, Kozan noticed the two dragons battling above his city. For a moment, he could only stare in surprise.
Phyre saw the dark king standing on the roof of the temple, and with a shriek he sent himself slamming into Lyght. He dug his claws deep into the crystal dragon and together they went tumbling down through the sky into the city below. Whole buildings were crushed beneath their huge bodies as they crashed to the ground.
Phyre, the first to recover, dug his claws deep into the crystal dragon's stomach and, pushing off of him, leapt into the air. Lyght struggled to rise, but scarcely had he risen above the buildings when he fell back down into the city.
Phyre sped through the sky toward the temple.
"Demon!" he shrieked. His red eyes burned with bloodlust, and his great fore claws were stretched out toward Kozan. Kozan gathered all of his magic and, with a cry, struck Phyre with the whole force of his power, sending the dragon tumbling backward to the ground.
"How dare you come here!" the Power snarled.
The fiery dragon rose once more into the sky. "You deny me my sacrifice, yet you dare ask why I’ve come here?"
Kozan's eyes flashed with rage. "I worship Balor not you. I owe you no sacrifice."
Phyre opened his mouth in a guttural laugh. "Know you not who it was who heard your prayers to Balor and accepted your sacrifices to Balor and received your praises to Balor?" His hissing voice rose. "'Twas I! 'Twas I Phyre–Norenroth–who gave Balor his power. And 'twas I, Norenroth, who gave you your power. And 'tis I, Norenroth, who takes your power once more from you and returns it to he who first possessed it."
Kozan cried out in anger and sudden fear, but his voice was drowned by Phyre's as the dragon lifted up his voice in a huge shriek. He screamed out strange words, and Kozan clutched at his chest, screaming in pain.
Aeneas scrambled to his feet and stared at his father.
Kozan's face was twisted in a look of agony, and he fell to his knees.
"No!" he screamed. He reached out his hand and tried to strike the fiery dragon down with magic, but nothing happened.
"No," he groaned as he sank completely to the ground.
* * *
The Dark Sorcerer lay on the floor in the vast sanctuary of Balor's temple. He stared weakly up at the ceiling, struggling to overcome the spell which held him, striving to heal the wounds that covered him. He took a deep breath. His eyes seemed to brighten as, lying there near death, he felt magic fill his body–magic from a long time ago, magic that he had thought he would never feel again. It entered his chest and filled him with warmth as it spread throughout his body to the very tips of his hands and feet.
"The Power," he whispered, "the Power." Then, with a sigh, he gave up his life.
* * *
Orion lay curled up in a ball. The stones of the floor were wet with his blood, and his voice was hoarse from screaming in pain. His axe lay only a few feet away, but he had not the strength to reach for it and could only lie, twisting and writhing in agony.
All at once, Provenna shrieked and stopped her torment. For a moment, the warrior lay gasping for breath, then he turned his head and looked up at her. She bent over, clutching at her breast, looking at Orion, her eyes wide with fear. With a groan, he forced himself to his knees and reached for his axe. Provenna held out her hand and tried to strike him down with her magic, but nothing happened.
Orion grabbed his axe and forced himself to his feet. He turned to Provenna, and there was murder in his eyes.
* * *
Tnaka cried out and stumbled forward, Eagle's sword grazing his side as he did so. His own weapon fell from his hands, and he tumbled to the floor.
"Tnaka!" Eagle shrieked as she threw her sword away and fell to her knees beside her husband.
He groaned as she helped him roll over onto his back.
"Are you all right?" she cried.
He gave a slight grin, which turned into a grimace of pain, and he clutched at his wounded side.
"What happened?" Eagle demanded, her voice trembling with fear.
He did not answer but gazed up at her, a look of confusion upon his face.
"Tnaka, answer me!"
* * *
Aeneas picked up his sword and cast a quick glance behind him. Mystia had fallen to the ground a short distance away and now held herself tightly and looked tearfully around.
Phyre roared and lunged toward her. With a wordless cry, Aeneas spun around and ran toward her in a desperate attempt to somehow protect her. Even as he did so, Lyght shot up from the ground and sped toward Phyre. With a snarl he dug his claws deep into the fiery dragon's back, pulling him backward and away from the temple.
Aeneas reached Mystia and started to take her by the arm when he saw her eyes widen and her gaze fix upon something behind him. Letting go of her, he spun around and found his father bearing down upon him. With a yelp, he raised his sword and barely managed to deflect Kozan's blow.
A terrified look of madness filled his father’s eyes.
"Give her to me!" he cried. "I need to kill her!"
Aeneas continued struggling against his father.
"I need my Power; I need to kill her!"
Mystia, in a daze, began to crawl away. Kozan was behind her and Phyre above. She struggled to her feet and continued to limp down the long balcony. The cries of battle surrounded her, and the wind howled around her. Before her she could see the sea–gray and stormy. There was nowhere for her to hide, so she continued on, knowing only that she had to escape.
* * *
Orion took a halting step toward his mother. She looked in terror at him then turned and fled.
His body was filled with pain, but he pushed it away and, with a growl, forced himself to stumble after her.
* * *
Kozan threw Aeneas to the ground and charged after Mystia. The young prince jumped to his feet and dashed after him, but knew he would not reach him in time. He drew back his arm and threw his sword with all his might. It spun, end over end, through the air toward Kozan.
The king cried out and stumbled forward as the sword cut into his leg, and then fell to the ground. Aeneas ran to retrieve his weapon, but Kozan reached out and tripped him. The king was on him in a moment, and the two rolled on the ground, grappling with each other.
* * *
Eagle looked down in horror upon her husband.
"Are you all right?"
His face was filled with pain, and he shook his head slightly. "The blade was tipped with poison."
"But you can heal yourself!" she cried, half hysterical.
He gave a sad smile. "My power is gone."
For a moment she stared at him in disbelief.
"What? No!" She burst into tears.
* * *
Phyre slashed at Lyght's head and tried again to fly toward Mystia, but Lyght dug his claws into his back and forced him to the ground. Fire poured from his wounds, and, with a hiss he opened his mouth and sank his teeth deep into Lyght's neck. The crystal dragon went tumbling backward, struggling desperately to free himself, and he sent his left hind claw scraping along Phyre's stomach. The fiery dragon shrieked in pain and let go of Lyght's neck. With a roar, the crystal dragon lunged forward and slammed into Phyre.
* * *
Mystia reached the end of the balcony and steadied herself against the low wall. The gray sea raged beneath her, the two dragons grappled above her, and Kozan and Aeneas wrestled behind her. She closed her eyes, and her whole body sagged, for she did not know what to do.
* * *
“Let go of me!” Kozan screeched. “I need to kill her!”
He flailed madly at Aeneas as they rolled over and over across the hard stone. The prince tried to hold him down, but desperation lent the king strength, and he slashed and clawed at his son’s face, forcing him on the defensive. Aeneas clutched Kozan’s right wrist. The king twisted frantically, trying to free himself, all the while screaming that he had to kill Mystia.
* * *
The city trembled with the roar that left Phyre’s mouth as he sent his claws smashing into Lyght. The crystal dragon tumbled backward into the city. He tried to rise, but Phyre sped through the sky and smashed into him. Lyght went crashing back into the city and did not rise. Phyre leapt up, and, with a shriek, turned and sped toward the temple.
* * *
Aeneas’ eyes widened as Kozan brought his knee up hard into his stomach, and he groaned as the king smashed his free hand into his face. With a twist, Kozan freed his other hand, then struck Aeneas in the head again before he rolled to his feet and started running after Mystia.
Dizzy, Aeneas rose unsteadily and staggered after his father, but he was too late. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Phyre speeding toward the temple, but even the great dragon could not reach the princess before Kozan.
Mystia watched him charge toward her and stood, stiff and white-faced, not knowing what to do. In a second he was on her, grappling with her, clawing desperately at her throat, and she, shrieking, was struggling to free herself. As they twisted in battle, he fell against the wall, and she pushed him with all her might toward the ocean. He tottered backward, his eyes growing wide as he felt the emptiness taking him. He grabbed hold of Mystia in a desperate attempt to stop his fall. She tried to pull away, but his momentum was too great. Flailing, she tumbled over the wall after him and plummeted toward the grey waters below.
“No!” Aeneas screamed, but his cry was drowned out by the roar that left Phyre’s mouth.
"I will have my sacrifice!" the great dragon snarled as he plunged after her.
There was a huge crash as he struck the water, and he shrieked as water began to enter his wounds. It poured into his body, extinguishing his fire. He struggled desperately to rise, but the water filled him, holding him back. For one moment, he escaped the grip of the waves and tried to fly up to the city, but he had not the strength. He tottered, then, with one final shriek he fell back into the sea and disappeared beneath the waves.
* * *
With a growl of pain, Lyght rolled onto his stomach then leapt up into the air. He flew out over the sea and circled the water, searching for any sign of life.
After a minute, he growled and turned to the north. With his wings beating slow and steady, he began the journey to Leilaora.
* * *
Orion groaned as he chased after Provenna. Pain filled his body, and his axe was heavy in his hands. He stumbled but caught himself and continued forward.
Provenna gasped for breath and looked wildly around, desperately searching for some means of escape, but Orion was close on her heals. She gave a sob, which turned into a cry as she tripped and tumbled to the floor. With a strangled scream, she scrambled to her feet. Orion raised his axe, and, as the queen ran from him, he smashed it into her back. She could not scream but only gasped in surprise as the force of the blow threw her to the floor. Blood splattered everywhere as the blade lodged in her body, and there was a loud crack as her face smashed into the floor. Her hand twitched, then she moved no more.
Orion looked down upon his dead mother and swayed slightly. He took an unsteady step toward her. Even the slightest movement sent pain shooting through his body. He could see Mystia's ring upon Provenna's finger. The red glow within the stone had almost completely died. Painfully, he reached out for it, but as he bent forward, his legs gave way beneath him and, with a groan, he fell to the ground. He lay unmoving, with one hand stretched out toward the ring.
"Mystia," he whispered.
* * *
Eagle cradled her husband's head in her arms and struggled with all her might to overcome the poison within him. Her face was twisted in a look pain and anguish.
"No!" she cried. "No!"
Tears began to flow from her eyes.
Tnaka looked up in confusion at her as he saw the sorrow and desperation within her. In a halting voice he said, "You love me?"
"Yes," she sobbed. "Yes, I love you."
"But I thought you loved Gideone."
Her whole body shook as she wept. "I did once, but not anymore. You’re my husband; I love you." She burst into uncontrollable tears.
"Eagle," Tnaka murmured as he reached up and held his hand to her tear-stained cheek.
"If I’d only told you sooner, but I was too proud." She held onto his hand as the tears flowed down her cheeks. "I didn't want to love you–you were a Power. If only I had told you sooner none of this would have happened."
"Hush, love, hush," he breathed. His face was filled with pain. "Blame not yourself. 'Twas my own fault. You did what you thought was right, and you’re an honorable woman for it."
His arm had grown weak, and his hand fell away from her face. He groaned slightly, and his face contorted in pain. He touched his hand to Eagle's belly and looked weakly up at her.
There was a look of pleading upon his face. "Tell our child about me."
Eagle choked back a sob. "Of course I will."
He gave another groan and clutched at his side.
"Tnaka," Eagle said through her tears.
He looked up at her. His skin was deathly pale and his face was filled with pain, but in his eyes there was a look–difficult to describe–of joy and despair, defeat and hope all at the same time.
Eagle, her gray eyes filled with agony, stared down at him.
He reached up and encircled her neck with his arms, pulling her down to him and pressing his lips to hers. For one moment they lay upon the ground, body to body as he held her tightly to him. The cries and screams of battle echoed all around, but they did not hear them. For one moment, they were together, their spirits as one, desperately in love and yet bidding farewell. Then he let go of her and whispered, "Goodbye, my love."
Eagle opened her mouth but no words would come.
Tnaka smiled at her. He sigh, as his head fell back, and gave up his life.
Eagle looked down upon her husband.
"Tnaka!" she cried and, throwing herself over him, burst into tears.
* * *
Lyght flew through the sky toward Leilaora, his huge, powerful wings bringing him toward it far faster than any other creature could travel. Already he could see the smoke of battle upon the horizon.
Mystia had perished, but perhaps there was yet time to help his son.
* * *
Gideone and Tmalion ran through the halls of the palace. They had managed to enter the palace, but by then Tnaka and Provenna, had both disappeared. They had yet to find either of the two Powers again.
Gideone swore under his breath.
"This is hopeless," he growled. He threw open a nearby door and stepped inside, the king right behind him. He stopped short, and his eyes grew wide. For a moment, both men stared in surprise and horror.
From a rope tied to a beam in the ceiling, hung an old man. His skin was covered with wrinkles. He was dressed in a plain gray robe, and his silver beard fell to his waist. His neck was broken by the noose, and his head was bent to the side. His mouth was open slightly and a small trickle of blood had dried at the corner of it. Zenas had sought peace, but even in death, there was a look of despair upon his face.
Slowly Gideone and Tmalion backed out of the room. They looked at each other, then the prince quietly shut the door.
* * *
Lyght landed within the gardens of the palace. In a swirl of magic dust, his great dragon body disappeared to be replaced with a human one. He was beaten, broken, and covered with wounds, but it mattered not.
The palace was nearby, and he forced himself to run toward it. He had to find his son.
* * *
Aeneas staggered to the edge of the balcony where he looked down at the choppy waters far below. What was he to do? He stumbled back from the edge of the balcony and looked in confusion around him. The howling of the wind and the fierce war cries filled his ears, and he was surprised to look out over the city and see the battle still raging.
He had nearly forgotten about the conflict taking place beneath him, and now that he became once more aware of it, he hardly knew what to do. His sole aim had been to rescue Mystia. Having failed that, should he then join the ongoing fray? He could make out Kozan’s black-cloaked soldiers as they battled those attacking the city. The Delovachians were still great in number, and, not yet aware that their leader was dead, they fought hard against the invaders.
His conscience smote him, and he decided he would join the battle. He looked around him, searching for a way down from the temple, and saw Orion’s crystal-bladed sword lying several feet away. He picked it up and groaned as, for the first time, he realized how sore his muscles were. Yes, he would join the battle, but first he would rest. He sheathed the sword and sat down on a fallen stone, leaning his back again the temple’s wall. As he did so, his gaze turned toward the edge of the city, and he suddenly gasped and sat up straight. Before him, fast approaching the city, he could see the dark mass of an army moving over the hills surrounding Nolhol.
Aeneas swore and leapt to his feet. It could only be more of Kozan’s men, he realized, as he heart began to pound. Kozan's whole army was not stationed in Nolhol, and, no doubt, news of the attack had reached nearby garrisons which quickly marshaled and marched to the rescue of their capitol city. His head began to spin.
He started. Above him in the sky he caught sight of a large, red, winged creature. It flew down toward him and he stumbled back, falling to the ground. He shook his hair out of his eyes and looked up to find standing before him a griffin.
"Aeneas!" she croaked. "Nightfall said I would find you here. Get on my back, and I can fly you down to him."
He staggered to his feet and walked unsteadily toward her.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“My name is Glorious Dawn. Hurry up and get on my back. You need medical attention.”
“But the battle. I need to help fight.”
“Never mind that now!” the griffin screeched. “Chzaros the elf king is approaching the city with fresh troops; they don’t need you. Now get on my back!”
Relief washed over Aeneas, and he started to laugh as he realized his fears were unfounded and the battle almost won. He clambered onto Glorious Dawn’s back, and she sprang into the air, where she circled the temple once before setting off toward Nightfall.
* * *
Lyght ran through the corridors of the palace. He knew Orion was near; he could almost sense him.
"Orion!" he cried. "Orion!" But there was no answer.
He rounded a corner and found himself in the hallway that ran before the throne room. As he neared the doors to the throne room, he saw that they were open. He peered inside and stopped short, a gasp of horror escaping his lips. In the middle of the room lay Provenna, hands spread out and a battle axe buried in her back. A few feet from her, Orion also lay, one hand stretched out toward her. His matted, auburn hair fell down around him. His body was covered with wounds, and his crystal blood was pouring from them.
"Orion!" Lyght cried as he rushed forward. He fell to his knees beside his son and gently rolled him onto his back. Orion's eyes were closed and he made no sound, but, as Lyght looked down upon him, he saw his face twitch in pain.
After a long moment, the warrior slowly opened his eyes and stared up at Lyght.
"Father?" he whispered so softly he could barely be heard.
"Yes, Orion." Lyght reached out and touched Orion's face and chest; he needed to heal him.
"The ring," Orion murmured. "Give me the ring."
Lyght looked around. "What ring?"
"Mystia's ring." Orion's eyes closed with exhaustion, and he said very softly, "On Mother's finger."
Lyght looked over at Provenna's body and saw on her outstretched hand the ring his son spoke of. He quickly made his way over to her and pulled it from her finger. He recognized it as the ring bearing Mystia's soul stone. The red glow in the crystal was almost completely gone.
Lyght returned and knelt once more beside Orion.
"Here," he said, trying to keep his voice steady, as he held out the stone. Orion's lips turned up in a very small, sad smile as he looked upon it. He tried to reach up and take it, but he had not the strength, and his hand fell back to the ground almost before he had raised it. Lyght took his son’s hand in his and pressed the ring again his palm.
Orion's face twisted with pain.
Lyght reached out and touched his hands to Orion's face. His own body was covered with wounds, but he ignored his pain, for he needed all of his energy to heal his son. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, then concentrated with all his might. His breath caught in his throat. Provenna was dead, but the magic she had cast remained. It was a magic such as he had rarely encountered before–the magic of a Shallean. It spread throughout Orion's body, slowly eating away at him from the inside. Normal magic Lyght could have overcome no matter how wounded and wearied he was, but this would take him time–time he did not think he had. He gave a low growl.
Orion looked up at him. His face paled as he saw the look upon his father's face.
"Can you heal me?" he asked, his eyes filling with fear.
"I..." began Lyght. He tried desperately to think of an answer that would give comfort, but he could not. "...know not."
Every last bit of color drained from Orion's face, and his whole body began to tremble.
"I don't want to die," he said, his voice filled with terror. "I don't want to die."
Lyght grunted and squeezed his eyes even tighter shut. Sweat was pouring from his body.
Orion's heart began to pound, and his mind filled with images of torture–torture far greater than anything he had ever suffered; there was no escape, there was no peace, there was no rest; it stretched on and on for eternity.
"No!" he cried. Mystia's ring fell from his hand as he reached up and grasped Lyght by the collar of his tunic, pulling himself close to him. His eyes were wide with terror. "Father, save me!"
"I am trying. I am trying," Lyght said as he struggled desperately against the magic that held his son.
Orion fell back to the floor, his body shaking with great sobs. The pain was almost unbearable.
Lyght gasped for breath as he held his hands even tighter to Orion's head.
"Joretham, help me," he pleaded. His face twisted in pain, and he struggled to keep the agony of his own body from overcoming him.
He cast a quick glance down at his son. The brief moment of strength fear had leant the warrior had disappeared, and now Orion simply lay trembling upon the floor.
"Mystia," he murmured weakly over and over again. He convulsed and gave a violent cough, spitting up small drops of blood. He groaned and twisted in pain.
"Hold still!" Lyght ordered, his voice sharp with fear. He could feel Orion slipping away beneath him.
"I don't want to die," Orion whispered.
"I will save you!" Lyght cried. "So help me I will!"
Orion gave a bitter laugh, which was at the same time a sob of agony. He stared up at his father, but he seemed not to see Lyght–rather to look through him. He gave a soft sigh, and his eyes began to close.
Lyght looked down at him and saw that he was drifting away.
"Orion, wake up!" But Orion simply lay there.
Lyght began to weep as he gathered his son in his arms and held him close.
"Wake up," he pleaded. "I can heal you."
He could feel Orion move slightly.
"Father," he whispered, then, his whole body trembling, he buried his face in Lyght's chest.
Lyght held him close and did not let go. Orion's eyes were closed, and his breath came short and shallow. His body trembled slightly, but other than that, he did not move. Slowly, moment by moment, he was drifting further and further away, his breathing becoming more shallow and irregular.
"No!" Lyght cried. "No!"
There was a long moment of silence, then Orion stirred once more. He opened up his mouth and spoke. He was so weak he could barely be heard, but his voice held all of his terror and pain, all of his bitterness and sadness, all of his hope and desire for life.
"Joretham," he whispered–pleaded–"save me." Then his head fell back and he moved no more.
Lyght groaned in agony.
Tears streamed down his face as he held Orion to him for a moment longer then slowly, gently laid him down upon the floor. As he did so, his gaze fell upon Mystia's soul stone. It lay upon the ground near Orion's head. The faint red glow within it had completely died out.
As Lyght looked upon it, his brow suddenly furrowed and he leaned forward, for it seemed to him that something rose up from within the stone. It was like mist or water or fire; he knew not what. It glowed with a soft, warm red light and swirled about as it rose up from the stone upon the floor.
A slight gasp escaped Lyght's lips and his eyes grew wide as, looking up, he caught sight of a man–or, rather, a shadow or a hint of a man. Though Lyght could not make out the face, he knew the features well, for it was the first face he had ever seen.
Joretham reached out his hand and the rising mist flew toward him and encircled his hand.
He turned and looked down upon Orion, and Lyght could almost see the smile upon his lips. He knelt down beside the fallen warrior and held his hand above his chest. The mist swirled around his hand for a moment longer before it slowly pulled away and entered into Orion's chest. A soft sigh escaped Orion's lips as it did so.
Joretham looked upon Orion's face and touched his hand to his forehead.
"I give you a gift," he said. "'Tis Mystia‘s soul. Use it well."
Then, with that, he rose to his feet and disappeared.
The warrior took a deep breath and slowly opened his eyes. Lyght knelt above him. Orion said not a word but simply looked up at his father for a long moment. The look upon his face was one of wonder and yet that also of a man who did not fully understand all which had happened to him.
* * *
Gideone and Tmalion nearly stumbled over each other as they ran through the doors of the throne room. Before them, they saw Orion lying upon the floor and an old man kneeling at his side.
"Orion!" Gideone cried.
The old man looked up in surprise. He cast a look back down at Orion then disappeared in a swirl of blue and gold dust. Gideone stopped short in surprise.
Slowly Orion sat up. His body was covered with wounds, and he was very dazed.
"Your Highness," he said, setting eye on the prince.
"What happened?" Gideone demanded as he ran to the warrior.
“Who was that man?” Tmalion asked, following Gideone at a slightly slower pace.
"He’s my father," Orion answered.
The prince’s eyes grew wide as he saw how many wounds covered Orion. "What happened to you?"
"'Tis a long story."
Gideone’s eyes narrowed. "Are you all right?"
Orion laughed. "Yes. I am."