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(Chapter 11)

Dylis woke up to pain. Her lungs were burning, as if she'd been holding her breath too long, and her aching head told her she'd knocked it against something on the way down. The rest of her body didn't seem to have fared better.

Her legs were the worst. She had broken a bone or two before, but this was beyond that. She couldn't make herself look down, partly because her neck refused to raise her head more than a centimeter off the floor and partly because she was afraid of what she would see.

The world around was coming into view, with her legs remaining the focal point of her attention. Dust rained from the mess that had been the floor; or the ceiling in the place she now was located. The air was full of it, making it hard to see more than an arm's length in front of her face. For all she knew she was surrounded by armed guards, waiting for the dust to clear before they stabbed her to death.

She fought back the panic. If she was to die, it wouldn't be curled up and weeping like a child. She breathed in through her nose, trying to ignore how that made her ribs protest, and tried to make out any kind of silhouettes in the falling clouds.

The first thing she saw that wasn't beige dust was a dim, green light. It came from her right-hand side and was visible only out of the corner of her eye. She tried to turn her head, but her neck protested, leaving the light to fade in and out of her sight. It was moving, that much she could tell, but she wasn't too sure where to.

And here I thought I'd die at the hands of the Emperor, she thought, stifling hysterical laughter. Shouldn't have gotten so above my station.

The green light was brighter now. It was almost right above her, accompanied by a shadow that was starting to look like a person. The dust cleared enough to reveal dark curls and brown eyes. Dylis felt what tension she'd been able to amount bleed out of her muscles. This caused her to flinch as everything that was broken inside her rearranged itself.

'Lie still,' Thais signed, kneeling by her side. 'I will tend to you.'

Dylis felt Thais' hands on her legs and the heartbeat after they went numb. The rest of her still ached, the sudden absence of the worst injury bringing attention to other pain in other body parts. She still nearly cried in relief.

Her internal clock was ticking out of time what with the fall and everything, so she had no idea how long the healing took. The dust kept falling around them, settling on the floor, but Thais’ shield protected them from being hit by anything. Little by little it was revealed they had landed in a chamber almost as big as the Emperor's Hall, and just as fancily decorated. Dylis didn't recognize it from the maps.

'The others?' she signed as soon as she could move her hands without wanting to scream.

'Only you, me and Lykos fell,' Thais signed, one-handed. 'I am sorry we weren’t fast enough to catch you.'

'Any enemies?' Dylis kept her eyes on the hole in the ceiling. She could see no movement, only the luxurious gold and blue that covered the top of the Emperor's Hall. This did nothing to soothe her nerves.

'None that we have seen. Lykos is guarding the door.'

Something flew past them on Dylis' left-hand side. Thais got up and whirled around to face the direction the silhouette had flown in, her mouth hanging open in shock.

'Was guarding the door.' Gritting her teeth Dylis pushed herself up into sitting position. Her ribs weren't anywhere near whole, but her legs were back to their usual selves and her head was much clearer. It'd have to do.

The door was little more than splinters. Two creatures were making their way over the piles of rocks and tapestry that decorated the floor, heading along the path Lykos had been thrown. They were both more or less covered by robes and cloaks, and both wore blank masks. One was covered in dust - Dylis recognized it as one of the bodyguards they'd faced on the floor above - while the other looked like it had just gotten dressed in a fresh set of clothing. Dylis caught a whiff of rose water perfume.

Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Thais kneeling next to an unconscious Lykos. 'Got any spells handy? I'm not liking our odds.' The masked figures were hobbling closer, like puppets controlled by a trainee puppeteer. The sight had Dylis locking her knees to prevent herself from taking a step back.

'Just one,' Thais signed, her eyes on her brother. 'Pray it will work!'

'What?' There was no answer, only a flash of golden light that left Thais' hand and headed for Dylis. Steeling herself for the impact, Dylis turned all her attention towards the approaching bodyguards. Her eyes widened as the spell hit her in the back. Warmth began to spread through her, starting from her neck and moving downwards. It felt a little like being lowered into a warm bath, only the wrong way around. She felt rejuvenated.

The bodyguards stopped advancing. They huddled together like a pair of dogs who’d caught scent of a pack that outclassed them both in numbers and hunger.

Dylis kept most of her attention on them, pulling herself up to her full height, scanning the floor for a weapon. There, under a rock, lay the sword Yates had given her. An ancient thing made more for looks than battle, but better than no weapon at all.

She dove for it just as the bodyguard who'd gone through the floor with them jumped. She dodged his lightning quick attack with ease and found herself on the other side of the room, sword in hand and feeling light as a feather. The scars on her neck, of all things, felt like they were glowing

'What did you do to me?' she signed to Thais.

'I took a chance.'

The bodyguards were backing away from Dylis and creeping nearer to Thais and Lykos. Better get-

Before Dylis had finished the thought she found herself standing between the bodyguards and her friends. 'What chance?' She circled the bodyguards, dodging attack after attack, making sure to trick them backwards, keeping Thais and Lykos out of their reach.

'I do not think you want to know,' Thais signed.

The sword was like a toy in Dylis' hand. She caught one of the bodyguards across the head, splitting its outer mask in two. She didn't even shiver as the bird bone one underneath was revealed. 'Fine. As long as you keep it coming!'

The bodyguards jumped back. One second they were up close and personal, the next they had retreated to flank the door. Dylis' self-confidence waned as she saw a third enemy had entered the room.

'Looks like we have a quite the situation on our hands,' Adviser Kinsey signed. There wasn't a trace of alarm in her expression. Dylis spread her arms without thinking, trying to shield Thais and Lykos from the Adviser's view. 'Somebody must have figured out our little secret.'

Dylis assumed a fighting stance, turned so that her left side was facing the enemy with most of her weight on the leg in front. Sword at the ready, she waited.

'She has no clue, of course,' Adviser Kinsey signed as she stepped into the room, addressing Thais as if they were two old friends gossiping about a mutual acquaintance. She lifted the hems of her skirts to avoid dragging them through the dust. 'Wouldn't have expected her to. Soldiers you know, no thoughts beyond the battlefield.'

Thais didn't answer, at least not that Dylis could see. The way the bodyguards had begun to sway back and forth held most of her attention, along with the approaching Adviser.

'Tell me, Corporal Nevett,' Adviser Kinsey signed. 'What did you think that surgery did to you? Did you even think about it?'

'I've thought about it. More than you have I'm sure.'

'Don't be too sure.' The Adviser's smile was far too sweet. 'What did you imagine the surgery was, then? A vivisection for the fun of it, perhaps? Is that why you want revenge.'

'I'm not fighting you because of that.' Not only. 'The healer put something in me, and in Glaw too. I was there, you know. I noticed.'

'You put in a replacement.' Thais' eyes were narrowed, as if she was trying to read the inscriptions on the Adviser's many shining necklaces.

'You mean a transplant,' the Adviser signed. 'And I don't think that's the correct word to use either, since you can't really transplant an organ that wasn't there in the first place.'

Dylis felt the blood drain from her face. The sensation of being light as a feather and strong as an ox took a step back, leaving room for queasiness and dread. 'Whose? Whose organs?'

Adviser Kinsey had stopped halfway into the room, looking as at peace with the world as if she was wandering a market square. 'That hardly matters. Yours never worked too well. They're not even operating at full capacity now and I doubt they'll hold out long.'

'I'd better not let it go to waste then.' There would be time to be disgusted later. She backed up a few steps until she was next to Thais and Lykos, eyes darting between the Adviser and the bodyguards.

'There is something strange here,' Thais signed, gently placing Lykos' head on the floor. She got to her feet as slowly as a deer by a waterhole. 'I thought I felt it earlier, before the ship, but now I'm sure.'

'Sure of what?'

The bodyguards moved as one. They dove for Thais, gloves twisted into daggers. Dylis pushed Thais aside and then threw herself backwards, narrowly avoiding being skewered by a dagger-finger.

She hit the ground rolling. The bodyguards were shambling closer, their dead movements sending cold shivers through Dylis, which clashed with the warmth the spell was feeding her. She locked eyes with the one in the bird bone mask. He had dark skin and his eyes glowed blue. He was a person. That knowledge shouldn't have made him easier to fight, but it did.

The other one, the one with the whole outer mask, disappeared. On pure reflex Dylis struck out with her sword and managed to hit something. That didn't stop the kick she got in the chest. She hit the wall hard enough to knock the breath out of her lungs.

Dazed, Dylis did her best to get upright again. The bodyguards had regrouped over by Adviser Kinsey. The cleaner of the two was cradling its right arm and there was blood dripping out from between its fingers. Dylis grinned.

Movement from the left caught her attention. 'Necklaces!' Thais looked frantic, eyes wide and her lips shaping the word along with her hands.

'What?' Dylis wedged her sword in a crack in the stone floor and used it to heave herself up.

In answer Thais pointed at Adviser Kinsey. 'The border! She's wearing the border around her neck!'

The smile that spread over Adviser's Kinsey's face would have rivaled Nikon’s usual grin in its smugness.

'Looks like we have a target then.' Taking a deep breath, Dylis bent her knees and made ready. The bodyguards were edging closer again. The only way out was blocked by one of the most powerful spell-weavers in the land. Dylis could feel the warmth of the spell fading. The kick she'd gotten had set her ribs aching again.

Only one thing to do.

'I'll take care of this. Back me up!' With a mad grin she raised the ancient sword above her head and attacked.

****

The rubble had settled into neat piles when the air was free enough from dust for Glaw to see anything more than his own hands. The force of whatever explosion they'd triggered had thrown him out of the Emperor's Hall and into a long corridor he didn't recognize. The place where Lykos had been inside his mind had gone silent.

Nikon was lying in a crumpled heap, a pool of blood slowly spreading over the broken stones beneath him. Other than him and Glaw, only the Emperor - unharmed except for a crack in his helmet - had ended up in the hallway, standing next to the fallen demon like a hunter eying downed prey. Glaw fought the urge to cower.

"Such stubborn creatures," the Emperor said, eyes on the unmoving form at his feet. "If I didn't know you so well, I'd almost pity you."

"Don't you touch him! You're not getting any more slaves," Glaw said and took a shaky step forward, forcing himself to meet the Emperor's gaze head on. I don't even like Nikon! a voice at the back of his mind shrieked, caught somewhere between pride and hysteria.

"Poor child." The Emperor shook his head, looking for the life of him as if he truly was sorry. "Poor young, naive child."

"If you say one word about freedom, I'll laugh in your face." As threats went this one was somewhere on the level with 'I'll pout'. As a way to stall for time, it'd do.

"Of course you would," the Emperor said and gave a breathless laugh, as if the situation was so ridiculous that he couldn't wait to get his breath back before reacting to it. "How could someone who's known nothing but freedom ever imagine what the world is like without it? To you, all this must seem utterly meaningless."

Glaw threw a glance over his shoulder. The hallway behind him was dark and silent, the echoes of his and the Emperor's voices its only occupants. Cursing under his breath, he gripped the handle of his dagger tighter. "This is freedom?"

"As close as any civilization can come to it without descending into anarchy. Compared to you, boy, I'm ancient. I've lived for well over two millennia. I was there when the demons kept our kind as slaves. I ended that travesty, so that people like you never would have to experience it."

The Emperor took a step closer and held out his hands, reaching for Glaw. "I'm telling you this so that you can understand. I'd rather not kill you. If I had a choice, I'd never kill another human being. But as I've told you, if you are a danger to the Empire I will do what I must."

"We're not an empire! We're eight small cities; eight! We're barely a country!"

This time the Emperor's laugh was louder; a belly shaking, joyous laugh that in any other situation would have put Glaw's mind at ease. "We'll live up to the name in a few hundred years, if not less. Peaceful expansion takes much longer than war fueled conquest, but the rewards for it are much sweeter."

There was a glimmer of fever in the Emperor's eyes that Glaw had seen stronger examples of a few times before. The last time had been in the gaze of a serial killer who'd been convinced the gods had been choosing her victims. He actually believes what he's saying!

"At the cost of the demons?"

The fever light faded and Glaw could have sworn it was sorrow that overshadowed it. "I fear it's the only way. They may look human, but they're mad, all of them. A diseased species in need of firm rule. They're a danger to themselves and others.'

"You don't think you may be a bit biased? We never let the relatives of a murder victim judge the murderer."

"You are wise beyond your years, Private Nevett." The Emperor's smile turned fatherly. "Would you believe me if I said I gave them a chance for peace, long ago? No, of course you wouldn't. But I'll prove it to you." He nudged at Nikon with the heel of his boot. "I know it's no secret to you that it's an outcast among its own kind. Do you know why?"

Glaw shook his head. There still was no sound of running steps or shouts, from either guards or Dylis and the demons. He needed to keep stalling.

"It came to me, you see, without the permission of its pack. Cadfael and I had gone to established the border around the demon woods and this one came right out and demanded to talk to us. Said he would let us weave the curse as long as no one inside the border was hurt. Quite touching."

"And you agree to that?"

"Of course I did. With the border up our Empire should have been free to grow. I could have seen the Empire begin to rise and have bowed out when my last bodyguard from the old lands ran out of means to sustain me."

Glaw did his best to hide his shock and let his fingers brushed against the corridor’s left wall. No door. "But that didn't happen."

"Obviously not. Whatever you may think, I take no pleasure in death. I would rather cage a dangerous predator than have it killed. But if that predator breaks out of the cage, there is no choice left."

"So, the demons broke the pact."

The Emperor nodded. "As much as it now was a pact. Your little visit among them gave me much information on how they are ruled now, but also of what chaos reigned back then. Euripides did not take kindly to this one's betrayal and sought vengeance on our kind. Even though being separated from the rest of the world was their just punishment."

"For enslaving humans?" Glaw guessed and was rewarded with a bright smile.

"Yes! This one understood its people's crimes, which is why I will grant it a reward. It will have the honor of serving me. Theodulus won't last much longer and it would be a pity to leave Eunike without a mate."

"I doubt she'd have me." Nikon's voice was little more than a hiss of breath. "And if feeling guilty is your criteria for a bond, I'd like to point out that maybe I wasn't thinking about my people's crimes when I approached you. Maybe I just didn't want to risk pitting our children and elderly against your army."

The Emperor's back stiffened and his eyes darkened. He gave Nikon a vicious kick in the ribs, which set off a coughing fit that had Nikon curling into a ball. The Emperor's boot came away covered in blood.

Glaw took a deep breath and widened his stance, his attention fixed on the Emperor's broken helmet. If he was very, very lucky, it was possible that he could hit the Emperor in the eye before he had time to weave a spell. And if he was very, very lucky, the whole "reflect back on you ten times over"-thing was a lie.

An arm clamped around his throat and pulled him back. He crashed into a hard metal plate and his breath was knocked out of his lungs. He dropped his dagger and began to claw at the limb that threatened to crush his windpipe, his thought process reduced to air and gods and don'twanttodie!

"Ah, Eunike, you are unharmed. How convenient for me," the Emperor said, sounding mildly amused. "I fear I do not share your or Cadfael's talent for mind control and deep delving into others' souls. Luckily that leaves me fairly immune to any counter attacks our dear demons have to offer. Nature is amazing that way."

The pressure on Glaw's throat eased up and he gasped for breath, heart beating like the hooves of a panicked horse. He caught sight of the arm holding him. It was bare and dark skinned, covered in scars.

"You haven't seen the blood curse take effect, have you?" the Emperor asked. He dipped a finger into the growing pool of red seeping out of Nikon's guts and smeared it on the largest of the seashells on his necklace. "It requires a lot of concentration and a fair amount of mental power. With Cadfael gone, I fear I must make do with the next best thing."

Glaw yelped. The scars on his neck began to sting, as if he'd been out in direct sunlight for too long.

"I know your methods well demon," the Emperor said, circling Nikon. "Your little exhaustion trick won't work on me."

"Awww, too bad for me," came the reply from the fallen demon, followed by ragged coughing. Vision half obscured by the way Eunike's arm forced him to tilt his chin up, Glaw just caught a glimpse of Nikon - the idiot - turning over and trying to get back on his feet. He had one hand curled around the dagger still protruding from his left side.

"Nikon, stay down!" Glaw called out, cut short by the pressure against his throat.

"Thank you for reminding me. I'm terrible at matching names and faces. Nikon, is it?" the Emperor said with a pleased, serene smile, as Nikon sagged back onto one of his elbows. "Then I have a name that will suit you well. Nikandros, 'victory of a man'."

The answering smile on Nikon's face was equally satisfied and at peace. "Thank you, but I'm quite happy with the one I've already got. Don't you agree, Aelius?"

A shadow flickered out from behind a pillar, taking on a familiar shape. There was no scream as Aelius stabbed the knife like objects into Eunike's demon marks, only thin trickles of blood and the sickening wet noise of stone piercing flesh.

Aelius jumped back, throwing himself against the wall and out of Eunike's reach.

Glaw ducked to the relative safety of the other wall and caught sight of the Emperor's face as he did. The look of utter disbelief on the man's face would have made Glaw chuckle, if he wasn't so busy trying to not get himself killed.

Nikon, on the other hand, laughed; a wheezing sound, indicating a punctured lung. That didn't seem to bother him though, as he was grinning like a loon. "Aren't surprises wonderful? You see, Aelius there is a very, very talented spell-weaver. And we have this little trick we've been playing on you since we entered your First City."

"The blood curse should be in effect now," the Emperor muttered, seemingly to himself. "You should have disregarded you injury and stopped the other one, as I ordered you to."

"Ah, so that's what that buzzing noise was." Nikon had rolled over to lie on his back, which made the gurgling noise that accompanied his words more prominent. "Aelius, could you take over explaining?"

"With pleasure." Despite his shaking legs and trembling smile, Aelius radiated calm, like a tightrope walker about to perform a dangerous stunt. He looked at Eunike - who stood stock still with blood leaking slowly out of the puncture wounds in her neck - before he pushed off the wall.

The Emperor took a step back. "I demand to know what is happening!"

"I've always wondered why a bond has to have a leader," Aelius said and knelt down by Nikon's side. His hands had started to shine green. "And I've always loved inventing new spells. I do not wish to brag, but it's a talent of mine. So naturally, I couldn't help but experiment; what if two minds could be the first and the last link, all at once?"

"I wouldn't recommend you try it," Nikon said, winking at Glaw. His voice had lost the punctured-lung-wheeze. "Not unless you're willing to confuse your own hands with another person's for a few days afterward. Took a lot of practice and a lot of headache."

A bright light called Glaw's attention back to the Emperor and his heart froze in his chest. The Emperor's hands were glowing like two stars. It wasn't a spell Glaw had ever seen before and if it was fired Glaw suspected it'd be the last spell he'd ever see.

Neither Aelius nor Nikon moved.

"I wouldn't try that if I were you," Nikon said, all smiles. "There can't be much power left in you at the moment, or in Gennaidos - I'm sorry, I meant Theodulus - and you'll get none from the rest of us. You fire that and you're as dead as we'll be."

The Emperor hesitated. The light faded from his hands. "You may be right."

"Of course I'm right."

In his peripheral vision Glaw noticed that Eunike had begun to sway in place. One of her hands slowly rose to brush against the stone knives sticking out of her neck.

"I refuse to die until I know the Empire is safe," the Emperor said and brushed his hand against the wall. "That does not mean I have to stand here and watch you escape. I think that spell of yours leaves you too exhausted to do much, especially after the tunnel you made earlier." His eyes fixed on Nikon. "You are the power source - don't try to deny it - and even after a healing a wound like the one I gave you will have drained you. You'll be no match for the guards."

Glaw's heart was in his mouth. Listening to the three of them was like being the observer of a duel with the knowledge that any of the participants would be willing to end the fight by blowing up the building.

<I really hope we timed this right.> It was Nikon who'd spoken, breathy and edged with hysterical giggles.

"What are you talking about?" the Emperor asked. And then found himself slammed against the wall. By Eunike.

"I can't hear you," she said, her grin wide and quite mad. Her voice was raspy, as if she hadn't used it in a long while. "I can't hear you!" She grabbed one of the blue Signs around the Emperor's neck and crushed it between her fingers.

Somewhere in the background there was a sigh of relief. Glaw was too busy staring at the Emperor, and his likely former bodyguard, to take note of who'd made the noise. The distant sound of heavy boots on stone could be heard as well, but not even that was enough to pull his attention away.

The Emperor was trembling and white as a sheet. "This can't be happening," he said, staring at Eunike as if she were a ghost. "Didn't I treat you fairly? Didn't I give you a punishment that fit your crimes?"

Eunike crushed the other blue seashell. There was a bright flash of light and Glaw squeezed his eyes shut, crouching low, his back against the wall. His legs were quivering, tense as piano strings and prepared to run.

An inhuman cry pierced the silence. Light burned through Glaw's eyelids, so he pushed his hands to his face and curled into a ball. The wall and the floor began to shake. Glaw held his breath and braced himself.

Nothing happened. The cry cut off. The light red of the inside of Glaw's eyelids turned a darker shade and the world stopped shaking. He couldn't hear the running steps any longer.

Aelius and Nikon were the first people he saw when he opened his eyes. They were blinking and uncurling. Aelius was pushing himself upright, looking to have been lying on top of Nikon, who remained on the floor.

Taking a steadying breath, Glaw allowed his head to turn left.

The Emperor was lying in a heap on the floor. His head was gone and Glaw didn't want to try and find it.

Eunike was holding a sword and her eyes were glowing. Not having had the time or presence of mind to take notice of her clothes before, Glaw realized that she was wearing armor. Strips of the many cloaks and robes she'd worn over them were hanging on to the metal here and there, and there was still a mask on her face. A mask made of bird bones.

<Treated fairly,> Eunike spat at the Emperor's corpse. <Treated fairly! Making someone cut up their own children and present their limbs and brains as spare parts for your soldiers, yes that's fair, that's kind!> She raised her sword above her head and let it fall with such force that it stabbed right through the one remaining Emperor's Sign. It piercing through the chest beneath, all the way to the floor. <This is fair!>

The stillness that followed was broken by Nikon, who gave a weak chuckle and said: <I can't believe that actually worked.>

<Hush.> Aelius got to his feet and bowed to Eunike. <Welcome back, Demostrate.>

Eunike - Demostrate - let go of the sword. She gave Aelius a curt nod, before tearing off the mask, freeing a mass of short, black curls. <Later,> she said. <We need to find the others. Their plan doesn't stop just because this one is dead.>

Aelius bowed again. <Of course.>

Glaw flinched as Demostrate turned to look at him. <He one of ours?>

Glaw hurried to nod in agreement with Nikon's: <He's on our side, yes.>

<Good.> And that seemed to be that. Without another word Demostrate began to walk down the hallway, her neck still bleeding. Her sword scraping against the stone floor made Glaw want to cover his ears, but he thought better about making any sudden movements anywhere near her.

The second she disappeared around a corner Glaw scrambled to his feet and made his way over to Aelius and Nikon. His head was swimming with questions, each elbowing its fellows to get first in line to being spoken. <Why didn't you do that earlier?!>

<Several reasons,> Nikon said, as Aelius helped him sit up. <The main one being that performing this spell outside the border without the bracelets would have been suicide.>

<Too draining,> Aelius supplied.

At closer inspection Nikon looked like he'd been run over by a carriage. He'd lost a lot of color and his clothes were covered in blood. Aelius looked a little better, but only because his dress only had dust on it.

<It was a strategy fitting only for the dear "Emperor",> Nikon said. <I'm glad Warlow’s high thoughts about his own abilities were true.> Glaw followed his gaze to the bloodied mess that was the Emperor's corpse. <That man really had no talent for the blood curse. He wouldn't have been able to tell my and Aelius' mind apart if we so had given him a week to try. A bit delusional too, if I'm not mistaken.>

<You could say that again,> Glaw said.

Aelius got Nikon on his feet and the three of them began to make their way down the hallway, the way Demostrate had left. <I can't hold the spell much longer.> Aelius shut his eyes and rubbed at his forehead. <Terra, I suggest we break it and return to a normal bond.>

With his eyes closed Aelius couldn't have caught the genuine smile his last comment brought to Nikon's face. Glaw did, however, and felt strangely awkward for it. It felt like he'd stumbled upon an older soldier gazing lovingly at the portrait of a superior officer.

<Best you be the first link,> Nikon said, his smile fading back into the dagger-like one Glaw had come to know as his default expression. <Can't spend time on any more infighting, should your sister finish her mission early. It'll be tricky enough to convince the others that Demostrate is fighting for us.>

Fresh worry blossomed inside Glaw like a particularly ugly weed. Demostrate's comment about "others" hadn't registered over the pounding of his heart and his trembling limbs. Now, with the hallway empty but for the three of them, thoughts of the rest of the squad resurfaced with a vengeance. Goddess of Sea and Air, let them be safe!

<Very well.>

Glaw was surprised to feel a soft tingle at the edge of his mind. It was a little like standing in the middle of a park and hearing a conversation held by people hidden by bushes and trees, the dialog made unintelligible by distance and cover.

Nikon closed his eyes and moaned theatrically. <Ah, Aelius, you're getting quite good at this.>

Aelius promptly blushed crimson. <Be quiet!>

<As you wish, terra,> Nikon sang in reply, darting ahead of them.

<Not one word,> Aelius said to Glaw.

Glaw held up his hands, palms facing Aelius. <Wasn't going to say anything. Am I to take this as a we-should-all-trust-Nikon-now sign?>

A soft laugh left Aelius and his shoulders sagged. <Yes, you should.>

<Right. If anyone would know, you would, right?> Glaw's tongue was running away with his thoughts again. He had to bite it before it could say something else inane. But his attention kept straying to Dylis, Lykos, Thais and Vita, who were who knows where. Reciting the maintenance protocol for an airplane engine wasn't keeping the panic at bay.

Aelius interrupted Glaw's inner turmoil with a concerned smile. <We should catch up with the others. Do you feel strong enough to hold onto me while I run?>

<Yes, I think so.> Glaw paused. The panic was clawing at him still. He needed a distraction. <What did Demostrate mean when she spoke of cutting up children do you think?> he asked, dreading the answer.

Aelius gave Glaw's neck scars a pointed look.

<No. No, no, no, no!> Glaw raised a hand to brush against his neck, but stopped short before his fingers could touch flesh. <Oh gods, that is disgusting!>

<You're not the first person to walk around with someone else's organs inside them,> Aelius said, not unkindly. <There will be time to think on that later. I promise that I and Thais will do all that is within our power to aid you in whatever decision you make regarding your other ears.>

Glaw nodded weakly and climbed up on Aelius' back.

<You're about as stealthy as a pack of wild pigs.> Glaw nearly choked Aelius at the sound of the new voice, the few seconds before it registered as a familiar one.

<Vita!>

The demon in question came walking out of the shadows, dragging one of her legs in a way that told Glaw it had to be broken. <Thought you'd fallen to the lowest parts,> she said in way of greeting. <Until I caught your little theater performance. Quite impressive.>

<How much did you hear?> Aelius asked, leaning down to touch a glowing hand to Vita's injuries.

Vita shrugged. <Enough. Still don't trust that sky-chaser of yours farther than I could throw him, but I'll be cursed and strung up in a tree before I let that get in the way of this.> She made a vague motion towards the Emperor's corpse. <So what do you say we go find the others and I can yell at you later?>

They were out of the hallway in two seconds flat.

****

There was blood everywhere. The worst part was that Dylis had no idea how much of it was hers. Her entire body ached, but it was the dull throbbing of bruised flesh; which wouldn't have been so bad if she hadn't seen the deep cut along her sword arm with her own eyes.

This spell is going all kinds of wrong. She'd seen the look of muted panic on Thais' face the last time she'd rushed past the dome of light shielding her two demon companions. It didn't bode well for their odds.

Struggling to get back on her feet, Dylis fixed her eyes on the nearest of the bodyguards. His bracelet arm had taken quite a beating. If she got lucky, she could cut it off the next time he got close.

A glimmer of gold caught her eye. Adviser Kinsey was pacing behind the door where she'd barricaded herself, hidden behind a thin shield of purple light. Her numerous pieces of jewelry were catching the light of the chandeliers, adding to their unnatural glow. Dylis squared her shoulders. She had enough blood left to stand up. She could make it.

The bodyguards were preparing another attack. It had taken her a few tries to figure out their tells with the bulk of their clothes and masks hiding most of their bodies, but she hadn't spent most of her life training for and participating in fights for nothing. They'd begun to edge closer to one another, lining up for a jump.

And then the one with the bird bone mask just stopped.

Dylis took a few steps to the right, to get a better look around the piles of rubble that steadily had been growing since the fight had begun. Adviser Kinseys' pacing had stopped and she too was staring at the frozen bodyguard, which made Dylis feel a little better. If something was about to go even more horribly wrong, she'd rather see that the explosion took out the enemy along with her.

As the bodyguard in the blank mask edged closer to its companion, the still one tore off the bird bone mask it'd been wearing and threw it to the floor with such force that it shattered into a thousand pieces. Head bared, he proved to be a man with long waves of brown hair and lines on his face that couldn't have been the result of mere aging.

He didn't look happy.

Dylis threw herself backwards as the masked bodyguard tackled the other to the ground. Taking cover behind a pile of rubble, Dylis did her best to stay low and find her way back to Thais and Lykos. Whatever was going on they needed to take advantage of it.

The way the bodyguards were darting around the room was dizzying. They were little more than blurs of color, clearly visible only during the seconds they stopped to push off the walls or the ceiling to lunge at each other. Blood dripped down in splashes, painting what remained of the floor red.

'We need to regroup!' Dylis signed to Thais the second the dome of light came into view. 'I have no idea what's happening, but-'

'We do!' Lykos signed. His eyes weren't quite focusing, but the side of his skull was no longer gaping open. 'They are talking.'

Dylis raised her hands to sign, but found herself in the shadow of the unmasked demon. Stumbling back, she raised her sword and met his gaze. In the surreal moment of calm that followed she noticed that his eyes were green and full of tears.

He made no move to attack. His lips were moving. Dylis knew a "Run!" when she saw one. The next second he was halfway across the room, eyes glowing blue.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Dylis made her way closer to Thais and Lykos. Her eyes were fixed on her enemies, trusting her feet to carry her to safety without too much input from her brain.

The unmasked demon was talking, the exaggerated movements of his lips and his wide eyes indicating shouting. The other demon, now standing by the Adviser's side inside her barrier, seemed to be his target, but he made halt five meters away from the door and simply kept shouting. At first it reminded Dylis of a soldier calling another out for a show of strength on the training field, but for each second the scene looked more and more like pleading.

A hand on her back, no more than a gentle brush of fingers, reminded her of Thais' presence. She felt the adrenaline kick in again, pumping energy back into her arms and legs, putting every nerve on edge. The small dome of light had moved to encompass her too and she fought to not show what a relief that was.

'Do you two have the strength to run?' she signed, tearing her eyes away from the bodyguards and the Adviser.

'I think so. I-' Thais didn't get to finish the sentence. The dome of light around them popped like a bubble someone had stuck a needle through. Thais curled in on herself, as if she'd been punched in the gut.

Dylis cursed and got back on her feet, leaving Thais for Lykos to worry about. The barricade by the door was gone, as was the Adviser, but the two bodyguards had started up their battle again. Though in fairness it wasn't much of a battle. It mostly seemed to consist of the masked demon diving for the unmasked one's throat, while the unmasked one dodged and shouted.

The masked bodyguard finally got a hit in, which brought the unmasked one to his knees. But instead of going for his jugular, the masked bodyguard abruptly changed direction and rushed out the door. Seconds later the unmasked one set off after it

'Why did the Adviser flee?' Dylis signed, her hands moving with a will of their own. 'She brought our shield down, so why not kill us?'

Movement from her right had her whirling around, sword raised. She stopped it a centimeter from Myrrine's grinning face. 'Maybe she did not like her odds?'

Dylis didn't sign a reply, but gave Myrrine her widest smile and hurried to lower her sword. Another wisp of movement drew her attention to the fact that Bernike had landed on a nearby pile of rubble, closely followed by Cato and Aculeo.

'Your friends send their greetings,' Aculeo signed. 'The machines have been destroyed and we are all unharmed.'

'Seems like you ran into the worst of it,' Myrrine signed, wincing in sympathy as Thais struggled to sit up. 'Where are the others?'

Lykos pointed at the cracks in the ceiling. 'Up there, we hope. I tried calling to them, but no answer yet.' His hands trembled as he signed.

Myrrine raised her hands to add something more to the conversation, but instead stiffened and turned around. 'Footsteps!'

Dylis slipped into the line they formed with ease. Shoulder to shoulder with most of her squad, she could ignore her injuries and the constant murmur of isGlawhurtishedeadishehurt at the back of her head.

The doors swung open.

A demon walked into the hall. Her posture was at once slumped and towering, and her face had lines in that matched the unmasked bodyguard's. She was wearing armor that looked suspiciously similar to the one the Emperor wore, except hers had strips of fabric hanging from it and no helmet. Her eyes were glowing and she was dragging a sword along with her.

Dylis raised her own sword, but was halted by Bernike holding out a hand, pushing her back. 'Don't!'

Confusion lasted for only a second. The strange demon wasn't alone.

'Glaw!'

'I'm all right!' Glaw signed, sliding off of Aelius' back. 'The Emperor is dead! Now you can't say I've never brought you good news.'

Dead? The idea seemed too unreal. Dylis pushed it aside and sheathed her sword. She pulled Glaw into a tight hug, her chin rested on the top of his head. The rest of the squad was talking. Dylis didn't have the presence of mind to lipread or ask for a translation. Instead she watched them as they lowered their weapons and bowed to the new demon, who gave them each a nod. It didn't take her long to put two and two together.

'Where are the other two?'

Dylis blinked. She hadn't expected to be addressed. 'Other two?'

'The other bodyguards,' Demostrate signed - because the stranger could be none other - impatience clear on her face. Her eyes kept straying to the scars on Dylis' neck in a way that sent unpleasant shivers down Dylis' spine. 'I could sense them a moment ago.'

Dylis glanced at Thais, who nodded. 'They ran the way you came. If they didn't pass you, they must have...' She grabbed at the map stuck in her belt. It had some splashes of blood on it, but it was still readable. 'Help me with this.'

Glaw let go of her and took one edge of the map, helping her to unroll it. Demostrate walked around to read over Dylis' shoulder, which set Dylis’ teeth on edge. She'd had enough knives in the back to last her a lifetime. She bore it without complaint though. Showing suspicion was usually a surefire way to trigger a trap and the others would have her back. There were two skilled healers not five steps from her. She would survive whatever came next.

'We have two tasks left,' Dylis signed, one-handed, as she scanned the myriad of lines for their current location. 'Sabotage the final planes and get the Adviser.'

'Why is she important?' Vita signed. 'The Emperor is dead. I say we destroy the last of the machines and then go home. No use risking our lives for nothing.'

'Not for nothing,' Dylis signed, just as Thais signed: 'She is the one controlling the border!'

That changed the mood of the squad. They all crowded closer, trying to get a look at the map. All but Nikon and Cato, who'd set up guard at the door, their eyes straying to the cracks in the ceiling every other second.

'The Adviser is headed for the hangar!' Glaw signed, smearing a mixture of dust and blood onto the map as he pointed at the outline of the room in question. 'These corridors here were rubble when we passed them and these stairs had crumbled. Unless Thais and Aelius find traces of spell-weaving in those places, the only way she could have gone is down.'

'Makes sense,' Myrrine signed. 'With the other two leaders gone, she is the best defense they will have against us. It is not surprising that she knows of our target.'

'She is most likely setting up protection wards as we speak.'

'Then there is no time to lose.' The way Demostrate held herself as she signed brooked no argument.

Dylis at first bristled at being ordered around by a complete stranger, but held her tongue. You have Glaw back safe and sound, and the rest of the squad is alive as well. You're winning. Still, she couldn't help but sign: 'I don't like going into a fight if I'm not sure all on my side are fighting for the same thing. Who are the other bodyguards to you?'

Demostrate's eyes darkened and Dylis fought the urge to shy away. 'Husband and child. My only surviving child.' Demostrate turned her head to look at Glaw before darting her eyes back to catch Dylis' gaze. 'I've lost enough to your Empire, girl. But I will not have others losing their children either. I can fight for both.'

To Dylis' surprise, and awe, there was no hint of madness in Demostrate's eyes. Rage, yes, cold and burning like frostbite, but it was a controlled rage, focused and aimed. Not what Dylis had expected from someone who'd been a puppet to others for two hundred years. Against her will she was impressed.

'The night will not last forever.' Myrrine cut in, shifting her ax from one shoulder to the other. 'Do we argue, or do we go?'

Dylis held Demostrate's gaze for a moment longer. Then: 'We go.'

****

'I think I'm getting used to this,' Glaw thought, fingers curled in the fabric of Lykos' clothes.

'Being carried around like a child or the bond?'

'Both.'

Lykos' thoughts were a warm presence in his mind. It felt like it belonged there and Glaw couldn't decide it that was worrying or comforting. He was learning to sort out the images and emotions that came with the words, making the sharing of information almost instantaneous.

An image of a tube growing narrower and the sensation of being closed in made Glaw duck lower, pressing his forehead to Lykos' shoulder. The tunnel they were shaping - or rather, Nikon and Demostrate were shaping - wasn't too wide and he'd already hit his head once.

A strong updraft took hold of him and pulled at his jacket. Lykos stopped climbing and they held on until it had passed. 'Guess they broke through to the hangar.'

A faint shimmer against the rock wall of the tunnel and a quick spark against his mind told Glaw that Lykos eyes were glowing. 'It feels like it. There's still some way to go though.'

'Did you really dig us this deep down last time?' They'd been climbing for what felt like half an hour, going down and sideways. Having to worm their way around rooms where there could be people slowed them down, but it was quite the long way down nonetheless.

'Obviously,' Lykos thought, amusement brushing against the surface of Glaw's mind like a warm brook of water. 'It took me longer, I will admit. But you'll have to take into account that I was dragging you along and dead tired to boot.' Mock pride mixed into the amusement, making Glaw smile.

Before he could add a blush to that reaction he turned his head to look at the others in the tunnel. It wasn't easy to see who was who in the dark, narrow space, but he thought he could make out Bernike and Myrrine climbing closest to them. One of the shapes was carrying another shape on its back. Myrrine seemed to have become Dylis' go-to person for being carried, which Glaw couldn't say surprised him. Dylis always had put a little too much importance into muscles and being tall. It only made sense that someone taller and more muscular than her was to be the one she turned to for help. Also, Glaw suspected she liked Myrrine's sense of humor.

Watching their shadows move, another thought struck him, fueled by their possible impending doom. 'How old are you? I mean, I know you're two hundred and twelve, but I mean, how old.'

'I think I know what you're asking,' Lykos thought. 'I'll try and explain. You know how our magic decides how old we get?'

Glaw nodded.

'Because of that, we make little difference between those who are fully grown. An adult is an adult. Some are just older than others, and we always respect those older than us, but we think of those who are nearing their end as most special. Wrinkles are a mark of status, even if there happens to be older people around who don't have them'

This made Glaw's thoughts drift in an odd direction.

Lykos laughed, without using his mouth or vocal cords. 'Stop picturing me with gray hair! I'll last a while longer, you'll see.'

'No I won't.' The thought slipped free before Glaw could stop it. He could sense a growing understanding in Lykos, along with sorrow, and hurried to add: 'What are your people's laws on having relationships with those who're younger than you?' He desperately focused his mind on Nikon and Aelius, forcing an image of them to cover the surface of his mind.

'Aelius was a grown man when they started spending time together. If Nikon hadn't been an outcast no one would have raised as much as an eyebrow,' Lykos answered, not sounding too convinced of the fact that Aelius and Nikon were the topic of conversation Glaw really wanted.

Glaw blushed.

And I must confess that I'm not quite sure what their relationship is,' Lykos continued, 'But our people are quite lenient when it come to differences in age between mates. As long as you're an adult - and we grow at the same rate as your kind, at least from what I have seen - you may do as you please, if you're happy and the person you're with is happy.' There was hesitation and hope around his next words: 'You, for example, would be considered an adult. I'm sure Thais wouldn't care that she's more than thirty years your elder.'

Thais. Glaw blinked. He wasn't sure what he was more surprised over; that he hadn't been thinking about Thais or that Lykos had thought he had. 'Who said anything about Thais?' He was sure that thought revealed more than he'd intended, but he couldn't make himself care.

'The way you stared at her all through your time as ambassador was a clue,' Lykos answered. The emotions he was radiating were quite mixed, but hope was growing stronger.

'I did?' Glaw was sure the blush had reached his ears.

'Quite openly.'

'I'll have to take your word for it.' He sighed, letting his forehead dig deeper into Lykos' shoulder. 'But it wasn't her I had in mind, so much.'

'Good.' The words seemed to spill over from Lykos' mind without his say-so, which made Glaw smile. At least he wasn't the only one in this bond who couldn't control his thoughts. 'You wouldn't have fit each other. Thais has no interest in the physical side of love you see, which has caused her some problems in her search for a mate. You can't imagine the number of would-be-suitors who Bernike has had to threaten with bodily harm because they were convinced they would be the one to "change Thais' mind". It would be a shame if we all survived only to have you be killed during the victory feast.'

'Who said my interest in your sister was lustful?'

'Staring.' Glaw was graced with an image of himself in the changing room of the bathhouse, wide-eyed and gaping at a half-naked Thais.

'Point taken. But I'm still insulted you'd think I would harass her.' His tone of thought was no more serious than Lykos'. He was feeling giddy, the mention of a victory feast bringing to mind the impending battle, but in a way so cheerful that he couldn't help but feel like they would make it. 'So, are you like Thais?

'In what way?' Lykos asked, the coyness of the words quite false.

'Only interested in romance?'

'No, I wouldn't say that.'

'And what are your views on finding a partner in someone younger than you?'

'I have no interest in children. That said I open to courtship with adults of most ages.'

Light had begun to seep into the tunnel from below, bringing color to Lykos' clothes and parting the black of his hair from the gray of the walls. They would be in the hangar very soon and their conversation would end, perhaps permanently. Glaw scrambled for something to say, but Lykos beat him to it:

'As soon as we are back safe in the forest, I'll ask your sister permission to court you.'

Courting. It sounded quite final and serious. Glaw had never done final and serious before. He actually liked the thought of it. 'I'll hold you to that.'

<Everybody get ready!> a voice Glaw recognized as Bernike said from somewhere to his left. <There are guards below. Myrrine and I will handle them. Be prepared to switch first link at any sign of trouble.>

A quiet murmur of understanding rushed through the group like a breeze through leaves. Glaw twisted around, eyes locked on the exit hole they'd all gathered around, like bats making ready to sleep inside a large drainpipe. There was a walkway with two guards right below them. And then there wasn't.

'They bit them!'

'Easiest way to spread our poison,' Lykos explained as he edged them closer to the exit, waiting for his turn to jump. 'More merciful than a knife through the chest, don't you think? All it takes is one small wound.'

'Keep that talk up and I'm never kissing you.'

'Kissing?'

'I’ll explain that later.'

The first thing to grab his eye as they hit the walkway was the blimp. It looked even bigger this time around, straining against its metal wiring, the top of it nearly hitting the roof. The roof which was slowly, but surely being pulled aside. The would-be-hole had a red circle painted around it.

<They're starting!> he shouted, his pulse speeding up. <We need to get to the wooden part below the large gray part, that's where the people will be.>

<Got it!>

<Avoid the gray part!> Glaw pointed at the balloon, cursing his lack of words. <If its anything like the airplanes' wings, it will have been coated in more protection spells than you can shake a stick at, probably keyed to specific workers.>

Lykos was picking up speed. Bernike was leading the charge, burying her daggers and teeth in anyone foolish enough to get in her way, with Myrrine not far behind, Dylis still on her back. Glancing over his shoulder, Glaw saw that the rest of the squad was following, Demostrate looming at the back of the line like an ox preparing to rush a fence.

The walkway ran out. Or rather, it turned right and they didn't. Bernike and Myrrine jumped into the air and Lykos followed. Glaw gave an adrenaline fueled shout as Lykos pushed off the railing and began an arched descent towards the ground. The guards below were scattering, throwing themselves against the walls or running away

We can win this! Glaw thought to himself, for the first time completely convinced. We can win this!

The room shook with explosions. Aelius and Thais had crossed the railing. Along with Nikon they were doing their best to set fire to the handful of smaller airplanes also stationed in the hangar. The mechanics and pilots threw themselves to the ground right and left. None of them seemed to have the presence of mind to grab their pistols and start shooting.

Either we've taken them completely by surprise, Glaw thought, his cheer fading, or this is a trap.

Lykos touched ground, eyes glowing. The impact, weakened by whatever he'd done to soften their fall, nonetheless distracted Glaw for a second. And that was a second too long.

<Follow me!> Myrrine had her ax raised above her head and a wide grin on her face, both she and Dylis pointing at the entrance to the blimp's cabin. <I'll make us a way in!>

The doors shattered with one strike from her weapon and before Glaw could protest they were inside.

It looked nothing like Glaw had pictured it. He'd imagined narrow corridors and numerous rooms filled to the brim with bombs. What he got instead was a room big enough to have a ball inside, with a staircase that led up to what he assumed was the cockpit. And it was empty.

<We need to-!>

The walls began to shimmer red. Demostrate, the last one to enter, gave a hiss as the red light engulfed one of her arms. She managed to pull free, but left a lot of skin behind on the wall. Glaw gulped.

"I wouldn't move if I were you," Adviser Kinsey said, stepping out on the ledge atop the staircase. The red light that shielded her lit up her smile in a way that reminded Glaw of a stereotypical villain in a theater play. "The barrier carries all the way around the aircraft. If you shape your way out all you'll get for your effort is death."

Glaw slid down to the floor, but kept his hands on Lykos' shoulders. There were many doors in the big room and he could hear not that distant steps coming towards them. They would be surrounded by guards in a moment.

"I guess I should thank you," Adviser Kinsey said, as soldiers poured out of every nook and cranny, forming circles around Glaw and the others. "My people could never have taken down both the Emperor and the Field Marshal."

"Your people?" Demostrate asked and Glaw found himself automatically translating the conversation into sign language. He didn't dare take his eyes off the Adviser to see if Dylis was watching him or not.

"How did you think those rebel friends of yours remained operational, so deep within the castle walls? Not that they knew it was me helping them along. That would have ruined everything."

"So what is your plan then?" Glaw found himself saying, still mostly hidden behind Lykos. "The Emperor is dead, the Field Marshal is dead, and you're on the First Throne. What are you going to do?"

"What the Emperor was too stupid to. Ithel, the old fool. Always an inspiring leader, always horrible at deciding where to lead." Adviser Kinsey’s voice was colored with a touch of amusement. "I guess I'll start missing him, eventually. And Cadfael. Clever enough, but neither of them would have been anything without me. Their little curses would have been pointless if they hadn't had my amulets. Not fit for the throne, either of them. Too caught up in the old times."

The sound of steel wires falling in quick succession drew Glaw's eyes to one of the room's high set windows. The blimp had begun to rise. The familiar pull and twist of the red circle brought the conversation to a standstill for about five seconds.

"To me, it looks like you're about to do exactly what they were planning," Glaw said when everything had stopped spinning. "How is you bombing the forest any different from the Emperor doing it?"

Adviser Kinsey laughed. "I have no intention of bombing the forest. All I'm planning on doing is taking you troublemakers back home. I'm tired of war."

Glaw looked up at the windows again. By his calculations, he should have been able to see the stars from that angle and he had, but only for a few seconds. 'We're moving too fast. She's doing something to the ship,' he explained to Lykos, after having received a questioning mental nudge.

'Or maybe she isn't. Where is her Captured One?'

"So you're just letting us go?" Bernike asked, every word dripping with skepticism.

"You're free to go, should you wish to. That city of yours holds no interest to me as long as your kin keeps to their side of the barrier. I'm even generous enough to fly you all the way there, before I close the top."

"And drop us off mid-flight?" Vita spat, eyes glowing.

"I'm sure you'd survive it and being such kind-hearted creatures, I know you'll help your human companions reach the ground safely as well."

"Your plan is to trap us inside the barrier?" Glaw asked. Something about the Adviser's self-satisfied smile told him that wasn't the whole story.

"More or less. The war ends and our peoples are kept separate to ensure no new one starts. All I ask in return for this peace is one small boon."

"I can guess what that will be," Demostrate muttered under her breath.

"I'm not as noble as Ithel, I'll admit that," Adviser Kinsey said, her tone light and airy. "I have no interest in dying, ever."

Bernike made her way to the front of the group and locked eyes with the Adviser. "So, either we stay locked in the forest and sacrifice our children to you or we watch you kill our people?"

"That about sums it up, yes."

'I need a chain!' The brush was against Lykos' mind. Not quite words, but strong enough for Glaw to sense too.

The sensation was close to indescribable. Glaw had no words for the how of things, and yet he could feel how Lykos opened to Thais and let her be his first link. 'Next! A longer chain!' Thais' will shuddered through him, tugging at something that was at the back of his mind and at the same time somewhere along his neck. It took very little effort from his side to continue the link.

Aelius' mind felt nothing like Lykos' or Thais'. It was hard to tell what exactly made them different, but they were. Glaw could have picked who was who in a heartbeat if someone were to ask.

'This is very unpleasant,' he thought. No one paid him any mind, the chain stretching further and further, until it was composed of all but Cato and, understandably, Dylis.

'We only get one shot at this, so pay attention!' Thais' voice echoed, as if it at once was far away and right next to his ear. 'Just give me all the power you can spare and let me work.'

Adviser Kinsey was still talking. Glaw couldn't focus on the words, so he had no idea what the topic of conversation was, but Bernike seemed to be keeping up with her without as much as stuttering once. 'How does she do that?'

'Practice.'

'Note to self: stop thinking so loudly.'

There was a tug at his mind that was neither painful nor pleasant. A cry pierced through the chatter inside his head. Adviser Kinsey had fallen to her knees. The red light flickered out in front of her.

<Get her! Destroy the border!> Demostrate shouted, tearing her hand from Aelius' healing grip to point at the Adviser.

'Glaw, get to the controls! Turn us around.'

The room erupted into chaos, the soldiers attacking en masse. Adviser Kinsey pushed herself upright, eyes locked on Thais, who was doing something. Glaw couldn't see what, but he felt it like a loud humming at the back of his head. With steps that made the floor shudder the Adviser began making her way down into the room.

And all Glaw had to fight his way up the staircase was an ancient dagger.

'I'll aid you,' the familiar brush of Lykos' mind said through the roar of power.

'Thanks.'

Glaw ducked a sword and threw himself forward, between an attacking soldier's legs. He kicked backwards and was rewarded with a grunt of pain. Scrambling back onto his feet, he tackled the next soldier, sensing Lykos biting the one next to him.

'One on your left!' he thought at Lykos.

'I'll handle that.' Nikon sent the soldier's head rolling before Glaw could register the direction he'd come from, and was gone into the fray a second later. 'Thank me later, fight now!'

The humming at the back of Glaw’s head was growing louder, drowning out the din of the battle. He lost his dagger in-between the ribs of a tall enemy soldier and a bullet grazed his shoulder. Well at the stairs he was panting and trembling, back completely open.

Lykos kicked the floor, sending a shower of needle sharp splinters to rain down on the closest soldiers. 'Grab my hand!'

The jump nearly pulled Glaw's arm out of its socket, leaving him in a heap at the top of the stairs. 'Give me a second.'

'I'm not sure we have one.'

Glaw looked down at the battle raging through the hall. Myrrine had taken up position at the foot of the stairs, her ax keeping the steps free. Adviser Kinsey and Thais had a clear circle in the middle of everything where they stood staring at each other, the air around them crackling. Dylis was back to back with Bernike just outside that circle, taking swipes at anyone stupid enough to get near Thais.

The rest of the room was a mess. Soldiers threw themselves at the demons, seemingly uncaring of the red light and all the sharp things the demons were throwing at them. Glaw shuddered as he spotted a red seashells hanging around a soldier's neck.

Myrrine took a step further up the stairs. They were losing ground.

Glaw took Lykos' offered hand with his uninjured one and let himself be dragged into the control room. One look at the instruments told him all he needed to know. 'We're drifting. If there was a steering spell, whatever Thais is doing has broken it. Or maybe the pilot's just fled.'

'Can you turn us around?'

The night outside the control room window was a dark blur, dotted with streaks of light. 'We're still going too fast. I turn us now and I can't promise we'll stay in one piece.'

'I'll take care of that.' This voice was new. Glaw couldn't for the life of him place it.

'Good luck, husband.' That was Demostrate.

Glaw's lips formed a tiny 'o'. He couldn't sense where the new addition to their chain was located, but the sensation of strong wind was very clear; the howling of it nearly triumphed over the humming Thais' spell was making.

He could feel Lykos holding his breath. Or maybe he was holding his breath and projecting it. Curses, for all he knew it was Bernike holding her breath! His head ached.

The blimp shook. Glaw was sent tumbling to the floor, Lykos along with him. Grabbing hold of the control panel above, careful not to push any buttons, Glaw pulled himself up high enough to see out the window. There were stars there. Normal stars. He fought the urge to yell "Yes!" very loudly.

'Can you fly this thing?'

'You're asking me that now?' Glaw snorted. 'I've been obsessed with flying things since they were invented, which was before I was born. I know how a blimp works...theoretically.' He took a deep breath. The din of the battle was growing louder. Either that or the hum and the howling of wind was fading. He had no idea which reason he preferred the least. 'I'll just need to-'

'She's closing the barrier!' Thais shouted inside their heads, terror coloring every word. 'She'll crush the city!'

"Oh gods," Glaw said, eyes fixed on the panels and levers before him. He looked up at Lykos. 'Please don't hate me.' He pushed the red lever as far forward as it would go.

'What are you doing?'

'I'm crashing the ship'. Pushing off the control panel, he jumped and grabbed a hold of the door frame, gesturing for Lykos to do the same. 'Big ship, slow controls,' he thought as the cabin slowly began to tilt forward. 'Everybody hold on!'

Through the chain he could sense Thais do something; an attempt at stopping something else that Adviser Kinsey was trying to do. It didn't quite succeed.

Glaw felt his stomach drop, vertigo grabbing a hold of his innards and pulling. The starry night sky came rushing past, the tiny specks of light blurring as the blimp somersaulted. Its metal skeleton creaked and screeched. Outside he caught a glimpse of the ground; still distant, but rushing up to meet them at incredible speed.

The breath was knocked out of his lungs as he crashed against a wall. He lay unmoving for two endless heartbeats before he could make his limbs obey him again. He scrambled for purchase, searching for something, anything to hold onto, as well as frantically trying to locate the others.

'You'd think I'd be used to being dizzy and sick to the stomach by now.' he thought to Lykos, trying to suffocate his panic. 'Brace for impact!'


(Chapter 13)


 

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