(in which some things are true and some are false)

The story so far: Donovan is mostly recovered from grievous wing injuries incurred in previous chapters and is ready to go wreak more pain & suffering upon the worlds at large; Lucius has gone through the latest puberty in the history of the known universe (but still likes milk and cake), Claris et al narrowly saved the Septerra of the past from being engulfed, quite literally, by shadows, and in the process spoke with a mysterious malevolent figure who seems to despise Sean (not that the list of people who despise Sean is in any way short).  Metatron is again MIA.

In this chapter: Many machinations come to fruition & our heroes begin to separate the true from the false, albeit too late to avoid falling into the Clutches of Evil (or at least the Clutches of the Sorely Ill Intentioned).

There was nothing left but water.  A dense network of empty, sticky glasses traced lines across Lucius’s floor, his desk, and the edges of his bed.  These tracks were periodically interrupted by cartons of juice and milk, their last drops drizzling onto the paved rock ground.  Lucius had filled and expunged his bladder so many times he was surprised he had not dissolved into condensation.  Although he could do that anyway, if it was light outside.

However it was dark, and he was alone, and he was frightened.  He missed Leliel, and Donovan also but not as much.  He wanted them there, to distract him from his memories through their comfort and/or abuse.

Shateiel provided Lucius with nothing, but then he was like that with everybody.  Possibly Shateiel was around, but engaged in some activity that required immaculate silence and attention (like naming the individual pores on his face), because when Lucius called, no one came.  And he had been calling a lot, for anyone, for anything, and ended up with only the sound of his own cracked voice as it echoed in the caves.  Lucius needed someone to tell him that it would be all right, preferably once every hour.  He would also have enjoyed a piece of cake.

But none of that was available, so he liquidated the refrigerator’s liquids into his stomach and listened to his body stretch and creak.  Periodically Lucius checked the mirror to observe the subtle but rapid changes—lengthening hair, emerging muscles, eyes which shrunk and settled into the freshly narrowed angles of his face.  By the end of the day he was a foot taller, and he suspected there was more to endure.

While his bones shifted and rearranged, a gauntlet of afterimages haunted him: the tender ache of premature wings, tentatively stretched towards the sun.  Cheerful encouragement from his mother, even when the sky rejected him and he crashed to the earth, his mouth stained with soil, tasting dirt for hours afterward.

The sight of blood splashing onto his shirt like spilt juice.  Feathers from his mother’s wings, obscuring his vision as she screamed, screamed, screamed.

Tears dripped down his cheeks, and as the salt touched his lips he again became aware of his environment.  He had oscillated between the states of past and present, shifting phase like shadows playing against a rock, ever since Leliel left.  He needed her back, to anchor him in the right now, to stop the writhing of his new muscles.

“It hurts,” he whispered. “And I have nothing to drink.”

Lucius navigated his mess uneasily, aiming for the doorway.  When he reached it, he gripped a couple of jutting rocks for support and tried to close the Pandora’s box that had opened in his brain.  All the evil he had pushed out had flooded back into him, and every tear he couldn’t let himself shed had come with it, like rain to lightning.

“Hello?” he called out.  “Shateiel, are you home?  Is anybody home?”

“No,” Shateiel said. “This isn’t home.  But I am here, as always.”

Startled, Lucius almost lost his balance.  The rocks cut his fingertips as he tightened his grip.  Shateiel had appeared beside him noiselessly.

Crazy angel ninja, Lucius thought.  Master of angel-fu.

“Have you been here the … whole time?”

“You mean while you’ve been wailing and decimating our fridge?” Shateiel said mildly. “Yes.”

“But then—”

“You need to get through this on your own.  We can’t help you,” Shateiel said.  His tone was matter of fact, neither unkind nor sympathetic.

“I feel like my body is imploding,” Lucius said. “There is a party inside me and everyone is choking to death.”

“That’s commonly referred to as adolescence,” Shateiel said. “For which you are long overdue.”

Shateiel offered nothing more on the subject, having exhausted his reservoir of words for now.  He receded back towards wherever he was before, and Lucius limped into the kitchen alone.

He bent over the sink and continued to cry, until he was as airless and dry as bottle of sand.  And even then, more sobs wanted expression, but he couldn’t accommodate them.  They would have to wait until he drank more water.

He hiccupped and slunk down against the sink to rest and wait, crying quietly into a full glass.


My ears popped.  The fire of the spell sizzled and spat.  It was nearly upon my back, about to roast the flesh off my spine, when Sean’s wings encircled me.  Cadmiel crashed to his knees beside us, his dour face bright with surprise.  Six wings had burst from Sean’s body, three of which surrounded me in a protective barrier.  The feathers deflected the spell and it fizzled out harmlessly.

My ears settled.  I exhaled.

“Are you all right?” Sean said dully.

“Yes,” I answered, and clutched his waist ever tighter.

Behind us, the priests’ frightened shock quelled their rage.  They knelt in supplication, quivering.

“I think it’s time to go,” Cadmiel said.

Curiously enough, the words hadn’t finished falling from his mouth when the scene changed and we were deposited in my backyard.

“Right.  Very good,” Cadmiel said, as if he had arranged it.

“Have we again cheated the razor’s edge of Death’s reaper?” Damien moaned.  His sallow skin had a ruddy tint to it, and he was able to stand and walk without support.  The pallor of a sickly ghost remained, but he no longer looked as though he were actually composed of vapor.  With an erratic, clumsy gait he crossed the lawn and climbed onto the deck, where he squinted into my windows.  As we followed tiredly behind, he called, “I believe we’ve found Alistair and Necavi.”

They were sitting peaceably at my kitchen table, playing cards.

“Halllooo!” Alistair shouted when we came inside.

Sean stretched out over the couch like a sheet of tarpaulin, his six wings shedding feathers onto the carpet and the cats which slept there.

“How’s everybody doin’?” Alistair said cheerfully.

“I’m going to take a nap,” Anael mumbled.

“Sounds like a plan,” Cadmiel agreed.

They dragged themselves off to parts unknown, in search of furniture with pillows.

Damien reached into the cupboard above the fridge and took down an untouched jug of port.

“Hello, Alistair,” he said, after an inaugural swig, “Good to see that the cruel, gnarled hand of fate has not seen fit to strike you down just yet.”

“Yup!” Alistair said.

“Though not for lack of trying,” Necavi muttered.

“That you still live is proof of the world’s injustice,” Damien said to Necavi, though without any particular rancor.

“I can’t argue that,” Necavi said.

During this exchange I began to process what had just happened.  Obviously, destroying the crystal had worked because Damien and the others looked relatively solid.  But the snap back—and the snap there—they were both so quick and convenient.  I wondered if there wasn’t a method to this madness.  But if so, what method exactly, and whose?

I took a seat by Sean on the sofa’s arm.  He was covering his face with his hands and breathing carefully.  He was always enduring so much pain.

I closed the blinds and switched off the overhead lights, and then I brought him a comforter, which I gently set across him.

Tialiel observed this quietly, his eyes trailing me as I moved here and there.  When I had finished trying to ease Sean’s recovery, I appraised the status of our pantry.

“Muffin for your thoughts?” I said to Tialiel, and held out a blueberry muffin encrusted with sugar, an offer I knew he couldn’t refuse.

“Ooh,” he said.  He nibbled it delicately as he talked. “It’s just, I’m not surprised Orifiel is a seraphim.  His parents were.  It’s just … it reminds me of Cadmiel.” Tialiel’s eyes slid from side to side furtively. “But don’t repeat that.”

“Why?” I said.

“Because he’d cut me, that’s why.”

“No, I mean, why does all this with Sean remind you of Cadmiel?”

“Oh—well—because … because Cadmiel’s full set of wings didn’t show up right away either,” Tialiel said. “I know it seems like a little thing, but really, it’s rare—‘cause wings are a big determinant in your role in life, see.  Angelic life, I mean, obviously.”

“Oh,” I said, not really gelling with the concept but able to accept that it was of grave importance.

“See … the wings are a lot more than just, like, appendages we use to fly,” Tialiel tried to explain. “They’re the anchors of our earthly flesh and the containers of our spiritual essence.  Even though the properties of our powers run through our blood, the source is in our wings.”

“So … blood is like a river to the wings, which are like an ocean?  Kinda?” I said.

“Kinda, yes,” Tialiel said.  “Anyway, as you saw, even a single feather has immense magical potency.  Thus, angels with six wings—seraphim—have the biggest ‘ocean’ of power from which to draw, and so are given the greatest responsibilities in our society.”

He paused. “Though I can’t imagine Sean exactly blending in with the established group.”

“Isn’t Metatron a seraphim too?” I said. “They’re not out of place next to each other.”

“Oh,” Tialiel said. “Yes, I suppose that’s true.”

“Are you talking shit about me?” Sean said, between his fingers.

“Not at all,” Tialiel said.  Stiffly, he added, “You look elegant with all those wings.”

I didn’t really believe that elegant was the exact word Tialiel wanted, but the effect of Sean’s long purple hair, deep olive skin, and the surfeit of pure white feathers was striking.

He let his arms drop to his sides limply, and lay there as tragically morose as any classical painting. “Now I’ve got even more bird parts to deal with.  I wish they’d just disappear.”

Astonished, Tialiel said, “They’re not ‘bird parts,’ they’re—”

“Yes, yes, spiritual essence blah blah blood and bullshit,” Sean yawned. “To me they’re a nuisance.  I’d cut them straight off if it didn’t mean I would fucking die.”  He glowered at his wings moodily, suggesting that he was working past the fear of that handicap.

“You ought to be grateful,” Tialiel said quietly. “They are a sign of your power.”

“Feels more like a yoke around my neck.”

Tialiel nodded. “Sometimes power can be like that.”

At that moment, Tialiel had a premonition.  Either that or a heart attack.

He stiffened as though afflicted with rigor mortis, and for the next full minute I never saw his chest rise or fall with breath.  When the episode passed, he blinked rapidly and said, “I’d better go wake up Cadmiel.”


Leliel and Donovan were not surprised when the consuming shadows disappeared, or when they were immediately yanked back to Claris’s present time following that disappearance.

It troubled Leliel to think what would have happened had Orifiel and the others failed to find and destroy the crystal, though.  Eventually that darkness would have swallowed the entire world, and the cathedrals with it.  They all could have been lost.  She mentioned this to Donovan, who replied, “I’d say we ought to trust him, but that would be an unconvincing lie.  He probably considers all of us expendable.”

“You sound like you’ve known that since we got started with this thing,” Leliel said uncomfortably.

“I have,” Donovan said. “We’re not trying to bring about a new world order of sugar and rainbows, Lily.  We’re trying to incite the god damn apocalypse.”

Briefly, Leliel considered that maybe she preferred the sweetly loopy version of Donovan, until she reminded herself that his behavior was accompanied by great physical and emotional strain.  She didn’t wish those things on him, even if they did inspire a softer tint to his personality.  She supposed she’d have to rely on Lucius for levity.

Oh God.


Leliel leapt off of the highway onto which they had shifted and took flight.  Donovan kept pace with her and yelled over the sound swallowing winds, “What’s the matter?”

“Shamshiel!” she cried back.

Although she knew that she was as far from God’s grace as could be theoretically possible, she prayed for his sanity.  Or even just his safety.

Leliel barreled into their underground home with Donovan close behind.

Lucius was passed out in front of the sink, his cheeks flushed from tears, an empty glass clenched in one hand.  With some difficulty due to his increased height and weight, Leliel gathered him up and carried him to his room, where she picked through the maze of cartons and cups in restrained horror.

She tucked him in and began to clear away the debris, her heart stinging with remorse.  She had not thought of him the whole time she was gone, only of Donovan.  She had failed him.

“Forgive me, Shamshiel,” Leliel whispered, as she traced the newly aged outlines of his chin and cheekbones. “I’ll take care of you now.”

“You’d remind me of my mother, if she wasn’t completely worthless,” Donovan remarked.

“Thank you, unless that was an insult,” Leliel said.

“I just don’t understand,” Donovan went on. “I don’t understand why.”

“Because,” Leliel said.

She left Lucius to sleep and began to walk towards her own bed.  Donovan followed, listening for an answer.

“Because why not?” she said at last, lamely. “Why should we go about this in total despair?  We’re doing something good.  We’re doing the same kinds of things as God, really.  Just … think of it like Sodom and Gomorrah.  Except for … everybody.”

Donovan shrugged. “And here I thought we were just destroying countless lives for the hell of it.”

Leliel frowned at him. “Nevermind.  Goodnight, Ireul.”

As she turned, he caught her wrist and leaned forward.  Donovan kissed Leliel on the bridge of her nose, light and brief, and then stepped away.  “Thanks for not thinking I’m expendable.”

Leliel had lived for thousands of years, but just then she felt no older than sixteen.  She blushed as she buried herself in her pillows and sheets.

“Idiot,” she muttered fiercely.


Tialiel wouldn’t reveal any details of his premonition until we found and woke up Cadmiel, who was resting comfortably on an upstairs couch.  Sean observed the tranquil image of Cadmiel, his posture serene and his jacket spread out as a blanket across his chest, and then kicked the man in the head.

“Wake the fuck up,” Sean said.

“Why would you do that,” Cadmiel groaned, clutching his jacket in confusion and pain.

“Your tranquility offended me.”

“Sincerest apologies for my grievous error,” Cadmiel said. “What’s the matter?”

“I had a vision,” Tialiel said.  His hands were wrung together so tightly that I couldn’t tell where one set of fingers began and the other ended.

“Oh, really,” Cadmiel said. “You still have those?”

“Haha,” Tialiel said, but he relaxed visibly, allowing the Chinese finger trap of his entwined hands to unlock as he explained the vision.

Due to my limited exposure to Heaven, I barely understood a word Tialiel said.  His visions were like fragmented dreams, in that they showed him impressions, feelings, and briefly animated sequences, rather than a cohesive series of events.  He stumbled through an awkward description to Cadmiel, in which he talked of white rooms, auras of dread, screens buzzing with encoded information, darkened laboratories, and a female silhouette trapped in a glass coffin.  The result, to my mind, was some combination of Blade Runner and Snow White.

However, the disjointed narrative was perfectly clear to Cadmiel, who said, “We’d better get up there, then.”

“Wait.  Back up the doomsday truck,” Sean interrupted. “What the fuck did you even just say?  What’s gonna happen?”

“I don’t know exactly,” Tialiel said sheepishly. “That’s not always how it works.”

“What’s gonna happen is I will yet again be deprived of rest,” Cadmiel said. “Let’s go.”

Tialiel left to find Anael, and Sean took my hand.

“Bzzt,” Cadmiel said, striking Sean’s wrist so that he let go of me. “Claris isn’t coming.”

“Why not?” Sean hissed.  He massaged his wrist in a wounded fashion.

“Because she’s not supposed to be there.  Alistair and the others can protect her while we’re gone.”

“If she’s not going, I’m not either.”

“Let me take a moment to care,” Cadmiel said. “All right, moment over.”

“If you choose to remain, you will only prolong this situation,” Anael said. “Our presence, the reality melting, et cetera.  Tialiel’s seen something that could prove vital, but we may not be able to access it without you.”

Sean hesitated, looking from me to the angels. “All right, fine.  But let’s go quickly.”

“Bye bye,” I said.  I wasn’t exactly disappointed—Heaven unnerved me, and during my last visit it had been obvious that I wasn’t part of its relentlessly pure design.  But I worried about separating from Sean.

“We won’t be long,” Cadmiel said to me, and I was comforted by the apology in his tone.  I didn’t know whether to call the angels my friends or just people with whom I was forced to spend my time.  I wanted to call them friends, if only because we had gone through so much together.  But at that time, I had no idea what they thought of me.  They seemed to hold me at arm’s length, but not arrogantly, not as though I was a lower being with whom they deigned to associate.  They regarded me as something they didn’t quite understand.  I guess in that respect we were equal.

I had nothing to do now but wait.  I dragged my cat Spots into my lap and stroked her back anxiously.  She purred and rubbed her head against my chest, unknowing and grateful.

“I hate just sitting here,” Necavi said.  He pushed a black rook across the chessboard.  “We ought to do something.”

“We are doing something,” Alistair said.  He frowned at the board, hovering over different pieces and choices.  I could almost hear the squeak of tiny gears cranking uneasily in his brain.  Cerebral competitions weren’t his strong point.  He nudged a pawn forward, and cringed when Necavi smirked in triumph.  A few moves later, Necavi declared checkmate.

“That’s the eleventh game in a row,” Alistair said sadly.

“Not all minds are evolved to grasp the subtle complexities of chess,” Necavi said.

Alistair brushed off the insult. “Well, it passes the time!”

“As does slowly peeling off my skin, and yet, I am not doing that,” Necavi said. “Though I’ve little doubt that the sensation would be preferable to playing chess with you.”

Necavi slid his mismatched gaze over to me. “You there.  Girl.  Want to give it a shot?”

“Peeling off your skin or playing chess?” I quipped, nervously.

He smiled, slow and feline. “Either or.”

“N-no thanks,” I said. “I’m not very good at abstract thinking or flaying human skin.”

“Pity,” Necavi said. “I’d challenge Damien, but I suspect he’d be unable to differentiate the white pieces from the black.  Or even understand that there are chess pieces in front of him at all.”

He nodded at Damien, who was currently hunched over the kitchen table, mumbling soundlessly.  The jug of port was nearly empty.  I sighed.  In the game, Damien’s drunken antics were a source of comic relief.  At the moment they were tiresome and a little bit worrying.  His liver should have staged a mutiny by now.

“His organs are nearly indestructible,” Necavi said. “That’s why he’ll never stop.”

“How’s that?” I said.

Necavi shrugged. “Privilege of being a half breed, I suppose.  Best of both worlds without the aftertaste, genetically speaking.”

The next few minutes passed with Necavi meticulously rearranging the chessboard until there was no sign of the beating he had just handed down to Alistair.

“You know,” he said. “Our return to this place was really quite inconvenient.”

“Wh-what were you doing?” I said, remembering their brief affair in my guest bedroom.  Maybe I didn’t want to know.

“Making a spell,” Alistair said.

“More precisely, seeking the knowledge to create the spell,” Necavi said. “We were headed for the Ice Library.”

In Septerra, each of the seven elemental deities owned a residence of sorts.  Although the general public wasn’t exactly forbidden, none of the places had welcome mats out front either.  Madefieri, the proprietor of the Ice Library, was particularly reclusive.  He didn’t like anyone to browse his shelves without first getting his explicit permission.  I imagined that Necavi would have little trouble, but I wasn’t so sure about Alistair.

Besides that, the library floated eternally on the Mareilgran, the most expansive ocean of that world.  The only thing more difficult than being allowed in was finding it at all.

“We had its doors in sight when we were teleported to your kitchen,” Alistair said.

“Well, Alistair thought he saw the doors,” Necavi said. “It may well have been a curiously shaped iceberg.”

“Hey now—I might have an obvious brain or whatever, but if I know some stuff, then it’s definitely stuff about navigating.  It’s in my blood!”

I guessed that he meant ‘oblivious.’

“Wasn’t your mother lost while on a quest somewhere, and then your father as well when he tried to find her?” Necavi said.

“Yes—but—my mother had many successful quests, she wrote books,” Alistair insisted. “That last one was just, real hard, probably.”

Necavi’s tone softened, as if he recognized that he was approaching a line. “Yes, I have no doubt.”

In times past, Necavi would not only have crossed this line but done a fanciful jig and then spat on either side.  That he chose to avoid it altogether was a mark of their changed relationship.

“What kind of spell?” I said.

“One like the spell I was attempting to weave seven years ago,” Necavi said.

“Back when he was still evil,” Alistair said.

“Once darkness taints a man’s heart, the mark cannot ever be fully erased,” Damien moaned.  “It lingers on, like scar tissue …”

Necavi rolled his eyes. “Anyway, the spell combined fragments of the elemental houses together with a blood sacrifice.  According to legend, the accompanying ritual would invoke enough power to obliterate the world.”

“Which you were gonna do cos you were bitter and mean with grief over your wife and son’s deaths,” I said.

“Yes,” Necavi said. “But obviously that plan changed.”

“We were hoping to figure out how to use that power against our shadowy nemeses,” Alistair said, making grand hand gestures for effect.

“That sounds pretty good,” I said slowly. “But if you were trying to, uh, harness, such a power, wouldn’t the world be obliterated anyway?  Since that’s what it does?”

“We thought we could find a workaround,” Alistair said.

“Or just sacrifice this world,” Necavi said lightly. “Only need one.”

“I think I have to veto that plan,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter for the moment anyway.  We were interrupted in media res, as I explained,” Necavi said.

“Isn’t all this actually pretty convenient, though?” I said.  “We come home just as we set old Septerra to rights, y’all get thrown back while you’re working on some mission or other …”

“It does reek of circuitous evil plan, doesn’t it?” Damien said.  “Alas, we are no more able to pull the strings of destiny than the chess pieces on that board.”

“Yup,” I said.

Spots kneaded my thighs and meowed up at me, quizzically, which was her way of asking me why she wasn’t being fed.

“Poor baby,” I cooed. “Are you hungry?  Yes you are.  Yes you are.”

I carried her to the kitchen, followed by the stares of my guests, which I ignored.  I wasn’t going to be cowed by a bunch of video game characters, particularly not the drunk who spoke like a goth Nostradamus.

A bag of dry food was open beneath the sink.  I swept a plastic cup through the bag and bent to fill the cat bowl.

No sooner had the kibble hit the Tupperware than did the scenery shift around me.  The room I suddenly stood in was about the size of a football field, if football fields were made of marble instead of grass.  The roof was supported by Grecian columns and it was painted to look like the night sky.  The night sky of Septerra.  I was in the foyer of the royal palace in Mecca, a fact confirmed a moment later when I was surrounded by armored men and women, all brandishing lances.  A few of them pointed their weapons at my throat and they might have been looking at me grimly, but their expressions were hidden by their feathered helmets.

I shook so hard I thought the chain of my pendant might break.  I crouched on the floor with my arms over my head, so that the pendant swung out from my chest.  The purple stone caught the light of the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and its many facets glittered.  I couldn’t even squeak out a plea for my life.  Instead I whimpered in a tinny voice until the guards lowered their lances.  Actually I kept whimpering for a few seconds after that, thinking in some primal place that the guards were only stepping aside for something worse.

But it was only Prince Alair.  I hadn’t heard him call the guards to stand down because of my paralyzing fear.

“Hello,” he said. “Have we met?”

His eyes were on the pendant.  Everyone’s were, I realized, or seemed to be.  They watched it sparkle as if transfixed.

“Um, once before, yes,” I said.  “It’s been about a month now I think.”

I had to pause before I said that and work it out.  I couldn’t believe that everything so far had happened in only a month, but there it was.  The angels had shown up on my porch in May, and it was now less than a week into June back home.  But then, I’d spent a lot of time between worlds, and time didn’t flow the same everywhere, so maybe it was actually more than a month—

“Claris?” Alair said.

I blinked, then nodded.

“You look different.  Because you’re not wearing a dress.”

I remembered that Alair wasn’t let out much.  I was only wearing my jean shorts and my t-shirt, both of which were so worn that I was convinced the threads held together through my own willpower.  They had suffered much, these clothes.  Alair looked at them the way a person would look at a rotten banana, his nose wrinkled, biting his lower lip.  Except that most people had the social grace to disguise faces like that.  I would have felt offended, but the paralyzing fear thing hadn’t quite gone away.  I kept hoping that someone would pop out from behind a pillar, one of the angels, or Damien, or even Delilah, just anyone I could conceivably cling to during whatever new mess this was.

“Claris,” Alair said again. “You can stand up.”

My knees did hurt.  Alair offered me his hand and helped me up.

“I’m alone,” I said stupidly.  The words echoed off of the marble and ivory.

“I see,” Alair said.  He was smiling now, the prospect of company—and information—overwhelming any misgivings about my clothes.  “I was just about to eat dinner.  Won’t you join me?”

“Um, sure,” I said, not thinking I really had a choice.  The guards trailed us as Alair led me to the dining room, which was only slightly smaller than the foyer.  A long table which took up most of the room’s length was piled with attractive platters of food: carved beef, apple wedges arranged around oranges cut like roses, potatoes glistening with butter, a basket of steaming bread.  I felt sharp, longing pains in my stomach.

Alair pulled out one of the chairs, which was highbacked and inlaid with red, perfumed velvet cushions.  I sat down and breathed in the scent of lavender and fresh butter.  Forget that sterile place Sean was visiting, this was heaven.

Alair dismissed the guards and sat down across from me.  His chair was made entirely out of cushions—not an edge of wood anywhere.  It looked at once comfortable and suffocating.

“Go on,” he said. “Have some.”

I swallowed and then reached for a bread roll.  I bit into it, and sighed as the soft, flaky dough melted on my tongue.

“So tell me what’s going on,” Alair said. “The people have been kinda panicked since you left.  Or, um, so I’ve been told.”

“I, I don’t know that we’re any closer to a solution now than we were then,” I said. “What’s been happening here?”

“They don’t let me out, you know.  I have to go on rumor,” Alair said bitterly. “But the elementals appeared to us—them.  They said an unknown force was trying to unravel the fabrics of our world.  That this force was the reason for all the strange things going on.”

“Strange things?”

“I’ve heard that a lot of people have been vanishing lately.  Sometimes with their whole house in tow.  And other people and things have been showing up.  It’s causing a worldwide panic,” He paused. “Not that I know for sure.”

“I think you’ve probably got it,” I said.  I kept eating while we talked, working my way through several helpings of potatoes, two slices of meat, and more fruit wedges than any one person needed in a single sitting.  I would have eaten everything in front of me if my stomach hadn’t reminded me that it was the only one I’d got and it was quickly approaching critical mass.  I groaned regretfully and pushed away the fine china.

“Dessert?” Alair grinned.

“Maybe later,” I said.  My nerves were up again.  Now that I was full, the facts of my situation were coming up again, much like the nausea in my stomach.  None of my friends had shown up and I had the feeling that they weren’t going to—at least not any time soon.

“Umm,” I said. “Do you have a bathroom anywhere?”

“Of course,” he said. “Why don’t we find something better for you to wear while we’re at it.”

“I like these clothes,” I muttered.

“They are very interesting,” Alair said. “But maybe you would like them washed.”
“Spose they wouldn’t mind that,” I said.

We walked up the grand stairwell in the center of the foyer.  Its steps were the same marble as the floor, and carpeted with red velvet like the chairs.  My sneakers sunk into the velvet agreeably.  It was obvious that this palace was Alair’s cage.  But at least it was really, really gilded.

A couple of female servants bowed to us as the top of the stairs.  They took me by the elbows and brought me down the corridor, while Alair hung back and waved.

“Wh-what’s going on,” I said. “I just wanted the bathroom.”

“And that’s where we’re going.  We’re here to help you clean up,” said the girl to my right.  Her hair was baby pink and tied back in a ponytail.

“He hasn’t had any visitors since the last time you were here,” the left one said.  Her hair was dark green and fell to her waist in tight ringlets. “Sad, huh?”

“Why is he locked up so tight?” I asked.  I knew he was royalty and all, but damn.  The servants exchanged glances.

“That’s not for us to say, miss,” Ponytail said. “This way, please.”

Ponytail and Ringlet brought me to a room at the end of the corridor.  They sat me down on a perfectly arranged bed—queen sized, four posters, covered with warm pink and deep purple pillows and sheets.  I ran my fingers over the material—all silk and satin and smelling of limes and coconuts.  I lay back on the bed and all of my muscles dissolved.  I felt limp and helpless and good, like the bread going down my throat.

“Oh, can’t sleep yet, miss,” said Ringlet.  “You still have to change.”

I whined a little, then stiffened when the two women yanked me up and started to pull off my jeans and t-shirt.

“Hey, don’t—” I said, but I’d barely gotten the words out before I was completely naked in front of two strangers.  I hated being naked in front of my cats.  Terrified, I hugged myself while the women giggled.

“Sweetie, you have to bathe first.  Come on now,” Ponytail pried my hands off of my chest and pulled me towards a porcelain tub which was filled with fragrant, bubbly water.  I hid under the water eagerly, burning so much with shame that I felt the water boil.  I heard the servant girls chuckling still, and caught something about my eating habits, my ass, and limiting it.  Bitches.  I prodded my generous flesh.  My stomach, in particular, donated regularly to at least three charities.  Well, whatever.  We can’t have all have waists like ponytail holders.

They let me soak for less than half an hour before they came back in to drag me out.

“Isn’t that much better?” Ringlet said.

They attacked me with large, fluffy towels before I could respond.  Their skinny arms were astonishingly strong.  I marveled at it too much to feel ashamed that women I didn’t know were roughing me up in my birthday suit.

(wasn’t i just in my house?  wasn’t i just feeding my cats?)

The women helped me into a gauzy robe and then tied a sash around my waist.  I felt the panic rising again.

“H-has anyone else shown up?” I asked.

“No, sugar, not that I know of,” Ponytail said. “Expectin’ somebody?”

“Hoping for, more like,” I said.

“I know the Prince isn’t exactly graceful,” Ringlet said, carefully. “But to try to be nice to him, if you could.”

“Seems like everyone here already is nice to him,” I said.

“Sure, we love him,” Ringlet said. “But we don’t ever talk to him.” She laughed.  Clearly I was the best entertainment these people had ever had.

“Well, why not?”

“You’re too much, sweetie,” said Ponytail.  “Come on now, the Prince is waiting for you.”

At least all the manhandling would come to an end.  We went up another stairwell and into a sitting room where Alair waited, drumming his fingers on his knees.  A half-full bowl of sugared plums was in front of him on a coffee table.  I squeezed my stomach.  Mustn’t touch.

Alair’s seat, like the one in the dining room, was made entirely out of plush cushions.  It really looked like a couple of satin bean bags stuck together.  A small child could have gotten lost in there.

“Can’t you tell me anything else about what’s going on?” he pleaded.

“I told you, I don’t even know that much,” I said. “Not why, not how, not who.  Although I do think all of those are involved.”

He sank back into his cushions, frustrated. “I want to do something.”

Fanfiction writers often speculated on why Alair was kept locked in the palace.  The game had never explained it, in fact it had only been mentioned by a couple of non-player characters and then only after clicking on them extensively.  So, naturally, a number of writers had written tragic yet ultimately triumphant romantic stories pairing Alair with either themselves or with a random member of the cast (the Al/Al fandom was particularly robust), in which true love was blocked by Alair’s predicament.

Explanations were varied.  One story suggested that Alair was a werewolf, and was kept confined both to protect the people of Mecca and to conceal the royal family’s shame.  Another writer theorized that he was a vampire, which would at least account for why his game sprite was two shades paler than anyone else’s.  I hadn’t noticed any fangs in his mouth, though.

I thought about the cushion chair, and then looked closely at the table.  Its edges were rounded and covered with gold fabric.  I rubbed the arms of my chair, which was cherry wood and also round-edged.  I started looking around for something that tapered into a sharp point and found nothing.

Why hadn’t I noticed this before?  Was I retarded?

Alair had continued talking while my mind wandered.  Something about how no one could understand his plight, how difficult it was to be a prince and yet unable to influence anything, how he had to view the world through misty glass, etc. etc.  He was waving his hands wildly as he prattled on.  His gloved hands.  Hmm.

Congratulations, rpgurlfan84.  Your heartbreaking tale of love between Alair and a mysteriously beautiful stranger, made tragic by Alair’s severe hemophilia, was accurate in at least one sense.  At least that seemed the logical explanation.

“Claris, are you listening?” Alair asked in consternation.

“Umm, yes, that su-sucks,” I said.  Before he went on, I added, “Just, um, just wondering, though—why is it exactly that you’re not allowed out?”

He looked at his hands with embarrassment. “Well, there are a few reasons … I mean, I’m the only heir to Mecca, first of all.”

“And second of all?”

Alair peeled off one of his gloves.  Tracks of poorly healed cuts ran across the skin over his fingers and palm.

“My skin is really delicate … it’s what we call convellusus corium—shattering skin disease.  Even brushing against a sharp edge can cut me, in multiple places.  And, once they’re open, the cuts just don’t stop bleeding.”

“There’s no medicine for it?”

“Actually,” he said confidentially, “That’s why you haven’t met my father, King Alaric.  He’s traveling to another continent to meet up with a group of scientists who have found a cure.”

He pronounced the word ‘scientists’ like it was foreign.  Aside from Mecca’s location, Septerra in general was still suspicious of scientific discovery.  Most of their technology, including everything that had a mirror in my world, ran on magic.  This was fine for something like a car or a lightbulb, but it had set back considerably other areas of development.  Only a few skilled healers actually knew the body worked—the rest gave it up to invocations to the elemental spirits.  At least until recently.

Some continents were more advanced than others, but Mecca was about as far from anything as it could possibly be.  And it was the only kingdom on this small, southern continent.

“Did you ever ask the spirits for help?” I said.

“They wouldn’t,” Alair said.  “Or couldn’t … I don’t know.  We tried to call on Moraetas, but she said certain things were beyond her power.  But that might’ve been a nice way of saying no … after all, what can possibly be beyond a goddess?”

I shrugged.

“When my father returns and I’m cured, I want to make a pilgrimage to Nonluna.”

“It’s pretty there,” I said.

“I’ve always wanted to see it.  You met all the elementals, right?  You were in their rooms?”

I nodded. “That’s where I got this pendant …” I held it out to him.  The stone had turned blue, presumably from soaking in the bath.  He touched the stone reverently, and a ripple of black spread through the stone’s facets.

“This is a summoning stone, right?” Alair said. “I’ve read about these.”

“Yup,” I said. “I’m, uh, not very good with it, though.”

“Summoning is very difficult.  I mean, the book I read about it said it was.”

“It takes a lot out of you,” I said.  I yawned.  Sitting around eating rich foods and taking hot baths took it out of me too, apparently. “D’you mind if I sleep here?”

Alair beamed. “Claris, you can stay here as long as you like.  In fact, I insist.”


Lucius was feeling better.  Leliel had baked him a chocolate cake and bought another carton of milk.  He ate and drank while she watched him, her eyes concerned.

“Do you need anything else?” she asked.  He shook his head no.

She didn’t look away from him.  His hair was long and shaggy, his limbs freshly muscled, his voice lined with grit.  He was almost a foot taller.

Lucius was not sure he liked Leliel’s stare.  Her red eyes, so intensely focused on his movements, were making heat rise in his cheeks and also in other places he didn’t want to think about.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Leliel said, so soft and worried that Lucius found it hard to breathe and listen at the same time.

“’M fine,” he muttered, hating the little pebbles that had taken up in his throat.

Donovan walked up behind Lucius and pulled a lock of his fire engine hair.

“Oww,” Lucius choked on a bite of cake.  He swallowed hard, then swiveled around and punched Donovan in the chest, surprising them both with the force.

“Damn,” Donovan said. “Stand up.”

“Cake,” Lucius said.  He cut into another chunk with his fork.  Donovan grabbed a fistful of Lucius’s shirt and brought him to his feet.

“You’re taller than me,” he said in dismay. “Lily, he’s taller than me.”

“Put him down, Ireul,” Leliel said.

He let Lucius go.  Lucius returned to his milk and cake.

“Finish up.  We’ve got work to do.”

“Don’t you think we need a break?” Leliel said.

“We’ve had our vacation.  Come on.”

“I wouldn’t call what we’ve just been through a vacation,” Leliel said.

Donovan grinned lopsided at her. “Well, I had fun.”

His wings were mostly healed, well enough for him to fly short distances and shining with brand new feathers.  He flexed them with pleasure, and Leliel could see the scar tissue that ringed the base of his wingbones.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Remember the floating island?” he said.  She nodded. “There again.”

Lucius brightened. “That place was pretty.”

“Is Shateiel coming?” Leliel asked.  “I haven’t seen him around.”

Donovan shrugged, but, as if summoned, Shateiel appeared from the recesses of the cave. “I’m here.”

Donovan’s grin widened, threatening to split his face.  Tonight he would collect on what was owed to him.


“God, I hate this place,” Sean said.

“Say that a little louder, I don’t think the entire street heard you,” Cadmiel hissed, as various heads turned to frown at Sean.

“Okay,” he said, opening his mouth to shout.  Cadmiel clapped a hand over his face and squeezed his jaw.

“The more trouble you make, the longer it will be before we can leave,” Cadmiel said.  “So I suggest you make every effort to observe the basic tenets of decorum while you’re here.”

“It’s too clean,” Sean mumbled. “Hurts my eyes.”

The dirt on the soles of his boots stuck there, as though the pristine sidewalk were simply immune to it.  The air absorbed sweat and breath, purifying every unpleasant odor into a harmless, scentless breeze.  The walls of the buildings glimmered and sparked in the light, so harsh and clean that Sean could see his reflection down to the smallest and most unbearable detail.

“My pores are huge,” he said, prodding his cheeks as they climbed a small set of steps and entered a building which looked no different than any of the buildings around it.

“Mine too,” Tialiel sighed.

“This way,” Cadmiel said, leading them down fluorescent lit halls that were traveled silently by unfamiliar and harried faces.

“Everyone looks like they’re getting ready for a funeral,” Sean observed.

“We’re not the only individuals around who are apprised of the situation,” Anael said. “And God probably isn’t answering his voice mail.”

“Does God ever answer his voice mail?” Sean said.

“Sure, if you leave the right message,” Cadmiel said.

“But how can any of us ask the right question when we hardly know what’s happening,” Tialiel said helplessly.

“Getting anything yet?” Cadmiel asked him.  They had stopped walking and now stood in front of what appeared to be a blank wall.  Tialiel ran his fingers along the wall’s surface.

“Here,” he said, and his thumb sank into the wall suddenly, causing a door-shaped section to swing open. “Through here.”

“This is the part where y’all lead me into a dark room and beat me to death, isn’t it?” Sean said.

“Why would I wait for the obscurity of a dark room to beat you to death?” Cadmiel said.


The doorway brought them not a sinister room but to another corridor, this one short and dimly lit.  For the first time since entering Heaven, Sean felt a pang of apprehension.  Here was a place they should not be, a hallway of not merely restricted but fully denied access.  It was like breaking into a dead man’s locked attic.  Cadmiel and Tialiel knew it too, even more acutely than Sean, but Tialiel walked on to the door at the end of the hall.  Anael, for his part, was positively glowing with excitement.

Tia turned the knob and they walked inside, and what they found there unsettled Sean down to the twitch in his knuckles.

A mad dentist’s chair was in the middle of the room: the tool tray was lined with sharp, rusty implements, and the chair itself was draped in cables as thick and plentiful as kudzu.  The cables ran along the floor, hooking up to a series of monitors that lined the east wall.

“This is what I was shown,” Tialiel said. “This room, and how to get here.” He paused. “I think there’s more than one way.  I think doorways exist throughout the city.  But I don’t know who set them up or used them.”

Cadmiel bent over the console beneath the monitor matrix.  He frowned thoughtfully at the multicolored keyboard, jabbed a few keys, pressed on the monitor screens, and finally shrugged. “It doesn’t work.”

“Uh, duhhh,” Sean said. “There’s another door back here.  Well, I guess it’s more like a portal.”

“Relax,” Cadmiel said. “There must be some clue in here.”

He moved to the chair and picked through the implements: a sharp pick, razorblades, small mirrors, a wicked miniature claw, clamps, electrodes, strips of dirty gauze …

“You make anything out of this, Anael?” he asked.

Anael had been curiously silent, his earlier enthusiasm suddenly muted.  Ordinarily a collection of torture tools like this would excite his electrons to the point of a near orgasmic atomic reaction, and indeed his smile was broad and well-fed—but his mouth was shut.

“Sorry,” he replied. “I’ve got nothin’.”

“Nothing at all?”

“No.  But it’s certainly a delightful setup.”

“Right.  Well, let’s go through here, then.”

A web of light shimmered over the doorway, but they passed through it without incident.

“It’s a defense grid,” Anael explained, when Sean stopped to stare.  “But it hasn’t been checked and calibrated in a while.”

“What does it do when it’s calibrated?” Sean asked.

“Reduces you to a bowl of molecular spaghetti,” Anael said.

“That’s cool.”

“It’s very effective, but it has to be recalibrated once a week,” Anael said.

“It’s also only used in the uppermost echelons of this city,” Tialiel said uncomfortably, lacing his fingers together.

The portal led them to a study, with wall-to-wall bookshelves and an antique writing desk in the center.  Books were open on the desk, along with several sheaves of papers, an overturned lamp, pens stuck in puddles of their own ink, and a keyring.  Sean sat down in the leather chair, which had parts of its stuffing sticking out and one of its legs splintering, splintering—it cracked under Sean’s weight and broke.  The chair sagged to the left.

“Think I’ve got something,” Cadmiel said.  He held up a collection of papers, many of which were badly smeared with ink.  The header of the top paper was partially obscured, but M E T A was clearly visible in block letters.

“Hel-lo,” Sean said. “I knew that guy was somebody’s science project.”

“Not just anybody’s science project,” Cadmiel muttered. “There are hand written notes on the margins, signed by the person who made them … one of the commenters is your father.”

Sean glanced at Anael, who shrugged in non-surprise.  “Don’t look at me.  He never told me a thing.”

Cadmiel glowered at him. “Just because he didn’t tell you anything doesn’t mean you don’t know anything.”

Anael shrugged. “I know Samael fancied himself a bit of a scientist.  He certainly never invited my opinion on any of his little ideas, though.”

For the first time since knowing him, Cadmiel heard a note of emotion in Anael’s usually even voice—not merely disdain, but indignation.  He turned to Sean, expecting a retort, but his pupil was leafing through the papers with an inscrutable expression on his face.  “Find anything else?”

Sean spread the remaining papers across the desk.  All of the cream colored pages were blank.  Tialiel took a book off of the shelf and opened it—its pages were blank also.  Cadmiel double-checked the folder in his hand, but it was intact, the only thing to be so apparently.

“I suspect,” Sean said, “that someone has gone to a bit of trouble to arrange this place in chaos.”  He looked up from the desk to Tialiel, his stare penetrating. “How many visions have you had since you showed up at Claris’s house?”

“I, I think only two,” Tialiel said.

“And my powers are supposed to negate other astral powers?”

“Yes …” Tialiel nodded slowly.

“So you think Tialiel’s visions weren’t predictions at all?” Anael said.

Sean scratched his neck.  “Seems reasonable.  Just more leading.”

“Can we go?” Tialiel said.  He started for the portal. “I’d really like to go.”

“Wait—” Anael said, grabbing Tialiel’s arm. “The security web—”

The white web had darkened to red.

“It’s been recalibrated,” Anael said.

Sean took off his boot and threw it at the portal.  The black leather caught in the web and twisted, disintegrating into strips and then into nothing at all. “So yeah, I think this is a trap.”


Despite the silk sheets and the down pillows, I couldn’t sleep.  My neck itched fiercely, and I lay in the dark scratching until blood speckled my fingernails.  Frustrated, I sat up and swung out my legs.  My bare feet hit the floor, but instead of the expected carpet, my toes squelched something moist and damp, a tactile shadow which blanketed the floor.  Tentacles erupted from the dark and twined around my ankles, pulling me from the bed.  I grabbed one of the posters for support, but I never had much upper body strength.  I shrieked and was yanked off, but I took most of the comforter with me, having clawed at it in desperation when I let go of the poster.  The scream for help was deafening in my mind but reality I managed only a terrified squeak.

I thought the darkness would consume me—it was just like the ravaging shadows which had nearly engulfed Septerra less than a week before—but instead it carried me, like an ocean wave, if ocean waves were black and capable of producing prehensile tentacles.

At home, I had always slept with the light on.  I hated to sleep in the dark and I never let a foot or a hand dangle over the edge of the bed—even well into high school , I worried about what horrible monster would grasp for me in the dark.  I hadn’t ever imagined that the monster would be the dark itself.

The shadow wave brought me down the grand staircase and into the foyer.

Donovan stood over me, his amber eyes glazed, flanked by Leliel, Lucius, and Shamshiel.  The entire team?

Without looking down, Donovan said, “Hello, Claris.”

“Se-Sean’s not here,” I said.

“We know,” Donovan said.  He blinked, and the shadows evaporated.  Strangely, my neck also stopped itching.

Donovan seized me by the wrists. “This field trip is all for you.”

“Hi, Claris,” Lucius said.  He shone like a beacon in the lightless foyer, his innards literally glowing as though lined with white neon.  But something was unusual about him.

“You look different,” I said. “You’re even taller than Donovan.”

Lucius blushed, and Donovan scowled, pinching the delicate bones in my wrist. “Let’s go.”

Struggling wouldn’t end well for me, especially since my wrists were already half-broken.  I whimpered, and he threw me over his shoulder like a sack of feathers.  My wrists ached.

“Whine a little less and maybe I won’t kill you,” Donovan said.  Leliel rolled her eyes.

“We’re not going to kill you,” she assured me.

“Hopefully!” Lucius said.

The foyer flooded with light.  I couldn’t see anything except the middle of Donovan’s back, but Alair had probably woken up.

“Who are you!” he called, presumably from the head of the staircase.

Donovan turned and began walking for the door.  I waved helplessly at Alair, who ran down the steps, calling for guards.  Armored bodies poured into the foyer, prompting a laugh from Donovan so robust that I shook a little.

“I’ll be fine, Alair,” I said weakly. “Go back to bed.”

“Are these people your friends?” Alair asked. “They don’t look like your friends.”

“Oh, we go way back,” Donovan said.  He jostled me. “Isn’t that right, sugar?”

“Way back,” I groaned.

“Put her down,” Alair said.  “That’s no way to treat a lady.”

“Back off, Nancy,” Donovan said.  “Unless you want this hall tastefully decorated with entrails, that is.  It’s totally up to you.  I promise that our work is very professional, though.”

“Guards,” Alair said. “Detain them.”

The rows of soldiers saluted, and then descended on me and the angels.  Donovan’s muscles stiffened, and each attacker stalled.  Their weapons clattered against the marble and their bodies convulsed in pain.  Worst of all was Alair, someone who had never known pain, whose life had been ordered around extreme pain avoidance, who now writhed on his knees, his mouth open and stretched too wide to vocalize his agony.

I beat Donovan’s back with my little fists. “Stop!  Stop it!”

Amazingly, he did.  I twisted my neck and noticed that Leliel’s lips were pursed tightly with disapproval.  Ah.

“Look, Carol,” Donovan said. “this isn’t any of your bother or your business, so why don’t you just wrap yourself in silks and forget we were here.”

“My name … my name’s Alair.  Prince Alair.”  Although he was panting, although his skin glistened with sweat, and although he clutched his sides like a man with ruptured organs, Alair staggered towards us.  He put a hand on Donovan’s shoulder.  “You put her down this instant.”

“Oh, that’s just about enough.”  Donovan swung around and slashed Alair across the chest with his clawed hand.

“Alair!” I cried, as the gashes in his chest opened wide.  Blood spilled from the wounds like water from a broken dam.  I squirmed and thrashed until Donovan finally dropped me, but when I tried to go to Alair he pulled back on my wrist.

“He brought that on himself,” Donovan said.  “But I really didn’t hit him that hard.”

“You don’t understand,” I said.  “He has a disease …”

“Stupidity.  It’s very common,” Donovan said.

“No!” I wrenched my wrist away from Donovan’s grip, nearly popping the bone in the process.

“Don’t make me cut you up too, Claris,” Donovan warned. “I don’t care if you come along conscious or not.”

“Donovan …” Lucius said uncertainly.  His eyes were riveted on Alair, who was curled up in a widening pool of his own blood.  If something wasn’t done, he would die in minutes.

“He’s a hemophiliac,” Leliel said.

“Can’t you help him?” I cried. “Aren’t you a doctor?”

“He’s losing blood too quickly,” Leliel said, her tone genuinely sad.

I took out my pendant.  The spirits might not consent to cure his disease, but maybe they would save his life.

“What’re you doing?” Donovan said.  He turned to Leliel. “What’s she doing?”

A shadow had encroached on the pendant’s gem, so that the purple center was ringed with black.  I didn’t know what to make of it, and had no time to think it through.  I focused on the image of Anhelans, elemental of wind, in my mind’s eye.  I called for him, concentrating all of my fear and desperation into the summons.

A circle of blue-black light drew itself on the marble, and a figure stepped out of it, but not the one I had called.  The figure bent down over Alair and black ribbons wrapped around his wounds like bandages, drawing the blood in and absorbing it.  Somehow I had summoned Tenebrus, the spirit of shadow.  The gem on my pendant was wholly black now, and I couldn’t understand why.

Tenebrus lifted the hair away from Alair’s neck and revealed a black mark etched into his skin.  “This one is mine.”

All of the remaining guards fell to their knees, cowering.  Tenebrus curled his lip, but I could hardly blame them.  Looking at him, I kinda wanted to curl up and cower, too: he was at least seven feet tall, with glowing yellow irises set in otherwise solid black eyes.  His hair swirled around his body like a vortex, misty and indefinite—a sharp contrast to his long, dagger nails.  His white skin was crisscrossed with visible veins of black across every muscle, and looking at his face was like looking at a razor.

Alair gasped for breath and sat up with some effort.  The black ribbons sank into his body and disappeared, leaving his wounds mended and clean. “Th-thank you.”

“I didn’t know you had any healing spells,” I said.

“I don’t,” Tenebrus said.  “That was an exchange.” To Alair, he said, “Try to take better care of yourself.  Farewell.”

Tenebrus’s body became a black fog that spread throughout the room, briefly snuffing out the chandeliers before it faded.

“There are other reasons why I’m not allowed out,” Alair said.  He surveyed the trembling guards, some of whom were actually crying. “He left, everyone.  He’s gone.”

“This is all fascinating, really,” Donovan said. “But we don’t have time for it.”

I felt a hard whump to the back of my head.  Dazed, I stumbled backwards into Donovan’s arms and before anyone else could react, he spread his wings and took flight.

I moaned. “Why would you do that?”

“Seemed like an effective plan,” he replied.  “Shall I hit you again or are you going to stop talking?”

I kept quiet.  Alair’s castle shrunk to a lonely dot on the landscape as Donovan ascended.  I tried to quell the mounting terror by thinking about his situation.  What did Tenebrus mean by an exchange?  It seemed that he and Alair were linked somehow, given that Tenebrus termed his healing as an “exchange” and the mark I’d seen on Alair’s neck.  I squinted at my pendant, which was whipping around in front of me, trying to get a look at the gem.  It seemed to be purple again.  Had Alair’s mere presence turned it black?

Everyone in Septerra was born with a certain affinity to the elemental spirits, but I’d never met or heard of someone who could influence the summoning stone—which changed colors based on elements and affinities that touched it—by simply existing near it.  Maybe there was a reason the spirits refused to cure Alair’s disease

Donovan landed just outside of Nonluna, beside the crystal fountain carved in the likeness of Moreaetas.

“Now what?” I said nervously.

Donovan bound my wrists together and sat me down on the edge of the fountain. “Now we wait.”

Lucius sat beside me. “Can I braid your hair?”

I sighed. “Sure.  Why not.”


If you are reading this, I love you.