A bloody battle was being waged near the entrance of the castle. A young woman watched from the castle as warriors, with their armor flashing in the sunlight, fought. She wanted to look away from the gruesome spectacle, but it was too mesmerizing, too hypnotic.
An older man, with long salt-and-pepper hair, entered through the door. He stopped behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. Startled, she turned around quickly from the window. She assumed a defensive stance, but relaxed when she saw who it was.
"We are losing, Father," she said.
King Quilis nodded gravely. "Indeed we are, my child," he said. "Which is why I have come." He held up a strange object and gave it to her. She studied it intently. It appeared to be a gold, flame-shaped scepter with a single large ruby on top. "This is the Truce Scepter," he told her. "It was given to us many years ago by our former allies, the Skyrdians. You must seek them out, ask them to come to our aid in the name of our ancient alliance."
"And if I fail?" she asked.
He sighed heavily. "Stay with them, if you can. If not, then do not come back to Callahan."
"But . . ." she objected.
He put a finger to her lips. "I want you to survive, Kyra. You are Callahan's only hope." He stepped back and squared his shoulders. "Now, you must prepare for the journey. Put all of that knowledge you have learned into finding the Skyrdians' island. You must leave by the back of the castle, through the forest. If all else fails, pray to your mother, Athena."
Kyra felt a solitary tear roll down her cheek as she hugged her father. She brushed it away as she turned her back on her father and left.
In her chambers, Kyra quickly packed what she needed and retrieved her sword. She stared at it for a few seconds. It had been a gift from her mother, the first and only time they had met. Her mother had told her that the sword would help her in her most dire time of need. Kyra had always wondered exactly what power the sword had. It certainly did not look special, although its edge was sharper than most swords.
When the dark of night came, and the troops slept, she crept through the forest. Nearby silently loped her pet panther, Shadowstar.
She followed a game trail until it led her to the main road just as the sun rose above the horizon. Instead of following the road, though, she zigzagged through the forest. She paralleled or crossed the road to throw off any Morgosian soldier that could be following.
They traveled a little further before halting for a midmorning meal. She sat on the ground and rummaged through her pack for food. Shadowstar disappeared into the woods to hunt.
She froze when she heard a twig crack somewhere nearby. Silently, she climbed to her feet and collected her things together. She stealthily slipped off into the forest to find the source of the sound. She circled back several times to see if anyone was pursuing her. The fourth time she almost came face-to-face with a Morgosian soldier.
She hid behind a bush to watch him. He paused, cocked his head to listen, then continued on his way. She followed him at a distance, close enough to keep him in sight, but far enough that whatever noises she made was masked by the regular forest noises. She let out a short, complex whistle. Bushes rustled a moment later as Shadowstar bound towards her.
The soldier stopped again. Fearful, Kyra dropped into a crouch and put a hand on the hilt of her sword. When he started moving again, she sighed in relief and continued following him.
The first clue she had of where he was headed were the sounds of orders being shouted. As the Morgosians' base camp came into view, she watched the busy soldiers preparing to move to another location.
She followed the soldier as best as she could. He was hidden several times by tents and horses. She finally managed to find him at the rear of the camp. She hid behind a tree and listened as he delivered a report to the captain of the Morgosian troop.
"Sir, there is no sign of the girl," the soldier said.
The captain pounded his fist on a makeshift table. "She can't have just disappeared into thin air!" he exclaimed. "I want her found. Nobody must survive from Callahan. Most definitely not Quilis' daughter!"
Kyra gasped out loud. Both Morgosians turned at the sound. "That's her!" said the captain, pointing. "After her!"
Kyra turned and ran as fast as she could away from the camp. She heard very clearly the sound of pursuit, but all she was aware of was escaping as quickly as she could. She raced blindly through the forest, branches scraping her bare arms.
Her foot got tangled in a root, and she tripped over it. She fell down a gully, and hit her head on a tree. Fighting to stay conscious, she tried to get up, but she was too weak. Hated darkness fell over her, and she passed out.
Something hot and wet brushed her forehead. She moaned softly as pain erupted from the place where the wet thing touched her. She opened her eyes, but the bright light seem to sear her eyes.
She reached out blindly to encounter Shadowstar's furry body. With the panther's help, she sat upright and leaned her back against a tree. She opened her eyes slowly. This time the pain was more manageable.
She touched her forehead. Blood seeped from a nasty gash on her temple. With some effort, she managed to get her sack and get the ointment out. She rubbed some on her temple, and some on the minor branch cuts.
She tore a strip of her pants off, and used it as a bandage for the big cut. Despite feeling slightly dizzy and nauseous, she managed to eat some food. Feeling much better and more cheerful, she set out slowly with the panther.
Soon enough, she reached a large path. Puzzled, she put down her sack and took out a map. "This road isn't marked," she muttered. "In fact, there should be no roads here."
Shadowstar paced back and forth. She growled uneasily. Her tail lashed back and forth, as if in pain.
Kyra put her hands on her hips. "I don't like this either, you know," she told Shadowstar. "But people build roads for a reason. And they usually lead to somewhere useful. Besides, I need help. And directions. The map I have is fairly old."
The panther growled softly, but set off with Kyra. Both were alert for the slightest sound. The forest closed around the road, blocking out the bright noonday sun. The panther strode ahead, sweeping her golden eyes across the terrain for attackers.
The path continued on for quite some time. The paltry amount of light the trees let through began to fade. Kyra guessed that night was falling.
Suddenly, the forest gave way to a large clearing. Up ahead, the road led to a massive gate. Kyra stared at it in awe. Clearly, the city that lay behind the gate had been abandoned. The wall near the gate was crumbling, as were several buildings beyond.
Kyra walked slowly up to the gate, and reverently touched the scrollwork. "Rydash," she murmured. The panther gave her a quizzical look. Kyra glanced at her. "It's the name of this city."
She lowered her hand, but continued to stare at the runes on the gate. "This was a famous and important city, many years before it was abandoned and nearly forgotten. Many rich people made deals here, and many great minds came here. At the height of Rydash's power, it was said that wealth flowed through this city as plentifully as water flows in a river."
Her voice grew solemn. "But then the Morgosians came and raided the city." She paused. Memories of Callahan painfully brought her goal back to mind, but she pushed the memories aside. "There was something strange about the raid, though. Among the Morgosians was a half-god named Demtros, son of Ares. He . . . conjured something that scared all the Rydachans out of their city. The stories never were very clear on what exactly he created. At any rate, the Morgosians were able to capture the city without any casualties. Over time, though, Demtros lost control over the creature. It began attacking the Morgosians. Miraculously, everyone managed to escape. Except for Demtros, who was . . . consumed . . . by the creature."
Her eyes flashed with excitement. "This will be my chance to see something strange. Something no one has ever seen before or lived to tell about. To satisfy my curiosity about one of my favorite tales."
Shadowstar made her opinion succinctly known with a resonant growl. "What could possibly happen to us?" Kyra demanded. "Whatever creature Demtros created must have left or died a long time ago." She gestured at the fallen buildings. "Besides, it looks abandoned."
Shadowstar growled again, but followed Kyra past the gate.
They entered the city, Kyra walking boldly forward, Shadowstar trotting cautiously behind. Three streets connected directly to the gate. Without hesitation, Kyra turned left.
They followed a series of labyrinthine turns, which left Kyra and Shadowstar completely disoriented. They continued on anyway. The streets were bathed in shadows, making everything appear gloomy and dark. Shadowstar became increasingly uneasy. Even Kyra started to become nervous.
The buildings surrounding them had once been grand works of art with breathtaking architecture, but many were ruined and crumbling. Despite their design, all seemed somehow forbidding.
Kyra felt the hair on the back of her neck rise. She felt as if someone were watching her. She turned around quickly, but there was no one behind her but Shadowstar. You're just jumping at shadows, she told herself. Despite her attempt at calm, she was still very nervous.
A scraping sound made her whirl around. A few yards away she saw Morgosian soldiers sprinting towards her. "Run!" she yelled. She raced full speed away from her enemies, Shadowstar dashing ahead of her. She ducked into a building, and weaved her way through the rooms. She heard the Morgosians closing in on her.
Despair began to creep in among her fear, but she kept on running nevertheless. "This can't be happening," she gasped. She found a staircase and bounded up it. Up, and up, and up; it seemed to go on forever . . .
The sounds of pursuit died the higher she climbed. She stumbled into a room with Shadowstar, exhausted. "This isn't exactly what I had in mind when I said I wanted to explore," she muttered.
"And this is the last time you ever will," said a voice. Startled, Kyra looked up. A young soldier, with his sword up, approached her cautiously.
Kyra narrowed her eyes. She took her sword out of its sheath and assumed a fighting stance. The young soldier parried with a defensive stance. Warily, they circled each other for a few minutes before the soldier lunged.
Kyra instinctively blocked the thrust. She moved out of the soldier's range, and they circled each other once more. "What's your name?" she asked, to keep the soldier distracted.
"Why should I tell you?" the soldier countered.
"I'd like to know the name of the man who's going to kill me," she said.
"In that case," the soldier said, moving a little faster to catch her off-guard, "it's Maidon." The tactic didn't work. She immediately pivoted to repel his sword. He parried, and the real swordfight began in earnest. Both were able fighters, but neither was able to get the upper hand.
"How did you find me?" she huffed.
"I don't know," Maidon replied, puzzled. A fierce look settled in his eyes. "But I know that you must die."
With those words, he began attacking fiercely, driving her against the wall. He swung his sword in a final, killing blow. She managed to duck and roll away from him. He came after her.
Something snapped in Kyra. She bellowed a war cry. It was now, more than ever, a fight of wills. Sparks flew as the two swords met and rang loudly as they withdrew. Kyra could see that Maidon was being driven more and more back. She feinted for his knee. When he lowered his sword to block, she brought her sword up quickly and slid her sword through his throat.
Blood spilled over her as Maidon's head flew from his body. Both toppled to the floor. She stood there for a moment, panting from exertion. She closed her eyes.
Shadowstar growled. Kyra opened her eyes. Maidon's body shimmered for a few moments, then disappeared. "What in Zeus' name—?" she exclaimed.
Kyra shook her head in disbelief. She followed Shadowstar down the stairs and out the building.
The panther and the woman walked stealthily in the shadows. They often doubled back and looked around to make sure no one was in pursuit. They could hear the Morgosians, but the sounds were far away.
Kyra laughed nervously. At any moment, she expected something worse than the Morgosians to appear from the shadows. . . A hint of movement caught her eye. She whirled around, but there seemed nothing there.
Another hint of movement caught her eye. She turned . . . and barely managed to sidestep a red blur's rush. She slid her sword out in one fluid move, and held it in front of her. The blur paused a moment, enough for her to catch of glimpse of horns and a muzzled face.
A minotaur! she thought excitedly. She had done much research when it came to what amounted to tales and legends. Tales of lost cities and supposed races . . . just like the minotaur.
It charged again. Kyra easily sidestepped. She brought her sword down on the minotaur's neck. With a sickening, squishy sound, the minotaur's head toppled from its body.
As she watched in amazement, the minotaur's body disappeared, just as Maidon's had. Sudden understanding bloomed in her mind. "None of this is real!" she exclaimed.
Shadowstar stared at her as if she had gone mad. Kyra calmed down. "Every time I think of something bad, it happens," she explained. "Or I think that something bad is going to happen in general, something happens to fulfill and feed those fears. Like the minotaur. I wasn't thinking about the minotaurs, but I was scared something worse than the Morgosians would come."
She gestured at where the minotaur had fallen. "They're nothing but illusions. Frighteningly realistic, but illusions nonetheless. That's why they disappeared after I killed them. They aren't real."
Shadowstar growled a sudden warning. Directly before them a band of Morgosians charged toward them. "Ignore them," Kyra said calmly. "Keep walking forward."
The soldiers passed through them as if they didn't exist. Nor, somehow, did they seem to notice the two.
"It worked!" Kyra yelled when the soldiers abruptly disappeared. Shadowstar let loose an exultant purr.
Where the soldiers had been, a oddly-shaped cloud appeared. It shifted colors constantly. The most bizarre thing about it was the multiple voices coming from it. Kyra shivered. The voices were disturbingly human. Some cried out in pain, some talked in soothing voices, others merely babbled insanely.
Kyra and Shadowstar began backing up slowly as the cloud glided towards them. "We have to get out of here," she said in a low voice. "I realize what Demtros' creature is now. Nightweaver. The Morgosians named it. If we get captured by it, we're just going to be two more voices in it."
As if by silent consent, they turned at the same time and began sprinting away. The cloud, with its melange of voices, followed in pursuit. The two managed to lose the cloud by randomly changing direction.
Out of immediate danger, Kyra took stock of the surrounding street. Of immediate interest was the building directly in front of them. It seemed to fit in well with the gloomy atmosphere. It appeared to be a temple, contrasting with the other buildings around it with its simple architecture. Built of obsidian, the temple appeared to have been dedicated to Hades.
Curiosity began overtaking her fear. "I'm going to explore it," she said.
Shadowstar's growl was the human equivalent of saying, "Oh no, here we go again." Kyra glared at her. "Nothing is going to happen," she said.
Shadowstar growled doubtfully. Kyra tossed her dark-blond hair. "Well, whether you come or not, I'm going in," she announced. She disappeared into the dark entrance.
Shadowstar felt herself torn. On the one hand, or paw, in her case, Kyra's curiosity would likely lead to disaster again. On the other, Shadowstar's loyalty to Kyra prevented the panther from leaving Kyra, even to preserve her life.
Shadowstar padded silently into the temple. She was intent on watching for booby-traps while Kyra investigated the rooms they passed through. The first few rooms they passed through were monotonous, but the lower they descended, the more heavily decorated the rooms were.
An interminable number of floors later, Kyra sat down heavily on the steps. "I can't go on anymore," she moaned. The dizziness and pain from her earlier collision with the ground came back with a fury. She held her head in hands. Blood welled up from the reopened wound.
Shadowstar nudged her. She looked up with an effort. The panther was growling at a room. Slowly, she rose to her feet and moved towards Shadowstar. Together, they walked into the room.
Inside was a bare chamber with a bed, a chair, a desk, and a small chest. "Must have been somebody's room," she said. She sat down on the bed.
Shadowstar dragged the chest over to Kyra. She opened it and began to sift through the objects in the chest. Inside, she found a sealed jar of ointment. Quickly, before the exhaustion she was feeling could overwhelm her, she unwound the makeshift bandage from her head. She applied the ointment to her wound and tied a new bandage she had stripped from a cloak Shadowstar had found.
Too tired to move anymore, she lay down on the bed and drifted off to sleep immediately.
A faint noise brought Kyra awake from her deep slumber. Feeling newly invigorated despite the hunger rumbling in her stomach, she swung her legs off the bed and rose. Shadowstar, hearing her awaken despite Kyra's near-silent movements, rose as well.
Kyra listened with a frown on her face. It almost sounded like—she frowned harder—running water. Abruptly, she put the pot of ointment in her bag, as well as the cloak, and a few other objects she deemed useful.
They continued downwards, towards the sound of the water. Unexpectedly, the stairwell ended and broadened into a cave. Kyra gasped. "This is—this is a river," she said. "But . . . how can it be underground?"
Before them was a pier with a wooden boat attached it. Kyra started towards it. Shadowstar growled a question. "It's the only place to go," she told the panther. "Especially since we don't want to run into Nightweaver."
Shadowstar reluctantly agreed as she and Kyra got into the boat. She doubtfully eyed the boat. Kyra followed her glance. "Don't worry; it'll hold together."
Kyra released the moorings and took one of the oars into her hands. The black water sped them along at incredible speeds. Most of the rapids they hit were minor, but for two Kyra had to use the oar to avoid several rocks that loomed out of nowhere.
The water finally slowed to a lazy torrent. Kyra and Shadowstar relaxed slightly. They were still ready for the newest danger that could befall them, though.
The river widened and opened up into a wide, open expanse. At first Kyra thought that it was nighttime, but then noticed that they 'sky' was actually the ceiling of a very, very large cavern. The underground river merged with another coming from a different direction.
Kyra glanced at the shore. What she saw shocked her. Human shapes moved in a line toward a pier, but there was something wrong with them. They walked mechanically, devoid of life, like the rumini, the walking dead of Hades' kingdom who awaited judgment. In fact . . .
"I'd say we are in Hades' kingdom," she murmured. Shadowstar glanced at her. "We'd better dock the boat on the other side of the Styx and talk to Hades. Especially if we ever want to see sunlight ever again."
Kyra rowed the boat towards the opposite shore from the rumini. They got off the boat and Kyra tied it to the dock. They walked uncertainly onto the path the led to the massive gate where Cerebus stood guard.
They shuffled into line with the rest of the dead souls. "We're getting nowhere," Kyra muttered impatiently a few moments later. They slipped out of the line and cut ahead. The three-headed dog stiffened at their approach and rumbled menacingly. Shadowstar growled back.
"Shadowstar—" Kyra began to say. She was cut off as Cerebus leapt for Shadowstar. The panther met the dog in mid-leap. Incredibly, Shadowstar had managed to scratch Cerebus on the neck while avoiding the dog's terrible teeth.
Shadowstar snarled, exposing her large fangs. Kyra watched in amazement as the two fought once again. She had never seen the panther so vicious, even while killing prey.
Cerebus tried to tear out a piece of the panther's flank, but Shadowstar moved deftly out of the way. She attacked from a different angle. Cerebus, slowed by the loss of blood from his numerous wounds, was too slow to stop Shadowstar's slashing attack on his flank.
The panther retreated out of the dog's leaping range, taunting it to chase her. Cerebus immediately ran after Shadowstar, passing fairly close to Kyra. Cerebus froze. One of its heads looked at Kyra as if just suddenly realizing the fact that another intruder was nearby. Another head sniffed the air around her, while the third head watched Shadowstar warily.
Finally, Cerebus whined and resumed his post by the door. Kyra stared at it. Shadowstar limped over to her, panting slightly from the exertion of the battle. The panther watched the dog curiously.
"I think we've just been given free passage in," Kyra said.
The walk through Hades' kingdom was, to say the least, extremely unpleasant. Despite the fact that Cerebus had ceased his attack, it did not mean that they were given run of the kingdom. Rhadamanthus had assigned them two Erinyes as guards and escorts to Hades' palace. They circled overhead as Shadowstar and Kyra walked.
"Why did they let us through?" Kyra asked as she and the panther passed several of the souls who had been punished by Rhadamanthus. "When Orpheus was let through, it was because his music was so beautiful. We, however, didn't do anything."
Shadowstar growled. "Okay, okay, you would likely have won the fight with Cerebus had he not stopped. I have the feeling he stopped because of me, though." The panther growled in surprise. "Think about it," Kyra said. "He sniffed me, then stopped fighting with you."
She paused thoughtfully. "I almost feel as if I know why, but it doesn't come to mind. Whatever the reason, I bet it's the same reason that Hades has granted us an audience."
They continued on in silence, past several Erinyes bustling about on various errands by foot and the extensive gardens named the Elysian Fields where the souls who have been good live.
At last, they arrived at Hades' palace. At first glance, it appeared to be exactly the same as the temple had. Further looks, though, revealed that the palace was much larger, and that in several places the architecture was accentuated by gold-leaf.
They passed through a large arch of black-and-white marble. Inside, a long corridor brought them to the throne room. Kyra unconsciously held her breath. It was very high, higher than the throne room of Callahan. It was undecorated save for a throne at the opposite end of the room that was black-and-gold, decorated with numerous precious stones.
Sitting on the throne was a massive, pale man dressed in a simple black toga with silver thread. The Erinyes marched Kyra and Shadowstar to stand in front of Hades.
Hades watched the prisoners in cold curiosity. The blond-haired woman and the dark panther intrigued him. Somehow, not only had the panther managed to gain the upper hand against Cerebus, but the three-headed dog had ceased in attacking them.
Closer up, he could see the young woman's resemblance to her mother. Remarkable, how much alike they were in spirit and intelligence, but how dislike they looked.
"Kneel before the great Hades," snarled one of the Erinyes. Kyra remained standing. One of the Erinyes prodded Kyra sharply in the small of her back. She fell to her knees with a cry. She held her head up and gazed at him defiantly.
Hades gazed back impassively. "Why have you been trespassing in my kingdom?" he rumbled.
"We came here by accident," Kyra said. "Why did you keep us alive?"
"I do not kill half-gods, even disrespectful half-gods, lightly," he answered.
"You know who I am?" she said in surprise.
"Of course. You remind me a great deal of your mother, Athena. Now, I will ask you again. What were you doing in my kingdom?"
"I told you we came here by accident. I would be most happy to leave your kingdom and return to the surface."
Hades studied her face for a moment. "You're hiding something," he concluded. "Until you tell me what your real purpose is, you will stay in one of my dungeons. You will, however, be treated well because of who you are." He nodded. "Take them away."
The guards brought them to a spare room with a steel door that was unassailable. As soon as the door clanged shut, Kyra began pacing the room. "We have to get out of here," she said. Her mind worked overtime on escape plans, but discarded each one.
She fell on to the bed, exhausted. Just before she drifted off, she prayed to Athena for help in escaping.
Athena heard her daughter's plea for help. She knew she would be risking Hades', and maybe even Zeus' wrath, but she would do anything for her daughter.
She appeared in Kyra's cell with a burst of light that awakened the young woman and her panther. Kyra rubbed her eyes and stared at the apparition in disbelief. "You did hear my prayer!" she exclaimed.
"Yes, Daughter," Athena replied. The goddess of wisdom was a tall woman, taller only slightly than her already tall daughter. She had intelligent, gray eyes and brown hair that hung in a single, long plait down her back. In her right hand she grasped a spear.
"How do we get out of here?" Kyra asked nervously. She whispered her question in fear that one of the guards would overhear her.
"First, tell me where you must go," the goddess said.
"The Skyrdians' island," Kyra answered. "Father sent me there to ask them for help in our battle against the Morgosians."
The goddess nodded slightly, closed her eyes and brought her hands together. Suddenly, a flash of light engulfed the three. They reappeared on a grassy meadow, minus Athena.
"We made it," Kyra said, astounded. She jumped up and yelled "We made it!" Several people nearby stared at her even more.
Settle down, Little One, came a voice in her head. The hardest part is yet to come.
Kyra stopped jumping. Mother? she queried.
It is indeed I, her mother said in amusement. You still have much road left to traverse. Just remember this: the sword will help you in your most dire time of need.
Wait, mother, she called. How do I—? But her mother was gone. She turned around to look at the contingent of guards who approached her. "Please come with us," the head guard said politely but firmly.
Kyra sighed, and followed him.
This throne room, unlike Hades, was white with gold. There were three thrones: the highest being elaborately carved from gold and silver; the second highest, only slightly less elaborate than the highest, from mahogany and teak; the last was much simpler than the others, carved from white marble.
The king rose from his throne. He was a tall man, much taller than Kyra. He had sun-colored blond hair and piercing blue eyes. He was broad-shouldered and muscular. He glanced at the queen, who was nearly as tall as her husband. She also had sun-bleached hair, but her eyes were gray. Kyra was startled. They look so much like Mother's eyes, she thought.
"Who are you?" the king's voice boomed.
Kyra straightened. "Kyra, daughter of Athena," she answered. "I have come, on behalf of King Quilis and the Callahan, to seek an audience with the king of our ancient allies, the Skyrdians."
"Your audience is granted, and begins immediately. What is the purpose for your request?"
Kyra took a deep breath. "King Quilis wishes," she said carefully, "to revive the ancient alliance Callahan and Skyrdos once had. Callahan is under attack from the Morgosians. We are losing."
The king looked at her in surprise. "Daughter of Athena," he murmured.
"Yes," Kyra said.
The queen rose. "Silence when King Selnius speaks," she snapped.
Kyra bowed in deference. The king looked at her. "Do you have it?" he asked suddenly.
Silently, she opened her pack and brought out the Truth Scepter. She handed it to one of the guards, who presented it to the king.
"Callahan must indeed be in serious danger if the Truth Scepter was brought all this distance to Skyrdos," he said to the queen. He turned to Kyra. "You will be given quarters in which to rest from your long trip. Dinner will be served at seven in the Great Hall. I must discuss your request with the Great Council before I can make a decision." He nodded at the third throne. "My son will escort you to your quarters."
The young man rose from his throne and descended to the floor. He smiled at Kyra and offered his arm. "I would be honored," he said softly.
Kyra smiled back and laid her fingers on his forearm. Together they left the throne room.
A lone figure sat on the bluffs and watched the waves crashing against the cliffs. Kyra gazed out at the blue breakers, thinking of Callahan and her mother.
Shadowstar was back at the palace, dozing. Kyra was as tired as the panther was, but felt too restless to sleep. So she had gone for a walk around Skyrdos and discovered the deserted bluffs. She had sat here, sorting through the various issues that worried her, and the memories that threatened to overwhelm her.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" a voice commented.
Kyra looked up to see who had spoken. She blushed when she saw the young prince. "Your . . . your majesty," she said as she scrambled to get up.
He put a hand up. "Please," he said quietly, "none of that "your majesty" stuff. Neither of my parents are here. Kyra, wasn't it?"
Kyra's cheeks burned. "Yes," she said. "You haven't told me your name yet."
The prince smiled. They were of equal height, yet somehow he seemed much taller than she at the moment. He had the same blond hair as his father, and the same build. "Senedius."
He gestured at where she had been sitting. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt your thinking."
"It's all right," she said as they sat down. "My thoughts were becoming too depressing anyway. I'm glad you interrupted."
"What were you thinking about?" he asked quietly.
"Home. My mother and father. How I'm sitting here safe while the Morgosians destroy Callahan." She laughed nervously. "If my father hadn't sent me here, I would probably be out fighting to save my city."
He took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. She looked up, startled. Stormy, blue-grey eyes, surprising in their intensity, met her feline, emerald eyes, as unreadable as a cat's, yet somehow sad. "I will do everything in my power possible to make sure your city is saved," he said intently. "I promise."
She squeezed his hand in return. "Thank you," she whispered.
Kyra went back to her room and changed before appearing with Senedius in the Great Hall. They sat side-by-side at the table near to the king and queen.
While they were waiting for the first course, the king leaned forward and whispered to Kyra, "The Great Council had made a decision."
Kyra's heart skipped a beat. "Which is?"
The king took a deep breath. "They have voted, unanimously, to send aid to Callahan in the name of our ancient alliance. They will leave at dawn tomorrow. I presume that you will be aboard one of those ships?"
"Yes," Kyra said.
"I thought so. I am having Senedius lead the troops. I have assigned you the cabin right next to his."
Kyra smiled happily. "Thank you so much, King Selnius, Queen Ruimel. You have no idea how much this means to me—and Callahan—to have your help."
"And Senedius?" the queen asked.
Kyra blushed slightly. "What do you mean?" she asked carefully.
"Oh, come off it. I saw the way you two were looking at each other when he escorted you to your quarters. If you two marry, it's all right by me."
Kyra gaped at them as the king and queen chuckled. Senedius shifted uncomfortably. "I have strange parents," he whispered in her ear.
"Undoubtedly," Kyra replied.
The next morning Kyra and Shadowstar, escorted by Senedius, walked to the docks where the Skyrdian fleet was being assembled. "We are almost ready to depart," said Senedius.
Kyra nodded absently. Senedius took her hand. "Don't worry; we'll get there in time," he said reassuringly. Kyra smiled at him gratefully. Senedius did not release his grip on her hand, nor did Kyra look away.
Shadowstar growled at the two. Suddenly embarrassed, Kyra shied away and kept walking toward the flagship. Senedius followed silently behind her.
Kyra found her quarters and settled in with her gear before going back out again. She climbed back up to the deck. Standing near the railing, she watched as the ships set sail for Callahan.
As the sun rose from the horizon, the magnificent ships, bathed on the sun's red light, sailed on for battle with the enemy.
The days blurred together as the ships sped toward Callahan. Kyra ceased to count the days after the first few days had passed.
Every morning she had breakfast with Senedius, but had her other meals alone. She roamed the ship every day. When she was not wandering, she was thinking, remembering, sharpening her sword or writing in the journal she had begun keeping at Senedius' insistence.
On the twelfth day of their journey, they came in sight of Callahan. Kyra gasped. The damage was even worse than when she had left. Morgosian soldiers patrolled the shore.
"We're too late," she said, slumping. "They've won."
"No, they haven't," the prince said, a strange light in his eyes. He turned to the crew. "Continue sailing in slowly. Raise a white flag to indicate we mean them no harm. When we are docked, we attack."
The crew cheered. The Morgosians trained their weapons on the battle fleet uncertainly. The ships continued into the harbor unimpeded.
The ships docked . . . and troops poured down the ramps. The Morgosians, taken by surprise, were slow to react. Many were slaughtered before the few remaining leaders could reorganize their soldiers.
Skyrdians rushed down the streets, killing any who even resembled the Morgosians. Senedius ran toward the castle with three dozen soldiers, Shadowstar and Kyra keeping close behind him. They managed to fight their way to the outer gate before the Morgosians stopped their advance.
Fiercely both sides fought, but neither seemed able to get the upper hand. More soldiers joined each side as the battle wore on, but many more were killed.
Kyra hacked and slashed her way through the enemy's ranks until she was fighting side-by-side with Senedius. He noticed her and shot her a grim smile. "It is a good day to die."
Kyra nodded. She let loose a war cry and attacked the Morgosians with a renewed fury. She killed three Morgosians before coming to rest for a moment in a spot temporarily free of fighting. She looked around—and noticed that the Skyrdians were losing. Despite their better fighting skills and weapons, they were badly outnumbered three to one.
"No!" she yelled. "This can't be happening!" She searched for Senedius, but didn't find him. No, wait, there he was. Lying on the ground, bleeding from a big shoulder wound, was Senedius. He was unconscious, and near to death.
Kyra felt something rip loose inside her. "No!" she yelled again, but this time it was accompanied by an unearthly howl of pain that came from the depths of her soul. Without realizing it, she unsheathed her sword and held it straight up in the air.
"Shata neiris," she chanted in the tongue of the gods. "Breitak neiris. Ruisi ai, bratak kai, neri skai. Rendis kri!" On the last word, the sword began glowing a phosphorescent blue. Power crackled from it and split in hundreds of different directions to strike the Morgosian soldiers.
The soldiers struck dropped dead almost immediately. The stench of burnt flesh stunk the battlefield. The Skyrdians, afraid of being hit by accident, backed off. The Morgosians who tried to escape were all struck dead.
When the sword stopped crackling with energy after what seemed an eternity, Kyra dropped her arm. She sagged to her knees in exhaustion. Alarmed, Shadowstar ran up to her. Using Shadowstar as a prop, Kyra managed to stand up.
She looked to where she had last seen the prince, but he was no longer there. "Where is the prince?" she asked one of the Skyrdians who crowded anxiously around her.
"He is at the camp we have established near the harbor," answered the Skyrdian. Kyra thanked him and pushed excitedly past the Skyrdians. She ran all the way to the harbor in a state of extreme joy. He's all right, he's all right, she thought jubilantly.
Once she arrived at the camp, she asked one of the soldiers which tent was the prince's. "The one on the other side of the camp, my lady," he answered. "But I must warn you: he is gravely ill. He will most likely die. We can do nothing for him here, and it would take too long to get him back to Skyrdos."
That sobered Kyra and brought tears to her eyes. "Does he have any chance at all to live?" she asked. "Any chance at all?" The soldier shook his head.
Kyra set out on a dead run for his tent, tears streaming down her face. She burst into his tent and froze. There he lay, pale and dying.
"Senedius," she called, approaching his cot and kneeling next to it. "Senedius."
His eyelids fluttered. Kyra held her breath. His eyes opened and he smiled weakly. "Kyra?" he rasped.
"It's me," she said softly. She stroked his cheek. "You're going to be fine."
He began coughing hard and long. Kyra's heart caught in her throat. The coughing soon subsided. "Like hell I am," he said. She lifted an eyebrow at the profanity. "Kyra," he plowed on, "I do not have long to live. This I know. You have . . . you have been a good friend."
Kyra's eyes widened in surprise. Senedius admired the way she moved with the fluid grace of a cat from kneeling to sitting. He admired the long, sweaty blond hair that stuck to her head. He sighed. There was so much he admired about her. If only . . .
Abruptly, he gripped her wrist with greater strength than she thought possible from him in his present state. "Kyra," he began, "there is something I must tell you before I die."
She gazed down into the stormy blue eyes she loved so much. "What?"
"I love you," he said, in a voice so choked with emotion his words were almost incomprehensible. "I have loved you since I first saw you."
"I love you, too," she said softly. "I don't know what I'll do without you." She took his hands and held them in hers.
The sword began glowing blue again. Hesitantly, Kyra unsheathed it and lay it at the foot of the bed. It pulsed twice before disappearing and turning into blue energy. The energy entered Senedius' wound. The gash began closing, slowly at first, then quicker. In a few seconds, there was not even a scar.
The prince sat up and looked at his shoulder in amazement. "What happened?" he asked.
Kyra shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "It doesn't matter, though. You're alive, that's all that matters."
Together, they exited his tent. They walked some distance before stopping to sit on some rocks to watch the sunset.
Kyra stood on a balcony overlooking the courtyard. She leaned on the railing, her blond hair streaming in the wind.
"Have I ever told you how beautiful you are?"
Kyra turned and smiled. "No, you haven't," she said, a mischievous look in her eyes. Senedius and King Quilis approached her from the door.
The king cleared his throat. "Senedius has formally asked for your hand in marriage," he said carefully. He smiled. "He may have it."
The couple cheered. Senedius picked her up and spun her around until she was dizzy and delirious with joy. He put her down.
Affection clouded his stormy eyes. "I love you, Kyra," he said. They embraced, and their lips met in a kiss as sweet and loving as any kiss had ever been.
"I love you too, Senedius," she breathed when they let go. A wide smile formed on the king's face and he chuckled.
"Maybe you should wait for the wedding," he suggested, a twinkle in his eye. Kyra sighed, exasperated, and rolled her eyes. The prince laughed.
"Strange parents," she muttered. She grew serious. "Father, there is something I haven't told you."
The king frowned. "What is it?"
She hesitated before answering. "I'm going to live on Skyrdos after the wedding. Senedius asked me to, and I agreed. I . . . it'll be far away, but you can always come for a visit."
The king patted her on the shoulder. "You can be sure I will be visiting often. Very often. Their wine better be as good as it is rumored to be." Kyra giggled. Senedius chuckled. Soon the balcony was ringing with the sound of their laughter.