Disclaimer: All characters here are products of my own imagination. None of them have been based on other characters, whether living, dead, and/or are parts of works of fiction. Any resemblance to real or imaginary persons you have met and/or known are purely coincidental.

Author's note: End of Story. That is all.


The Phoenix Warrior

Chapter 5

Millie woke to the sight of the sun streaming through a window, the sound of birds chirping outside the window, and a head that felt like someone was methodically pounding a set of giant nails straight through her temples.

Groaning, she squeezed her eyes shut and pulled her blanket over her head. Juat a while longer, she thought muzzily, just a little more sl--

Shadows. Blood. A man kneeling in a circle. Green eyes filled with cruel rage. The bite of rope in her flesh as a voice crooned about her foolishness. The sting of pain as her knees hit stone. A man with slit-pupilled eyes and a mouth of glittering fangs.

Millie's eyes snapped open. She sat up suddenly, and a wave of nausea crashed into her. She gulped as bile threatened to rise...

A hand grabbing her shoulder and a voice telling her to gogetoutNOW! A tingle of lightning flashing across her skin, the sensation of floating, the jolt of cold hard ground slamming onto her head, a bright red flash of light...

"Lyall," she whispered. Then in a flash she'd tossed aside her covers and dashed for the door, her voise rising to a near shriek. "LYALL!"

Someone had unlocked the door while she'd been asleep; it opened without protest. She threw it open and ran through it, the soles of her shoes slapping across the floor as she ran down the hall to Lyall's room.

"Lyall!" she called as she opened the door...

...and frozed as she caught sight of the neatly folded bedspread, the lack of clothes or bags or any sign that anyone had ever been in the room.

Lyall was gone.

She whirled out of the doorway and sped off, bounding down the creaky stairs, through the empty tavern, and into the kitchen.

Eric, washing dishes at the sink, glanced up as she rushed in. "Morning Millie!" he said cheerfully as she quickly looked around the room. "Would you like to have your brea—"

"Where's Lyall?"

Eric blinked at her, looking momentarily befuddled, then he frowned. "Oh, Lyall left early this morning. Rushed through breakfast and—"

"Gone?" Millie echoed. Her head spun. "...Where?"

"South, methinks, I remember him talking about going back to his homeland—MILLIE!"

She'd already grabbed a cloak, her feet slipping into her boots, and was halfway out of the door when Eric called her name. "I'll be back in a bit!" she shouted, and then she was out of the tavern, running for the southmost gate and hoping she was not too late.

******

Thank god!

Millie was gasping by the time she reached the gate, but she didn't regret the burning in her lungs, or the ache in her legs; just beyond it she could see a back of a slender figure, whose bright auburn head of hair blazed in the morning light. She stopped, just long enough to catch her breath, then called out: "Lyall!"

The figure stopped, hesitated, turned to look over his shoulder. Lyall stared at Millie with his piercing black eyes, before he blinked, and frowned. "Millie?"

Millie smiled tremulously, and ran forward, stopping when she was just an arm's distance away from Lyall. "I thought I wouldn't catch up with you..."

Lyall smiled, and she could see flicker of amusement in his eyes. "Well, that was sort of the point." He turned to face her fully, his face growing solemn. "After what you saw last night...I didn't want to be there when you woke up."

The grim words stunned Millie. For a while she gaped at him, surprised (and not a little hurt) before she asked: "Why?"

He smiled again, and there was a cold viciousness in his eyes now that brought back memories of him taunting her last night...and she stepped back, frightened, before she realised what she had done.

The smile grew wider, but it was a sad smile now. "That was why, Millie." He laughed, a slightly bitter laugh. "I'm not the noble warrior you think I am, Millie, I'm a hunter, a killer. I murder and slaughter when I have to, and I am not ashamed of it." He turned away, and walked off. "Go back to your life, Millie. It's not one meant to have me in it."

Millie watched as he walked off, too shocked to respond, and then she came to her senses...and ran forward, throwing her arms around his waist and pressing her face against his back.

She felt him tense, and she hugged tighter, until she could feel the leather garment he was wearing under his crisp white shirt dig into her arms. "Lyall, please, I don't want you to go...."

He didn't respond, didn't even relax, and then she heard him sigh, and there was a world of sadness in that one sound. Tanned hands closed around hers, and he gently unwound her arms, turning at the same time, so he was facing her again, still holding her hands within his callused brown ones.

"Millie..." he started, then hesitated, then said: "Even if I were to give up whatever I was doing and stay with you, I am not the man you want." He held a hand up when she opened her mouth to object. "I know you think me a proud fighter, a man who'd stand to fight and defend and protect, and maybe a man you can someday wed. I don't deny being a fighter, but as a married man...no, I can't be that, not for you, or anyone." He smiled again. "You're a sweet girl, Millie, and you deserve a man who can stay with you and love you with all his heart. I am not that man."

She blinked...and saw something in his eyes, and realised... "You love someone," she whispered.

This time Lyall's smile was gentle, and a little self-mocking. "Yes, I do."

"Who?" she asked, then bit her tongue, wishing she hadn't asked.

Lyall laughed. "Someone you wouldn't know, who lives in a far off land. But then, it's not time for me to start courting yet." He raised a hand, gently cupped Millie's face, and tilted it up so she was looking up into his eyes. "A word of advice, Millie. There are many shades and flavours of love, but the kind that brings a happy marriage is not an easy one to find, especially as young as you are. But when the love of your life comes by...you will know...and grab that chance and never let go. Don't let it slip away." He grinned, dropped his hand, and stepped back. "I suppose this is goodbye then, Millie."

Millie stared up at Lyall, his words slowly sinking into her...so many things she wanted to say—her gratitude, her regret—but words wouldn't come to her. Taking a deep breath, she nodded, then on a whim, suddenly asked, "Can you kiss me before you go?"

Lyall's response to that was to give her a narrow-eyed look, and she blushed, wondering if she'd pushed too far. Then he smiled, stepped towards her again, and again cupped her chin in his hand. "Are you sure that's what you want, Millie?" he said softly, and the warm look in his eyes made her heart skip.

Cheeks flushed with shy embarrassment, she licked her lips nervously, then whispered, "Yes."

He chuckled at that, amusement twinkling in his eyes, and he lowered his head. She held her breath, closed her eyes...

...and open them again when Lyall's lips pressed quickly against her cheek, and he moved away from her, laughing.

"I won't steal your first kiss away," he said with a grin and a wink. "Not my place to do so."

She touched her cheek, feeling the lingering warmth of his lips on it, before she realised that he had turned and was walking away from her. "Lyall!" she called, but a sudden gust of wind blew, stirring up dirt and dust from the rough road, and she threw her arm over her face, squeezing her eyes shut to not get blinded. She heard him laugh over the howl of the wind, and when the wind had died down enough for her to dare open her eyes again, he was gone.

She looked down the now empty road, puzzled, wondering...and his words returned to her again:

..you deserve a man who can stay with you and love you with all his heart. I am not that man.

Perhaps he was right, she thought, and smiled, sadly. But oh, Lyall, how I wish it were otherwise...

Giving the road one last look, she turned her back on it, and walked back into the town, her home, and her life. Her last thought as she went back through the gates was that she wished she would have a chance to see Lyall again...even as deep in her heart she knew that she never would.


The Phoenix Warrior

Epilogue

Lyall strolled though the quiet forest, his face wearing a mask of indifference, his long-legged strides at ease as his boots crunched over , but his seemingly-casual gazes over the trees and bushes picked up every detail, and his ears picked up every sound.

Lyall knew his youthful looks and his slim body made him look like an easy target for the bandits and other blackguards that loved to camp and lurk in forests like these...and while he was far from being vulnerable and weak, a surprise attack can easily cripple him.

He paused in his tracks suddenly, sensing...he looked up at the branches of the giant oak just a few feet away from him. The oak's leaves, while already golden-red with autumn death, were still heavy, the forest was dark, and he could only see only the barest hint of twisting branches...but he knew that there was more than leaves and branches hidden in the shadows.

"How long have you been following me?"

Silence. Then a soft laugh came from the shadows, a girlish giggle that was both playful and mocking. A female voice crooned, "You know I am always with you, my dear."

"I know that," Lyall said, his expression dry. "But your physical form is rarely around."

Another giggle, a rustling of leaves, and a figure dropped from the shadows, landing with inhuman grace on her feet at the base of the oak. "Is it so surprising, my dear, when you know how much I care for you?"

Lyall looked at the woman who was smiling coyly at him. She was a tiny woman, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulder, and her body was fine-boned, more lithe than curvaceous, her female curves subtle rather than blatant.

Her face was just as fine and delicate; heart-shaped with a pert little nose and a red-lipped rosebud mouth, and big dark eyes that dominated her face, the features gave her an innocent doll-like appearance, a fact only emphasised by their frame of thick, luxiourious hair that fell to her waist, a mane of dark waves that, despite their darkness, could never be described as anything other than red.

She looked like a delicate maiden; Lyall knew that her shell was just that, a shell, and something he should always be wary of. The heavy, almost suffocating aura of pure power that radiated from the small form was an unsubtle reminder of that fact, even more than the fierce

He sank to the ground, kneeling on one knee, his head bowed in respect. "I never doubted that, Lady," he said softly.

"But it doesn't stop you from being sceptical now, does it?" She laughed, a tinkling bell-like laugh, and glidied over to stand before him, the floor-length skirt of her gown of crimson silk (a formal garment that looked out of place in the wilds of the forest) brushing over autumn leaves yet making no sound at all. Her hand, clad in pale lavender gloves, gently rested on his shoulder. "Rise, my dear, no need to bow," she said, with some amusement.

"A Goddess deserves all the respect I have."

She smiled at him. "I command you to rise then."

"As the Lady wishes." He rose to his feet, and looked down at her. "So why did you follow me, Lady?"

"To see if you are well." Her dark eyes dropped from his gaze to look, pointedly, at his shoulder. "I do not like to see my children hurt, my dear."

Lyall sighed at the reprimand and underlying command in her tone. Resigned, he went to the oak, and sat down at the base of it, the woman in crimson closely following him and shifting down to kneel beside him.

"You should be more careful," she scolded as she undid the buttons of his shirt, pushing the white cotton back to reveal Lyall's torso. "I gave you the gift of immortality, but it does not protect you from being maimed or crippled." She frowned at the stitched wound. "At least it was tended to properly."

"Not my work," Lyall muttered, then hissed as she not-too-gently jabbed at it with a finger.

"Yes...I saw the Nosferatu. You are lucky that the centuries have not fogged his memories as a healer when he was human, or dulled his skills. But it would still take a moon's cycle at least to heal properly."

Knowing what she said was true, Lyall just grit his teeth as the woman took off the glove of her right hand, revealing a hand with fingers covered in fine golden scales and tipped with blood-red talons. The inhuman hand lightly touched his wound, and a pale red light glowed around it.

The pain, though expected, still burned and seared, and he had to bite his tongue to keep from screaming as power flowed into the wound like a liquid flame, and he heard his flesh sizzle and hiss as it began to heal.

"It's done."

The light voice was muffled over the haze of pain, and Lyall slumped back against the oak, suddenly weary. He turned his head slightly, and saw that the wound was gone and replaced by unmarked skin, not even a scar reminding him that the wound was there.

"...thank you, Lady," he said. "But why does it have to hurt?"

She shot him an amused look. "Human flesh can't handle godly powers that well. Besides, think of it as punishment for getting yourself hurt in the first place. I've taught you better."

"Point." He glanced at her. "Were you the one who stirred up that gust earlier?"

She smiled innocently at him. "What gave you that idea?"

"Seems too much of a coincedence that a wind blew just as I was trying to escape."

She laughed. "The girl seemed persistant; I didn't think you'd want her to tail you." The grin she gave Lyall had a wicked edge. "Why did you kiss her on the cheek instead of the mouth?"

"Like I said, not my place to steal her first kiss. Besides, I'm not the kind of woman who likes other women in that sense."

The Lady grinned and looked pointedly at the gentle curve of female breasts above the top of the leather garment Lyall wore as both armour and corset. "I think she'd faint dead away if she found out that you're a woman in disguise."

"That would be the mildest of the reactions I'd expect," Lyall said drily, rebuttoning her shirt. Lyall paused, then looked up. "Lady, is—"

"Your prince is as safe as he can be," the Lady replied cheerfully. "Drving his father up the wall with the usual wilful stubborness, but otherwise fine."

Lyall smiled, and finished with the buttons. "I see...typical then."

"Very much." The Lady waited until Lyall had gotten to his feet, and tilted her head. "There's news of a demon infestion in a town west of here. Someone was silly enough to play with dark magic he shouldn't try to toy with, and a portal was opened into this world."

Lyall stared at the Lady for a moment, then groaned. "Damn nercomancers. Why do they always have to be so stupid?" She pinched the bridge of her nose. "So I'm guessing I'm supposed to hop over there, slay demon spawn, close the portal, and save the day? Again?"

The Lady's laugh was mirthful. "The usual," she said with a grin, her eyes dancing with glee.

Lyall muttered something pithy and to the point, which only made the Lady laugh harder. Then the Lady sobered. "My dear, you must remember...the title of Phoenix, and the powers that come with it, are not something you have to hold on to. If it's too much of a burden..."

"Lady." Lyall gave the Lady a stern look. "You've saved my life when it was at its darkest point, and showed me the way to live again. You raised me from childhood and taught me what it means to serve with honour and loyalty. I am in your debt, will always will be. Until such time when I have to return to my homeland, I will serve as the Phoenix, as your sword and shield."

The Lady gave Lyall a thoughtful look, then smiled, a sweet smile full of love...and sadness. "Yes, I expected that answer from you." She walked to Lyall, and laid a hand on her cheek. "You are a daughter of the land, and and carry the heart of a true warrior. I do not ask for much, and I know that sometimes what I ask for carries a price, but you are willing to give, to serve, to prepare and to battle. You will always have my gratitude, my pride, and my admiration." She stepped back, her hand dropping. "Be safe, Phoenix, and let the light guide you safely."

The Lady suddenly burst into a pillar of bright gold flame that seared the eyes, and Lyall stepped back from the wave of heat that came from it, eyes narrowed in a squint at the light. From the blazing pillar the form of a bird rose, its feathers made of pure fire, and when it opened its beak the note that it sung was inhumanly high and pure, filled with joy and pain, rage and celebration.

Phoenix song.

Then, like the point of a spear, the firebird streaked upward, the fire that it sprang from streaming behind it, and up and up it went, still singing its glorious song, until finally the fiery form faded from sight, and the song died with it.

Lyall looked up at the sky, for a long moment simply stood there looking at where the firebird had vanished, and then she turned, towards the West.

"Demons..." she murmured, then shrugged. "I supposed I better get going, before the sun sets." Sighing, she shifted her backpack, and headed for her next destination, where her next mission and adventure would begin.

She'd barely taken five steps when a soft femal voice whispered in her mind: Oh, and my dear, there's a tome of demon lore in that same town I'd like you to steal. I'd rather it be taken away then for it to fall into mortal hands.

Lyall snarled, patience strained, and her temper snapped. "Fine!" she snapped at the disembodied voice. "Stupid deities and their last minute requests...bah!"

The Lady's laughter only echoed in her mind as Lyall stomped off down the forest road.

-finis-