Darius stared fixedly at his trembling wrist. It was smeared with blood but his wound had closed. Whole, he thought in disbelief. It's completely whole. And Sabriel had shattered the ice around his arm without even scratching him. To top it all off, Boreal was calm. She was grumbling and undoubtedly annoyed, but completely defeated. Her aura had returned to its normal size and shape and she said nothing when he finally sheathed her.
Darius tore off his scabbard in disgust and threw it onto the ground. He was about to spit and curse and generally give Boreal the tongue-lashing of her life when he realized that Sabriel was nowhere to be found.
He gathered together the pieces of his fractured mind and expended the last of his energy to concentrate enough to sense her aura. He turned to his right and squinted, just barely catch the sunlight glancing off her night-black hair. She was just ambling into the horizon, going nowhere in particular.
Darius frowned, perplexed. What the hell is she doing?
He stifled a groan as he staggered to his feet and ran to catch up with her, calling her name. She didn't respond. He finally reached her and when she still gave no answer, he grasped her by the shoulders and forcibly turned her around so that they were facing each other. He was immediately struck by how hollow her expression was. Her eyes were completely empty, focusing on something that wasn't there. Darius realized suddenly that her eyes had also changed colors.
Indigo, he thought, like the Blade Mage's…
"Shit," he breathed, startled by the implications. If she had Sydaefenir blood she could easily transcend the boundary between the physical world and the Spirit World. By the dullness of her normally vibrant purple aura, Darius knew that her soul was wandering in the latter. If she didn't find her way back to her body soon, she would be permanently trapped.
"Sabriel, snap out of it," he said urgently, shaking her hard. Her head lolled limply back and forth like she was a rag doll. "Sabriel – c'mon," he said with rising desperation. He couldn't lose her after all she had done for him. "Come back – Sabriel!" he shouted at the top of his lungs.
Life finally sparked in her aura and it slowly kindled into its normal hue. Darius immediately stopped shaking her and quickly prayed for her complete restoration. He was rewarded when he saw that even as her aura grew brighter, the color in her eyes faded, gradually losing their ethereal intensity until they were once again a pale lilac.
Sabriel gasped for air, drawing in great breaths as if she had been drowning. Darius held her loosely in his arms, smoothing her back and muttering nonsensical reassurances as coughs wracked her body. She finally looked up at him and met his gaze, blinking several times before she was able to focus her eyes. She searched his face, her expression one of tentative recognition.
His heart leaped. Sincerely overjoyed, he pulled her into a tighter embrace before he could stop himself, remembering at the last instant to be careful not to hurt her, especially now that she seemed particularly frail and exhausted. He found that he could find no words as she rested her head on his bare shoulder and he ran his hands through her hair, trying to calm her almost uncontrollable trembling. An overwhelming sense of comfort and well-being suffused him as they shared the silent moment, and he did not even attempt to understand what he was feeling.
"Sydael be blessed," he finally murmured, trying to convey his relief to her.
To his dismay, she responded by pulling away from him, but lessened the sting by staying closer than usual. He could see the storm of conflicting emotions in her aura.
"I – is your – what about -" she stammered incoherently. She paused and gathered her composure with effort. "Is your arm okay?" she finally said clearly, although there was still a tremor in her voice.
Darius showed her his arm. Most of the blood had already dried. "Unharmed," he said briefly, carefully scrutinizing her features and trying to ignore the awkwardness that stretched between them. "How did you-"
"I don't know," she answered hastily. "Why did you-"
"I don't know."
They looked at each other, and then they laughed in unison. It was the first real laugh Darius had in months and it drained all of the remaining tension out of him. After her own laughter died down, Sabriel looked equally relaxed and almost like her normal self again.
"You first," Darius said lightly. He was unable to repress an almost giddy grin. He could hardly believe how happy he felt.
Sabriel smiled in return, but as she spoke, it quickly faded. "The last thing I really remember is you…stabbing yourself," she said quietly, shuddering involuntarily. "Then – I don't know – the sydael felt so strong and overwhelming…I just – listened – to it," she finished slowly.
Darius frowned darkly, all of his joy forgotten. "What do you mean?"
She bit her lip, straining to remember. "Like…the sydael, it was warm and flowed over me – and it made a sound like whispering. All I had to do is listen, and it told me what to do…" she murmured, a distant light in her eyes.
Darius felt a chill run down his spine. Only one of the Sydaefenir would say that Sydael spoke to them – and her eyes, the blasted indigo, he could see it at the edge of her irises, creeping in like encroaching darkness.
"Damnit, you can't be," he blurted before he could stop himself.
She snapped out of her trance-like state and looked up at him in alarm. "What?"
He shook his head furiously so as to rid himself of the idea. "No – nothing…" he said absently. But his thoughts still strayed to how powerful she had been and how easily she had manipulated sydael. It would take him several more years of intense training to reach the level of control that she attained so naturally. And –
"You knew her name," he said suddenly.
"Darius, what are you talking about?" she demanded, obviously frustrated.
"You knew my Blade Soul's name. How?" he asked, a cold edge lining his voice.
"She told me," Sabriel replied simply, as if it were obvious. "Her name's Boreal."
Darius flinched. He couldn't help it; the habit of secrecy was so ingrained.
"Don't," he said roughly. "Don't ever say her Name again."
She drew away from him, taken aback. "Darius – I'm sorry – I didn't-" she began.
"Her Name belongs to me and only me," he snapped, interrupting her angrily. Even though he knew she hadn't meant it, he felt like Sabriel had violated the deepest, most private part of himself and so felt the need to lash out. "Her Name is powerful and dangerous," he continued vehemently. "Only the Assassin should know his Blade's Name, for if it is revealed, then it can be used against him. A Blade Soul must allow anyone who knows its Name to wield it."
Anger suddenly flashed like crimson lightning through Sabriel's aura. "I'm sorry Darius, but I was only trying to help you," she said fiercely. "What else was I supposed to do? Let her destroy you?"
Darius felt an uncomfortable twinge of guilt and so immediately calmed down. "Forget it – you just took me off guard…" he said with more softness.
Still annoyed, Sabriel asked aggressively, "What were you talking about before? What can't I be?"
Darius blinked, startled that she had brought up the subject again. For an instant he wondered if he should just avoid the question so that they could perhaps return to the comfortable intimacy they had shared for a few precious moments, but one look at her face told him that she was not in the mood. He suddenly felt very tired.
"A Blade Mage," he said dully.
Now she was the one who flinched. Her creamy face turned even paler. "You think I'm…one of the Sydaefenir?" she asked dazedly.
"I'd hope not," Darius muttered, thinking of all the stories he had heard about the perverse, occult clan and their sickening rituals. "But there is no other way to explain your powers," he continued resignedly. "Your eyes too…they changed colors. They looked like Reina's."
Dumbstruck, Sabriel remained silent for several moments. "How could I?" she finally said slowly. "It would mean…someone in my family…"
"Your mother…the Blood is passed through the women," he said automatically, remembering his briefings on the Sydaefenir. He suddenly cringed as he realized what his words meant. "That means Princess Odessa is one of the Accursed," he spat.
He had always admired Strife and Odessa's struggles against Lord Baron, and had respected Odessa's reported magical prowess, despite all of her father's propaganda against her. But if she were one of them he could understand why the Baron felt such distaste towards his daughter.
Sabriel's expression was hard with anger. "Your blind prejudice is disgusting," she said coldly. The raw intensity in her voice was like a slap in his face. "I wonder -would you have bothered stopping your Blade Soul if you knew I was one of the Sydaefenir? I wouldn't be surprised if you cut me down with pleasure – one less of the savages to bother with, right?" she said with devastating sarcasm.
"You don't know anything about what they do, Sabriel," he retorted indignantly, too stung to recognize the truth in her words.
"Don't I? Apparently I know enough about their magic to save your life."
"This is the attitude I get after almost losing an arm to save your life?"
"Why did you save my life, Assassin?" she suddenly exploded. "Tell me!"
Stunned, he could only look at her in silence for a few moments, but her probing eyes reminded him so much of Reina's that he found himself turning away. He could feel himself reassembling his usual cold shell and hated himself as he did it, but he was too angry and confused to tell Sabriel what he truly felt. Even without Boreal, there was still a small nagging voice in his head that told him Sabriel couldn't possibly feel the same way he did, and that he was immensely unworthy of her.
"I don't know," he finally said flatly.
"You don't know or you don't want to admit it?"
The contempt he heard in her voice made him furious. He whirled back around and glared at her angrily. "I don't know what fantasies you've been having, but I assure you there is nothing to admit. Besides, if you hate me so much, why didn't you kill me?"
It was her turn to be flustered. She looked away from him, biting her lip. A tense silence lapsed between them. Darius's heart fell when he saw that she had no intention of revealing any of her feelings toward him, good or bad.
"As I expected," he said bitterly under his breath as he turned sharply on his heel and stalked away.
There was a sudden shuffle of cloth and dust, and then Darius felt Sabriel's hand on his shoulder. The cool touch on his bare skin made him shudder with something that was far from pain, especially since he could sense something in the curl of her slender fingers that implied more than casual friendship.
"Darius - don't walk away from me again…don't return to your Blade," she said close to his ear. There was no anger in her voice as he had expected; in fact, she almost sounded like she was pleading.
He felt his anger draining away, but could not turn around. He knew that even if she would not say anything, her eyes would communicate her tender regard. If he faced those soft lilac depths now he would lose what little control he had left and then there was no telling what he'd do or say. From the tense moments they'd just shared it was clear that neither of them could risk a dramatic, sloppy relationship. They needed each other too much. He steeled himself for what he knew he had to say next, blocking away the all-too-fresh memories of what it had felt like to laugh with her, to share a joyous embrace with her.
"Sabriel, you still have to realize the extent of your powers, rescue your family, and confront Lord Baron," he said firmly. "Whatever is going on between us – if indeed there is anything – must wait. You have too much to do for such a…distraction."
"Distraction…?" Sabriel repeated dazedly, pulling her hand away from him. The hurt in her voice made him cringe. "I thought I was a distraction for you…"
"It doesn't matter now," he said with more coldness than he felt. "I failed my Assignment," he added tightly, clenching his fists as he felt the pain of the words sink in. He had never failed to kill any of his targets. He was one of the best Assassins in the Order, if not the best, and he had failed. He was capable of killing his target but he refused to do so. He suddenly realized that a small part of him hated Sabriel for it.
"But Darius…what are you going to do now?"
The simple question implied much. He had failed his Assignment and it was obvious that Lord Baron would never let him have another. Kaeldra was gone. Boreal had betrayed him. Assassinating Prince Asgard and Lord Baron seemed a distant dream. He was a drifter now, with no ties and no purpose.
He knew he wanted to stay with Sabriel, but also could not bring himself to initiate a relationship with her. It seemed too much like renouncing all that he had been for 18 years for his life, too much like denying the only identity he had, even if he had never wanted it. No matter how much he hated Lord Baron or how he felt a part of himself crumble every time he took a life, he was still an Elite Assassin. He could not bring himself to discard the title and all it implied just to be with her. On the other hand, it was obvious he couldn't kill Sabriel in order to preserve his status as an Assassin.
"I am who I am," he finally said, staring across the grey plain that was as empty as he felt. "I will always be an Assassin, even without a Blade or a target." He finally turned to face her, only distantly noticing the horror in aura, the disbelief on her face. He felt disconnected from his body, as if he were floating in the Spirit World, watching himself speak:
"I kill, and will kill again."
Asgard felt extremely irritated that he had to actually use some of his magic to keep up with Reina. She moved so quickly that she seemed to be floating above the ground. He was working up a sweat trying to follow her, and dust stuck to his bare chest in a most irritating fashion. He had had no time to conjure a shirt of protective sydael, and now he was regretting it. His irritation mixed with his anger at how Reina and Sabriel had ridiculed him, and so he was feeling decidedly out of sorts.
"I won't let them get away with mocking me," he seethed to Teslar, glaring at Reina's back. Oblivious to his anger, she kept on moving in a swift, graceful jog, her dust-ridden white robe flowing behind her like a trailing cloud.
"Maybe you should concentrate more on keeping up," Teslar replied wryly as the Blade Mage's lithe figure shrunk in the distance.
Asgard bit out a curse and then infused some sydael into his aching legs. The burst of speed was enough for him to finally catch up with Reina, who was standing in front of the ruins of her house, the splintered wood jutting into the grey sky like decaying bones. Immediately to the right of her was Apollyon, trapped in a glowing white half-dome of expertly woven Threads. As Asgard stepped closer, he could see that not only were patterns of binding and blocking woven into the prison, but that it diverted the flow of sydael so that Apollyon was trapped in a pocket of existence where it was impossible to make contact with any Threads.
"Impressive," Asgard said grudgingly as he surveyed Reina's handiwork. He could barely tell through the blinding white glow that Apollyon was inside, unarmed, unconscious and covered with ash. "How do I wake him up?" he asked, suddenly struck with an odd temptation to tap Teslar on the sides of the prison as if it were an aquarium.
A small smile crept across Reina's face, as if she knew what he were thinking. This unsettled the Prince, along so many other things about her. But before he could accost her she swiftly unsheathed her Blade, leveled it at the prison, and spoke a spell, her words crackling with power. Her robes had shifted slightly, and Asgard caught a glimpse of a green-glowing, sheathed Aura Blade tied to her belt and hanging down the side of her right leg before it disappeared beneath the white folds again.
"How could she have touched Apollyon's Blade?" he asked Teslar, more than a little surprised at what he had seen.
"I don't know…she must've somehow figured out her name."
Asgard decided to ponder the mystery later as Reina's spell took effect. There was a blinding white flash that swiftly faded, leaving the prison translucent, and a beleaguered Second Lieutenant plain in sight. He was startled and groggy, but relatively awake. He glanced blearily at Asgard and then shifted his gaze to Reina. Black spikes of fear immediately shot through his sea-green aura.
"He passes over me as if I am nothing," Asgard snapped to his Blade. Teslar's crimson aura flared; agreeing.
"Blade Mage," he said, turning suddenly to face the slight young woman. "I wish to speak alone with Apollyon."
It wasn't a request.
Reina nodded slightly, her placid aura revealing nothing, as usual. "When you are finished, join me back where I was with Sabriel. We have many things of great importance to discuss," she said with cool command. There was a strange glint in her eyes that demanded obedience and quelled Asgard's immediately indignant response. She held his gaze until, with a slight wave of her Blade and a twitch in sydael, she disappeared.
Blinking away the muzzy feeling she left in his head, Asgard directed his attention to his smirking Second Lieutenant.
"More powerful than you'd expect, isn't she?" Apollyon taunted. Out of her presence he was his smug, cocky self again, standing as straight as his prison would allow him, his chin lifted in challenge.
"No. You were just weak," the Prince retorted brutally. "Like the rest of your father's seed."
"Such petty insults do not befit a man of such noble stature as yourself," Apollyon said with mock disappointment, making a great show of shaking his head ruefully, his untied silvery blue hair thrown wildly from side to side. "You'd think the Prince would have some manners."
Asgard clenched his fist. "Too bad we can't just walk in there and smash open his pretty face," Teslar muttered.
Teslar's frustration bled into his own. "As I'm sure you can see, you're on the wrong side of the Threads to be insulting me. So why not cut the crap and start giving me some answers," Asgard commanded.
"Sorry," Apollyon replied, shrugging helplessly. "I'm afraid that I'm not inclined to reveal anything. I'd be killed for it, you know. Besides, this prison both keeps me in and you out."
Asgard fought his rising temper and surveyed the prison in detail. He could feel Teslar's corresponding piqued awareness. What they needed to find was a very small, almost obscure component of the masterful spell. He grinned when Teslar flashed, her point resting on a Thread as thin as spider's silk. It was unique in that instead of connecting and branching off into the rest of the spell, it was curiously self-contained.
"Well look at what we have here," the Prince spoke slowly, savoring the moment. "A curious thing about sydael prisons is that they are naturally airtight," he added, as if lecturing to a class. "This little thing must've been added almost as an afterthought. It provides and circulates all the air in your prison."
Blood drained from an already pale face. His Second Lieutenant knew full well what that tiny Thread was.
"Now Apollyon," Asgard said casually, placing the razor-sharp edge of his Blade precariously close to the air-Thread. "Tell me what your father had in mind for me."
Lord Baron's son visibly swallowed, all of his self-important condescension stripped away.
"Captain-" he began, and then stopped abruptly when Asgard's Blade twitched. "I mean – my Lord," Apollyon hurriedly corrected. "My father has known of Dark Tempest's plans for destroying him since the Pryscotian Assignment-"
"That was almost the very beginning," Asgard interrupted. "He could've only known if we had a spy in our ranks…" he trailed off, looking hard at his Second Lieutenant.
Who merely nodded, sweat shining on his brow. "I turned then," he said quietly, looking away.
"I knew I shouldn't have trusted you," Asgard snarled, his sword-hand shaking as he remembered the Assignments, drinks, conversations, and laughs they had shared.
Apollyon was his Second Lieutenant, ranking below only Lady Alysia and the Prince himself. Asgard had trusted him with his life on more than one occasion, and had believed him one of the most valuable members of Deocaurae. He had always expressed a hatred for his father that Asgard believed was perfect for Dark Tempest's plans for rebellion. Yet when the killing had started, when Dark Tempest was almost wiped out, he had suspected Apollyon's silence and sudden distance. But then there had been the Strezskion's new Assignment to distract him, and later, Alysia. He had had no time to confront Apollyon, and now one of his most trusted officers had betrayed him. It would be so easy to punish him; so easy to end his miserable existence.
Even though Apollyon was only one small slice away from a painful death, he suddenly seemed almost unnaturally calm.
"No, you shouldn't have," he agreed. "I am Lord Baron's son. That in itself puts me under instant suspicion, no matter if I associate with his allies or his enemies," he said with faint bitterness. His sea-green aura was clouded with resignation. "The blood in me leads me to a fate I cannot escape. But I want you to know that I truly believed in Deocaurae's mission, for a time. Though I'm sure you also know that some sacrifices must be made, no matter how horrible the consequences," he said, gesturing to the vast wastelands around them.
Asgard tried not to flinch as he closed his eyes and once again saw a sudden array of images superimposed on the back of his eyelids: his parents dying, the glint of hatred in sapphire eyes, a little boy sobbing and swearing vengeance for his brother's death, his baby sister spattered with blood, and towns, villages, families burning, all burning. It was an old pain, but one that never died and instead festered in his heart and fueled his anger. He was always on the edge of losing his temper because he had to be angry enough to avenge his entire life. He closed his eyes and let Teslar take his rage and pain, let her feed on it, let her burn as his kingdom had burned.
"What was your great sacrifice?" he finally asked hoarsely when he opened his eyes and stilled his trembling hand. The wispy Thread still hung intact before him. Apollyon still breathed…for the moment.
"If I spied for my father I'd gain his trust. If I gained his trust it would be easier to betray him," the nobleman said simply. "It's the same method Darius tried, same method you tried, and what all three of us should've known would never work. My father trusts no one. He also knows a power-hungry man when he sees one, and I have always wanted what he has," he added, his voice growing stronger and his dark eyes regaining their sharp, manipulative gleam. "My father has control of all of Lothos. I want it, and to get it I had to forsake Deocaurae and your trust…that was my sacrifice."
"You selfish fool," Asgard snapped, his voice trembling with anger. "You just wanted to become the next Lord Baron. Spying on Dark Tempest wasn't a sacrifice; it was merely a strategy, part of your self-serving plans."
Apollyon's face hardened and his next words were cold: "So be it."
Anger bloomed inside the Prince. To think I gave up so much to protect my land, my people, my family, while he just wanted power, Asgard raged silently. He ground his teeth, forcing himself not to move his Blade. Even though he hated Apollyon at that moment even more than Darius, he knew he still had questions he needed to be answered.
"What did Lord Baron plan to do with me? With Lady Alysia?"
When Apollyon hesitated, Asgard moved his Blade even closer to the air-Thread.
"Look, you can either die a slow, suffocating death right now or maybe survive long enough to actually achieve your little dream. But I need answers," Asgard said sharply.
Apollyon bit his lip and then sighed, his shoulders sagging.
"He'll do to you two what he does with anyone who presents a threat. Use you and then kill you slowly," he finally said in the flat tones of a soldier reporting to a commanding officer. "You're both targets now, but he wants you alive so he can deal with you himself. He'll use Lady Alysia against you."
Asgard had suspected as much, so he didn't miss a beat. "Sabriel Mercury?"
"He'll use her to break Darius, or the other way around. He wants them both to suffer, but especially Sabriel."
"I'm not quite sure. It has something to do with powers she acquired from her mother. Or it's just that he's still bitter towards Odessa and wants to take it out on Sabriel…I wouldn't be surprised."
"The Blade Mage?"
"She must be killed. He seems to hold some kind of grudge against the Sydaefenir. He was truly excited when he found out I located one."
Asgard was silent for a few moments, digesting the information, trying to piece everything together. Apollyon merely watched and waited, subdued, but not frightened.
"I don't like the sound of this," Teslar said darkly. "Alysia, Darius, Sabriel, you, and Reina, all of us together, and all of us falling into the roles Lord Baron wanted us to play. Why would he need everything to happen in this fashion?"
Teslar had a good point. Lord Baron's actions indicated that so far everything that had happened was part of an elaborate plot he had long-planned.
"Why all of this? Why are we so important?" Asgard demanded, breaking the long silence.
The young nobleman raised a silvery brow. "Isn't it obvious?" he asked incredulously, his old condescension returning. "You and Lady Alysia, the Mercury's, and the Streszkion's are the biggest threats to my father. If you were all to work together, he'd have a difficult time stopping you, and he might even be defeated. He's gone through great lengths to make sure that such an alliance would never occur, for the easiest and quickest way to get rid of all of you is to have you kill each other."
When Apollyon finished speaking, all of the disconnected information that had been circling around in Asgard's head snapped into place with painfully simple clarity. Asgard blinked hard, finally realizing why Baron had allowed Alysia to search for the Strezskion's and forbade him to do the same, why he was allowed to know that Darius had been Assigned Sabriel, why after a year of being kept carefully separate, he and Darius happened to be sharing to the same space again. They were not just coincidences, but situations purposefully set up to create antagonism. But throughout all of this there had always been the undercurrent of –
"Diablo. What's his relationship to Lord Baron?"
The corners of Apollyon's shapely mouth turned down ever so slightly. "I think we are all surprised that Diablo walks again," he said solemnly. "My father has no part in the reappearance of Diablo. If they were to work together, Lothos would easily fall under their might, but both are too egotistical and self-serving to share power for any long period of time."
"If they were to work together…" Asgard repeated, shuddering as he remembered Lord Baron's crackling black eyes, identical to Diablo's. He could feel the demon's Blade – Kaeldra was in there – sliding under his skin, peeling it back inch by inch, so excruciatingly slowly. The remembered pain sent chills through his marrow.
"We must not let it happen," Apollyon said firmly, interrupting his reverie.
Asgard glanced hard at his Second Lieutenant, gauging the sincerity in his aura. "Why should I trust you?"
The younger man merely smiled slowly, displaying large white teeth much like his father's. "Because I can't be the Emperor of Lothos if both Diablo and my father are in the way," he said with less fanfare than Asgard would've expected. There was a ruthless edge to his tone that he did not like.
"Quite the sneaky bastard, aren't you."
"Release me and you'll find out."
"Hmph. You'd better get comfortable in there," Asgard retorted.
"I would've expected that you would've left me to starve by now. What do you really want to know, Asgard?" Apollyon asked slyly, a dissembling gleam in his eyes.
The Prince hesitated for a moment, wondering if it'd be wise to reveal so much to one who had proven time and again how underhanded he was. But Teslar nudged him to speak before he could change his mind.
"What do you know about Lady Alysia and her relationship with a man named Jerimacek?" he finally asked, straining to sound detached.
Apollyon's eyes widened, and then he laughed outright. Asgard fought back the instant impulse to end his impertinent officer's life.
"So it all boils down to Lady Alysia, as I expected," Apollyon finally said, catching his breath. "But you were doing so well, Captain."
Asgard shifted his Blade. "Tell me, or you die," he said forcefully. Teslar glowed brighter, reinforcing his threat.
Apollyon casually wiped dust off of his clothes, retaining his infuriating calm. "You'll have to free me to find out," he said nonchalantly, twisting to examine his back. "Hm, that'll need some serious washing."
Asgard's patience was wearing thin. "Tell me," he seethed. But he did not move his Blade any closer.
Apollyon noticed. He smirked and looked Asgard directly in the eye. "Obviously, you want this information so badly that you won't risk losing it by killing me. So why don't we talk like gentleman? You get me out of this dreadful prison, and I'll tell you all you want to know about Lady Alysia and her Bondmate."
He sounded innocent enough, but Asgard could see the dark green cunning flashing in his aura. "Only if the Sydaefenir keeps your Blade, and you don't attempt to harm anyone or escape," he declared, knowing full well how dangerous his Second Lieutenant was.
Apollyon outstretched his hands, palms up, affecting a sense of helplessness. "But of course. I'll remain your prisoner…just without the prison. If I don't, well, feel free to kill me."
Asgard narrowed his eyes, still skeptical of Apollyon's sudden agreeability. "What should I do, Teslar?"
"Free him, but don't turn your back on him. He has proved his usefulness, and you do need to know what occurred between Alysia and Jerim."
Asgard turned over her words slowly. "Fine," he finally said grudgingly, withdrawing his Blade from the air-Thread. "I'll free you from the prison, but if you display any signs of betrayal, I'll make sure you pay for it. You won't get a second chance next time."
"Thank you for your mercy," Apollyon replied dryly, inclining his head in an exaggerated show of gratitude.
"I'm gonna regret this," Asgard muttered.
-The Complex, Mestra City-
Lord Baron looked hard at the boy who had just impaled an Aura Blade into his solid mahogany desk. The boy looked back, the soulless black flames of his eyes revealing just how far from human he really was. The demon waited as the Baron considered his proposal.
An alliance, the Baron thought, with Diablo himself. He pictured the armies of Liorhest marching across the border, and he and Diablo meeting them in battle, wiping out tens of thousands of soldiers with only one or two spells. He pictured the rulers of the countries of the world meeting at the annual Nomari, and countless trembling presidents, kings, barons, and prime ministers declaring him Emperor of Lothos. But in this image, Diablo stood behind him, as an obedient servant.
And I will not tolerate it any other way, Baron decided.
"Fine," he finally said, looking Diablo in the eye and letting some of his own power crackle through his aura. "We shall be partners."
"For now," Diablo replied, intoning exactly what Lord Baron had left carefully unspoken. Diablo sharply withdrew his sword, sending splinters flying anew, and then settled back into his chair. There was an eerily knowing glint in his eyes and his smile was less than reassuring.
Lord Baron fought back his surprise and forced a tight smile in return. It seemed as if he had found a formidable opponent in Diablo, if not an equal. Keep your enemies close, he thought quickly, trying to reassure himself that he was not the one being used in this situation.
Diablo did not let the tense silence last long.
"Well we better get started, partner," he drawled, glancing at his dreadfully unfashionable Earthling chronometer. He had relapsed into his teenager persona, and his posture was once more relaxed, although Baron knew that the demon was a creature of explosive force and could spring into action in a second. "Our first order of business is finishing off Strife and Odessa."
Lord Baron grimaced, remembering the all-too-recent visit from Ysandre Nuiress. "If it were possible, I would've done it already," he said impatiently. It was an old topic.
"Ah, so my former mistress cast that particular spell…" Diablo remarked idly, once again toying with his Blade.
"Weren't you there?" Baron asked pointedly.
Diablo caught what once was AzureWrath in midair and slid her home into her sheath. He then looked back at Lord Baron, a hint of annoyance in his expression.
"Yes, but that bitch Ragnarok was in control back then. It was years before I could free myself from her prison."
"From what I understand, because you are free, Zephyr is in the Void, and therefore capable of releasing his parents."
"What, do you disapprove?" Diablo sneered.
"You know as well as I do that they could defeat us-"
"Defeat you, maybe," Diablo snapped, interrupting. "Besides, even if they were freed, they'd be weak, aging, and unarmed. It'd be the perfect opportunity for us to kill them."
"I'm the only one that can break the barrier that surrounds their trapped bodies. If they were freed from the Void and I had also broken the barrier, they could very well escape," he said reluctantly. He hated how he was saying such cowardly words to Diablo, but he remembered all too well the prophecy of Dejire Saito, given the day after Iisera had given birth. The Blade Mage's prophecy had destroyed their lives and foretold their dooms.
Diablo abruptly pushed his chair back and stood up, glaring down at Lord Baron in disgust. "Since when did the mighty Lord Baron err on the side of caution? Since when was he afraid?"
For a moment, Baron allowed himself to remember his past. The mighty Lord Baron had been terrified back then. Back then he had been a weak and bewildered Kythr Solrin. Back then there was the glow of indigo eyes, the terrible sound of certainty ringing in a musical voice, telling him how he would die if he didn't prevent a certain chain of events from happening. He had not heeded her words, and all the horrible things she had spoken of had occurred. It had almost driven him mad. Now he feared that if he listened to Diablo, the final part of the prophecy would come true at the moment when he finally achieved what he had dreamed of for so long.
"I will not risk freeing Odessa," he whispered, finally coming back to himself.
Diablo, who had been pacing impatiently around the room, stopped in front of his desk again. His expression was sharp and unforgiving.
"Frightened of the ramblings of a dusty old witch, I see," he said coldly. "Don't be so superstitious. The Sydaefenir are relics of an age long gone. You forget that you are the undisputed power now, you are the one to be feared."
The demon's words appealed to the power-hungry side of Lord Baron that was never sated. His ego, burgeoned by Diablo's words, began to assert itself once more. The pathetic Kythr Solrin was swiftly buried.
"Of course," Lord Baron boomed, his voice filled with its old confidence. "I have almost eliminated their twisted race. I have nothing to fear from petty fortune tellers." He could defeat them, defeat his daughter, avoid his fate, rule Lothos forever. Anything was possible. He was Lord Baron.
Diablo's eyes glowed with satisfaction and something else that Lord Baron was too frenzied to notice.
"Kill Strife and Odessa," the demon insisted, his voice suddenly crackling and harsh with the power of tainted sydael.
Lord Baron heard it and it snapped him out of his delirium. His aura flared as he spoke the countering spell before Diablo's words could entangle themselves into his mind and eliminate all other thoughts. There was a flash of black light and a sizzling sound as the spells collided, and then both faded almost immediately, leaving a blessed silence.
Lord Baron shook with fury and fear as he quickly gathered sydael for another spell, this time one that would explode and destroy.
"You decided to end our alliance quite early," he said heatedly, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice as he realized just how close he was to becoming Diablo's mindless servant.
Diablo had not unsheathed his sword nor was he channeling sydael. He merely looked contemplatively up into the ceiling as he casually scratched the stubble on his face.
"You're a little quick to judge," he said, feigning innocence. "I was merely prodding you out of your crippling hesitance. It's only what a loyal partner would do." He stopped scratching and looked back at him, black eyes flashing. For an instant, Lord Baron saw not Diablo, but the harmless figure of Zephyr Mercury before him, a charismatic grin on his face, boyishly mischievous instead of threatening.
Baron shook his head firmly, refusing to succumb to the temptation to drop his spell. He closed his eyes and then opened them to see only Diablo, wreathed with a malevolent black flame that flared with the residual effects of spell-casting.
"Get out of my sight, you treacherous bastard," Lord Baron said through clenched teeth, the spell he was holding growing stronger. "I am the Emperor of Karossa, not one of your pathetic lackeys."
Diablo laughed. The disturbing sound rippled throughout the room and sent a chill running down his spine.
"It's too early for us to be having this battle, dear Emperor, and so I'll allow you to live just a while longer," the demon said lightly. But there was an undercurrent in his voice that was as hard as steel, and his aura revealed his displeasure. "I'll leave you to your brooding," he called over his shoulder as he sauntered towards the door. Lord Baron watched him carefully and prepared every nerve in his body for a sudden attack.
Diablo just kept on walking, seemingly completely at ease. When he paused at the threshold and suddenly turned around, Baron thought the long-awaited assault had finally come and almost threw his spell. But he stopped himself just in time as he saw Diablo wanted to speak, and nothing more.
"By the way, I'll still be helping you, Grandpa," the demon said with Zephyr's cheery voice. His smile twisted into a malicious smirk as he added with his usual gravelly harshness: "Whether you like it or not."
With that, he stepped through the door and out into the hall. Lord Baron felt a sudden tug in sydael and the heavy door slammed shut, leaving him standing alone in his chamber.
Lord Baron cursed furiously as he haphazardly threw the mass of energy in his hand, releasing all of his pent adrenaline along with it. It flew towards the great window that took up half the length of one wall, shredded the Threads protecting it, and slammed into the glass. The window cracked and then shattered, a burst of glass hurtling into the open air like a plume of icicles.
Baron stood panting in front of the gash in his wall, watching the glass fall like rain. Even though he was exposed to the bright sunshine of midday, he still felt cold.
"I kill, and will kill again."
Sabriel tried futilely to quell the pain in her heart she felt when she heard Darius's words. His deep blue eyes were cold and empty, and his darkening aura stilled, closing itself off to her.
Where was the man who had joyously enveloped her in his arms, thanking Sydael that she was safe? He had replaced humanity with ruthlessness as he turned himself back into an Assassin, a killer who looked dispassionately at her as if she were an object.
"Darius…"she breathed, searching for any signs of the man beneath the shell. "Darius please…you don't have to cut yourself off from me – please don't," she said brokenly, her words filled with emotion.
His aura did not even flicker. Her guardian-turned-Assassin merely turned his back on her and walked away, trudging back to his Blade. Sabriel could only watch, stunned and deflated, trying to convince herself that she didn't care, that she was better off without him. But she could not tear her eyes away from the tall figure walking alone in the grey wastelands. So horribly alone.
Like me, she thought, a cold shiver raising goosebumps on her arms. Neither of them had any family left. Perhaps that was why he was an Assassin; so he could find meaning in vengeance. But she could not kill what had taken her brother away.
She had not had the time to think on the loss of her brother since they had been in Sitalia, and had at first been too occupied at what Diablo had done to her to think about Zephyr himself. Now the sudden realization slammed into her like a physical blow. She gasped, her legs buckling as she sank down into the ash.
"Zephyr," she cried, closing her eyes and feeling fresh tears run down her cheeks. She hadn't been able to save him, and now he was gone. Never again would his smile greet her when she returned home, or would she receive one of his reassuring hugs, see his face light up, argue with him, laugh with him, tease him, wrestle with him, talk to him…all of it was gone. He wouldn't be in her life anymore. She had watched over him for so long that existence without him was unimaginable, and the pain of it tore her apart.
She was alone and she had no one to protect. There was no one to love or to love her in this strange land that was supposedly her home.
She hugged her knees and buried her head in her arms as she cried, rocking herself back and forth, oblivious to everything except her rending grief. She barely registered the sound of approaching footsteps and the familiar aura that went with it.
She raised her head, seeing heavy black boots resting in front of her through the blur of her tears, and then lifted her gaze, following dusty black slacks, sweeping across muscular torso, and finally resting on stark, claw-marked features. The angular planes of his face were still so rigid that they seemed to be carved from the ice he wielded so easily, but his eyes had melted, revealing the person he had tried so hard to hide.
"You came back," Sabriel said, her voice trembling as she struggled through fresh tears.
"Yes," Darius replied succinctly. He looked as if he wanted to say more, but even as his previously motionless gray-blue aura suddenly flared, he clamped his mouth shut and looked away.
"You don't have your Blade," Sabriel remarked, desperately trying to keep him talking. She had noticed the glaring absence of a sword hilt from where it usually jutted behind his right shoulder. "Why?"
He still could not meet her eyes. "I have my reasons," he said in a monotone that rivaled Lady Alysia's.
When it was obvious that he was not going to say anything more, Sabriel felt her already heavy heart fall. She had thought – no hoped – that Darius had come back to comfort her, to empathize with her as someone who had also lost a sibling; more than one at that. But it appeared that he was merely going to stand in front of her like a statue, wishing to say something but not allowing himself to say it. She was still alone, even more so than before.
She felt another stab of pain in her heart and cried out in grief and frustration: "If you're not going to say anything, then just go away!"
Darius whipped his head around and finally looked down at her, his eyes widened in surprise. "What?"
"I'm so tired of your bullshit - of wondering who you really are and how you feel about me. I'm tired of trying to save you from yourself, and most of all I'm tired of trying to understand you when you won't let me!" she ranted. A fresh sob caught in her throat and she had to choke it back down before she shouted, "Just leave me alone!"
When he could only continue to stare at her, his aura swirling with confusion and hurt, Sabriel found herself getting even angrier. She couldn't bear to face him anymore. She suddenly pushed herself to her feet and this time was the first to walk away, shuddering with sobs. She wasn't surprised when he came up behind her and grasped her arm.
"Sabriel – wait -"
She tore away and shoved him, hard. "Go away!"
Surprised, Darius staggered backward, just barely keeping his balance. "Just what do you want from me?" he demanded as soon as he found his footing, his voice taut with anger.
"I want the impossible," she said bitterly, "you, without the Assassin."
She immediately turned around and began walking away again, not waiting or wanting to see his reaction. It would only be more of the stunned, helpless silence, and then she'd see the familiar coldness in his eyes as he told her once again just what he was. She did not want to hear it again.
Distracted with pain and blinded by tears, she once again did not notice the presence of an Assassin, in fact, she walked straight into him.
Asgard immediately grabbed her left wrist, applying a vise-like grip that was much more painful than what Darius had used to stop her just moments ago. Sabriel cried out in pain as his unnaturally strong hand tightened. She struck at him furiously with her free hand as she screamed at him to let her go, but neither had any effect.
"Looks like you two fools are at it again," Asgard sneered, looking down with obvious distaste at the flailing woman he had trapped. "Well, Mercury, it looks like you aren't so brave without the Blade Mage to back you up."
He had impaled his Blade into the ground and it flared beside him as he spoke. Sabriel could feel blistering heat radiating from the Blade, and suddenly wished Darius had gone back for Boreal.
"Release her," Darius commanded, his tone deadly. The Prince ignored him. Darius's eyes suddenly became unfocused, and Sabriel could sense sydael responding around him as he prepared to cast a spell.
She turned back to Asgard as the pain in her arm grew unbearable. "Asgard, you bastard, I saved you!" Sabriel shouted, furious.
He merely jerked her forward so that she was much closer to him than she would ever like to be. He leered down at her and then said, "So what, you want a reward then? How about a kiss from a Prince?" He lowered his head.
A sharp retort echoed in the air as Sabriel slapped him with so much force that her palm stung.
"A gift from a Siren," Sabriel said coolly.
Asgard growled with anger, but before he could react, they both sensed an abrupt rush of sydael surge towards Darius.
Sabriel twisted her head around and saw the sydael gather in front of Darius's outstretched palm. As he uttered a spell, the sydael stretched into a vague sword-like shape and then suddenly was replaced by his sheathed Blade. Sabriel's relief disappeared as she saw Boreal inside, stirring at the summons and still angry from her last defeat. At the same time, Asgard threw Sabriel aside and yanked his own Blade out of the ground.
Sabriel scrambled to her feet, glanced swiftly at Darius and cursed as she saw the killing intent in his eyes. He curled his fingers around Boreal's floating hilt and then turned his hand, holding her horizontally. He was going to unsheathe his Blade.
There seemed to be only an instant between when Sabriel decided she had to move to when she found herself between the two mortal foes.
"Stop it!" she shouted even as Boreal's ice-blue aura grew. "If you unsheathe her, she'll try to take over again," she said fiercely as she gripped Darius's wrist, ignoring the aching pain in her own. She unsheathed Almandine with her right hand, in case he wouldn't listen.
She could see the hatred he had for Asgard glittering in his eyes and staining his aura. "Don't interfere," he snapped. "He hurt you and he…I'll kill him."
"Darius, I'm fine. Kill him later," Sabriel said urgently, eyeing the growing glacial blue mass of energy inside his Blade. "I don't know if I can stop her this time," she added quietly, so that Asgard could not hear.
Darius glared at her, obvious frustration in his expression. But his usual cold calculation took over and he began to weigh his options. He finally bit out a brief "sorry" as he grudgingly lowered Boreal. The ice-blue glow surrounding his Blade began to fade as the binding spells on her sheath took hold.
Sabriel sighed with relief and released him. She then whirled around to glare at an amused Asgard, feeling anger course like hot sydael through her veins.
"Don't fuck with me to get to Darius," she said tightly, resisting the urge to impale her sword through the Prince's belly.
Asgard smirked, and then looked her up and down. "I'd fuck you anyway."
Sabriel trembled with disgust and rage, but even as she raised her sword and took a step forward, Darius stepped in front of her, blocking her path.
"Shut up, Asgard," Darius said, his tone clipped and cold. His knuckles whitened as his grip on Boreal grew tighter, but he did not try to attack again. "Did you come here just so you can be more of an ass than usual?"
Asgard's Blade flared. "My, such strong words from someone so pathetically unarmed," he taunted as his Blade cast strange shadows on his face.
"I believe you are the one who has been unarmed," Darius retorted, glancing pointedly at the rounded stump that was all of Asgard's left arm that remained.
Sabriel watched Darius carefully, praying that he wouldn't be tempted to unsheathe Boreal. But if Asgard insisted on attacking, she didn't know what they could do to defend themselves. She knew that she would be no match for him.
"Oh break it up, you two," a new voice interjected from behind Asgard. "You're worse than my half-brothers."
To the surprise of both Darius and Sabriel, Asgard suddenly sheathed his Blade and whirled around, irritation flaring in his aura. "You certainly took long enough," he growled.
Sabriel gasped as she saw who he was addressing. It was the attacker, her half-uncle, his silvery blue hair sticking to his sweaty face. He was unarmed and appeared weary, but there was still a cunning gleam in his dark eyes.
He glared at Asgard. "Maybe I didn't want to get my clothes more soiled than they already were – its enchanted ash too," he retorted.
"Don't you think I know that?" Asgard shot back.
"Apollyon," Darius spat, interrupting the exchange. "What the hell are you doing here? I thought Reina took care of you."
"Nice to see you too, Darius," Apollyon said sarcastically as he retied his shoulder-length hair. Watching him made Sabriel inanely wish she had a spare hair-tie of her own. Her hair was filthy with dust and sweat and blood.
"Anyway, she did 'take care of me,' but your friend Asgard here saw it fit to free me," her uncle added.
"What?" Darius immediately exclaimed. "Asgard, you fool, he betrayed you, how could you-"
"Why don't you shut up and let me explain?" Asgard snapped. "He wouldn't tell me some information I needed unless I freed him. As part of the deal, he doesn't have access to his Blade and knows he'll be killed the instant he tries anything."
"What kind of information was so important?" Darius asked suspiciously.
Sabriel watched Asgard's response carefully. Although his expression quickly turned into one of affronted anger and he gave an indignant reply, there was a hint of longing in his dark red aura. She was struck with a flash of insight.
"You want to know where Lady Alysia went, don't you?" she said quietly, silencing the Elites' argument.
Both men turned to her and gaped. Sabriel saw something akin to horror in Asgard's widened eyes.
Apollyon was the first to break the stunned silence. "Hm, she's good," he said irreverently, although there was sharp interest in his aura that belied his casual tone.
"Alysia's gone…?" Darius asked, his brow knitting in puzzlement. Sabriel remembered that he had not been around when the Lady had woken up.
"Yes," Asgard said in a clipped, angry tone.
"Ah, lover's quarrels abound," Apollyon mused, sighing dramatically. Then his rapt expression abruptly turned sour. "At this rate we'll never get out of this trash heap," he muttered, looking distastefully at his dusty surroundings.
"He has a point," interjected yet another voice.
The four of them turned in unison, but none were too surprised to see that Reina had materialized in front of them from nowhere. She smiled kindly at them, but there was deep concern in her indigo eyes.
"Reina!" Sabriel called happily, curiously glad to see the girl. She sheathed Almandine, knowing that she was safe now that Reina was back. She felt a connection to the Blade Mage that she couldn't explain, and genuinely liked her. The Assassins, on the other hand, regarded her with wary ambivalence at best. Apollyon wouldn't even look at her.
Reina responded by walking over to where Sabriel stood, her white boots barely making an imprint in the dust and ash. Darius saw where she was heading and resumed his position on Sabriel's right side, watching the Blade Mage carefully. Reina stopped on Sabriel's other side and looked up at the older woman, an unbearable sadness dampening her bright white aura.
"What is it?" Sabriel asked, concerned. She had always sensed that Reina carried some kind of burden, but now it seemed to physically weigh the slight girl down.
"You have much to do, Sabriel Arrowney," Reina finally said, a distant echo in her musical voice. Her indigo eyes glowed. "Much pain you have yet to endure."
Sabriel blinked, startled and a bit frightened. The certainty in the Sydafenir's voice was unsettling. And Reina had paired her name with her mother's last name. Why?
"What do you See?" Darius asked quietly.
Reina shook her head. Her aura lost its gold edge and her eyes returned to normal as she looked away from Sabriel and addressed the whole group: "Forgive me for keeping you waiting. I had to consult my Blade Soul about certain matters."
"Well, what is it?" Asgard said impatiently, shaking himself out of his own stupor. Apollyon appeared to do the same. Sabriel guessed that when a Blade Mage went into a trance, she tended to drag everyone else along with her. She herself felt dazed and unfocused.
"You have an idea of what we must do from consulting Apollyon, correct?" Reina asked the Prince.
"What are you talking about? All I know is what Lord Baron plans for us, not what we 'must do' – and who said I was going to be a part of this 'we' in the first place?" Asgard said belligerently.
"Indeed, you speak to us as if we are your private army," Apollyon added. He kept on glancing at Reina's right leg while clenching and unclenching his right hand. Sabriel thought for a moment she saw a faint green glow beneath the white robe…
"Quiet, both of you," Reina said coldly. They were the first harsh words any of them had heard from her and they shocked the two Dark Elites into silence. Not to mention all of them could sense the raw sydael welling up in her.
In the ensuing silence, Reina looked levelly at all of them in turn, as if to quell any more thoughts of rebellion. When she met Sabriel's eyes, the older woman thought she sensed some sympathy from the Blade Mage, but her expression almost immediately turned distant and cold.
Reina's next words were commanding and confident, spoken like a leader instead of an innocent young woman: "You must all understand that you are now part of something bigger than your own individual agendas. As Asgard probably found out from Apollyon, Lord Baron plots against you all. He needs to destroy you before you have the chance to unite and defeat him. He knows you all hate him, for your own individual reasons. But separately, none of you could have ever defeated him, and he means to keep it that way. Everything that has happened so far he has meant to happen, and that is why you flounder amongst old feuds-" she glanced at Asgard and Darius, "betrayal-" she looked hard at Apollyon, "and loss." Her eyes finally rested on Darius and Sabriel, who both looked away.
There was a stunned silence as Sabriel and Darius considered the implications. Apollyon and Asgard almost seemed bored, but they waited with wary respect for Reina, who was staring at something that didn't exist.
I'm Darius's target because Lord Baron was afraid he and I might've worked together, Sabriel thought, glancing at her Assassin. He seemed to be busy harnessing Boreal, but his gray-blue aura was pensive. Sabriel suddenly remembered their argument, and wondered what sort of person he would've been if he weren't an Assassin. What if he were an Earthling? Would he open up to her then? Would she let him get close to her? Would she be afraid of him?
I'm not afraid of him now, she said fiercely to herself. But part of her knew that she was frightened of Darius, albeit for much different reasons than her fear of him from the beginning. He was the only person besides Zephyr who could send her on an emotional rollercoaster, and her loss of control unsettled her.
When Boreal was on his back again, her hilt jutting above his right shoulder, Darius suddenly turned his head and fixed Reina with his piercing blue gaze. "Why didn't Lord Baron just keep us all on Lothos then? Why risk us forming an alliance with the Mercury's?" he asked.
Reina blinked and seemed to come back into reality. "He never thought that alliance would happen. And I'm sure he could sense that you and Asgard and his Dark Tempest were going to rebel soon," she said quietly.
"I don't know what we could've accomplished, what with the new powers he has," Asgard said sullenly.
Sabriel stared at Asgard. The Prince was the last person she'd thought would say that he and his organization could not succeed.
Apollyon shook his head. "Yes, my father is powerful, but it takes a lot out of him too. He's aging, gets tired easier…the sydael he wields almost seems – parasitic," he said slowly. "If we caught him at one of his weak moments…it would make us much more of a threat."
"Tainted sydael does take a toll on the wielder," Reina affirmed, "unless of course, the wielder is a demon."
Sabriel winced. Zephyr…
"Did Lord Baron plan for Diablo to be resurrected?" Darius demanded. There was pain and anger in his eyes. No doubt he was remembering the death of his sister.
"No," Asgard, Reina, and Apollyon said in unison.
"Guess not then," Sabriel said under her breath. She wanted to laugh, but the stony expressions on everyone else's faces stopped her.
"My father would not summon something that is greater than him in power," Apollyon said, breaking the awkward silence.
"Although I'm sure Diablo contributed greatly to his plans," Reina added.
"We have to go to Mestra and make sure he and Diablo don't form any kind of alliance," Asgard finished, with usual imperiousness.
"No, that will not be necessary," Reina said coolly, ignoring Asgard's glare. "He and Diablo would not be able to form any permanent, productive alliance. In fact, we can hope that the threat of Diablo will distract him enough for what we have to do."
"What do we have to do?" Sabriel asked, a sense of dread settling in the pit of her stomach.
Reina looked at her gravely. "Rescue your parents and your brother from Baron's Complex. Realize the full extent of your powers. Confront Lord Baron and Diablo, and destroy them both. If you cannot do all three, then Lothos will be annihilated as Baron and Diablo fight for control."
"Much pain you have yet to endure," echoed in Sabriel's head as she tried to absorb the apocalyptic prophecy. It sounded suspiciously close to what Darius had planned for her.
"You do not need the Sight to see that what I speak is true," Reina said, addressing the entire group again.
"But why? Why me?" Sabriel breathed, longing for her apartment back on Earth, for her beat-up car, for TV dinners and taxes. She missed daily chores and annoyances and the routines of a normal life. "I just want to go home," she said plaintively, fighting back tears. She knew that it was weak and immature of her to say such a thing, but she wanted nothing more at that moment than to throw a tantrum and scream, "It's not fair!"
Reina's eyes overflowed with sympathy and Darius looked as if he wished to say something comforting but just could not find the words. As usual.
"You are home," her uncle said unexpectedly. Sabriel looked at him hard, not trusting him, but she saw the genuine conviction in his sea-green aura. "You belong on Lothos, maybe even more than the rest of us. You are of the Royal Blood, direct descendent of Queen Iisera." Though his tone was mostly reassuring, Sabriel caught an undercurrent of something that sounded like jealousy.
"If she's so important, why include the rest of us then?" Asgard said gruffly. "Personally, I don't really want to throw away my life trying to play hero – or guardian."
Darius bristled. "You selfish bastard-!" he began, indignant.
"Everyone here is important," Reina said calmly, cutting him off. "Asgard and Apollyon both have important connections that will keep us relatively safe while we're in the City, Apollyon knows where Strife and Odessa's bodies are, Darius has claims to old nobility that he should finally use, and he'll also protect Sabriel while she trains."
Sabriel and Darius looked at each other and then at Reina, startled by her words.
"What, is he going to be my bodyguard or something?" Sabriel said incredulously.
"I'm her Assassin," Darius added heatedly.
"Sure doesn't seem like it," Asgard muttered under his breath.
"Indeed. I'd say the romantic tension between you two surpasses even that of my Captain and his First Lieutenant," Apollyon said dryly.
Asgard glared balefully at his subordinate, who merely winked.
"Anyway," Reina spoke up. "I think it has already been proven several times that Darius is an effective guardian. Besides, Sabriel trusts no one else."
"B-But I – he's – this won't work," Sabriel sputtered incoherently, completely surprised by the Blade Mage's insight.
Darius shifted uncomfortably at the slight. "You know I'll protect you, Sabriel," he said suddenly. Four pairs of eyes suddenly fell on him. "If it is my Assignment," he added hastily.
"Darius…" Sabriel said softly, relieved to see that the gentler side of his character could still show itself.
"A babysitting Assignment for an Elite Assassin?" Asgard scoffed. "How low can you sink, Darius?"
For once, Darius refused to be goaded by the Prince. "An Assignment is an Assignment," he said calmly.
"You start now," Reina concluded with authority.
"Alright, now that we've settled that, let me get this straight," Apollyon suddenly said. "Basically three Elite Assassins, the heir to the throne, and a Blade Mage are off to save the world, and if one of us fails, we're all dead."
"Yes," Reina said simply. There was absolute conviction in her tone and aura.
None of them were reassured.