Mal sat translating from the book of Genesis, needing little sleep. Sheen and Kal were preparing for the expected battle, but Haden, unusually, was also awake, perhaps too nervous to find any real rest.
“So what will happen if we destroy the stones?” Haden asked. Mal glanced up.
“Well, they will not be able to use them to unmake the universe, I am assuming.”
“Yes, I know that, but can we assume that destroying them won’t have terrible consequences, like returning everything to the stuff of chaos?”
“It will have terrible consequences, but only on a localized scale.”
“How localized?” Sheen demanded.
“They’ll only destroy Disigil,” Kal elaborated. “Assuming we can find it.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad, but what about whoever does the destroying?”
“It will destroy the stones, the Hand of Chaos, and Disigil for certain. Other than that, I am not certain,” Mal said, frowning. Then he brightened. “Perhaps we could get Talan to do it.”
“What’s the Hand of Chaos?” Sheen demanded.
“I do not know,” Mal said, “but we need it to perform the ritual. Perhaps Uilleam will know.”
“Bah, I’ll do it,” Kal said. “If I survive, I’ll have one hell of an experience to share with the other Sensates. And if not, well, you’re welcome.”
“I hear reincarnation is a blast,” Haden joked. “Maybe you’ll come back as a woman.”
“Ooooh,” Kal breathed, grinning.
“This is all well and good,” Mal interjected, “but don’t we have a castle to storm at the moment?”
They left the cabin, blinking in the half-bright afternoon sun. Moments later Halfleikr emerged from the lake, now wearing a breastplate and carrying a sword as tall as he was. It didn’t seem possible that any creature could wield such a weapon, but the giant tossed it over his shoulder easily.
“Let’s hope he’s still friendly,” Mal muttered through his teeth while smiling and waving.
“Or that he hasn’t gotten any smarter,” Haden replied in a similar fashion.
“Maybe we should pretend that we’re some of the people he’s been ordered to ‘round up’. You know, so they don’t get tetchy as we approach,” Kal suggested. “Or, you know, invisibility.”
“Brilliant,” Mal said. He turned slowly in a circle and his body seemed to shimmer, finally settling on the image of a human peasant. Sheen, in her ragged, practical clothes, matched him perfectly.
“I could cast a spell,” Haden said dubiously.
“Oh, just roll in that mud puddle,” Mal suggested.
“Are you ready?” the giant demanded.
“Yes, I believe we are,” Mal said as Haden sighed and cast a spell to make himself look human. They trekked up the hill with the giant alternately in front of and behind them as his immense strides ate up the distance.
“Got prisoners for His Lordship!” Halfleikr bellowed as they neared the walls. The guard above the gates shouted indistinctly and the portcullis began to rise slowly. Several other guards joined him and gazed downward suspiciously.
“I can’t believe you’re working for that monster!” Sheen harangued them. “What’s the place coming to, that’s what I want to know!”
“Shush!” Haden spluttered, horrified.
“C’mon, maggots!” Halfleikr bellowed.
The gate behind the portcullis opened, revealing two more guards and another man who looked like the guard captain. He blinked once or twice. “I thought I knew most of the people in the village.” Mal sighed and waved his hands again. The Captain’s eyes crossed briefly, then uncrossed. “But how could I forget my good friend!” he gushed. The other guards looked startled, then reeled back, dazed, as Haden hit them with a psionic blast. The Captain stared, baffled, and everyone stepped forward quickly into the gatehouse.
“Your guards look a bit out of it,” Haden said to the Captain. “I think Mal would like you to get them out of here.” Mal nodded emphatically and the Captain escorted the stunned guards up a staircase and out of view.
“Quickly!” Kalenthor said and they ran toward the Great Hall, pausing only to close the inner doors behind them. The hall occupied most of the keep. A runner of faded red carpet led to an unimposing throne where a bored-looking fey with lavender hair and butterfly wings was sitting. A massive fiend lurked behind him, taking up most of the space behind the throne.
“Ah, Maloranserani Valtheris’Heranusee,” Uilleam said slowly. He stood up and was instantly wreathed in flames.
“Right,” Kal announced as the Malebranche charged. It ducked its massive head and caught Talan a blow with its horns, flinging him into the air. He drew both swords and landed more or less on the devil’s back while Sheen flew at its face, claws extended like an angry housecat. A mad melee of swords, claws, teeth and horns ensued.
Haden stepped nervously around the combat and fixed his attention on Uilleam. He thought for a moment and declaimed:
“Oh what wonders the planes bring A butterfly and a devil-king But which one is the foulest rose The one that grew or the one that chose?”
Uillem snarled and rainbow light erupted from his hands, catching Mal squarely. The warlock stiffened and fell to the ground with a thunk that shook the room and took a chip out of the floor. “Uh-oh,” Kal breathed. Sheen managed to get a grip on one of the malebranche’s wings and ripped it to shreds.
Halfleikr clapped his massive hands together and a stroke of lightning arced across the hall. It glanced off the devil’s nearly-impervious hide and struck Uilleam, singing the fey a bit. Kal attempted a spell, but the fey shrugged it off and threw a green ray back at the giant, making Halfleikr double over in agony as his flesh began turning to dust. The giant hefted his sword and felled Uilleam with a stroke, but he was badly burned by the flames and forced to retreat. The Malebranche seemed unconcerned by the loss of its ally, flinging Talan and Sheen away again. A spell from Kalenthor bounced harmlessly off the beast as it snapped at Sheen with its huge teeth. That, however, proved to be a mistake. As the fangs came down around her like a cage, Sheen jammed both of her claws down its throat and pulled its heart out through its mouth. It fell to the floor, dead, without another sound.
“Fey’s still bleeding,” Haden muttered and cast a quick spell to prevent Uilleam from dying outright. Halfleiker battered down a door with his fist and stumbled off down the hallway. “So what do we do about Mal?”
“Be cautious,” Lir croaked, the first time Mal’s familiar had ever spoken to them. “The fey can enchant you without a word or even a touch. Bind him in iron.” It then landed on Mal’s stony head and began pecking as though trying to wake the warlock. Sheen picked up an iron candelabra and formed it into rough shackles, binding Uilleam to the throne just as he regained consciousness.
“You should have just let me frog you,” Kal complained as the fey began to whimper and thrash. Lir took flight and landed on Uilleam’s chest.
“Fix the master or lose the eye!” the raven shrieked.
“You can’t threaten me!” Uilleam yelled. “I have nothing to fear from you.”
“Oh, you would be surprised,” Haden replied. “You think my mother and her associates are the danger? You don’t know that we’ve already beaten them. I don’t know what they offered or promised you, but we have the stones now as well as the key to unlocking their power. So I suggest you start talking.”
Halfleikr returned to the room followed by a crowd of villagers. A small girl went immediately to the Mal-statue. “It is him,” she murmured. Haden ignored them.
“If all that is true, there is little I can tell you,” Uilleam said. “It is only a matter of time before they come for you.”
“What and where is the Hand of Chaos?” Kal demanded. The fey laughed.
“If you’ve defeated Lady Margone, then you already have it—it is in her possession in the form of a jeweled dagger.”
There was a pause, then an odd, organic sound as Mal suddenly returned to flesh. “Is that better?” the girl asked in the silence.
“Yes,” Mal replied.
Kal shook his head. “That dagger.”
“It takes many shapes,” Uilleam said. “She’s forcing it to keep that one since she finds it . . .useful.”
The girl bowed formally to Mal. “I’m Iona. Mother said you’d be coming.” Mal bowed in response, glancing toward Uilleam.
“So,” Haden said after a while, “It sounds like we should take the stones to Disigil and wait for my mother to show up looking for them.”
“That doesn’t sound like a very good idea,” Sheen said immediately.
“No, it sounds like a very BAD idea,” Haden said, sighing and sitting down on the steps to the throne. “And what are we going to do with him?” he asked, indicating Uilleam.
“I will deal with him,” Mal said, walking across the room. He placed his hand on the fey’s shoulder and began to speak in a strange tongue. The fey writhed and began to weep piteously. His features began to melt like candle wax and reform into something hideous.
“What are we going to do?” Haden asked again.
“It sounds like our choices are to try and destroy the stones—as they expect—or give them to someone and risk having them stolen.”
“Or we could just go into hiding and hold onto them forever and ever,” Sheen said, “but I’m thinking that’s a really poor option. I’m not interested in martyrdom.”
“In destroying them?” Mal asked, apparently finished with whatever he ws doing.
“I was talking about trying to hide them,” Sheen clarified. “Can you imagine what that would entail? Can’t ever have friends, can’t ever have a family, just have to keep hiding and stay on the run . . . forever.”
“So does this mean we have to destroy them by default?” Talan asked.
“It would appear so,” Mal replied.
“This is going to sound strange,” Haden said, “But I’d prefer that we not destroy the stones.”
“What?” Kal demanded.
“They’re sort of sentient, after all, and they did help us out. It would seem cruel, like killing a puppy.”
“In any case, we need to get the Hand away from Margone,” Kal said. “So we have to find her regardless.” Searching for a distraction, the wizard glanced at Uilleam and winced. “What did you do to him?” He asked Mal.
“He onced served the Lady as part of her cabal, now because of him she is dead. It is no more than he deserves.”
“He betrayed the Lady to my mother and Alocer,” Haden snarled. “You should have done something worse.”
Iona climbed the steps behind Mal and studied Uilleam for a while. “He betrayed the Lady of Mirrors?” she asked.
“Aye,” Mal replied.
“What happened to her?” Iona asked.
“She has passed beyond this realm and walks in yesterday and tomorrow,” Mal said after a moment.
“You mean she is dead. My mother is dead.”
“Our mother is dead,” Mal corrected.
“Trade you,” Haded muttered bitterly.
“Haden!” Sheen hissed.
Mal took a deep breath. “For the Tuatha de Dannon death is not an end.”
Iona frowned. “I saw her in a dream a few nights ago. That’s exactly what she said. She said my brother was coming and gave me this to give to you.” She held up a small glass sphere to Mal. “There is a Place between mirrors, a place where mirrors in many planes meet. The sphere can take you there. One mirror is in the Iron Cage. It’s the only way in that she could find. The mirror in your house leads to the Place.”
“Well, then,” Kal said. “Destiny knocks with a gauntleted fist, it seems. We should see if we can get one of our allies to start seeking the book with the destruction ritual. It won’t hurt us to have options. Sheen, I believe your brother is in the business of acquiring such objects, yes?”
“Wait,” Sheen said. “I thought we had the book with the destruction ritual.”
“We do not,” Kal said. “The book we have speaks of it and names the book, but that is all.”
“You two haven’t been very forthcoming about what is in that book,” Haden complained.
“I am sorry,” Kal said, “but it is so unclear that sometimes I forget what I’ve explained and what I haven’t.”
Sheen sighed. “All right, Haden and I can try to contact Tarsem psionically.”
“If you wouldn’t mind,” Kal said graciously.
They healed their wounds and rested again from the battle, but all too soon they were awakened by a loud wind and a bright orange glow coming from the windows. Sheen and Haden scrambled to their feet and went outside. At the far end of the village, near the foot of the hill, a row of buildings had burst into flames. They were burning vigorously, but without the usual dense pall of smoke of a burning building. The others joined them just as a dark blur rose in the sky above the village. It seemed to hover in space for a moment, then great leathery wings shot out and it swooped low over the village, leaving a streak of fire in its wake.
“That is a dragon,” Kal said slowly.
“Whatever,” Sheen announced and began trotting toward the village. Haden followed her, alarmed. “HEY!” she bellowed as they approached the flames. The dragon wheeled to assess the source of the shouting.
“Do be careful, dear,” Haden said quietly. Mal and Kal were furiously casting spells, nearly mirror images of each other.
<<there>> a mental voice roared. Hellfire flashed and Betzalel appeared in front of them. He swatted at Talan with burning hands but the ranger dodged just in time. An aura of dark power enveloped them. Sheen felt something strike her side and realized vaguely that it was Talan’s sword. Haden found himself running, stumbling over obstacles and into buildings before finally emerging from the aura. He couldn’t tell what Mal and Kal were doing, the darkness and confusion hid them from his sight.
<<where>> Betzalel demanded. The dragon crashed to the ground in the middle of the street and snapped up Sheen in its jaws. Haden cursed and summoned crystalline shards, doing only a little damage. There was a flurry of activity and the dark aura suddenly cleared. <<margone>> the devil roared as Talan leaped. Haden rushed forward and was nearly knocked off his feet as the dragon spat Sheen out in a flume of blood and spittle. A strange look came over her face and she spoke in a voice not her own.
“Why, hello darling.”