The rodents finally gave up as the travelers reached the outskirts the forest. The venomous squirrels yielded reluctantly, disgusted with the intrusion of two groups in a single day. Scattered by white bolts from the Ai’s ring, they did not even stay to watch the travelers take their final steps from the woods.

            The giant trees ended as abruptly as they had begun, returning the landscape to more of the endless grass plains that the forest had interrupted. In the late afternoon sun, every blade cast a shadow on its neighbor. Gusts of wind turned the shadows into dark waves that swept across the green sea of vegetation.

            Sanura pulled herself onto Longstride and looked back at her companions. “How far?”

            “A few miles, but they’re moving fast,” Arva answered. Katchen’s distortion of the Cheldar’s detection proxy for Celeres had been destroyed with her explosive trap.

            “Then we’ll have to move faster. Go,” the soldier said.

            “One moment.” Arva picked up Chadder and sung over him for several minutes.

            Sanura chafed under the delay but restrained her complaints to cursing under her breath. Khenet smiled at her sympathetically.

            The Cheldar finished his song, and Chadder launched himself into the air. As the bug soared into a dot high in the air, Arva mounted his antelope and said, “Ready now.”

            Briskly, Sanura rode into the fields. The notes from Arva’s singing reached her from behind, propelling her at many times the antelope’s natural pace. Silently, she demanded the magic be enough to catch up to her husband that day.

            The sun settled down in the west, releasing the sky to the stars and the horizon’s nightglow. Free from her former lover’s gaze, the moon rose in the east, fat and full of light. Sanura thanked Grandmother Maand for the gift and continued the push across the endless fields. Arva outdid himself, holding the speed proxy for two hours longer than he had any other time on the journey. It was enough.

            The field started to drift down into a broad valley carved by a mighty river snaking through the grass. A great ball of light hovered over the shore, illuminating many figures engaged in a struggle. They had found the Prince’s company.

            Below, that company was too busy to note the new arrivals. The thief had laid low nearly half their number, and the gold masks had no intention of letting a moment’s distraction take out anymore.

            The thief had popped up from the grass a couple of miles back, startled at the company’s proximity. Throwing away stealth, he bolted, hoping his speed would leave behind his enemies’ mortal agents. Katchen’s magic let them keep up and eventually catch up at the crest of the hill down to the river. The gold masks swarmed over him, beating down on him with their swords. The thief struck back with his claws, tearing two soldiers from their mounts and leaving them immobile on the ground.

            Ignoring the leaden weight of her limbs, Katchen cast a proxy to light the battlefield, giving them all a good look at the thief for the first time. At eight feet, he almost matched his mounted attackers in height. Beyond that and his general shape, he had little in common with them. His gray and brown blotched skin flexed over sharply cut muscles, quickly resealing where the swords had penetrated his flesh. Clawed fingers lashed back with dizzying speed, yanking down a third gold mask and ripping away his life. Another’s avenging sword was spotted by the thief’s cold yellow eyes and met by a screech from his hooked beak. He lunged forward, snapped down on the wrist holding the blade, and severed it from its body. A backhand from a claw ripped out the wounded masks’ throat and silenced her scream permanently. The falling sword knocked against the giant crystal hanging from a steel chain around the thief’s neck, ringing a note that reminded them all of the prize they fought for. This was Vogel of the Firstborn, trapped since the beginning of the universe, and he would kill them all to keep the Isole.

            With a second screech, Vogel leapt up and out over the heads of the company and sprinted for the river. Katchen swept arcs of electricity across his legs, spasming the muscles and making him stumble. Colonel Rafe came down on the thief with blow after blow. Vogel struck back, but between the moon and Katchen’s light, the hirudin retained most of his gifts, allowing him to repulse three attacks without receiving a wound. The Firstborn cut down the Colonel’s mount, sending its rider to the ground in an undignified heap.

            The gold masks valiantly set upon Vogel again, some of them meeting their death on claws and beak. With an eye on the prize, Prince Emhyr rode up behind the fight and swung at the back of the Firstborn’s neck. Steel rang against steel, and both sword and chain came away carrying fresh nicks. The Prince swung again, but the Firstborn surged away, sprinting for the river.

            He might have made it and dived into the water, frustrating the attempt of the mounted company to chase him. With the gold masks surrounding him, the island mage lacked another clean shot at him and had no immediate thoughts on how else to slow one with his powers. With one hirudin down and the other behind him, it would only be a matter of moments to cut his way through the gold masks and take one last sprint across an open space to reach the river. He might have made it if Celeres’ insights had not driven him to abandon his mount at the start of the fight and rush down to the river’s edge.

            As it had in the Samcar Desert, knowing where he had to be gave him barely enough time to actually get there. The moment delay as he retrieved something from his saddle bags almost cost him his life minutes later by the river bank. While pulling the stopper with his teeth from the bladder he had brought from his bags, Celeres spotted the giant Firstborn barreling free of the gold masks and down on him. It seemed to happen faster than the vision had revealed. Disconcerted, the blood knight awkwardly dropped the bladder. Steadying his nerves, Celeres swept his staff through a tight circle in hopes of hitting the bladder’s contents. He twisted the sweep into an overhand blow without waiting to find out if he had succeeded in activating his weapon’s icy magic.

            He had not. The staff bounced off the Firstborn’s skull, and Vogel dug his claws through Celeres’ armor and into his ribs. The blood knight grunted and fell back out of his opponent’s grip. Sensing his own impending escape, Vogel let the mortal drop away without finishing him. Down but not out, Celeres thrust his staff at the thief’s ankles, tripping him up.

            Now Vogel turned to kill the knight, but the blood in the grass from the bladder or Celeres’ wound had touched the staff. Vogel’s attack was met with explosive power. The Firstborn fell to the ground again, stunned by the blast. Celeres did not follow up on his attack, but rolled away, almost causing Prince Emhyr to ride over him. But the Prince’s mount was well trained and danced away from the prone human, stomping all over the Firstborn instead.

            On their antelopes, the gold masks circled the Firstborn, wary of the creature that had whittled down their numbers, but ready to attack again. A sharp command from the Prince held them back. Their liege swung off his mount and gazed grimly at the Firstborn struggling to his feet.

            “Give us the Isole,” Prince Emhyr demanded.

            Behind the Firstborn, Colonel Rafe stepped into the ring, and Celeres stood, his wounds already fading to a dull ache.

            Vogel glared at the Prince and hooted in amusement.

            “Zonneshin wants the Isole more than he wants you,” Prince Emhyr said, his eyes resolutely locked with the thief’s. Neither the motions immediately behind the Firstborn or much further up the hill would tear him away from his role of distracter. “We can surely cut a deal before my master returns to the sky and sees what has happened here.”

            Knowing his liege’s true intentions, Colonel Rafe had moved forward, trusting the circling gold masks would cover his attack. Guessing the Firstborn would shrug off any blow intended to incapacitate him, the Colonel aimed to immobilize instead. The sword crashed into the back of Vogel’s knee, dropping him to the ground before the Prince’s phony speech was complete.

            A proxy net from Khenet settled over the Firstborn as soon he fell. Screeching, Vogel tore through the proxy as if it were tissue, but it held him long enough for Celeres to move up. Gripping his staff in both hands like a stake, the blood knight drove it into the thief’s chest. The explosion crushed Vogel’s ribs to powder and snapped the Isole free of its chain. The crystal bounced to a stop at Prince Emhyr’s feet.

            Smiling, the Prince cradled the Isole in his hand and stood to call Katchen to him. Looking at her beyond the ring of gold masks, he was surprised to find her facing away, arms engaged in casting a proxy. Behind her, he spotted riders bearing down on them. Around him, the gold masks stirred, their attention turning from the Firstborn to these new intruders. A flash of white leapt from one of the riders, only to hammer futilely against the dimly visible shield Katchen had thrown up.

            The Prince guessed that these were Celeres’ friends bent on stopping him, but if they were not, it made little difference to him at this point. “Kill them!” his voice rang out across the battle field. “Katchen, to me!”

            The gold masks rushed to line up along the island mage’s shield with Celeres and Colonel Rafe. Katchen rode down to join her patron.

            “Open it,” he commanded, holding out the Isole to her.

            She took it in her middle hands and nodded. :Stand back please.:

            Prince Emhyr nodded and turned to defend her from the melee. Only his hirudin reflexes let him meet the attack from a shape plummeting from the sky. The speed from the proxy on Chadder let him fall with enough force to crush most opponents outright. However, the Prince could match the power, blocking the bug’s strike by sweeping across with his forearm. The metal of his vambrace rang as the impact ripped it away. The bone underneath held up to the blow and fed the force back into the cliff wasp. His body crushed, Chadder slammed into the turf and lay unmoving. Prince Emhyr shook his arm, trying to dispel the numbness.

            Behind him, the island mage’s upper and lower hands summoned a sustained note that made his spine shiver.

            At the line of the shield, the travelers flowed into the defenders, disregarding the gold masks’ greater numbers. They quickly set about correcting that imbalance. Sanura sheered through the shield, armor, and flesh of one opponent, dodged the swing of second, then turned around and cut him down with the Nameless Sword.

            “Sanura, watch out!”

            That beloved voice, unheard for months, shot through her like a bolt of lightning, leaving the tips of her fingers buzzing. She twisted around to find both the source of the call and the danger that prompted it. She was shocked to find them one and the same. Even with yellow skin and dressed in red, she recognized Celeres. His face twisted in agony, her husband rushed her and tried to slam a staff into her. The soldier dodged, awkwardly dropping off of her seat and hitting the ground rump first. Longstride shimmied to the side, delaying the blood knight until Sanura had regained her feet and was ready, if puzzled, to face another attack.

            As the line of fighters had collapsed to engulf the travelers, Tyla struck out with blow after blow of radiant light. The gold masks found the steel and muscle could not hope to stand up to the power of her ring. Dismounted, Colonel Rafe managed to sneak up on the Ai and cut down her antelope. The dying animal dropped and rolled, painfully squashing Tyla and half-burying her under its bulk.

            Before the gold masks smugly turned their attention from their partial victory, the Ai ripped a sustained beam toward the river, blasting a hole through their defenses. With their eyes on the bigger prize, Arva and Khenet broke through the hole and galloped for the shore.

            Gold masks chased after them, but Tyla rose and cut down those foolish enough to turn their back on her. Taking advantage of her distraction, Colonel Rafe slid his sword through her back. The hirudin blanched when the Ai, instead of dying, turned her head inhumanly far and smiled at him.

            Down near the river, Khenet abandoned her antelope and sprinted past Arva, shifting into a more lupine form as she ran. Sporting claws and a snoutful of fangs, she threw herself at Prince Emhyr. A feint to the Prince’s right allowed her to sneak in a blow, but the hirudin’s speed let him recover fast enough to dig his blade into her left side. The combatants broke off and regrouped, each dripping the other’s blood.

            Riding past the Prince and the coyote woman, Arva forced Katchen to abandon her efforts to expand upon the thin flaws she had created in the Isole. Instead, she deftly wove her hands into a flowing pattern that stole the air away from around the Cheldar. The antelope panicked and stumble, but Arva kept his head and began to gesture in a crude parody of Katchen’s graceful motions. Like a hammer, a small hurricane of wind slammed against the airless void until it ripped through, restoring the air in a rush that threatened to unseat the Cheldar. Each exhausted by a marathon day of working magic, the mages followed the skirmish with new proxies for attacking and defense, both determined to end the threat from the other.

            Back at the general melee, Sanura found herself hard pressed to hold off Celeres and the occasional gold mask looking for an easier fight than Tyla. The gold masks died quickly, but Sanura simply could not deliver the same to her husband, especially with his expression so at odds with his actions.

            “Sorry! Blood knight,” he grunted as she parried a blow with her sword and used its power to smother the staff’s explosion. “Orders. Can’t-help it.”

            Guessing at what his incomplete explanation meant, Sanura turned her second-sight onto him. Having examined him so intimately before, she immediately spotted that some of his true names had changed. Their continuing melee made examining the details of those changes slow and difficult.

            Nearby, Tyla found the Colonel to be a tenacious foe. His speed made him hard to hit, and those blows that had did not seem to be as fatal as they should have been. The distraction Colonel Rafe caused left the other gold masks to strike at her without simply being mowed down. If she had been human, the pincushion blows she received would have killed her.

            Since she was not, she caught the hirudin off guard when she turned on him without using her ring. She abandoned her assumed form and threw herself at him as a gelatinous blob. The Colonel jumped back, but Tyla managed to catch his ankle with her true form. It was enough. The Ai swarmed over him, trapping him within her amoeban flesh. Futilely, the hirudin tried to shovel her off of his body. Tyla let him struggle while she changed her form to include a layer of needle sharp teeth against his body. Ruthlessly, she began to spin, shredding his armor and flesh until only small chunks remained of the Colonel.

            The Ai willed herself back into the human form, expelling the corpse of her victim as she worked. To their credit, the gold masks stepped right up and continued their attack despite the gruesome death of their commander. That determination helped them not at all when Tyla redeployed her ring.

            Khenet was finding the fight with her hirudin challenging as well, but the old woman had a lifetime of fighting Zonneshin’s gifted to draw upon. Still, the Prince held the advantage in armor and reach. He made the most of it, keeping his distance to strike with his sword and herding her blows toward steel plate. However, the metal only softened her swipes. More times than not, her claws came back tipped with fresh blood.

            Prince Emhyr’s gross incisions drew blood better, but neither the old woman’s speed nor strength dropped off as he expected. A few of the wood folk had died at his hands before, and those had not been able to outlast him. Grimly, he noted his own strength starting to ebb.

            Stumbling on the unexpected dip in the ground pulled the Prince’s sword out of position just for a moment. Khenet leapt in, wicked teeth tearing the steel of his armor and cutting into the flesh of his neck. Prince Emhyr tried to pummel her away, but the coyote woman hung in, whipping her head back and forth until a chunk of flesh came free and then striking again. His Highness’s world painfully went black

            Her breath hard and ragged, the old woman stepped back and surveyed the battlefield. A whimper escaped her throat as her gaze fell on Vogel’s body. Moving stiffly from the Prince’s attacks, Katchen knelt next to the Firstborn’s body.

            The most outstanding change Sanura found in her husband emanated from something hanging from his chest. Hidden by his clothes, she could only guess what it looked like in normal sight. With second-sight, it looked like an octopus with blood red arms reaching everywhere into Celeres’ body, especially his brain. There were other differences, but those looked like minor progressions of the disease that had worked on Celeres all those months ago. The Destroyer felt she might remove the red, but the lines had wound their way into his being in ways every bit as intricate as the disease had. If she took too much, she might remove something essential to making Celeres himself. If she left something behind, Chaldea himself could only guess the effects.

            Sanura grimly took her courage in her hands and attacked. For the first time in the fight, Sanura switched to the offensive and tried to stab Celeres. With the months of practice since they had separated, he easily parried the strike and spun to bring the other end of his staff around to attack. The soldier stepped into the swing and slammed a shoulder into her lover’s body, denying him the staff’s explosion. Still, he recovered quick enough to stop Sanura’s follow up with her blade. They exchanged further blows, each as inconclusive as the first. Sanura measured his skill and found Celeres had come across a lifetime of experience while away from her.

            He could not, however, match her new found skills. She reluctantly passed up destroying the staff with its unusual true names. It would end the fight, but Celeres might not thank her for destroying such a rare prize. That left only the landscape as a target for unleashing the power of the Nameless Sword.

            Dimly, she was aware of Arva’s singing ending somewhere behind her, but she resolutely ignored everything that might mean. She allowed Celeres to lead her through a series of parries and counters that resulted in her sword being batted down so its point almost touched the ground. The blood knight followed it up with an overhand blow with the far end of the wood. It never reached its target. Instead, Sanura pushed forward with the downward motion of the Nameless Sword and dug it into the ground. With a thought, she annihilated the earth beneath him.

            The blood knight fell with gasp, his staff bouncing free of his fingers as he desperately clutched at the empty air. He slammed into the floor of the pit, his head reeling from the impact. Sanura jumped in after him and plunged the sword through his chest.

            Panting, Arva watched Katchen fall to the ground. The island mage’s repitior had been both far-reaching and nuanced, worthy of a dean of the Hidden Library. For a few moments, the only that had saved the Cheldar was his own deeper than normal resources. Admiration as much as curiosity had kept him from seeking to kill her. Instead, he had used a proxy to eliminate her brain’s higher functions and take her out of the fight. She would recover in a few hours, but it would all be over by then.

            In fact, the battle looked almost done. Khenet was kneeling over the falling Firstborn, chanting a proxy Arva did not immediately recognize. Tyla, looking rather worse for the wear with her shredded cloak and slightly translucent skin, was in the process of disposing the final three gold masks. Sanura and Celeres were not visible, but the Cheldar guessed that new pit that had appeared in the hill had more to do with that than anything. In any case, he thought, securing the Isole held more importance than helping his companions right this moment.

            Flicking the reins, the Cheldar directed his slightly scorched antelope to walk him over to the artifact. Having come out of the battle in better shape than her rider, the animal’s reactions were still good enough to allow her to try to dodge as something burst from a pouch on the island mage’s belt, spilling seeds on the ground. Still, the antelope was not fast enough to avoid having her neck snapped by the impact. Arva fared only a little better, flipping out of the saddle and being driven into unconsciousness by earth meeting skull.

            The force that hit them recovered and coalesced into a transparent man that distorted the air with his shape. Having seen Arva fall as she finished the last of her own opponents, Tyla wasted no time in shifting her attack to this new opponent. The Ai split her light into four beams that speared the transparent man from four different directions. Unaffected, he turned to look at his attacker. Undeterred, Tyla turned the tips of her beams into twirling sawblades that dug into his form.

            The transparent man struck back, flexing the air into a ear shattering wall of noise and slamming it into her. The Ai had experienced worse pressure. She answered by whipping around her beams, hoping to rip apart his form with the extra motion. She did not notice the tingling the wall of noise caused on her own body until it was too late. The buzzing built up within her, weakening her grip on her form. Tyla began to dissolve, sagging down to the ground like a melted candle. The beams from her ring flashed uncontrolled and flicked out as she settled onto the ground as a useless sack of protoplasm.

            Watchin the fight from Vogel’s side, Khenet sighed as Tyla collapsed. The old woman rose and braced herself for a fight she did not really want. She preferred not to meet her peers on equal terms, but this time he had caught her by surprise.

            “Thacker,” she said to catch his attention.

            His answering smile was dimly visible in the lights of moon and proxy. “Meskhenet. We meet for the third time in one year. I am honored,” he said snidely.

            “Sanura! Sanura, I need you!” the old woman yelled.

            The Destroyer could not hear her. The initial strike with the Nameless Sword had obliterated the knot of red on her lover’s chest, but the rest of the work was tricky. Shutting out all outside distraction, she hunted each blood red thread and carved it away with the sword’s power. Below her, Celeres twitched but made no sound. Sanura rooted for what seemed like one hour after another until she felt satisfied she had cleared it all. With excruciating deliberateness, she pulled the blade free of her husband, leaving his flesh intact behind it.

            While Sanura worked her destruction, it became clear to Khenet that the girl was not responding to her call for help. Confident he could handle whatever the old woman alone threw at him, Thacker actually turned away from her to pick up the Isole.

            Contemplative, he said, “When this disappeared, Zonneshin and I actually wondered if you had something to do with it. It would be just like you to interfere with our plans in such a way. Chaldea would have arranged proxies to make it untouchable. Brendis would have destroyed it and probably half of Tagerden with it. But theft is right up your alley.”

            A high-pitched squealing filled the air as Thacker sought to expand the cracks Katchen had created.

            He continued to speak as he worked. “But then, eldest sister, I saw you at Whisper Point. The timing was close enough to suggest your involvement, but you did not have it and your charges knew nothing of it. Coincidence happens, so after finishing my investigation at the Point, Zonneshin reassigned me to discretely help the humans he had set to hunt the thief.”

            With a resigned shake of her head, Khenet strode forward to place herself between the transparent Firstborn and the river. “Don’t do this, Thacker. You may have kept the plan away from Brendis’ attention, but the universe isn’t ready yet.”

            He laughed. “Isn’t it? The second time we met, I used my disguise as a verhaler seed to find out what pursued Zonneshin’s people that could kill an unsprouted seed. Imagine my surprise at seeing you, Meskhenet, and with someone wielding the Nameless Sword. The Destroyer’s sword. So, is she the true wielder, Meskhenet? Is she the Destroyer of the Universe?”

            “Yes,” the old woman reluctantly answered, watching the Isole turn into a mass of nearly broken crystal in his hands.

            Thacker laughed. “And you claim the universe isn’t ready when it has thrown the Destroyer up onto the shore. If this is a sign of how well things go when I see you, I should have sought you out more often, trickster.”

            Silent for a moment, the two Firstborn watched the first flakes fall away from the Isole. Thacker’s gaze darted over to Vogel. “He’ll be all right, won’t he?”

            “Vogel’s tough,” she answered, pulling Thacker’s eyes back to her. “That’s why I chose him. He’ll recover with time.”

            “You shouldn’t have involved him in this, Meskhenet. He is not bright enough to resist your manipulations.”

            “He loves this world, Thacker. He didn’t like what you were planning. We were all there the last time the Isole got loose. The true name it contains would have turned all the ether, all the water, it touches into ice that won’t melt. It will kill almost everything in the universe if you let it out. All the Ai, all the humans, even most of the Elders. How does that suit your purposes?” she demanded.

            “They won’t be willing to let this world linger as a frozen hell. They’ll destroy the universe to fix the damage. When they do, the Firstborn will be free,” he said as the rest of the crystal fell away, revealing a small blue ball of light.

            “They aren’t ready! They’ll never get the universe back the way it was!”

            “They’ll manage something. And the Destroyer has reappeared. It’s perfect,” the transparent Firstborn said and lobbed the blue sphere at the river. Khenet jumped to block it, but a hammer of air from Thacker knocked her away. The ball plopped into the water, freezing it as soon as it made contact. Crackling, the ice rushed up and down the river, driving a wave of heat off the water as it permanently locked the molecules into a solid state. Thacker grinned with satisfaction.

            The Nameless Sword plunged through his back, robbing him of that smile. The Destroyer dealt with the Firstborn without the delicacy she had handled Celeres. Like a farmer at harvest-time, she scythed through his true names. The true names of the Firstborn were the densest she had faced with. They resisted her intrusion. Thacker survived an assault that had killed the Elder Einian, pulled himself free, and zipped away high into the air.

            The Destroyer watched the Firstborn flee with her second-sight with a cold fury. Stretching, she chased after him, the power of the Nameless Sword ready to wipe him out. A voice called her back to the earth and her body.

            “Sanura! Sanura, destroy the ice!” Khenet demanded.

            Shifting focus, her second-sight revealed just how fast the Isole’s true name had spread. Far at the mouth of the river, the ocean had started to turn to ice. Closer to home, the earth at her feet slowed the ice, as the true name had to leap through the mixture of powdered stone and animal decay to freeze the water infused within it. Already, the fish of the river were dead, cells exploded by the water’s crystallization. The plants along the edge were showing signs of infection. Eventually, the animals of the earth and air would follow until none survived.

            Sanura chopped at the ice to mix the blade in the Isole’s true name. The scale was huge, larger than anything she had destroyed except for the first universe. That experience was of little help with its widespread chaos. This would have to be more controlled.

            She started at the point of the sword and picked apart the true names at its tip. Sanura pushed and a puddle formed around the sword. Shuttering off most of her senses, the Destroyer extended her will. The ice fell away, sucking back in the heat it had spewed out when it froze. Chasing after the ice, the Destroyer felt the hilt burn as she struggled to reach it all. In the ocean, the true name had spread deep and wide, but she matched it, took it, and destroyed it.

            “It’s done,” she whispered, returning to herself.

            Nearby, Khenet sighed.

            “Meskhenet,” Sanura said accusingly.

            The old woman shrugged. Prepared for an argument and recriminations, she was bemused a moment later when Sanura radically changed the subject.

            “Arva! Tyla!” the soldier declared, twirling around.

            “Those two are fine,” Khenet assured her. “Or will be, anyway. It’s far too late for Chadder, I’m afraid. However, smells like you did a good job on Celeres. You’ve learned a lot in a short time, Destroyer.”

            “Thank you, Firstborn,” Sanura said coldly. “I suppose you get the blame for all of this.”

            “Oh, yes. That was it. The Elohim can’t escape time, but I’ve manipulated every detail of your life for the past year. Neither you nor anyone else took a single action on your own. That sounds right, does it?”

            Sanura snorted. “So, what’s next?”

            “Don’t know. What I do know is that you’re on your own,” Meskhenet said, bending down and picking up the giant Vogel in her little arms. “You’ve got your husband, and the Isole’s been taken out of play. I’m all done here.”

            Too disgusted to argue, Sanura watched the old woman float up into the air and fly away with Vogel. Shaking her head, the Destroyer examined her friends to make them as comfortable as she could. When she checked him, Arva woke long enough to assure himself the battle had finished in their favor, then closed his eyes and muttered under his breath. She found Tyla to be a bit more inert. The occasional quiver of goo suggested she might recover.

            Chadder would not. Limp and broken, the cliff wasp had died. With the Nameless Sword, Sanura cut free a large plug of dirt and set the gentle insect within the hole. She replaced the earth and sat for many minutes with her hand resting on top of the grave, too tired for tears.

            Finally, she rose again. Turning her back on the carnage around her, Sanura sought out the one whose love had led her away from her simpler life in Tagerden. She found him still in the pit, lying on his back and looking up at the stars. The front of his shirt and breastplate were gone, torn away during the battle. Around his neck sat a blackened chain, its red gem gone. The yellow skin on his chest was unmarred by the blow from the Nameless Sword.

            Celeres looked over at Sanura and smiled. “Heya, brave. Did we win?”

            She slid down the side of the pit and sat next to him. “Mostly. Chadder died.”

            The young man’s face fell. “No.”


            Celeres sighed and closed his yes. When they opened again, he sought out Sanura’s features, finding comfort in the familiar long denied to him.

            She gazed back and ran a finger across his cheek. “Yellow, huh? I guess I can get used to that,” she said.

            “I’ve changed a bit while were apart.”

            “Me too. Turns out I’m the Destroyer of the Universe.”

            The former blood knight blinked. “Oh. Well, I guess you win.”

            Sanura snorted in amusement. “One more thing we’ll have to deal with.”

            “Yeah,” Celeres sighed and snuck a peek up at the stars, “but maybe tonight we can pretend the sun will never come up.”

            The Destroyer of the Universe thought of Zonneshin and Meskhenet and hoped that under this moon, her love’s wishes had to power to shape the universe. Stranger things had already happened.