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DragonStar whipped about and stared across the chasm. Six black beasts, gruesome in their constantly shifting, fluid forms, stood on the other side. Behind them stretched one of Spiredore’s blue-misted tunnels.
On the backs of the beasts were the Demons, as well the woman that DragonStar supposed was Niah reborn.
Qeteb — it could be no-one else — had edged his beast slightly forward. He was a vile creature, black metal armour encasing his entire form, and even plating his wings.
He was massive, at least half as tall again as the tallest man, and with a thickness of figure to match.
“Why not step across, Qeteb?” DragonStar called. “I am here. Reach me if you can.”
Qeteb’s laughter floated across the chasm. “You know as well as I that I cannot broach the enchantments that protect this — what do you call it? — ah yes, this Sanctuary.”
DragonStar allowed a wave of relief to wash over him.
“But do not rejoice too soon,” Qeteb continued, “for I surely see that all I need is a key, and I have all the time in creation in which to find it. Wait for me, DragonStar, and I will join you.”
Again he laughed, a sound of genuine amusement rather than forced maliciousness, and DragonStar tore his gaze away from the hypnotic figure of Qeteb and looked at Niah.
Again he had the strongest feeling that there was something so infinitely dangerous about her that, of all those in the group across the chasm, including Qeteb, she would prove the most formidable foe.
But then one of the black beasts shifted and snorted, and the spell was broken. DragonStar gave Qeteb one last stare, then turned his back and walked as slowly and as nonchalantly as he could into Sanctuary.
“Well?” said Sheol.
“He is still weak,” Qeteb said, “and we must not give him the time to grow more powerful.”
“How?” said Barzula.
Qeteb let his eyes roam over the enchantments that protected Sanctuary.
“They have been made, and they can be unmade,” he said. “And all I need do is find the key.”
Neither the Demons nor DragonStar realised that there was another observer.
Isfrael, hidden within a small stand of trees just before the entrance to Sanctuary. His eyesight and hearing were as keen as those of all Avar, and he’d witnessed and heard the entire exchange.
He stood and watched thoughtfully as the Demons swung their black mounts about and returned into Spiredore.
They were evil, Isfrael knew, and he loathed them before anything else in his life, but Isfrael had a burning ambition and that was to regain his rightful place at the head of the Avar.
The Demons were vile, worse than vile, but maybe they could be used.
They could help him into what Isfrael coveted more than anything else: the Sacred Groves. In the Sacred Groves Isfrael could regain his standing. Faraday would be nothing if Isfrael controlled the Sacred Groves.
The Avar would come back to him then.
But if he wanted the Demons to aid him, then Isfrael would need something. Information, perhaps, to exchange. And information good enough to enable Isfrael to navigate safely the hazards of demonic negotiations.
What? What would the Demons want?
Souls. They wanted souls. It is what gave them power.
So what might deliver more souls into the hands of the Demons? Isfrael grinned to himself. Sanctuary would. The Demons needed the key to Sanctuary.
Now all he needed to do was find it himself.
Isfrael turned and walked into Sanctuary, turning thoughts over and over in his mind. The Demons could be used — but it would be more than dangerous. And was he ready to risk everyone in Sanctuary?
Yes! Yes! But only if he could manage to get the Avar out before the Demons gobbled up everyone else within this pastel prison.
Isfrael’s steps slowed as he contemplated the Avar safe forever within the Sacred Groves: no axes, no damned Icarii arrogance, and no Faraday to destroy his power.
Chapter 11 StarLaughter (#ulink_cad09d14-2683-5177-bd06-0fbf1581b293)
StarLaughter was far too insane to be intimidated by Qeteb’s threat.
She stood as Qeteb stepped into the tower, the door closing behind him, and then she slowly turned and stared across the bleak wasteland to the east.
A cold and heartless, soulless, loveless desert. A frigid wind blew dust balls red with sparks and flames over the crazily-cracked surface of the ground. No vegetation survived, save for the occasional malodorous and cancerous versions of small shrubs and isolated grain stalks: weeping, fleshy lumps grew down their stalks and stems. Creatures — of both animal and humanoid origins — crept about its surface, whispering and wailing, digging claws in themselves and in whoever approached, copulating with rocks, and eating dust.
But the violent, twisting landscape of StarLaughter’s mind was far more desolate than this nightmare which stretched before her.
She stood, and she stared, and even the occasional crazed creature that paused to nibble at her ankles did not distract her.
StarLaughter was alone. That thought dominated her mind.
She was alone. The Demons had abandoned her. The Hawkchilds had abandoned her.
Even, if Qeteb was to be believed, her son had abandoned her.
No! No! She must not let herself think that!
StarLaughter shuddered, and she moaned, a small rope of dribble escaping her lips.
The Demons had stolen her son, and there was no-one left who could help her.
How many thousands of years had she quested, believing the Demons’ lies when they said they would help her gain revenge for her and her son’s deaths? How much power, aid and advice had she given the Demons, thinking they would help her? Thinking they believed her? Thinking that they had loved her?
“And all they did was betray me,” she whispered. And all the while laughing at her behind her back? StarLaughter screamed, her body jerking in a fit of madness.
“They stole my son!” she finally managed to wail. “They stole my son!”
She collapsed onto the ground again, writhing and moaning in misery amid the dirt. She was so alone; no-one to help her, no-one to understand the depth of betrayal she had suffered, no-one who would understand the depth of maternal grief she felt, no-one who could help her rescue her son from Qeteb’s metalled madnesses.
That her son still somehow existed within Qeteb StarLaughter had no doubts.
All she had to do was rescue him … somehow.
But there was no-one to help her! No-one who could understand —
Suddenly StarLaughter stilled, her eyes crazed with hope, and her dribbling mouth opened in a circle of amazement that she hadn’t thought of this before.
Yes … yes, there was one who could understand her, wasn’t there! There was one who would help her!
StarLaughter giggled, the pure joy of hope (mad, mad hope) suffusing her being, and she clambered to her feet again.
Gone from her mind were the thousands of years lusting for revenge against him.
Gone was her hatred of him.
Gone was any sane thought that WolfStar was highly unlikely to want to have anything to do with her.
Instead, StarLaughter’s mind embraced memories warped by her madness into untruths.
WolfStar, years older than her, tenderly playing with her when she’d been a toddler.
WolfStar, desperately in love with her (although, sweet fool, he would never admit it to her), teaching her to fly when her wings had first emerged.
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