Chapter 15: Chaos

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As the last of her victims were dragged from her ballroom, kicking and screaming and crying with sorrow, Zadina stood perfectly still and watched without interest. Her mind was taken up with her misplaced spell, and the boy it had ensnared. It was unlike a mere mortal to wrestle free from the hideous guards her own master had sent. The fact that one of her former warriors had been able to do it, just to protect a girl her fancied, was baffling. That he would dare fancy a half-bred monster in the first place was unfathomable.

The waste of so much power on the wrong person was frightening. For many reasons.

She refused to let this show on her face, while important guests were present. Seeing that there was now an extra member of the Lun pod, she had ordered him (she supposed?) to take hold of the Moakel woman and put her with the rest of the rebellious squadron. When the abomination had been hauled off with them, it had been enough to make Bellona's eye twitch with irritation.

"So have the wretch run through, as you said before," the woman demanded. "Foolish delays like this are the whole reason I was sent to oversee you in the first place!"

"I will deal with it later," Zadina replied smugly. "The boy's sudden loss at its defense has clearly upset it. We'll let it chew on that, while I tend to the rest of my failed army. Just think of it, oh great one – while it languishes in prison with the others, the whole of Central Control will be forced into cages and slaughtered all around it. The sounds of death and despair will be inescapable, and they will all have to bear the knowledge that it was their fault. It will beg for release, by the time I come for it. And I, being a gracious and merciful ruler, will abide by that request."

"That could take days!" Bellona shouted. "A force of thousands can't be done away with in a single night. You leave the child of prophecy to rot in a prison cell, but rebels never sit quietly and despair. They think. They plot. They escape and ruin everything! Have you learned nothing from Deltora's little king?"

Zadina silenced her with a wave of her hand. "You forget, this is not the soft, sweet land of Deltora. You are in the realm of the Zebak, and we rule with a first of pure iron."

Defeated, Bellona scoffed and stormed away. "A fist of pure tin, is what you mean," she grumbled. "Soft, indeed, good only for being a disappointment. You have three days to get to the girl. If you do not see it through, I will! Next time, act first. Babble about your borrowed powers when the deed is done!"

As soon as she was gone, general Azan ventured down to join the queen he still served with all his loyalty.

"A masterful performance," he praised. "Truly stirring."

After Bellona's verbal beating, Zadina couldn't help giggling at the man's fawning. "Oh, my faithful general, you are entirely too kind. I commend you for your assistance in all this. It would not have been possible without you."

The general nodded in humble thanks. "Permission to venture a question, your omnipotent grace?"

"General Azan, you flatter me. Permission granted."

"Well, if I might be so bold, what will happen with the rebels now?"

"A simple matter, really – we exterminate them. Each and every member of Central Control has been accounted for: every man, woman, and child in my legions. Those who were not in this room tonight are also accounted for, whether sick or merely hiding from me. There are gray guards aplenty to replace them for now; more are promised to pour in over the next few weeks. The captives will all be held down below, and killed in large numbers at a time. It will be like firing arrows at fish in a barrel."

"A brilliant plan, your majesty."

"I know, isn't it? My pods have already been sent into the city to slaughter the stragglers. Their families, too, I'm afraid; the master's orders are very clear that Central Control is to be rooted out as thoroughly as possible. It's a terrible waste of useful hands, I'm afraid, but at least the master has allowed the smallest of children to be spared. Those young minds can still be broken and shaped to our liking."

"Oh, to be sure, your opulence. A lesson they will take to their young hearts, and pass on to future generations. Your people will never dare rise against their masters again."

"Yes, I know. If you look outside, you will see and hear that it is already going very well."

Azan moved to do as she had suggested, but the two guards who had brought Zeel stepped in front of him and barred his way. He frowned at them, and tried to brush them aside.

"Get out of my way," he barked at them, fixing his spectacles. "I am with her ladyship."

The guards chuckled cruelly, and without being asked to, the seized his arms. For the first time in many years, he was truly frightened.

"Unhand me at once!" he ordered. "Your majesty, tell these ruffians to release me!"

Zadina shook her head and laughed at his dismay.

"Oh, but my dear general, you forget your station," she purred. "You have been a great help these last few weeks, it is true. However, you did let the Moakel woman, and several Rinfolk, and the child of prophecy slip under your beaky little nose for the last two years. Not to mention the rebel leader and all his band have been under your care all along, and you failed to see it until just recently. Anyway, your fellow generals are all locked up below, by now, and I really would hate for you to feel left out."

General Azan stared at her, his mouth gaping like a fish, his whole face a mask of pure terror. "But… But…"

Zadina pressed her finger to his lips, ending his pathetic stammering.

"Orders are that Central Control must be rooted out as thoroughly as possible," she repeated. "And you are of Central Control, are you not? Well? Are you?"

With a wave of her hand, the two Fly guards hauled the man away after all the others. Zadina watched this vaguely, only half aware of his terrified insisting that there must be a mistake. He was begging her to reconsider, to show her famous mercy to her loyal servant. But she did not hear him. His hollering voice faded away soon enough, leaving her with her thoughts.

A good thing, too. There was still much to be done.

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In the garage of their Southside home, Dollosus and Unos were wide awake. Terrible sounds and smells were in the air. The humans they loved had not returned from the night's adventures, though the midnight hour was drawing near. Rebel, their pup, was playing with a wooden toy between her father's feet, trusting in his strength, not caring if something was wrong; but her parents cared very much, and were growing uneasy as the bad sounds and smells grew stronger and nearer.

There was the sound of heavily booted feet storming toward the garage door. Dollosus was used to this sound; to him, it was the way his masters usually sounded. But there was something different about it this time. There were many more than just the three men he loved and trusted, and it sounded menacing. A stench came with it, of sour sulfur and brimstone, and the fires of a deep, dark place.

Sensing danger, Dollosus rose and nudged the playing pup toward his mate. He faced the door and growled a warning to whatever was outside, raising all his spines and flicking his barbed, three-pronged tail.

"It will not come inside, my Iron Hide," Unos insisted. "It will not dare, while you guard us."

"We do not know that, my Only One," he answered. "It is cunning and strong. It will come, but it will not harm you or our young, while I stand."

As he has suspected, the garage door was quickly kicked in, and a troop of strange, ugly creatures began filling the space. They were shouting and pointing at the three grach, motioning to ropes and lashes in their hands, saying words Dollosus had come to know. "Rope." "Bind." "Take." "Kill."

But they clearly hadn't counted on the stubbornness of the beasts they were facing. Seeing now that the danger was real, Unos had also risen to join her mate in growling and making herself as big as possible. Only one of the creatures had time to unfurl its rope and try to throw it around her head. With a few slashes of their tales and claws, the whole bunch was dispatched with little trouble.

The pair watched in fascination as the creatures dissolved into the air, leaving empty piles of clothes and weapons behind. Dollosus and Unos and both seen human beings be slain, and had never known them to die like this. They nudged at the garments with their noses, perplexed at what had just happened. Their curious daughter slithered over to grab and empty boot in her mouth and shake it violently, as though she had triumphed over them all, herself.

The garage door was wide open, letting all sorts of things drift inside. Dollosus gazed for a long moment at the open door, and cautiously stuck his head out. He had never wandered out of the house on his own before, without Lion Man or Rebel Leader to guide him. It felt disobedient to him; but at the same time, the idea of going where he pleased without permission was exciting. He couldn't help at least looking outside.

Before she could skitter out and away, Unos took Rebel in her mouth and came to look out, as well. The dark night sky was thick with smoke, and alight with distant flames. In a great cloud above them, a herd of loosed grach like themselves was wheeling in a screeching mass. The two flicked their forked tongues and hissed at the foul tastes they met.

"There is fire and death and evil on the air tonight," Dollosus said grimly. "Do your hear the voices of our kind, Only One? They speak of betrayal and war."

Unos bowed her head and began to sway anxiously. "Lion Man and Small Star will not return, I think…"

That was a terrible thought, but Dollosus sensed that she was right. They leaned heavily against each other for comfort, and he nuzzled his pup's face. The baby had become very still, confused by all that had just happened and nervous over her parents' sadness.

"Oh, Iron Hide, what will happen to us now?" Unos wondered.

Yes. He was their mate and father. They were a small herd of their own, and he was the leader. He had to make a choice for them.

"I know what will happen," he told them sternly. "I will join our own kind in the sky, and fight alongside them if I must. I will learn of Lion Man and Small Star, if I can. I will defend our land, as the Hallowed Fathers would have wanted. You will take Fighter Spirit somewhere safe. Somewhere you will both be safe. You will wait there until it is well to return."

Unos snorted and waved her head. "You may very well die that way, Iron Hide! I will stay here and fly beside you, at last. I, too, will defend our land. We will defend it together. If I leave you, we will not be able to defend each other, as mates should."

"Perhaps not, my Only One, but you and our young will remain alive. That is all that matters. It is the only way I can defend you, now."

She plainly did not like it; but she lifted the pup into a more comfortable position in her jaws and flexed her wings in preparation.

"I know a place where we will remain alive," she told him. "It is far away in the west, in the lands of the Lord of Earth, where my former masters are. I will speak to Red One, when I return. He will understand. He will bring help. I am sure of this."

"See that Fighter Spirit is safe, first. Then return, with all the help you can find in the Hallowed Father's shadow."

There was little left to be said, and no time for more, anyway. The two touched noses in farewell. Dollosus flicked his tongue against Rebel's small face, praying in his animal heart that it wouldn't be the last time he heard his own young trilling in delight.

"Safe flight, my Only One."

"Safe flight, my Iron Hide. As the wandering folk say – my sight will find yours, in whatever end."

The two spread their wings, and parted ways with heavy, mourning hearts.

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Far away in the west, the Titans of Earth, Air, and Water had stayed up late by accident. Their minds had been joined for hours in discussion and pleasant conversation. They had spoken together of how prosperous their land had continued to grow, and of children recently born, and Maris' latest plans for trade. It was mid-spring now, and Rin's sowing season had gone well as always. The Travelers were planning to visit them in the next few weeks – their first visit since the tragedy had struck.

Rowan had been sitting against the wall in his study, deep in mediation, the whole time. The candle on his desk was burning lower and lower, but his mind was somewhere else. In his mind, Doss' voice was like ocean waves on the shore, and Mithren's like a gentle breeze through the leaves of a tree. He, himself, was like the shore and the leaves, sturdy and silent, while his brothers carried on a friendly argument.

"I say again, it makes no sense to me that this whole land should be called Maris," Mirthen was insisting. "Your people can say all they want, but mine were here long before yours."

"Yes, so you have pointed out numerous times," Doss agreed, sounding faintly annoyed. "However, my people will refuse to hear of this, no matter how true it is. In any case, who were the ones the first traders met when they sailed to this land? The Maris, of course. If you wandering folk had been near by at the time, maybe you could have corrected them. But where were you?"

"Does it matter? We were about our land, tending to all its needs, as we ought to be. Three ancient and very different races share this part of our world equally. I don't see how yours should get all the credit for it."

Though deep in meditation, Rowan smiled at his brother's lighthearted bickering. "Are we really back to gnawing at this old bone again?" he teased. "The two of you come back to this at least twice a year. Its no one's fault, after all; its just what those first traders knew of our land. It isn't as though they ventured far into it; their only interest was what was there on the coast."

Doss huffed a laugh, like salt spray in their faces. "If the two of you were to journey to the coast in the summertime when their ships arrive, they may come to think differently. It could do all our peoples a great service, too. There would be more to trade amongst ourselves, and we would be together more often. We would all be stronger, in a number of ways."

Mithren could be felt shaking his head doubtfully, like a small whirlwind. "The Travelers have always ventured north in the summer months, to see to the mountains while there is no snow."

"And the Rinfolk have little to trade until harvest time," Rowan added. "Still, we have had a surplus of many things for the last several years, and a growing abundance of wealth. I don't know how much we could sell in the summertime, but that doesn't mean we can't buy."

"It doesn't do, to horde wealth and not use it," Mithren agreed. "And, you know, the Corona tribe is only one of many that roam the plains. Surely, it won't hurt if just one goes east, for a change."

Across the land and all the space that separated them, the three men silently nodded in agreement.

"Then it is decided," Doss proclaimed. "We will break our old traditions and make new ones, as we always have. Our three peoples will meet in Maris in the next few months, in peace and friendship, to do good and honest trade with one another. I do not believe such a thing has happened before in all our history, apart from gathering for war. What a glorious change this will be."

It was a good, hopeful feeling. It was always exciting to them to try new things, especially when it made the lives of their people better. Their willingness to break traditions and rules in moments of real need had set them apart, and made then excellent leaders – even if some of their people went reluctantly. Rowan wondered what some of his own would have to say about the command decision he had just made…

That hopeful feeling was suddenly shaken by a sense of unrest. Frowning, Rowan tried to catch it in his mind, to see if he could find where it had come from. It seemed to be flying all around him. And it was growing stronger. Louder. Painful.

This unrest quickly grew to jolts of panic, repeatedly striking his mind and his heart. Distant screams of rage and terror were now echoing in his ears. With them came waves of stabbing pain, and a crushing grief. It felt as though he were drowning, as the cosmos resonated with the loss of an entire people.

Somewhere in the world, a tremendous amount of life force was being snuffed out like candle flame. Masses of people were suddenly dying somewhere, in great numbers, all at once. And it was happening over and over and over again.

He felt a mighty storm wind and the crashing of tidal waves in his minds, as his brothers felt the wailing cosmos as deeply as he did. He could hear them crying out in pain and gasping for air, as he was. There was a flash of light and a cracking noise, and he saw a brief glimpse the rainbow light of the Cavern of the Crystal behind his eyes. In his shock, Doss had dropped the wondrous Crystal, and it had hit the cold stone floor with a sickening smack.

Dizzy and nearly numb, Rowan toppled over out of his trance. He lay still on the floor for a moment, breathing deeply at last; but the multitude of terrified voices was still pounding in his head, begging what they had done to deserve their fate, despairingly crying out for help. The stabbing pain of thousands of lost lives was still creeping in his skin. He had lost contact with his brothers, but he knew that they, too, were reeling with all the senses and emotions he still felt.

He tried to focus him mind again, to find them and at least know that they were alright. Like agonizingly slow drops of water on cold stone, he heard Doss' voice speaking feebly.

"Zadina… Why? Why are you doing this?"

Like the barest stirring of the air, Mithren's tired voice joined his. "Stop this… Sister, please, stop this madness! What is it even for?"

And finally, all the way on the far side of their land, the grim knowledge came to Rowan. It was the news he had been secretly dreading for years. This storm of death and grief was coming from the Zebak lands. The Dragon Lord has lost her temper, and was slaughtering her own people in massive droves.

"You can't do this," he pleaded desperately. "You can't!"

Their different voices were clamoring as one, hoping against hope that the wayward Titan would hear them. That she might at least be vain enough to explain what she meant by this. That she might appear in their hive mind at all. Even though she was the one causing so much pain and suffering, they had never longed so terribly to have their missing Titan among them.

Cruel laughter echoed around them. No presence came with it, no sense of a great flame – nothing. Just a terrible voice they remembered, silencing the crying ones in their minds.

"Where is your pretty wife, Red One? Where is your ugly daughter, or your stupid sister? All in this land belongs to me. It is mine! All my own! And all will pay for their betrayal – we will make sure of that."

The faint breeze that was Mithren grew to a lashing wind, hissing with anger. "You are a Titan!" he scolded. "Keeper of flame! A daughter of the very son should know better!"

"I will pretend with you wretches no longer. Serve lower creatures and tend to their old ways. I have a real master. A master with true power. A master your precious Dragons can never hope to contend with. So serve your Dragons, while you can. The Shadow Lord has come, and none can escape his wrath!"

And then, as suddenly as her voice had appeared among them, the voice of the Dragon Lord was gone. In their different places across the land, the true Titans lay where they had fallen, too exhausted and frightened to speak.

The Zebak were being destroyed. The Dragon Lord had their friends and family in her clutches. The monstrous being in the south had found a new servant, and it meant to use her to spread its darkness into the world.

It was over. And there was nothing they could do to stop it.

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Vivi had left the sewers against Keids' wishes. She had stayed in the den into the wee hours of the night, mostly because she was proud of her greatest accomplishment and wanted to show off her prize to all her friends. Her skinned arms and knees had been bandaged, and the medicine she had been given for the pain had made her drowsy. She now suspected that Keids had drugged her on purpose, to make her stay longer than she had meant to.

"No, no, now, Vivi girl, you gon' wait right here," he had told her firmly, pushing her into a pile of pillows. "Der be trouble a'brewin' up der t'night, and I ain't lettin' ye get all caught up in dat."

Vivi hadn't quite heard what he said, as she had dozed off for a while. When she had come around, it was nearly three o'clock in the morning. She had been startled and annoyed with herself, when her friends were certainly expecting her back. She had also been determined not to miss whatever came after the ball, because it had been sure to be mayhem. They needed her. Making sure the diadem was still secured in her bag, she had jumped up and snuck out of the den.

As she had backtracked through the sewers, the people around her had seemed anxious. They had all been speaking more loudly than usual, frightened and wary. Once or twice, she had heard some people babbling somewhere about fire in the street above, and a fighting force like no other overrunning the city. Vivi had hurried on her way, not really paying attention. If things were really that bad, her friends would set it right. They always set things right, with their sneaky plans and secret magic. And all that had probably happened hours ago, while she had been sleeping. She shrugged and huffed to herself, annoyed that she had missed all the good parts of the battle.

Her way home was the usual route. She climbed a ladder and peeked out of the manhole above her, checking to see that no one was there. Of course, the alley behind Bhlai House was pitch black and empty at this time of night; she helped herself out of the hole, replaced the cover, and crept back to the door she knew best. It had been left unlocked for her, and she walked right in. She even groped around the counter in the dark, her fingers searching for another chunk of cake to celebrate her victory.

The cake and its platter were gone. Something squished and crunched under her feet, and she looked at the floor in puzzlement. Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness, and she could see what was left of the cake thrown on the floor, its platter smashed to pieces. Looking around the kitchen, she could see faintly that all the cupboards had been flung open, pots and plates and bowls scattered on the floor. The long kitchen table had been thrown on its side, its chairs toppled and broken.

Vivi's heart filled at once with fear. She reached into a gaping drawer for a candle, but found none. Squinting desperately in the dark, she picked on out of the mess and struggled to light it with a match from her own pocket. Her hands were shaking as they never had before.

With the lit candle in hand, she slowly made her way through the mess and into the common room. The warm, happy space she loved so much was destroyed. All of Thora's expensive things had been broken. The sitting chairs had been torn apart, their stuffing ripped out and thrown all over the room. The cinders of books still glowed faintly in the fireplace. The broken windows hung open, letting the shredded curtains tangle sadly in the night breeze.

Gazing in horror at the scene, Vivi backed away toward the stairs, wanting to search for her friends. Surely, she thought, they had outsmarted whatever had done this, and were hunkered down and hiding. She nearly tripped on something behind her, and she whirled around. What she saw made her jump, even squeak in alarm.

It was Simon. His body lay crumpled on the floor, lifeless eyes fixed on the ceiling, a gaping wound in his chest dark with blood.

Vivi felt a scream gathering in her throat. She had seen death many times in her short life; but it had never been someone she had known, or so violent and awful. She wanted to scream and cry, to run around the house shouting for someone she loved, but she dared not. The front door was hanging open, sagging on its hinges. Branded into it was the blackened mark of a hand.

She darted to close it before someone noticed her and the light from her candle. The door refused to close all the way, so she just leaned against it to hold it shut. At last, it was safe enough to sit and cry. She never cried, but everything she had found was a nightmare come to life. The house was destroyed. Simon was dead. Her friends were gone.

Her little brother was gone. Again. While she had gone off on another one of her stupid adventures, he had been taken. She hadn't been there to protect him, like she was supposed to be. He hadn't even been able to defend himself. She dropped the candle on the floor with the rest of the wreckage and buried her face in her hands, sobbing as she could now hear the rest of her city doing.

"Zizi… Zizi…"

"…Vivi?"

Her head shot up, and she saw a hole open up in the stairs before her. There was another light shining from that hole, and a blessedly familiar face was peering out. It was Zizi, alive and unharmed, in a hiding place so clever not even she had known of it. Her aching heart filled with joy, she jumped to her feet and dashed to the stairs. The little boy leaned out of his hiding place, reaching for his sister, and let her squeeze him nearly to death. He was squeezing her, too, though nowhere near as much; still, he was just as happy to see her as she was to see him.

"I thought – you were gone so – I didn't think you'd be back – never ever," Zizi babbled through tears of his own. "Why did you – why were you gone so long? Did you – did you get hurt? Did they get you? Did you have to – did you escape?"

Vivi sniffled and hurriedly brushed her tears away, pretending to be her usual confident and uncaring self for him. "Nah, I'm fine," she insisted, though she had never felt less fine in her life. "I was with Keids. He made me stay in the den for a while, but I got away eventually. So, I missed everything, huh?"

Zizi nodded. "I'm glad you – you wouldn't have – you wouldn't have liked it. It wasn't – it was bad. Real bad. They took everyone – everyone! They're going to the – to the dungeons – the one where I was! The worst one with – with the cries of despair!"

That was an awful idea. Though they had all won that night, Zizi still had nightmares about that dungeon from time to time. Those unanswered cries for help had touched his heart in a way that refused to heal. Thinking that their dearest friends were now trapped there and crying out uselessly with all the rest was unbearable.

"Well," Vivi said in her firmest tone, "they figured out how to escape once. They'll just do it again. You know, I bet they're halfway out of there by now. They'll be home by morning, I just know it."

Zizi shook his head. "No, no, they won't – they can't. Not with those – those – those monsters. Vivi, didn't you – didn't you see them? The gray monsters? They're – they're everywhere! Breaking things, hurting people – can't you hear them?"

No, she hadn't. She had been so focused on getting home, she had hardly noticed the sounds of her city screaming and burning all around her. Now that she listened, she did hear. It certainly sounded like the work of monsters. Not even Central Control could have caused mayhem quite like this to their own people.

There were heavy footsteps marching down the street. Vivi jumped at it, but Zizi just began pulling her urgently under the stairs.

"Come on, come on," he told her. "They – they come around all the time. They won't see us – not under here. But we can still see – we can see them, and then you'll – you'll see. They're monsters. Real monsters. You'll see, Vivi, you'll see. And when – when they've gone, I'll – I'll tell you everything."

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Afterthoughts…

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I guess now isn't a great time to tell you that this is the last chapter, which means I'm going on a short hiatus. Just for a month or so, to focus on my reading list and plan the details of the last book!

This one wrapped up a few months ahead of schedule, with a well-scripted outline and years of notes to look back on. The only last minute change was the inclusion of this prophecy, an idea I only came up with in the last year. I was worried that it would seem rushed and odd to cram it in this late; but given everything that's just happened with our heroes, I reasoned that this would be the last thing on most people's minds.

PJ Blindclown knows at least one of the final installation's many twists. Props, my dear; but there are so many more. So many more. 8D

SO. You can expect The Reunion to air sometime around Halloween, I suppose. You can also expect a young Star or Alanis blurb to pop up in the time between. Maybe if my brother pesters me enough, another Manus and Gla-Thon short will happen. Who knows? I may even finally write that Britta story I keep saying I'm going to write. Mostly, though, I plan to stay up late reading, rather than writing, for a while. It's good to water your roots. ;)

Roses to all!