Only another bajillion years later. Turns out, I have no idea how to write magical battles. Maybe the next 2 weeks in quarantine with COVID will whip me into shape. Like Rowan's going to whip Zadina into shape. XD

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Chapter 17: The Sixth Floor

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That door opened to wide, breezy hallways of polished stone hung with detailed tapestries, lined with towering columns, and carpeted in deep red. The only light was that of the pale new sunrise spilling through balconied windows at the end of every hallway. In spite of the dimness, the four blinked at the sudden fresh light. When their eyes cleared, what they found surprised them.

It seemed as though they had missed a battle here. Empty uniforms of the gray monsters littered the floor, the grimey ash of their remains clinging to the carpet. Here and there was a soaked stain that smelled strongly of soap and cleaning solutions. The plain, crude swords each monster had carried had clearly been pilfered some time ago; whoever had finished them off had taken them in place of their makeshift weapons. Brooms and dripping mops, tall candelabras snatched from beside the walls, and even the remains of a smashed chair were tossed aside all around them.

And the sounds of battle still echoed from elsewhere on that floor. It sounded faraway, and gave Star an immediate feeling that the sixth floor - like all the other floors of the palace - was far bigger than it had appeared on the outside.

Slowly observing the mess, listening carefully to the echoes of battle, Rowan was plainly thinking hard. For a long moment he went on standing rigidly still with his fingers spread wide, as if he could feel the goings on of the world around him. Like a serpent tasting the air to learn everything it needed to know.

A far cry from the boy once called 'skinny rabbit'.

"She's definitely here," he said at last, looking around anxiously. "I can't tell where, but she can't be far. I sense that my sister is nearby, too."

Zeel raised an eyebrow at him. "Which one?"

"It's Annad, I think; but they've always felt very alike to me, so I can't be sure. Did anyone see who she went with?"

The rest shrugged uselessly. None of them had stopped to look back or, or think too hard about how their friends and family were faring. They all knew that they would only start to worry if they did, and that a distraction like that could be deadly.

Whichever sister it was, it was safe to guess she was contributing to the battle taking place on this floor. Star couldn't pick out a familiar voice in those echoes, but was excited to think that they might cross paths with some of their family soon. If Zadina was prowling this floor, looking for them, they would need all the support they could get.

The distraction had worked well, so far, but a terrible thought crossed Star's mind. Their friends and family could distract the enemy's minions easily, and thank goodness. But Zadina was coming with a purpose and vicious focus. There would be no detaining her from her goal.

If anyone stood in her way - especially one of the Arin - she would kill them and move on without thinking or feeling anything.

It felt as though an icy hand had clutched her heart. She reached for her father's arm, met his gaze, and saw that the very same fear had occurred to him, too.

"We can't stay here," she gasped. "We have to find her, before someone else does!"

Looking pleased that she had said so much in so few words, Rowan nodded shortly. Without another word, he grabbed her hand and began to run.

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On the opposite side of the floor below, Zione's party came tumbling in a panic from the stairwell and into the open space of the fifth level's halls. Thank goodness they had found the door so quickly, they were all thinking. There was a pod at their heels, and another coming right toward them from the floor above. No matter how strong they may or may not have been, their fight for freedom would have ended bitterly.

The fifth floor was very like all the others - tall and broad as two city blocks, with carpeted passages branching off from the wide main halls. Who could even guess where those passages led? The lavish chambers of courtiers, perhaps, and the drab dormitories of their servants, and grand rooms filled with grand things to occupy their grand lives. To those who lived here, the way forward and the possible destinations would have been obvious.

To the four friends, it seemed an impossible web, like the first four floors they had climbed. As before, all they could really do was dart aimlessly through the passages, giving the gray monsters behind them a reason to chase something besides the Earth Titan. They may not have known where they were going, but at least they had the enemy's attention divided.

Rita had regained some of her strength; but as Zione had feared, it hadn't been much at all, and battling and sprinting they had just done had left the woman's breath ragged and hoarse. She was lagging behind once again, forcing the rest to slow down and help her more than she could help anyone else. Their journey across the fifth floor was dragging to a crawl; and no sooner had they dispatched the pods that had chased them there, did they hear the tramping feet and barked orders of another one hunting for them nearby.

Zione hissed the foulest word she could think of. It had been a relief to be rid of that wave of attackers. For a moment, she had hoped they could all catch their breath. As they emerged from a passage into the bright morning light of a main hall, her spirit was sinking.

Their team needed help, and they needed it immediately. But who even knew if any of their comrades were near? Who knew if any of them still lived?

An explosion of shattering glass nearly stopped her heart, as a massive shape came crashing through a window down the hall. Shards of glass and ripped tatters of curtain spilled onto the floor, half obscuring the creature and the person on its back. As the mess cleared and the four finally saw what had found them, they could barely believe it.

It was Dollosus, the grach the Garased family had raised from a pup. Leaping off his back and running to them with joy in her face, was none other than June Barsa. The very last person on earth they had expected to meet.

"It worked!" she was cheering. "I can't believe it actually worked! The Earth Sigil must have left a mark on me - I called them by name, and they heard me!"

And so it was. As Dollosus shook the razor shards from his leathery hide, a second grach came gliding through the window. It was hardly shocking to see that it was Unos, returned to them once again.

"I told them where they could find Star and Zan, and they took me at once," June was babbling on, looking so excited she might jump out of her skin. "I've never flown before - but who cares? It worked! And then I saw you running past the windows, and I knew exactly where to go!"

Zak and Zione reached her first, gripping her hands and shoulders urgently. "What in thunder and lightning are you doing here?" he demanded. "You should have stayed well away! It's too dangerous here, and you have no weapon."

There was a fire in June's eyes that hadn't been there at Bhlai House, and it danced with a glorious secret. "I don't need one," she informed them with a grin. "All I need is music."

Zak looked incredibly concerned, as the sound of the pod behind them suddenly grew nearer; but Zione felt relief wash over her. She squeezed June's hand with gratitude and returned her grin.

"I will play, you will dance," she agreed. "As we always have. You will give us the strength we sorely need."

June nodded quickly, but tore herself away. "It's not just that. Song and dance isn't enough - it never was. It needs words - a voice - it's the part we've been missing the whole time."

And she was at Rita's side, grabbing her and pulling her to stand beside Zione.

"You have to sing with us, Rita. I'll dance, Zione will play, and you must sing! Anything you like! Just one note is all we need. I'll show you."

And so she would have to. There was no time left to explain. That hungry pod had rounded a corner in the passage before them, and spied them all in the light at the end. Shouting in anger and victory, they were charging with their swords held high.

Zione nervously raised her bow, wondering what the girl was talking about.

Rita had backed against the wall with a shriek of fright, at the end of her strength and unsure what was being asked of her.

And June stood firmly in place, bizarrely unafraid, completely confident in her friends.

Her brain wracked by all that had just happened, Zione played the first tune that came to mind. The notes were abrupt and slid sharply up and down the strings, making it useful in combat. The hoard came crowding ever closer through the passage, and June began to dance. It wasn't one they had rehearsed together, but she had noted the rhythm and expertly chosen movements to match it.

Still looking fearful of what was coming, Rita took a deep breath, as though bracing herself for a plunge into chill water. Then she opened her mouth and sang, at first in a small voice, but stronger by the moment. She simply vocalized, for this tune had no words; but she, too, had noted it and was picking notes to match it as she went along.

An aura which everyone could see was now forming around the three. Streaks of pale yellow and flashing silver, weaving and winding about each other, seemed to gather around June as she danced, as if she was snatching them out of the air with every graceful movement and adding them to a growing, pulsing collection of energy. From within, there came a faint, chiming hum that matched the key of the song.

The pod of monsters was too lifeless, too cheaply made, too intently focused on its one purpose to marvel at it. They didn't even stop to think that it could mean a danger, and that perhaps they should leap out of its path. To them, it might as well have not been there, as long as there were living beings to slaughter. It had been their one and only order this day.

But the free, living sons and daughters of Fire no longer had orders to obey, and marvelled a great deal. It was magic like none of them had ever seen. The three bards, themselves, were wide-eyed and open-mouthed, unable to believe that they were crafting such a wonder with nothing more than exactly what they were and who they loved to be.

The pod stormed out of the passage, shouting and snarling. June spun a final time, planted her foot with all her might, and let that mass of energy fly like a slingshot.

There was a flash of white light, an ethereal chiming, and a deep boom as it hit the pod - and the stone wall - with full force. Collected dust and chunks of mortar showered from the high ceiling. It became strangely quiet as the light faded, leaving the dark, gaping passage and empty husks of the pod behind.

That whole floor seemed to quake with the force. The sound of stone grinding against itself grated on their bones. The distant noise of battle elsewhere on the floor took on a note of shock and fear. No doubt, anyone on the floors above had been shaken to their feet.

To Zione, it felt like something had snatched her breath away. She couldn't believe that she had done something so incredible with the weapon that had barely gotten them through so far. Beside her, Rita had clapped her hands over her gaping mouth, overcome that the one thing she had always secretly longed to do could be the thing to save them all.

Not at all surprised, June was just beaming at them, that fire in her eyes leaping with an unbridled joy.

"Isn't it wonderful?" she cheered. "Which way do we go next?"

Her companions hesitated, still trying to make sense of what they had just seen. A series of sudden quakes and cracking shook them from themselves, echoing like a thunderstorm from the floor above. They turned their gaze to the ceiling, frightened that the ceiling was beginning to crumble from the impact of their newfound magic. But the ceiling tiles remained smooth and unbroken.

The sounds of a storm raged on high above them, though. Misha drew a deep breath and shuddered.

"We go up, it seems," he said simply.

Normally, Rita would have shuddered, too. Now, seeing what she could really do, she took everyone aback by cracking her knuckles with relish. For the first time any of them could remember, there was fire in her pale eyes and real life in her face.

"Then let us hurry. Whatever is going on up there, they won't know what hit them."

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Little could they imagine exactly what was happening directly above their heads; but it was, indeed, like a storm had erupted within the palace walls. Alanis, Forley, and Leah had just arrived on the sixth floor, clearing a path for their exhausted parents using ice and lightning.

"Oh, curse this place," Alanis hissed. "Every part of it looks the same! Would it kill them to keep a plant or two in these halls?"

"We're not here for the scenery, dear," Forley pointed out, unable to help laughing at how careless they sounded. As far as he was concerned, their work had been easy. Between powerful magic and skillfully used weapons, no pod they had encountered stood a chance. Every monster that stood in their way had been batted aside like playthings.

And Forley felt like he could go on like this for hours. His stamina and fortitude were stronger than ever from his time Crusading; and years of practice with the moonstone magicite had made him strong in other, quieter ways. He had been combining its power with his sister's and his love's for a while, and barely felt drained like he used to.

He knew they would have to start taking this adventure more seriously. They had climbed all the way to the sixth floor in one piece, but there was something different about it. It seemed quieter than the last floors they had visited, and they quickly saw why. The massive main hall was covered almost completely by the husks of gray monsters, so thickly that the blood red carpet was barely visible. Those they had just destroyed appeared to be the last nearby.

Leah sighed sadly and nudged her father. "Aw, it looks like we were late for the party," she teased. Allun smiled back, but he sank against the wall as he tried to catch his breath.

"Thank goodness for that, my dear. Those stairs have nearly done me in. I've been running around this city like a madman for days, now; and I must say, it doesn't agree with me like it used to."

John huffed in agreement and joined him on the wall. "For sure, there's no mountain climbing left in our futures. We're entirely too old for this."

Marlie didn't look any better, but refused to let it show so easily. Instead, she pushed them off the wall and back on their feet, even swatting John's arm a little too forcefully.

"Oh, I've had about enough of your whining. Both of you," she said in her firm, motherly tone. "Now, don't you hear that? There are still people fighting off monsters somewhere nearby. We should find them - quickly!"

Leah scoffed and kicked at the husks in distaste. "It seems to me like they have things well in hand, mother. I don't see a single human body in all this mess."

That was a nearly cheerful thought. However tired he was, Allun's face lit up with relief and curiosity. "Who do you suppose those brave folk are? Servants? Nobles? Perhaps they have joined forces - put their differences aside and learned to depend on one another."

It was just like him to hope for the best in perfect strangers. Forley had missed that about his father, and hated to crush it. "If they have, I fear it will be short lived," he sighed, leading the way toward the distant sound of battle. "The nobles of this city are just about as bad as their queen, because they are allowed to be. I would be shocked if they've come out of their quarters to get involved at all."

Somewhere behind him, John growled to himself. "Leaving their unarmed servants to fend off these hordes for them. Just to keep from getting their hands dirty. As if the poor souls had a choice in the matter! How do the wretches sleep at night?"

"On silken sheets and mattresses stuffed with swans' down, surrounded by piles of money," Alanis suggested flatly. "We're not in Rin anymore, father."

Forley and all his family had repeated those words often during their time in Habaharan. How different people's ideas of right and wrong could prove to be. How jarring those differences could be, when faced. It had taken ages for Alanis to accept this; she, of all people, couldn't blame her father for being hurt by it all.

All the same, Forley could nearly hear her frowning behind him. "Something isn't right, though," she grumbled. "If there were any monsters left on this floor, surely they would have been waiting for us. So it has been, on every other floor we've crossed. And the feeling of them - that feeling of dread and hatred they bring along with them - is missing. Don't tell me you can't feel it."

Thinking about this, it made sense in Forley's mind. Something had definitely felt different, from the moment they had left the last staircase. He had simply grown so used to that sense of foreboding, it had been noticeable enough to miss.

"Then the living, breathing people here have already done away with the lot," his father suggested. "So much the better for us. It saves us a chore which some of us can't handle."

But Leah was peering nervously down the hallway, after the sound of distant battle. "If that's the case, who are those people fighting against?"

As if in answer, a sound like an explosion boomed through the halls. The distant battle cries changed suddenly to shouts of alarm. And mingled with it all, a note of shrill, frenzied laughter.

She turned to her brother with a grave face. "I think there's something much worse than the gray monsters lurking somewhere nearby…"

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The sixth floor also felt very different to Star; but the knowledge of the queen's presence had driven the gray monsters from her mind. She had expected to feel the same power and dread from the ball creeping into her bones, and for her heart and mind to recoil from the terrible memory of that night. She had thought, if she were ever anywhere near the woman again, she would be able to taste, smell, and hear her wickedness in the air long before she saw her.

Instead, the air felt empty. Though hazy with the ash of the monsters and echoing with battle, the dread Star had steeled herself for was absent. The sense of overwhelming, unnatural power that should have been writhing in the air so close to the false Titan was missing.

Looking between her parents and Zan, she could tell they had noticed, too.

"She must be furious," Zeel commented quietly. "Enough so to burn the whole palace to the ground."

Rowan hummed in response. "And you're wondering why she hasn't, yet," he guessed. "She seems different from the other night, when her trap was sprung and the city destroyed. She was boastful. Confident. We could feel her malice from across the sea. I sense something has changed."

Star wasn't sure if she wholly believed that. Her father was leading them through corridors that seemed to spiral ever closer to the very center of the floor; and the closer they came to that place, the more the sounds of battle changed to cries of terror and screaming laughter.

The queen's own household had finally found the courage to turn on her. Finished with the gray monsters, they had turned the attack on her. And of course she had attacked them back with her borrowed, unearned dark magic. By now, many of those valiant people would be violently, horribly dead; the rest would be running for their lives, wailing with terror, wondering how they had ever thought they stood a chance.

And Zadina would be standing tall and proud amid the chaos, hair and face effortlessly perfect as always, reveling in the destruction she was causing.

The picture she imagined was enough to make Star's stomach turn over. It brought back an awful wave of memories from the night of the ball - memories she had tried hard not to revisit, but were now swimming before her eyes as if it was all happening for the first time. She had screwed together all her courage to look the queen in the eye that night, no matter how pitiful and small she had seemed by comparison. The woman's ruby eyes, and their cold, hateful stare would never leave her, she knew. The malice. The evil. The happiness and pure glee she found in bringing others the pain they feared most.

Star had hoped to never look on the woman's wretched face again. Realizing that she was about to do just that nearly made her stumble and fall over. Her hands were suddenly clammy and shaking. Her heart was pounding. Her mind was racing like a whirlwind, so she could barely see her own thoughts, or even the memories that had summoned the storm in the first place. It was so soon. Too soon…

A strong, trembling arm shot around her and pulled her close. She had never seen Zan so afraid, or unable to hide it. His beautiful violet eyes were wide with memories of his own terror and pain from that night. His sword quaked in his normally steady hand, like the last leaf of autumn clinging to a branch. He had reached for her out of trust and instinct, ever determined to protect her from dangers she couldn't see, but fearful for what lay ahead.

The queen had ripped them apart that night. Separated them and left them to perish alone, grieving, each of them shouldering the blame for what had happened to the other. They had only been reunited because Fate had plans for them, which could only be fulfilled if they stood together. The moment of that truth was now facing them, and there was no turning back. Would things be the same, or different?

They had only had each other back for an hour and a little more. It was much too soon for either of them to find out.

"Do you think we are unafraid?"

Her father's gentle voice broke through her whirling mind like a ray of sunlight. It was real, and present, and right before her. She blinked away the anxiety and found him looking her in the eye, his face urgent and stern, but not without perfect understanding. One hand was held out to them, beckoning them back the reality that lay ahead. The other reached behind him to grip his beloved wife's hand like a lifeline, as desperately as Star and Zan clung to each other.

"Of course we are all afraid," he went on. "It would be madness not to be. With or without great power, Zadina will not go quietly. For sure, this is no time for blind bravery. If we are to win this day, each of us has to dig down, deep inside, and find courage. Not just for ourselves, but for each other."

It was hard to see her strong father this way. He, too, was afraid and unsure, and still weary from the long days and nights he had spent in the city. She hadn't stopped to fully appreciate the streaks of silver in his dark hair, or the weathered lines around his face - things she had caused him, all that time ago. He had often said that he was done with monsters and adventures for the rest of his life; and yet here he was, against all his sense and will, worn to his edges from fighting for others.

And there was her mother, unusually silent, her face empty as she grappled with her fear in her own way. She, too, had no desire to face the queen again. Not after being captured and tormented by her twice. But she was going to do it anyway; and in spite of her fear, she would do it with her head high and defiance in her eyes. She wouldn't go at all, if she had the choice. But her best and most trouble-prone friend was going, because it was his hallowed duty and couldn't be ignored. Therefore, she saw no choice at all.

They made each other stronger. Better. They weren't brave or strong or courageous on their own - they found those qualities in one another, for one another, each offering theirs to the other to lean on. Even in small, mundane moments of anxiety or uncertainty, they were together. Even separated by time and space, they could rest in each other.

They, too, had only just been reunited. They, too, couldn't bear the thought that they could be torn apart again. Permanently, perhaps. Death awaited in some shape at the end of the corridor. They despised it, and feared it, but they had accepted it. For each other, they could walk all the way to the end of the line - wherever it lay - and never look back.

Not for the first time, Zan surprised them all. Though he still trembled with remembered pain, he released Star and slowly slid his hand into Rowan's.

"I can do that," he said, his voice more like a child's than a soldier's. "For all of us, I can do that."

Star felt all her senses growing sharper and clearer. The plain joy of seeing her father and love at a complete peace, willing to stand together, had shoved the haze in her mind away. The blaze in her heart had wavered, but had roared back to life. Inspired by the wonder that her family was, she placed her hand over Zan's and gave him the truest smile she could manage.

"I can do that, too."

Her mother's hand joined theirs, her love and pride for them all covering them like a cloak.

"I can do that, too."

It was a glorious understanding, shattered by another quaking explosion and more of the queen's vicious cackling. It was nearby. Very nearby. And there was nothing left to do but continue forward, hoping they would catch her off guard.

That might be difficult, Star thought as she swallowed the lump in her throat. She knows we're coming for her.

Perhaps thinking the same thing, Rowan released the hands of his family. He squared his shoulders, sighed heavily, and unfurled his whip with a crack like lightning. Prepared as he could possibly be, he led them forward in silence, all of them strengthened by their pledge to each other.

There was glowing orange light ahead, from beyond an open archway. Smoke, blazing heat, and the sounds of fire and laughter poured through the light, like the maw of a dragon. In spite of her fear, Star huffed at the sight. As though the queen had any right left to surround herself with reminders of the Hallowed Father. At least the voices of her attackers had died away. At least the people had stopped their useless assault.

But then, she reasoned, why is she still laughing so horribly? And who is she attacking?

As they appeared in the open archway and gazed over the floor's great hall, Star found those questions answered. The floor was littered with bodies, some human, and some of the husks of the gray monsters. The tile patterned tiles and stone walls were spattered with blood and ash and scorch marks. Many bodies and empty piles of cloth burned along the far sides of the room, where they had been blasted away by a ferocious attack. Heavy tapestries hung high on those walls were being consumed by flames.

And amid the hellfire, pacing like a mad beast, was what remained of Zadina. How she had changed in the last few days! Her fine form had become sunken and gaunt, a thin black garment sagging off her shoulders. Her black hair was loose and wild, brittle and dry as burnt straw. There was a strange weapon in her hands: a pair of glassy blades, attached by a long chain, whipped back and forth through the flames at what seemed like empty space. All the way, her withered frame shook with uncontrollable, vile laughter

Perhaps worst of all, in Star's mind, were the glowing red gems fastened to the woman's hands by chains that shimmered with heat, shooting bolts of fire after the daggered whip.

The four of them gasped in horror at the sight, and all it had to say. It was carnage. A raging inferno born of unchecked hatred and vengeance and insanity. It went to prove what became of those who sided with the Shadow Lord and failed him.

Her borrowed power had been stripped from her, just as it had been stripped from Tiba Barsa when her use had run out. No doubt the taking had been just as brutal as she had always been. She had been left empty, weakened, and powerless, abandoned by her master. Driven from her senses by all her failure and punishment, she had turned to the only protection she could find. The only magic she could still claim.

"The magicites," Zan coughed through the smoke. "She has the skill of a child - those blasts are powerful, but erratic and untrained. That's an advantage."

"Perhaps, but what is she attacking?" Zeel wondered, trying to peer through the flames. "Is she seeing things? Could she be performing a spell? What the devil is she doing?"

She didn't have to wonder long. Something came singing through the walls of fire from one side, and then from another, and the raging woman turned a new attack after them with a snarl. A dagger cut through the flames, and for a split second, another archway and a row of men and women armed with bows and spears were revealed.

It happened in the space of a second. No doubt, that row of defiant people didn't all have time to escape the blast of fire that followed. But they had cover, and there were clearly others lurking in other archways, just beyond the flames, waiting for an opening.

The scene was something from a nightmare. Rowan knew such things quite well; all at once, though, he had found his fill of it. All revulsion and horror and pity left him. Instead there was disgust and anger, and a vague feeling of shame on this woman's behalf. She was just a spoiled child, ruined by her own poor judgement, punishing the people whose lives she had destroyed.

As a father, older brother, and survivor, these were qualities that filled him with rage. There was no trick of the fiery light, as Star watched her father march right into the flames. He was glowing with golden light, his hair, skin, and clothing shimmering with deep magic. As he turned to look back, to see if they would follow him into the blaze, even his dark eyes had glazed over with a golden sheen.

The world hadn't seen the full power of the Earth Sigil in many ages. There hadn't been a reason. Today, it would be unleashed.

With a roar of his own, he stamped his foot through the fire with all his force. The blast of pure energy that followed was enough to shake the room, and carve a path through the flame. That was the only warning he would bother giving.

And just like that, there they were. Rowan and Zadina were face to face, at long last.

"That is quite enough of that," he told her in his most severe voice, no longer so afraid. Simply tired, and ready to teach her a lesson she would never forget.

At first, Zadina's eyes were wide, wild with shock to truly see him for the first time. Certainly, this was not the man she had been expecting. In fact, she almost looked frightened.

But the fright passed in the blink of an eye, and the look of madness returned to take its place. Cracked lips split apart in a mocking grin, and a fresh wave of victorious laughter came choking out of her twisted heart.

"I've been waiting for you, brother," she snarled.

And with that, she attacked.