The sun edged over the horizon like molasses. Orange and brown light spread across the surface, and within seconds, the vanguard of the GLOBE fleet swooped down on the demon's headquarters. Some people had seen their last sunrise.
They attacked the docking bay first. Only a handful of Imperial fighters got into the air, and only a few of that group were able to avoid being blown to bits. Laser cannons from the ground took out a couple of our fighters. As soon as they realized that the Imperial forces were starting to pull their shit together, the vanguard blasted back into orbit, cloaked and hid behind Xebec's moon. The Imperial fighters, too shocked at the speed with which the GLOBE ships got away, didn't pursue. Instead, they began to patrol for the rest of the fleet. Someone was telling them to expect more.
The carriers arrived within minutes after that, and soldiers poured into the area. The Imperial ground troops were in disarray, and their commanders seemed more interested in saving their own lives than defending the building. It was obvious to me that Rune wasn't leading them and that these were not the Imperial army's best personnel. He knew they hadn't seen everything we had.
The Imperial fighters that had managed to reach orbit were soon greeted with the rear of the GLOBE fleet. As soon as that happened, the van came out of hiding, flanked the Imperial fighters and then escorted the surrendering pilots back to Lore. Backup would be arriving from Parable and Brandenburg, but the rear was ready and so were Barrett, Tristan and Kore. No one was looking for Blue Ava's Angel sneaking in the back door. At least I hoped that was the case.
I put her down a few miles out. Regan, Daigoro and I ran the rest of the way in and entered the building through the same airshaft I had used before. I should have known that would be a mistake. Rune was standing in the bathroom, leaning casually against the wall and smoking a cigarette. Peter was perched on his shoulder. It was the first time I'd seen Peter with him since he left. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had wondered if Rune had killed Peter. The fact that he hadn't was reassuring. Just not as reassuring as I wanted it to be.
The black fire of Rune's aura was sending thick purple tendrils into the white core of him, and the white was getting dimmer. Peter's fire hadn't changed.
"Thanks for making this easy for me," Rune said. "I wasn't looking forward to a long wait or to having to search all over for you."
"This won't be as easy as you think," I said.
"What are you gonna do, Shaman? Kill me?"
"I wouldn't want to give you that satisfaction."
He smiled and flicked his cigarette into a toilet. "If all I wanted was to die, I could have let the demon take me apart. There's a whole lot more that I want."
"You mean like the whole universe to die?" Regan asked. "How could you do this?"
"I don't expect you to understand. You couldn't. You haven't been alive for over three thousand years. You haven't watched the people you love get old and die. You've never been alone."
"You don't have to be alone. I love you."
Up to that point, Rune had been very careful not to look at us, especially Regan. He looked when she said that, and I could almost see something like love in his eyes. The black fire shot more tendrils into the white, and his core went grey. It seemed to hurt him physically. Peter squawked. "I'm touched," Rune said, putting his hand on his chest. "But it doesn't change a fucking thing." He turned and walked out of the bathroom.
Regan followed him and shot him though the back of his head as soon as she stepped into the hallway.
He turned around. The shot had done nothing. He'd just absorbed it. "Is that what you do to people you love? Shoot them in the back?" he asked.
The hall was full of soldiers. These were Rune's guards. These were the ones he'd saved for us. There were about fifteen of them. I thought about Etienne's pep talk. Even if three of us fought like twice our number, there were still more of them. I was beginning to wonder if I'd made the right choice.
Regan walked up to Rune and pressed her laser pistol to his chest. "I love you. Don't you get it? I love you, and I can't let you throw everything away like this. If you wanna die, fine, but don't do it like this. Don't take everyone with you. I can let you go if I have to, but not like this."
His white core brightened a little. He put his hand on hers. Then the blackness pushed in again. He twisted her hand, snapping her wrist and making her drop the pistol. She screamed and fell to her knees.
I drew my guns and went towards him. Daigoro turned to face the soldiers and pushed them back. I emptied Hizashi into Rune's chest. He stumbled backwards. Peter flew from his shoulder and went to Regan. Rune hit the floor, and I stood over him, aiming Getsuei right between his eyes. Except for the holes in his shirt, it didn't look like he'd been shot at all, but I could feel ripples of pain coming off him. I wasn't sure what was hurting him. He was fighting like hell to keep that white center white, but the bullets didn't seem to agree with him either.
"You're wasting bullets," he said.
"Get up," I said.
He pushed himself to his feet. Something rolled off him that I couldn't quite place, but the end result was that we weren't in that hallway any more. I couldn't see the floor or the walls or the ceiling. It was all black. "I'm not sure which of us has more grossly underestimated the other," he said. "But it puts us in an interesting position."
"We're alone, right?"
"Completely. They can't see us or hear us."
"So tell me what the fuck you're trying to do."
"I'm losing a war I didn't even know I was fighting."
"I'm sorry. If I had known what would happen to you, I'd have left you on Junket."
"It wasn't just being dead for that short time. I spent the first twenty-nine years of my existence not knowing what I was. I knew I was different. I looked different. I wasn't like the others. I was always outside. I used to look in and think that was where I wanted to be. It wasn't. That's why I ran away from the orphanage. I had to figure out where I wanted to be. It was an accident that I ended up where I did. And I didn't think it would end the way it did. The man who made me told the police where we were living. They raided us. They killed my family. They put my family in jail. I've spent hundreds of lifetimes trying to make up for that, and I can't."
"It wasn't your fault."
"Yes, it was. It was because of what I am. In a blind search for answers, I turned my back on people who loved me and looked up to me and didn't think I was a freak or worse. I thought I could have it both ways. I couldn't."
"I know what you're gonna do."
"Don't try to stop me."
"I can't let you do it."
"It's the only thing I have left to give."
"What's the point of you dying now? Your fire's turned black."
"But look at my heart."
"It's not holding up real well."
"You have no idea how much this hurts. I'm doing everything I can, but … he keeps twisting me."
"I don't want to be cold."
"There are people who will never forgive you for what you've done. I'm not one of those."
"Then it's your funeral."
I shuddered. It was like talking to a different person. The black seeped further into the white, leaving a bright spot no bigger than the head of a pin. He balled his hands into fists, cracking all his knuckles. I put my guns away and closed my eyes, but I could feel that I wasn't going to be able to draw on Yuusei to help me fight. Daigoro needed all the power he could get. Rune wasn't really fighting with me anyway. He was fighting himself. His eyes steamed with tears. I took his punches. If he killed me, it would break him, but I wasn't sure that was going to give me the result I wanted.
The tiny pinprick of white winked out as he plowed his fist into my cheek. He changed. His fingers lengthened and the tips turned to razor sharp claws. His face pulled into itself, stretching across sharp cheekbones he didn't really have. His eyes were wider. His teeth were sharper. He took hold of my shirt and was about to sink those fangs into my neck when something grabbed me and yanked me out of the darkness he'd taken us into. "Stop now," Seren said.
She dropped me into the center of a ring of soldiers. Regan and Daigoro had done a good amount of damage, but Seren had them somehow immobilized. I stood up and drew Getsuei. I could feel where Rune was, and I faced him.
"Drop gun," Seren said.
My arm twisted, snapping the bones and tendons. Both me and my gun fell to the floor. The red haze closed in on my vision. I felt the demon before I saw it. Seren was beside it, strapped to an operating table being pushed by a tall, vicious looking woman in a white lab coat.
"I was just starting to have fun," Rune said. "Do I really have to stop now?"
"I won't have you killing what's rightfully mine," Kaylan said.
"I wasn't gonna kill him."
Peter, who was still with Regan, shrieked when he saw Rune. He didn't go back to Rune's shoulder.
"Daddy, what happened?" Regan whispered in my head.
"He lost his war," I said.
"Take them to the machine," Kaylan said.
Outside, we were winning the battle, but inside, the war wasn't going so well.
The soldiers pulled us to our feet and took our weapons away. And then it was time to try our last trick. It happened so fast that I wasn't even sure we were doing it. The soldiers who were holding us were flung against a wall, and the rest of them were held in place. Their weapons turned to ashes.
"What are they doing?" Kaylan shouted. "Make them stop!"
Our weapons came back to us. Rune turned to face us and seemed a little surprised that we were channeling through Regan. Peter was perched on her shoulder, and that made Rune angry.
"That's cute," he said. "But what the fuck are you gonna do with it?"
"Love you," Regan said.
"I love you. We all love you. Let me show you."
"You just stay right where you are. I'll rip all of you in half."
Regan walked towards him. He just stood there. The light around us was changing. It shimmered and swirled. Behind us, the demon was hissing. I could feel that I didn't have much left to give. I'd been putting too much of a strain on my powers by using Shaman to overcome my blindness and fly Blue Ava's Angel. So I pushed harder. I heard blood from Daigoro's nose hit the floor. I heard the voices and the wind chimes and gong. I felt myself slip into that black space where the stream of time was. It flowed past my fingers. I picked out the present and watched Regan put her hand on Rune's forehead. His body stiffened like an electric jolt had passed through him. His eyes fell shut. I didn't get to see whatever she was showing him, but I knew which stream it was. It snaked by me, and I heard babies crying. She was showing him their future together.
"Stop now," Seren said.
I felt a violent twist in the energy and heard Regan hit the floor. She didn't move. Rune bent down beside her and picked her up. He looked me in the eye and turned around to take her to the machine. His fire was still black. Peter followed him, scratching and pecking at his head.
"No more trouble," Seren said. There was another twist in the energy, and then everything was gone.
I woke up inside a glass bubble. Daigoro was sitting behind me. Regan was still unconscious.
"She'll be all right," Daigoro said.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I'm not sure. I think that pink-haired girl has been severely tweaked in order to interfere with us."
"Can you break us out of here?"
"No. I've tried. I think I'm tapped out for now."
"I've had visions from inside this thing."
"This is the machine they tested with Duncan and Leysa."
I looked around the room through the bubble. The bubble itself was suspended between two flat steel disks. The disks were connected to horizontal beams that then connected to a vertical beam. A complicated control panel was attached to the vertical beam. In front of the control panel was a round platform with handlebars. Our power would be conducted to Kaylan through those bars. I put my hand on the bubble and tried to see into the machine, but like Daigoro, I seemed to be tapped out. That had never happened before. I hadn't even realized it was possible for us to wear ourselves out like that.
"So where did they all go?" I asked.
"The Imperial army has been defeated from what I heard. Kaylan sent Rune to try to destroy the GLOBE forces. I think Kaylan's trying to summon the demons."
"He's up there." Daigoro pointed to a window high up on the wall to the left of the bubble. Peter flapped his wings.
Regan sat up and rubbed her eyes. "Ow. That hurt," she said.
I put my arms around her.
"I tried," she said. "I showed him what it could be like, but it felt like he wasn't even there."
"We'll think of something," I said. "We always do."
"I think it's a little too late."
"Maybe I can bribe him with ice cream."
"Or not. I guess that would make him cold, wouldn't it?"
"Yeah, it would."
The only thing I could think to do at that point was to somehow taunt Rune into letting us out of the bubble. Of course, he wasn't easy to taunt, and I was somewhat out of practice with my insults. But Kaylan would be there, too. Even if I could do something about Rune, I'd still have the demon to worry about. A lot of demons if Daigoro was right about the summoning.
I pounded on the glass, and Peter came down and pecked on it. It wasn't going to break, and I couldn't see where a door might have been. All we could do was wait.
It wasn't a very long wait. The door flew off its hinges. Kaylan stalked in, shadows twisting under his grey face. He looked as if he'd been struck by lightning. Rune came in behind him, pulling along a chain of prisoners including Barrett, Tristan, Kore and Anala. The rest were GLOBE troops. Barrett was all but carrying Tristan. I couldn't tell how badly Tristan was hurt, but he was alive. I could guess that he'd tried to fight with Rune and got his ass handed to him. But Rune hadn't killed him. That was a good sign. Right? Isn't it cute how I always try to convince myself there's a silver lining around even the darkest cloud? One of these days, I'll be right, damn it.
Anala's aura bristled with static. If she wanted to hurt Rune or Kaylan, she could have, but they'd probably threatened to kill everyone else if she did.
Peter shrieked and flew back up to the window. Rune stared up after him. I heard Rune think, "Shut up. I know what I'm doing."
Peter opened his beak and stuck out his tongue. "Well, I still don't like it!" he said.
"Whaddya know? He actually does talk," I said.
Regan and Daigoro just stared at me.
Kaylan stepped onto the platform and stared turning dials and pushing buttons. He cackled and rubbed his hands together. "I've waited a very long time for this," he said. "Finally, I can steal the power that has kept me from reaching my goals. Then nothing will stop me from doing as I please with this universe." He cackled again and put his hands on the handlebars.
"Aren't you gonna get bored later?" I asked. "I mean, it's only gonna last for so long. If you kill everything now, what are you gonna play with later?"
"Why do you want our power anyway? Even altogether, we're not as strong as he is." I pointed at Rune. Kaylan looked at him. "He made us. You should just take his power. Kill me. I don't care. You just want revenge. There's no reason to kill Regan and Daigoro."
"That's a good point," Rune said. "I am a lot more powerful than they are. Which means I could just as easily kill you myself. Why should I keep working for an inferior being?"
Kaylan stepped down off the platform. "What are you saying?"
"I have a gift for you."
I shuddered. That wasn't supposed to happen. We were supposed to get out of the bubble. Rune was supposed to get into the bubble. I didn't even consider that he didn't need to be inside the machine to give his power to Kaylan. It wasn't going to work the way I wanted it to. Rune was going to get everything he wanted, the destruction of the universe and his own death, and the demon could still drain us. Fuck.
Regan leaned against the glass. "What the fuck is he doing?" she asked.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I fucked that up. The universe is doomed."
"Are you certain of that?" Daigoro asked.
"I don't see any way to stop him."
Kaylan took a few uncertain steps towards Rune. "A gift?" he asked. "Why should I believe you'd be willing to give up that power? You are the single most powerful creature in the universe."
Rune glanced up at the glass bubble. "I don't want it any more. I don't want anything any more. I'm tired. I'm tired of always being alone. I'm tired of never changing. I broke a long time ago, and I lost all the pieces along the way. There's nothing left. I don't care what happens to the universe. It's like I told Jake when he asked me why. Why should I give a fuck when the universe has given me nothing but pain?"
If only that wasn't true. If he didn't really feel that. But he did. I couldn't make him change his mind either. So that was how it was going to end.
"All you want is to die?" Kaylan asked.
"That's all," Rune said.
Kaylan stopped in front of Rune. Peter squawked and flapped his wings. Anala and most of the other prisoners were praying. Regan pounded on the glass, ignoring the pain in her cracked wrist, and screamed, "No! Don't give it to him!"
"Give it to me," Kaylan said.
Rune smiled and held his hands out towards Kaylan. "You want it, take it," he said. Something stirred at the center of his fire. The blackness began to crack. Beams of bright white shot out, and his fire flared. I finally saw what I'd been missing.
Cold chills ripped across my back. I shoved my hands into the time stream, grabbed it and yanked it out of the flow. "Stop," I said. It stopped. I opened my eyes.
"Let it go, Shaman," a woman's voice whispered in my ear. "You can't hold it forever."
"No. I can't let him do it."
"The flame will sacrifice itself for its angels. The hands that will save the universe are stained with blood. You are looking at undying love. His sacrifice will let you put this universe in order again. Let go."
"I don't want him to die."
"Let go, Shaman."
"Please give him peace." I opened my hands, and time fell back into place.
I watched Rune flare blinding white. The demon hissed and screamed then evaporated. The white light burst and drifted down like snow. Anyone who had been injured was healed as the light settled. Rune's body hit the floor. I could tell by the sound that he was no longer solid.
The bubble burst. I put my hands over my head and made a shield. Daigoro lowered us to the floor. Regan rushed over to Rune and tried to take him into her arms, but it was like he was the sloughed skin of some creature. She covered her face and bawled.
Daigoro and I unchained the prisoners. Anala rushed over to Rune's body, but there was nothing she could do. Everyone was in tears. Peter came down from the window and perched on my left shoulder.
"I can't believe he really did it," Tristan said. He was sitting up, leaning against Barrett. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
No one could believe Rune had really done it.
"We need to get out of here," I said.
Anala yelped. Everyone looked at her. "He has a heartbeat," she said.
I looked down at Rune. He was no longer a blob. His body was solid. I could see the shimmer of a white aura around him. He opened his eyes. They were no longer all black. He closed his eyes again, and tears spilled down his face without turning to steam.
Regan looked up at me. "The demons are coming," she said.
Chills spread out over my whole body and kept coming until I felt like every inch of my body was covered, inside and out, with billions of tiny frozen bugs. The demons burst through the door. I held my hands out to them. I could feel the power of all three stars, and behind that, there was something even stronger. The demons turned into white doves and flew away. I watched them flit through a hole in the roof and get lost in the bright sunlight. Then I passed out.