Chapter 25

"Perhaps you did not hear Goddess Althena’s words correctly?" Ghaleon levitated down into the village square, the cool mountain air, whipped into a terrible storm by Althena’s power, tearing at his cloak.

All those below, foe and ‘friend’ alike, looked up at the sound of his voice.

Ghaleon stretched out his gauntleted hands. He extended his fingers, and beams of dark energy shot out, slicing through ten of the creatures. They crumpled. Their fellows fell back, perhaps evaluating this new threat.

"This pathetic hamlet," Ghaleon continued, "is under Althena’s divine protection. As her humble guardian, it is my duty to execute that protection."

He landed softly beside her.

"Ghaleon!" Atriedes snarled, "what are you doing here?"

Ghaleon ignored the Bearer. He had no choice but to accept his aid at this point, no matter how deeply the mutual dislike ran. He looked instead to Althena. "Shall I dispense with the remainder of these foes?"

Slowly, she nodded. The fear in her eyes when she’d first seen him again was gone. No fear of him. No fear of these feeble monstrosities which encircled them.

Ghaleon smiled. She had no reason to fear.

He turned to the creatures that encircled them.

They began to tighten the circle, seemingly unconcerned about the fate that had befallen their fellows.

He had to admire their determination.

And despise their stupidity.

He raised his hand, and a beam lanced out at the nearest creature.

But this time, a crystal on its chest flared with black fire, and Ghaleon’s beam bounced harmlessly off the barrier it created.

"Impressive," Ghaleon said, more to himself than to his enemy.

He deflected a blast from another creature as quickly as the first had his, and retaliated with a magic-laced icicle which doused its fiery defenses and pierced its chest.

When it died, its form faded until only a jet-black crystal remained, the twin of the one which had fallen from its lifeless body.

Those crystals would bear further study, Ghaleon mused, when he had the chance.

But for now, all that mattered was getting Althena to safety. These foes were stronger than he had expected - perhaps strong enough to slay three Destined Ones, to take Althena.

Take her from him.

Never!

There were many of them, and now that they had seen his power, they no longer relied on fire alone. His spells cut them down, but slowly. He had no time to play with their petty defenses.

Was there no end to their numbers? They rushed forward, wave after wave, each stronger than the last. Almost as though their own powers increased each time their allies died.

Perhaps something to do with the black crystal shards they wore?

If so, those would truly bear further study.

But later.

Ghaleon stepped back and put his arm around Althena’s waist. "We must go," he whispered into her hair.

He began focusing his energy into a teleportation spell. He must escape with Althena while his "allies" were embroiled in their own battles.

"No, Ghaleon!" Althena placed her hand on his chest. "I will not forsake these people."

"You are too important," he said, pulling her closer.

She shook her head. "I cannot forsake them."

Her power kept them rooted to the spot.

Always, always, Althena was overly concerned for the fates of her lessers. What did the people of Burg, or even the other Destined Ones, matter?

Only Althena mattered.

Why could she not see that?

Ghaleon batted aside one of the creatures with a magically charged fist.

Sooner or later, he realized, he would run out of power. If his suspicions about these creatures were correct, they would not until every last one of them was dead.

Perhaps not even then.

He tightened his hold on Althena’s waist. He did not wish to go against her will, but for the sake of her safety, he would do so.

"I cannot!" she said again, struggling to break free.

Ghaleon shook his head. "You must."

He drew her tightly against his chest and plunged into the midst of the rapidly closing circle of creatures. Still, she struggled against his grasp. But he could not be distracted by that.

Creatures leapt at him, their blades and claws and spells tearing at his barrier. He struck them down one after another. But it was taking too long!

If only Althena had simply allowed him to teleport...

One of the creatures, a tall, armored female, swung her long-handled mace. His barrier buckled under the force of the blow, but he retaliated with a white-hot flame that set ablaze flesh and armor alike.

Althena wrenched herself free.

He spun, reaching out for her, but she had already moved beyond his grasp. "I am sorry, Ghaleon," she said. "I must aid them."

Before Ghaleon could speak, or move to her, he sensed an attack coming from behind. He focused his barrier against the blow and turned.

The female creature had not gone down, or even, it seemed, suffered any particularly grievous wounds. She brought her mace around to rake across Ghaleon’s barrier.

He stepped back, more calm in his actions than in his thoughts. That mace was magical, and powerful, too. His defenses barely held.

But the best defense was, after all, a good offence.

Ghaleon’s gauntleted hand grabbed the hilt of the mace. He narrowed his eyes. "I have no time to play with you," he hissed, twisting the weapon’s hilt around with a jerk. The mace’s magic was not strong enough to protect it.

Without even pausing, she released the now useless weapon and slammed her palm into him. It stuck his barrier like a thunderclap, and pushed through.

But though his barrier had buckled, his armor held.

Barely.

He must get to Althena!

He could not afford to die here.

He focused all of his power and unleashed it as a ball of pure magical force. It struck the female creature at the center of the ornately inlaid breastplate she wore. For an instant, it seemed that her armor, too, would hold. But only for an instant.

The ball tore through her.

She stood a moment more, staring at the battered remains of what had been her chest, then fell. As with her fellows, her body had, even before it hit the ground, faded to nothing more than a crystal shard like that she’d worn.

Ghaleon looked down at the crystals. Perhaps soon he would have the chance to give them further attention. But for now he had business with the living, not with the dead. He turned.

And even as he did so, Althena screamed.