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Griffin and I stood on the streets of Veshtul, upon the planet named after a god. I recognized the streets and narrow lanes with their multicolored bricks, colorful shops and vending stands run by the comesuli. When I'd seen it before with Kifirin at my side, it had been a peaceful scene in early twilight. Comesuli had called out to one another as businesses were shut down for the evening. Now, instead of the tranquil city I'd visited before, the shops were deserted and chaos, noise and destruction reigned. Smoke billowed from fires burning throughout Veshtul, and the scent of death was everywhere. I cringed as an explosion rocked the ground beneath my feet and shops collapsed around us.
Thousands of Copper Ra'Ak fought throughout Veshtul, killing many as they lashed out, or crushing others as they crawled along. Screaming comesuli ran before them, desperate to escape the deadly creatures. In the distance, Dragon's roar sounded as he fought off one of the monsters. Three other Dragons fought beside him; I saw them as they charged their prey—a Black Dragon, a Silver Dragon and a Gold Dragon. Others were fighting Ra'Ak as well; a Black Gryphon fought alongside a huge Snow Leopard. Giant birds swept the sky, screaming in anger as Ra'Ak leapt at them, attempting to sink rows of deadly teeth into feathered flesh.
A separate battle raged between High Demons—thousands of them warred with one another and from a distance, it was difficult to tell who might be friend or foe. They were all in Full Thifilathi and a single confrontation between any two of them was fierce and terrible to witness.
Griffin set me down in one of the few remaining areas of Veshtul that hadn't been touched by copper-scaled monsters or battles between High Demons. "You can make this right, Lissa," Griffin whispered in my ear as I gazed in horror at the war before us. I turned to him, then—he was still frightened, his voice urgent. "It isn't just the Ra'Ak; the two largest High Demon Houses have allied with them. They will kill the Saa Thalarr and all who live here if you do not stop them."
Griffin's words shocked me—this was connected to the dream I'd had about the High Demon King and his Queen. All of it was coming true before me. There was more to this story, too; I could see it in Griffin's eyes. He just wasn't telling me the full tale. Nevertheless, what he'd told me was truth; he couldn't lie, just as Merrill said. If I didn't do something, Kifirin would fall.
"All right." I nodded at Griffin, took a deep breath, turned to mist and threw myself into the battle.
* * *
There are too many of them, Adam shouted mentally to Lynx, who fought nearby, his giant cat ripping into a Ra'Ak with his claws.
I never thought our last stand would be like this, Lynx replied before cutting off mental communication. The Ra'Ak he fought commanded his full attention.
* * *
Xenides' death had given me the weapon I needed—I no longer had to come in contact with poisoned outer scales to defeat the Ra'Ak. I could mist inside their heads and blow my mist outward. They exploded, just as anything else might. It was a chain reaction, after a while. I found a Ra'Ak, he died. I found the next one and he died—as quickly as I could mist from one to the other. I lost count quickly, so many were destroyed. And the High Demons I found that held taint? They died just as easily as the Ra'Ak did.
The High Demons, good and bad, all fought in Full Thifilathi. They were at least seventeen feet tall in that form; all of them horned, black-scaled, winged, terrible to look upon and fought to the death. Most fought with other High Demons, but some were targeted by Ra'Ak. It took many Ra'Ak to bring down even one High Demon. A High Demon I misted past was in trouble, fighting off six Ra'Ak at once, so I gave him a little help. He would probably never know what had come to save him there at the end, just as he was about to fall. The other High Demons battled one another, their roars deafening as they ripped flesh and limbs away with powerful hands and deadly claws. Nearly half the High Demons fighting held taint, and with the thousands of Ra'Ak helping those rogues, the battle was certainly weighted in their favor. Until I showed up, that is.
The comesuli, though, had been caught off guard in their city and had no defense against those attacking them. They ran from the Ra'Ak, some of which were eating the comesuli they could reach and allowing their poisonous scales and crushing weight to destroy others. I wanted to weep in frustration as I misted toward those Ra'Ak. They died, but a sad side effect of killing Ra'Ak is that they dust, blasting their fist-sized chunks in all directions and killing anything in their path. I found myself praying that the comesuli casualties would be light and that Roff and Giff would be safe. Shoving my anger at so many comesuli deaths aside, I became a killing machine.
Four seconds passed, a Ra'Ak died. Another four seconds, another Ra'Ak blasted outward. Eventually, though, my timing stretched out. I was tiring. The battle with Xenides earlier, combined with the taking of my blood by the Council, wearied me. It took longer to pull my mist together. Ten seconds it took. And then twenty. Forty. More than a minute. Five minutes. Until the moment came when I reached exhaustion. I didn't have enough energy to kill anything past that point. Not without killing myself.
The noise and destruction continued in the distance, but I found myself kneeling amid a pile of debris, surrounded by a relative sea of calm—if you call crushed shops, dead comesuli and Ra'Ak chunks littering the ground a sea of calm. I panted as I gazed about me—devastation and the scent of spilled blood was everywhere.
"I'm sorry I didn't get her sooner," I had trouble gasping out the words. I saw a hand stretched from beneath a collapsed wall. A severed leg nearby. A head, matted with blood. All dead. I didn't hear a heartbeat anywhere around me. But the worst? Just to my left lay a comesula, his tiny, lifeless child still clutched in his arms. They'd been crushed to death while attempting to flee. I hugged my arms tightly around myself, wanting to weep when there was no moisture left in my body to make the tears. Still struggling for breath, I was wishing for a drink of water on a world I couldn't find on a star map anywhere.
Where had Griffin gone? Was he lost, like so many others? These thoughts ran through my mind while I knelt there, working to catch my breath, trying to muster enough strength to stand. Kifirin—this was his world. Where was he? Why wasn't he helping? Griffin—was this one of those things for which I'd been the answer? Was this the ultimate reason he'd searched out my mother to create a child? Kifirin and Griffin—how did those two know each other, and why? They'd engineered this somehow; I was sure of it.
While I pondered those scattered thoughts, something crunched nearby. A noise of scales, scraping across colored bricks came, and then more crunching as an enormous, copper body crawled over wrecked shops and the bodies of the dead. Lifting my eyes, I watched as the largest Ra'Ak I'd ever seen approached, and I'd killed plenty that were quite large. At least seventy feet in length he was; his copper body wide and gleaming in the late afternoon light. His mouth was open, revealing rows of lengthy, needle-sharp teeth. His eyes, too, were darting quickly, searching his surroundings as he crawled along. He was hunting someone. He was hunting me.
I only had to turn my body to mist before he caught sight of me, and I would be invisible to him. He would crawl right past me, never knowing his target was mere feet away. This was the Ra'Ak Prince—I knew it. He was searching for whatever had killed so many of his kind. It was easy; I'd made it easy. The killing had stopped right where I was. Should I go to mist and let him slide past, or should I spend my last breath and destroy him?
When I killed Xenides, I knew his machinations would stop with his death. He'd been the puppet-master, pulling all the other's strings. His goal of destroying life on Earth had died with him. Sounds of fighting, screaming and roaring still reached me from a distance; the Copper Prince's remaining subjects continued to wage his battle. But the worst that came to my ears were the screams of the comesuli as they died. Were more children dying with them? Would it stop, if this one crawling toward me died? Would it stop, if I died with him?
This would take my life. I knew that. I didn't have enough strength to pull my mist together if I blew it outward again. I almost hadn't done it the last time. If I did this, it would be a calculated decision on my part. One I'm sure Griffin had seen. He'd seen all the other things, hadn't he? He'd known I wouldn't be able to stop until I'd done everything I could.
I struggled to stand, making myself visible to the Ra'Ak, who hissed immediately and prepared to strike. I might have been a blink or two slower to turn to mist, but the momentum of the Ra'Ak's thrust as he lashed out, carried my mist right through his head and allowed it to lodge inside his brain. Working as quickly as I could, I wound my mist tightly before loosing it for the very last time.
An explosion rocked the ground beneath Dragon's clawed feet as he snapped the head from the Ra'Ak he'd been fighting. His three sons fought nearby, all desperate to take the monsters down. All other Saa Thalarr fought the Ra'Ak, some in teams, others alone. The High Demons loyal to the crown fought beside the Saa Thalarr, along with a handful of Black Ra'Ak, who'd allied themselves with the Saa Thalarr in an attempt to take down the renegade copper monsters.
When the explosion came, however, the Copper Ra'Ak had already been reduced to a more reasonable number. There was now hope, whereas before, the task had been impossible. None knew what had killed so many Copper Ra'ak or their High Demon allies, they only knew that they'd died and in the strangest of ways. Now, many of the copper monsters were attempting to fold away from Kifirin, rather than staying to fight. The Larentii, who'd come to do what they could, quickly placed a shield around the planet to prevent escape. Once the Copper Prince died and any avenue of escape disappeared, the few remaining Copper Ra'Ak lost their will to fight and were easily destroyed.
* * *
"What just happened?" Merrill changed from his Snow Leopard form and stood panting on the steps of the High Demons' palace. Adam Chessman, the Black Gryphon, appeared at Merrill's side, the same question on his lips.