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 Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Four: The Choice

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Xandra



Posts : 169
Join date : 2010-09-17

PostSubject: Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Four: The Choice   Sat Nov 28, 2015 11:14 pm


"In which a battle ends, and hope lives on.”

****

The air beyond in the dark of night whistled and screeched as it was sliced apart, cut by the passing of three immortals, traveling as fast as their forms could withstand. The distraction of the Cross ‘accident’ had lured them so far from their charges, and now as they approached, the burning castle lit the night sky in horrid colors of black and crimson. They were too late.

The smell of death was clear to they who lived forever, scorching their senses and filling their hearts with the pain of those who had suffered here. Lives lost—lives that could have been saved, had they not been so blind. They soared over the palace gates and up the property, intent on the burning structure, and the sense of the baby’s tiny life inside of it.

Aleksei threw a finger towards the palace as they approached. "What the hell is that?”

Visible through the ballroom windows, entwined with the flames, stood a forest of twitching tendrils of shadow—living darkness. They swayed and curled on the floor and walls, sprouting from a demonic shadow-beast, feline in its shape and stance. It whipped one of its appendages against the wall before it, a scrap of blue and red material acting as its target. "No idea,” Boz said, and extended his hands, "but it’s ours now.” His palms flared blinding red between his fingers. "Dema, shield us—we’re goin’ in.”

With no room or time for doubt, the three Elementals charged the ballroom, smashing through one of the great windows and drawing the attention of the unearthly creature. Thousands of glass shards rained down from above as they passed, reflecting moonlight and fire, cutting through the dark, but not one marked the immortals, merely pilling up above them or to their sides, impeded by an invisible shield.

The monstrous beast acknowledged their presence, turning to face the intruders. A tendril sprouted from its tail to pin its prey against the wall. It gave a threatening roar, causing all the shadows in the room to freeze.

The fairies floated to a halt in the air, and their leader took point, allowing his comrades to flank him as he sized the creature up. Standing before it, they were no longer invisible, for magic recognized magic; it would see them in spite of their tricks, and their power was better used to fight. "Well, I’m impressed,” Boz murmured, regarding the monster. "Not something you see every day…”

He looked further past it to its prisoner, pinned to the wall with a spike of dark matter. It was none other than the Grand Duke Peter, hanging limply from the stake imbedded in his body. Beyond the beast and its hostage lie the lifeless forms of the Emperor and Empress.

The crimson fairy scowled, his gray eyes flashing abruptly to red. "Looks like we’re more late than we thought…” And that fact had cost the Empire its rulers. It seemed the only one left was the Duke.

"He’s alive,” Aleksei said, anticipating his question, "But he won’t be for long—not without help.”

Boz nodded, bringing his glowing hands to bear. "Then I guess we better make this fast…” And, drawing from his team, he loosed a blast of searing red energy into the beast’s mass.

The darkness fled from where the blast struck, reforming on the spot. The creature screeched angrily and vanished into the nearest wall. Shadows spread across the walls and ceiling, covering every surface, rippling like a captive black sea. There was no telling from where it would strike.

It didn’t give them time to anticipate. A spike dropped from the ceiling, orienting on Boz, immediately followed by other sets from different directions, seeking to impale him.

The fairy dodged back, taking the other two with him, sliding easily through the air to avoid the black protrusions. "Gonna have to be faster than that!” Zipping quickly out of range, he spun and unleashed another wave of energy, firing for every point the attacks had come from, seeking to score on anything that moved. "Alek—get me a location on this thing,” he snapped over his shoulder. "Tell me where to aim.”

"Location…” the blue fairy muttered resentfully, but as always, he complied. He focused on the room at large, trying to pinpoint the source as their leader launched his assault. The beast itself was made up of the darkness, and so there were no real weak-points—or so it seemed. Still, as Boz shot at the many spikes and tendrils intent on their group, the darkness shifted and withdrew, refocusing to attack again. "It’s everywhere,” he reported, uncertainly. But it had to focus its mass in areas to attack, and that gave Boz targets to hit. "Just keep shooting at the spikes.”

"Roger.” He fired off several shots, aiming for the ceiling and walls where they shifted, focusing on the blackness alone. No use in bringing the palace down on them; it was already burning, and there were still lives here to save.

Immersed in darkness, the whole room trembled and writhed along with the shadows. Up on the ceiling, the chandeliers rattled, threatening further destruction despite the red fairy’s efforts. The beast had enough hold of the area to further damage the castle by bringing them down. In the eyes of the fairies, this either meant that Boz’s offensive was effective, or that the beast intended to bury them all.

That thought concerned Dema, who knew their charge to be alive; he could sense his life, even now. If the whole castle came crumbling down on their heads, there was no guarantee that his protection would spare the baby. If only they could find him…

Distracted by the fairies’ assault, the creature released the Duke, deeming him of lesser importance and engaging the newest threat directly. It shifted and reformed, sprouting wings and taking flight. Diving, it went straight for Boz, missing him by bare inches and crashing against the floor with a splash, disappearing into the raging black sea. Rather than being destroyed, the shadow emerged as an enormous head, rearing back and closing its jaws around them. Dema snatched their leader close in time to avoid its teeth, for even his shield would not spare him such damage.

Far from intimidated by the maneuver, Boz took full advantage of the new position. By gathering enough to create such a trap, it had inadvertently given him quite a large target to aim for, and aim he did, drawing from the team’s gathered energy and releasing a massive blast of searing red light, straight down into the creature’s mass.

The monster’s form exploded outward, coating the ballroom in displaced darkness and releasing its captives. Undeterred, it began to coalesce once more, pooling together, and retreating from the steadily multiplying patches of fire on the floor.

The trio of immortals witnessed this, intrigued—and immediately recognized the opportunity.

"So we don’t like the fire, huh…” Free from the clutches of the beast, the crimson fairy flexed his fingers, throwing a look to his companions. A plan was already brewing in his head. "You two go and help the Duke,” he commanded. "I’ll handle our friend here.”

Aleksei snorted, disapprovingly. Still, it was clear enough that the man had far less chance of surviving without their help than their stubborn leader did, as his body lay discarded on the floor just beyond the darkness’ reach. So, the blue fairy nodded, moving reluctantly to Dema’s side. "Let’s go, then…”

He nodded, wrapping an arm around the smaller immortal. "Dun’ get eaten,” he said in parting, and the two glided down to where the injured human lie. He set the healer down, allowing him to attend to his duty, and turned his back to them, facing the room to stand guard. His shield flickered into place.

Now without his allies, Boz was on his own. Though more at risk for injury alone, the lack of their presence gave him much greater maneuverability, and he used it to the fullest, rocketing through the air and up towards the ceiling. He lingered near a towering crystal chandelier, alight with a hundred thousand reflections of the fire rapidly spreading below. He let off several random blasts, drawing the creature’s focus to him. "Here, boy!” he called tauntingly, and gave a sharp whistle. "Come and get me!”

Angrily, the monster reacted, launching its tendrils at the impudent fairy. As they encroached, the protrusions curved and sprouted small, beast-like heads with fangs and claws, circling around him, charging, snapping and swiping.

The crimson fairy dodged quickly aside, darting in between the many mouths and limbs and firing directly into any gaping maw that approached him. He was just buying time now, as no amount of attack seemed to injure the creature—merely frustrating it. Privately, that’s what he was counting on. He flew circles around the rattling chandelier, eyeing the flames as they crept from the nearby corridor, further lighting the darkened room. If he could manage it, that might be useful…

Safe from the chaos beneath the influence of Dema’s shield, Aleksei knelt beside the injured Duke to take stock of the damage, while their resident exhibitionist made sport of the monster. He cast his energy over the battered and bloodied form. His body was punctured in several places, through his shoulder and both thighs, and one of his arms was missing from the elbow down. He was bleeding profusely, his energy dangerously low. The truth of it was frightfully clear. "He’s dying.”

Dema looked tensely back at him. "Then do something,” he said through his teeth. They had made it so late that all the family had nearly been annihilated. He refused to accept that their presence was for nothing. Unfortunately, what they could do was limited, and each had their own forte: only Boz was strong enough to distract the beast, while only Aleksei could heal. He could protect them from further harm, but it would all be for naught if this man still died. "Borrow my energy,” he said then, eyeing the battle taking place above. He could spare it; the creature was not attacking them, yet. "Draw from me.”

Aleksei frowned. It seemed that he would have to. Wounds could be healed, but the weakness inside of the remaining Star was such that it would take all of his power just to restore his ability to live. To properly heal him, he would need help. For as much as he resented the thought, he could not justify any other action. Not when he was the only one who knew where the baby was—not when he had been forced to watch his family die. "Fine,” he said at last and, closing his eyes, he extended a hand to the towering green fairy, placing the other against the Duke’s unmoving chest. "Just keep that shield up…”

Up above, the splintered creatures chased after the crimson fairy, growing from the shadows that rose from the floor. They gained ground, and followed so dangerously close that soon the crimson fairy would run out of space to flee to. The chandelier was slowly transforming into a nightmarish storm cloud, alive with thunderous roars and hisses and flashes of scarlet light.

As the creature bound itself about the silver framework of the massive chandelier, Boz smiled to himself, continuing to lead its many extensions around the glowing crystals. "Come on!” he called, and fired off another round, seeking to further aggravate the beast and its tendrils, "Keep up with me now!”

Far below, the fire was traveling, eating slowly into the lacquered ballroom floor, jumping to the scrolls and banners on the walls. It wouldn’t be long before the hall was consumed. Their time was running short, and they still had an infant to find.

With a final push of his will, Boz shot from his pre-trained course in the air, racing quickly out of the monster’s range as it ran out of darkness to extend. He came to hover out of its reach, and swept a hand across the floor, summoning the scattered pools of burning oil into the air with him. With a flick of his wrist, it splashed to the ground, setting the floor below ablaze. "Brace yourselves!” he called to his comrades, and he hauled back and opened fire, not on the darkness—but the chandelier. With a shriek of smashed metal hangings, the great structure snapped free, and plummeted into the waiting flames.

The light from the spreading fire ignited the hundreds of crystals as it crashed to the floor, sending a jarring shockwave through every surface. The smallest fairy was pitched from his place by the tremor, collapsing awkwardly across the Duke’s chest, the largest knocked only slightly off-balance. The result was a blast of white, the glow of the flames refracting infinitely between the shattering crystals, bouncing off the walls and ceiling and filling the room with a blinding light. The sound of crunching metal and fracturing gems entwined with that of shrill, pained screams, slowly overlapping it as the shadows were banished from the floor.

Dema quickly regained his footing, unharmed by the hellfire spreading rapidly outside of his influence. "He did it…”

Weakened, the beast no longer had the strength to remain on the ground, and the refracted light drove it from the walls. Only the ceiling remained safe for it, hovering away from the light before it could evaporate completely. Furious and in pain, it writhed and gathered to where the chandelier had been, slithering through the remaining hole to escape the harmful light, and their sight.

The red-clad immortal smirked, proudly. "That worked better than I thought it would.” Of course, assuming the beast was gone for good would be foolish; that had only scared it, and taken a sizable chunk from its mass. It was enough, for now. He swept carefully past the flaming mess that he had made of the floor and the expensive ceiling ornament, sinking from the air to rejoin his team. "How’s the Duke?” he asked.

Aleksei sent him a cold look from his place at the man’s side, sparing him only that as he righted himself and continued to work. Gradually, the punctures in his flesh were closing up, leaving unmarred skin behind. "He’s in poor shape,” he said softly, "but a great deal better than the others…”

Reluctantly, Boz turned his head to peer across the floor at all that remained of the Empire of the Star. "Didn’t even give them a chance…” he sighed, regretfully. "I hope they didn’t suffer.”

"They didn’t,” the blue fairy deadpanned. "A side-effect of instant death.” He stared firmly down at his work, his features trained in a look of concentration, but even then, the regret was clear in his gaze. "They didn’t feel a thing…whether or not the creature intended it.”

"Need to find the prince,” the green fairy interjected, anxiously. He remained wary of the spreading fire, and the decaying state of the chamber. The beast was temporarily vanquished, but the destruction it had wrought was something he wasn’t sure he could restrain. They had to find him and escape.

But the shadows had no intention of allowing that. The ballroom started to tremble around them, debris falling from the broken ceiling, splintering and spilling rubble across the floor. In spite of the ever-growing blaze, the room fell suddenly dark.

Alerted, the fairies searched for the beast, but the shadows in the room remained inanimate. Then, they looked up, and found the towering windows completely blacked out. The living darkness covered the panes and reinforced them from the outside, sealing out all the external light, and sealing them inside.

Boz threw a glance about the room as the walls began to jerk and buckle, setting another fall of stone and tile from the roof. "Damn it…the bastard’s going to bring the hall down!” He turned at once to the others, ducking under the barrier. "It’s time to go.”

Rubble rained from the ceiling above, bouncing harmlessly off the sustained energy shield. But Aleksei failed to move from his position, focusing his power on the unconscious mortal. "I’m not done healing him,” he argued. "If I stop, he might die.” And they all knew that was unacceptable.

It was the perfect trap: the corridor leading back into the castle had long-since collapsed, and as the walls gave another unsettling shudder, another section of the ceiling came down, promptly blocking the main archway. With the fire at their backs and the creature blocking all the windows, there was no way out. It was counting on the destruction to do its job for it. But perhaps that could work in their favor—if they could get out.

Time was running short. Trying to get out through the windows would only put them back in its clutches, with an injured mortal hostage and without the baby, but the only door was blocked. It was an ugly situation. "I can blast us out,” Boz said, indicating the obstructed entrance, "but not if we don’t move soon.” He turned his gaze to their healer. "Can you work any faster?”

"Not without more energy,” Aleksei snapped back. He turned his attention back to the Duke, shifting his fingers to the mangled arm tucked close to his side. While he could not restore the lost limb, he could at least stop the bleeding and mend the broken flesh. His fingers shimmered, and the torn and tattered skin began to regenerate, creeping down to cover the bleeding stump. "I’m already drawing from Dema; if I push any harder, the shield may collapse and then he will be dead.” He glanced dourly at their leader. "Unless you’re volunteering your energy as well?”

Boz scowled. If the Duke died, they might not find where the baby was in time to save him—but if they sat there and waited, they might still survive, but the Star dynasty would not. They were trapped by more than just the debris and darkness. He didn’t have much option. With a sigh, he extended his hands, settling one on Dema’s shoulder, the other orienting on Aleksei’s outstretched arm. "Keep that shield up,” he instructed the larger immortal, and to the smaller, "get him conscious.” He looked up at the splintering ceiling above them. "We’re running out of time.”

Nodding, the guardian fairy made use of the borrowed strength, expanding the shield further over their heads. Each crash against it felt like a direct blow to his glowing skin, too strong and resilient to be injured for the time being. The real threat would come only if they lingered too long. Meanwhile, with the added boost, the healer’s abilities flipped into overdrive, and the remaining injuries quickly mended. He concentrated, pouring the remainder of his power into the man’s body, hoping to replace all that he’d lost as he struggled to survive alone.

In return, Aleksei received the memories stored inside him, of what had brought him here—phantom images and thoughts, sensations of his pain and everything he’d gone through. It really amazed him, the determination of the human soul. It drove them to such lengths, merely to survive and protect the ones they cherished. He had fought so hard, only to end up like this. He had even gone so far as to lie to the beast, in the hopes that the baby would be spared…a lie that had earned him such grievous injuries.

Such insanity could only be proof of real love. It was no wonder that fairies knew nothing of such things.

As the ceiling rained down around them, he felt it—the tiniest push of his consciousness. The Duke’s fingers twitched restlessly at his side, his eyes shifting beneath their lids, and flickering open. The man’s determined soul had remained, and managed to reclaim his body at last. Slowly, he turned his gaze to focus on the blue-clad fairy kneeling at his side. "…It’s you…” he managed in a weak, damaged voice. The man’s silver eyes traced uncertainly over the others as well. "What…?”

"We don’t have time to explain,” Aleksei answered instead. He helped him sit up, throwing a look to the roof above. "The room won’t last much longer.”

A large segment of the ceiling fell then, crashing painfully against the shield. The greatest impacts had been avoided so far by chance, but too many more of those could severely weaken the barrier. Sweating from the building heat, Dema looked all around them. It was most definitely time to leave. "Duke,” the fairy looked back, interrupting the mad road his thoughts were threatening to take. "The heir?”

Dizzily, Peter wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth, squinting about the room. "Nikolai,” he agreed weakly. He climbed unsteadily to his feet, supported by the unoccupied fairies. "I…I hid him, in the cloakroom—but…” He looked at the caved-in exit. "We can’t get to him from here…not like this.”

"Great,” Boz groaned. "More good news…” Another fragment fell from the ceiling, but he lifted an arm and blasted it roughly away before it could further damage their defense. He couldn’t take much more. "There any other way out of here?”

"No—just the two doors…” Then, he looked out into the burning room, and an idea visibly crossed his face. "…But I might be able to get us out…” Brushing the small healer from his side, he stepped precariously around the shielding fairy, extending his remaining hand towards the blaze. "Refero!”

With a crunch of broken crystals and a crackle of flames, a glowing tome appeared from the wreckage of the chamber, flying at once into his palm. The fairies jumped back, startled, as the mortal shifted to orient on the blocked door, so far from their position. "That book…” Aleksei gasped. "How did you—”

"Ask me later,” Peter interrupted, and held it outward towards their escape. "Drop your shield on my mark,” he said to their guard, receiving a nod in reply. Before the small blue fairy could object—and certainly, he was ready to—the Duke shouted, "Mark!” and then, "Extundo divellis!” and the barrier vanished.

The energy in the air gathered sharply about them, only to slam forward, blasting the flames and the fallen stone from their path in a powerful rush of force. The spell raced across the ballroom and crashed viciously against the obstruction, sending it through the archway and outward, into the chamber beyond. The path was cleared of fire and debris, and the doorway was open. They had a way out.

But the toll it took was immediate. The Duke took half a step, balked, and began to crumple. Quickly, Boz moved to catch him, dragging the man’s solid arm up over his shoulder. He snatched the spell book from his grasp, tossing it to their healer and hovering unsteadily into the air. "Time to go,” he said. "Dema, you lead.”

"Da,” he said, drawing his influence around them, "Hold ‘im, n’ stay close.”

Led by the guard, the warrior carrying the Duke, the healer with the grimoire, the Elementals took flight, and raced across the burning chamber as the roof began to cave in. All around them, the walls shuddered and cracked, and at the head of the room, another of the chandeliers crashed to the floor, dragging the crumbling ceiling down with it. The shield surrounding them blazed a brilliant green from the force of the energy cresting up over them, protecting them from the destruction. The rubble came down in jagged chunks, crashing and ricocheting from its surface, chipping away at the energy and leaving gashes in the shield-bearer’s skin as he struggled to support it, and to lead them from the hellish scene.

Chased by the flames and the deafening roar of the devastation, the fairies burst from the ballroom and into the foyer, and in a shattering crash that rocked the palace, the walls came down at last.

And then, everything was dark. The archway had been blocked for good. The party skidded to a halt, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Boz crumpled to the floor, losing his grip on the Duke as he sank to his knees. He struggled to regain his breath, winded from their escape. "Well…” he panted, "…That sucked…” But, that’s what they got for meddling, he added silently. He forced his head up to take stock of his team and the rescued mortal. "Everybody all right?”

"Smashing,” the green fairy said from the back, facing the wall of rubble as he eyed and flexed each of his arms. Though the shield had not failed them, the damage was done; his dark skin was marked with a myriad of cuts and slashes, as if his very flesh had absorbed the shock felt by his shield. It wasn’t pleasant, but he would survive.

Clutching the arcane book to his chest, Aleksei leaned back against the nearest wall, drained. He was not made for such activity. "Define all right,” he murmured dryly. The contact with the wall gave him an immediate glimpse of the rest of the palace. It wasn’t a comforting vision. "We’re only safe for now. The upper floor is still on fire.” And with the ballroom having caved in, it wouldn’t be long before the rest of the structure started to crumble. "We’ll need to find a way out, before that thing realizes we’re not in the rubble.”

With the only people aware of such secrets now buried beneath the roof of the ballroom, that left the Grand Duke—now, the Emperor Regent—as their only hope for escape. The fairies turned to look at him. Seated alone on the floor, it was several moments before the man spoke. Then, quietly, "…A servant’s entrance…it isn’t far…” He gestured to where Aleksei was leaning, his eyes fixed dazedly on the ground. "I concealed the door…feel along the wall there. Nikolai is inside.”

The blue fairy moved quickly out of the way, his larger green companion claiming the task of retrieving the child. He pressed his palm firmly against the wall, feeling the surface to expose the deception. "Got it.” He turned the handle and drew it back. Immediately, the illusion faded. Taking hold of the door, Dema entered the small chamber, coming to stand before the infant prince.  He seemed to be locked in some magical slumber, but was otherwise unharmed. The Duke had protected him well.

Kneeing down, the fairy reached to recover the prince, but paused as he noticed—the light cast upon him by the stained glass window was now tinted red by the burning sky. A dark omen, indeed. Would this be the end of the threat for the boy? That was a thought he refused to dwell on. Thus, he recovered the baby, carefully wrapping him in the cloak he lie on and securing him in his arms before stepping out. No harm would reach him there.

Now with the prince reclaimed, the remaining immortals helped the distraught noble to his feet, and together they traveled back into the palace, following one of the unaffected corridors to a concealed servant’s entrance, and out into the gardens. Silently, they fled the darkened grounds, leaving the castle to burn long into the night. It was too late for the victims of the shadow and its master, and too late for their rulers, as even the hope of an honorable burial was lost to the destruction.

It was a dark eve for the Empire of the Star, as people down in the village below were roused from their beds by the scent of the fire and of death. It marked the very end of a powerful dynasty, as its only hope for revival vanished into the night.

****

Far from the flames and the darkness that had so tormented them, the party sat amongst the trees in the Western Forest, watching solemnly as the chaos in the distance unfolded. Dawn would come, and the people would find nothing but the charred remains of the castle denizens, and no proof of what had truly ended their lives. It would seem like an accident—no one would be blamed. The truth would never be known.

They regrouped as they contemplated where to go from here. Aleksei worked at healing Dema’s overtaxed arms, while Boz cared for the sleeping baby, and Peter watched his home perish in the flames. There was nothing to be done for it; the Emperor had done a good job of starting the blaze, with the best of intentions in mind. Now, they were without a home, and all that remained of their line. The fairies had failed to protect their charges, and the Duke had failed to rescue his family. There was no joy in the tiny victory…only the comfort was the knowledge that, at least, someone had survived.

"I’m sorry about your arm,” the small blue fairy said at length, braving the suffocating silence. As always, he remained focused on his task, his eyes trained on the many splits and gashes in his comrade’s muscles. "It is not within my power to restore limbs…” One by one, the marks were closing up, leaving only faint white lines in their wake. That was the trouble with immortal injures—they, too, could not be fully repaired.

For a long moment, the pale-haired Duke said nothing, merely staring off into the distance. The sky was aglow for miles around in the light of the fire, and it cast an eerie illumination over the once very handsome man. He appeared worn, twice his age at least, and though his wounds had been mended, the blood on his clothing remained as proof that he had come within inches of death. Perhaps closer than that. The event weighed heavily on his strong and valiant form, making him appear as a corpse himself. "It’s all right,” he said at last. "You did what you could. I’m thankful you arrived when you did.”

Boz looked up from the peaceful face of the child in his arms. "Had we arrived earlier, this may not have happened.” It was a dark thought.

"Had you not arrived at all,” Peter argued softly, "We would all be dead.”

That much was true. Though they had failed to save the Emperor and Empress, and all of the people who served them, little Nikolai was alive, and so was his uncle, for all he’d been through. They had succeeded in that.

"I am grateful that you came,” the Duke continued. His voice remained rough in spite of his quiet tone; no doubt, his throat was injured as well. Aleksei made a note to try and heal it when he was finished with Dema, though his prior attempt had failed. It was the least he could do. Drawing his cloak aside with his remaining hand, he brought his destroyed left arm into the light for the first time, revealing the lost sleeve of his uniform and the place where the limb was truncated, just below his elbow. Though the wound was sealed as well as if it had always been that way, the toll of such an injury was clear. "This was my doing. I was a fool to think myself strong enough to fight that creature—and my pride cost me this, and so much more.” He sighed, and pulled his cloak once more into place. "No, this was my fault. For all my effort and confidence…it wasn’t enough.”

"Wasn’t you,” Dema’s low voice argued. "Felt it that day…” In his way, he was confessing the reason behind his gift—what it had involved, and why. With the damage done, it felt unfair to have the Duke left unaware, and even more when he was the only remaining family of the baby, capable of protecting him the way they could not. The way they had failed to. "For months we stayed, but grew careless.” This truth still stung their hearts, and likely would forever.

"Dema,” Aleksei hissed from his back, giving his sore shoulder a chastening slap, "What good is telling him that now?”

But up in the tree above them, their guilty leader sighed. Their defense was right—the Duke deserved to know. "We were unwelcome guests in your house,” he admitted, clarifying the other’s confession. "We felt something coming at the coronation, so we lingered…but it took so long to happen, we thought it never would. So we left.” He lowered his head, looking again at the infant sleeping soundly in his arms. "And then this happened…”

Peter chuckled; it was an unhappy sound. "Said as if I wasn’t aware…” The fairies turned to stare at him then, taken once again by surprise. He failed to turn and regard them, his eyes fixed on the horizon. "No…I knew you were there, watching over him. I’ve been studying magics too long to be fooled by your guile. I simply felt no need to reveal you…I knew your intentions were good.” He sighed. "It wasn’t until you left that things took this horrid turn…perhaps that was intentional.”

"We were fooled,” Dema agreed, his gaze rising at last from his injured arms. The shame of the admission remained, but more important than that was how reliable the Duke had proven to be. It even calmed his worries, if only a bit. Perhaps the little prince could be saved after all. "Duke,” the fairy said, deciding to voice his thoughts, "Maybe y’ oughta take the baby n’ hide.”

"That’s right.” The crimson fairy shifted, floating down from his place in the tree and retaking his feet. Stepping past his teammates, he did what the others would not and approached the seated mortal, kneeling to offer him the child in his arms—the one they had fought so hard for. The tiny life that had ended so many, just by existing. "He should be with you—you can keep him safe…” He managed a weak smile, for as much as it hurt. "You’re all he has now.”

Turning at last from the catastrophe in the distance, the Grand Duke looked up at the kneeling immortal, his expression wholly unreadable. Then, he turned and extended his arm, accepting the precious little bundle against his chest, where he fit so well. The smallest smile tugged at his lips, though the expression pained him. "My brother’s child…and our last heir. There won’t be another of us after him. He is all that remains of the Shcherbarkov line.” And then, the smile fell away, and he peered solemnly down at the sleeping baby. "That is exactly why he shouldn’t be with me.”

Boz blinked, and behind him, the other two looked up as well. "What?” he asked, confused. "But…you’re his blood, right? I mean, with the others—” He stopped, and lowered his head to look at the infant. Lifting his hand, he touched his cheek, brushing aside several stray curls of his dark hair. "He…he doesn’t have anybody else…” He lifted his eyes again. "If not with you, then who?”

Another long moment passed, in which the immortals could only watch the bereaved noble and wonder at his thoughts. Then, he shifted, climbing slowly to his feet. The fire in the distance cast an eerie light across his figure as he stood over them, the unreadable mask of his face cracking at last with a small, kind smile. "I know who…” He looked down at Boz.

The red-clad fairy rose to his feet, only to find the child being placed back into his arms. He was dumbfounded.

Aleksei stared hugely out from his place at Dema’s back. "…Us?” he asked at last. "You want us to take him? Grand Duke—”

"Who better?” Peter asked in return. His smile remained firmly on his lips, in spite of the pain reflected so clearly in his eyes. "You will never grow old, never fall ill—you cannot be killed…” He looked between them. "And you love him. I know that you do.”

Indeed, that they could not dispute. They did love the boy, and had gone through hell to rescue him when it was not their duty. They had expended their powers to interfere, and even now could not deny their affection for the unfortunate child. As Aleksei himself had noted, love alone was the only force that could inspire any creature to act so foolishly. How could one argue what even they felt was true?

"We could protect you,” Dema offered, despite knowing that the man was right. If they couldn’t always remain close to the baby, it made sense to have the baby be close to them. And yet… "There’s no need to depart from im’. We could hide you.”

"A kind offer, but…” Sighing, the man turned away, drawing his tattered cloak close about his shoulders. They all knew that option wasn’t going to stand. "Whatever struck tonight wanted him—it wanted his life, and the lives of my family. It only succeeded partway. If I take him, it will only be a matter of time before whoever set that creature upon us tracks me down, with or without your help, and finishes what it started. And taking him home…” He trailed off. "…There is no home to return to.”

"But—” Boz began, but Peter turned his head to glance at him, casting the light of the fire over his face and a frightful shadow across his own. For a moment, he hesitated. "…You won’t return to the Star, and you won’t hide with us…then what will you do?”

"That’s simple.” He turned again to face the destruction. "I will find the force responsible, and I will repay it this favor…not for the Star, but for my brother and his wife. For the lives that I could not save…for Nikolai.” He sighed, his shoulders visibly weighed by his self-appointed duty. "I will draw whatever caused this to myself, so that no one ever learns that he survived. And you will protect him for me, and let him live a safe and happy life.”

With a heavy sigh, the green fairy stood as well. "We will.” Even if the Duke had accepted their offer, the baby would not be truly safe. It made the most sense for them to guard him, while his uncle sacrificed himself. "But y’ must stay alive,” he requested in return. Revenge was a dark and dangerous path, one for which many had died. Even with all his power, the man was not immune to such a fate. "Yer his only family…the day y’ die, it’ll wonder if y’ really were the last Star.”

Peter gave a grim smile in reply. "Then I will lead it to the ends of the world, so it will never have to wonder.”

Such a simple phrase, with such a heavy implication. Boz looked sadly down at the infant in his arms. "So…we won’t see you again?”

He shook his head. "It wouldn’t be fair for Nikolai to survive, only for me to bring the danger upon him again.” The Duke offered a pained smile to the three fairies. "I trust you will make his life a good one…not as Prince Nikolai of the Star, but just another child…keep him safe for me, so that I don’t have to worry.”

Silently, they nodded their ascent. Though unhappy, it was the right answer.

Leaning down, the golden-haired man pressed a gentle kiss to his nephew’s forehead, and with a sparkle of light, the baby shifted at last. The enchantment sealing him in sleep faded, leaving him in a state of true rest. "Be safe, my little bell,” Peter whispered, "and be happy.” Rising again, he extended his remaining hand to the blue fairy, turning his silvery gaze to him. "My book, please.”

The smallest immortal frowned deeply at this request, but nodded, delving into his cloak and retrieving the heavy tome. However, as the Duke reached for it, he recoiled. "This book,” Aleksei said, glancing nervously between the others as he shielded it from the mortal. "It is a dangerous thing. You should not be using it.”

The Duke didn’t flinch, merely holding his palm out in askance.

"It was never meant for human hands,” the small fairy insisted, again holding it away. He felt the energy beneath its cover shifting in rebellion to his resistance, but he held his ground. "No magic was meant for man, but this least of all. Do you even know what it is?”

"The Arcanus Imperium,” Peter answered softly. "The forgotten power of mortal dominion. The only existing volume on harnessing the power of the human soul.”

"Enslaving the human soul!” Aleksei argued back. "It draws from you, gives life to your energy without returning it when it’s finished! What happened in the palace—how weak you became—don’t you understand? It was killing you!”

"I don’t care!”

The fairies withdrew a pace, the smallest falling behind the other two and taking the ancient book with him, and the largest moved instinctively to shield him. The crimson fairy held the baby away from the tome, staring disbelievingly between its etched cover and the man who had summoned it. How had such an object ever come into a mortal’s hands?

Flanked by the raging fire, his face cast in darkness, the Duke stared hard at the ground, his hand fisted in the air between them. "…It is dangerous,” he agreed, his damaged voice soft once more. "But thanks to it, my brother’s son lives, and so do I. It is my only weapon. I have spent years studying it, and though I have not mastered it, I will; I will not be overcome by it again. Let it take me, if it can. I will carry it with me as I face this force—I will not be defeated by it. Not until the one who holds the sin of this night on their soul is no more.” He looked up at last, his face set with the determination of it, and in that moment, the very strength of his mortal being showed through his pale eyes. "I will do what I must to avenge my family. So give me the book, and let me contend with the consequences.”

Though he reviled the very concept, Aleksei knew that he had no choice. The cursed object was a danger to the baby, and if the creature somehow managed to recognize its presence, it could easily find them again. It could not remain, and he did not want it. The fairy frowned, but extended the book, stepping from the safety of his comrades. "Be careful,” he said quietly, placing its spine in the Duke’s waiting palm. "We worked hard to save your life…so don’t get killed and make it a waste.”

Peter gave a solemn nod, accepting the heavy tome and all that it stood for. Its ornate cover gave a telling flicker as it passed into his grasp, identifying him as its owner, for better or worse. A grimoire written by dark immortals, loyal to a single, brave human—it had to stand for something. Perhaps, in time, he could master it. If anyone could, it was probably him. He tucked the book away. "Look after him,” he said to them, indicating the tiny child in the red fairy’s arms. "I’m relying on you…change his name, if you must. Hide, that it will never find you.” He turned to look out across the countryside, gathering his stained and tattered cloak about his shoulders once again. "I will use what little power I have to lead away any remnant that might search for him…and I trust that you will use yours to conceal him, for as long as it takes for me to return.”

And then, with a parting smile, the Duke was gone, the dangerous book held close to his worn and mangled body as he departed. The last of the Star, and Nikolai’s only family, off to fight alone. He left them heavy-hearted, but with an important mission: to keep the baby alive, and safe from whatever force had sought his life.

"What now?” Dema asked the other Elementals, for once lacking the tide of thought that guided him. Dawn would soon be approaching, and with it, the ensuing panic in the face of the night’s tragedy. Amidst all of that, they stood lost, with a tiny mortal life to protect. Never before had one of their kind found himself in such a situation. "Dun’ suppose we should be ‘ere when the sun comes up,” the fairy guessed, scratching his nape, "But…” The blazing castle was no option, and neither was the town, which even now was slowly coming to life.

"Even if we could go to town,” Aleksei added quietly, completing the thought, "We’d only be recognized, and so would he. And then that thing would come for him again…” And that could not be tolerated. He looked up at their leader. "Where could we keep him?”

A long moment passed before the crimson fairy replied. Then, at last: "Nowhere.”

The other two stared at him. "What?” the healer asked.

"We stay here,” Boz said, looking up from the baby’s peaceful face. He peered over his shoulder, back into the forest that they called their domain. "No one lives out here, and we’re outside of both of the kingdoms. Nobody would think to look here for anyone, let alone a baby that’s supposed to be dead. We’d be safest right here.”

"And just how are we supposed to take care of him here?” Aleksei demanded, skeptically. "He’s human. He’ll need food, and shelter, and clothing—things we don’t have. If we use our magic for that, we’ll just draw attention to ourselves.”

"An’ people might know or suspect we dwell ‘ere…” Dema added, though he lacked the other’s venom. "Might suspect we saved ‘im, n’ come lookin’…”

"And, you seem to forget, we aren’t human. We still can’t provide the things he needs.”

The crimson fairy looked thoughtfully down at the infant again. "That’s true.” And then, an idea flashed across his sharp features. "But we could be human…”

"Whut?” Now Dema had to ask, confused by the madness of the suggestion. It made no sense. They couldn’t become human; they were fairies, and as such they lacked the emotional depth of man. But was that really an impediment? "Already care for im’…” He looked down at the baby in Boz’s arms. Certainly, the emotion was there. That left only their status and power as immortals. He blinked. "Y’ don’t mean…”

He nodded. "We told Peter we’d hide the baby, and that’s what we’re gonna do…and we’re gonna hide us, too. That thing knows our magic anyway. We fought it, didn’t we? If we just go back to being the way we always are, it’s gonna find us eventually, except we’ll have him with us. We fucked this up once, doing it our way—and I’m not willing to do it again.”

Aleksei looked between the larger two men in confusion. "What are you suggesting?”

"No more magic,” Boz answered, and a smile pulled at the corner of his lips. "We lock up our powers and play mortal. That way, if the bastard comes back, it won’t be able to tell us from anybody else. And the baby’ll be safe.”

Perhaps there was some reason to the madness. As fairies, they had failed in their chosen duty, while the prince’s mortal family had succeeded. "No magic?” Dema considered, his lips curving into a faint smile. They knew nothing of how to live as humans, or to raise a child, but the prince was worth the risk. How hard could it be? "No magic,” he agreed. It almost sounded fun.

"This is insane,” Aleksei exclaimed. Again, he was left on the outside, the only one with any logic. "What do we know about being mortal? Nothing! And our powers—what are we supposed to do with them?”

"We’ll seal them up,” their leader said, "but keep them close, just in case.” Shifting the tiny child in his arms, he tapped the scarlet cloak pin at his shoulder, and the gemstone gave a merry glitter in the moonlight, approving the idea. Perhaps it was crazy, but nothing else had worked so far…and all creatures knew that mortals were more powerful than any other form of life. Just maybe, if they could be like them—even for just a little while—they too could learn the source of that power. They’d already learned love in such a short time. The sky was the limit, and they had nothing to lose. "They’ll still be with us, just outside of us.”

The smaller fairy looked down at his own cloak fastener, the cerulean orb alight at the end of its silvery chain. "To be stolen or lost…” he muttered, dejectedly. Something about surrendering his powers did not sit well with him. It was all he’d known—all any of them had known! How could they be so willing to give it up?

But Boz merely smiled at him, and for as much as the expression galled him, it was strangely comforting. It was clear enough that he was not afraid. "We’ll be careful,” he said, answering the unasked question. "We’ve done harder things than this for less reason, right?” He looked down at the baby again, and his smile grew wider. "It’s a fair trade.” And sadly, he was right.

"And it’s not so bad,” Dema added, feeling sympathy for their hesitant younger member. "Won’t be alone—we’ll be together.” He rested his marked arm over the other’s frail shoulders. "We’ll watch over each other, work together. Already a good team.” And lack of magic wouldn’t change that, or the chemistry between them.

Dryly, Aleksei wondered why they ever consulted him, even as he allowed himself to be drawn protectively closer to the larger immortal. They always made their decisions over his head. Still, it was true, and it was safer for the baby—even if he didn’t like it. "For once,” he sighed, "I would like for a good idea to be mine…”

Boz looked up again, sparing him a compassionate smile. "Then you’re in?”

"Does it matter?” Alek retorted sourly. Not that he could trust them alone anyway.

That settled it, then. "Welcome aboard,” Dema chuckled, grasping Boz’s shoulder as well. With that, the decision was made, the pact sealed: they would become ‘human.’

The ethereal trio set off into their forest, discussing how to proceed with their plans. Since time immemorial, the Elementals had been many things, but never mere mortals…never a family. Despite their uncertainty, there was a certain excitement to it all. Being human was notoriously difficult; it was an existence without magic, marked by struggle and loss. It would be hard for them, giving up what they had always been, to become something they would never truly be. But, it was for the sake of the precious child, and of his brave uncle, whom they honored in this—his last request, to keep the boy safe. And this time, they would keep their word, no matter what it meant. It was worth the sacrifice.

A solemn silence followed the fairies as they journeyed into the unknown, to surrender all that they were in order to protect the tiny baby, for the world unaware that he was so important. No happy chime or jingle sounded to mark the child’s path as he was spirited away, never to be seen again.


To Be Continued

****


Recap:

The Elementals:
-Boz: the crimson leader of the fairies, and the one with the strongest offensive powers. Though Boz comes across as cocky and obnoxious, he has a good heart, and takes everything very personally. He blames himself for the attack on the Star, and their inability to stop the monster in time to save the Emperor and Empress. He cares very deeply for the baby.
-Aleksei: the blue fairy and their resident healer, the smallest and weakest of the three. He tends to be overly cautious (read: cowardly), largely due to having no defensive or offensive powers of his own. Despite his pessimistic perspective, he is often more concerned with human welfare than even he recognizes. He is vaguely clairvoyant, and reads energy.
-Dema: the green gentle giant, and the fairies' guard and defense. Dema is quiet if only because he is always thinking, and his strong exterior hides a shockingly brilliant mind. Though his shielding powers are great, certain levels of damage take a direct toll on his body. He respects the Grand Duke Peter, and wishes they could have protected him.

The Survivors:
-Grand Duke Peter: the former Grand Duke of the Star Empire, and now the rightful Emperor Regent in place of his late brother and nephew. Peter lost an arm in the battle with the monster, which the fairies regretfully could not repair, but he sees it as the price he paid for his pride. He has decided to leave, for the sake of the baby, to find the one responsible and make them pay.
-Grand Prince Nikolai: the last heir to the Empire, now in the care of the fairies. Nikolai was targeted by the shadow creature, and thanks to his uncle, was ironically the only Star it failed to harm. The fairies have taken him away to raise in the safety of the forest. His fate from here on out is unknown.

Story and Characters Copyright © Xandra and Countess-D 2010-201X
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Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Four: The Choice
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