Notes: Thank you to all reviewers who have been patient while I gathered my thoughts for these final two chapters. I hope you will continue to stay with me as I write the last part of this trilogy, Purple Skies!
The battle was not going well. It was becoming hard to hold off the soldiers who were determined to ascend the mountain, and many of Volker's rebels were wounded or dead—as were those who were part of the army after taking their journey to this strange new world.
Valon was injured in the shoulder and upper arm, but he continued to struggle valiantly to fight. Blood was dripping into his eyes from another wound on his forehead, and in vexation he repeatedly brushed the sticky substance away before at last tearing off part of his shirt and tying it around his head. As he plunged back into the fray, a harsh pain ripped into his back.
His eyes widened in shock and agony as the blade was withdrawn from his flesh. He shuddered, doubling over as the blood rose in his throat. As he began to cough it up, his vision swirled and he collapsed, falling forward into the brown and crinkled grass that rushed up to meet him. His last coherent thought was that he had tried and failed. It's up to the rest of you now, mates, he said silently as darkness descended over him.
Marik was further up the mountain, desperately sword-fighting with another of the rebels. His opponent feinted, but the Egyptian was not fooled and quickly delivered the killing blow before it could instead be presented to him. Breathing heavily, he then looked up, his conversation with Valon echoing in his mind.
The Australian was right—they would not be engaging in this battle if it was not to protect their loved ones. It was horrible to have to kill, but to save the lives of those precious to them, they were willing to. Still, Marik wondered if it was doing any good. Their side was losing, and it looked as though it would only keep getting worse.
He swallowed the lump in his throat as he ran forward, cutting down two more foes. What if some of them had already reached the palace? Some of them could have sneaked past. He clasped his sword tightly, not wanting to think it but knowing it was possible. With all of his heart he wanted to go there and find out, and yet he knew that it was impractical. So many others could cause trouble here if he left, and everything was probably fine at the palace anyway. But there remained the nagging doubt—what if it was not?
He had just made up his mind to check anyway when a blade cut viciously into his leg, badly lacerating it. He cried out in pain, his balance being thrown off by the unexpected assault. Dizziness started to overwhelm him, but he fought for consciousness. The sword had come out of nowhere, and as he looked up, a soldier was lunging toward him for the final stroke. Frantically Marik jabbed up with his blade, catching the other young man in the chest. The eyes, which had not seen much more of life in years than Marik had widened, and as the body fell, Marik could only roll out of the way.
For a moment he lay there, gasping in pain, unable to erase the other boy's image from his mind. Over and over, that haunted look was displayed before his mental eyes, as he tried and failed to stand up. The thought crossed his mind that he might never walk again. But no, he would not accept that. Gritting his teeth firmly, he forced himself to begin to crawl upward, toward the palace. He would not be any good on the battleground like this.
Raphael had overpowered a soldier who was not that much older than he himself had been upon first joining Doom. But no matter how he tried to reason with the youth about Colchis's selfishness—and Fafnir's before him—it did not help. He was just as stubborn as Raphael had been, and just as disillusioned with the world. This saddened the strong blonde, and he wondered anew why he, Valon, and Alister had been granted second chances at life when there were so many like them who would never get that chance.
"What makes you believe that Colchis really wants what'll help Juno?" Raphael demanded now. He was gripping the boy's shoulders tightly, not wanting to give him the chance to get up and attack. He also did not want to kill the youth. If possible, Raphael would simply take him prisoner.
"He's given us no reason to disbelieve it!" was the indignant answer. "The real traitor is Master Dartz!"
At these words Raphael paled. He knew that he had seen a flash of mint hair on the battlefield, but he had been hoping—praying—that he had been wrong, or that it was just a coincidence. But he remembered what Alexander had said. Dartz was in Juno, and so Raphael had probably seen correctly. "Master Dartz?" he exclaimed now. "What did he do now?"
Bitterness gleamed in the fiery orbs. "He's turned against all of us and our ideals!" the boy replied furiously, and Raphael could see how much that had emotionally wounded him. "I don't know whether he's on your side or if he's just on his own, but he's been cutting down my comrades!" He reached up, taking hold of Raphael's arms. "Are you going to tell me that's justified? Just because you think you're right, it's okay for him to turn against the people he was supposed to be leading?"
Raphael slumped back, at a loss for words. How could he give an honest answer to that? He knew how it felt to be betrayed by Dartz. The pain still burned strong within him. And even if Dartz had a good reason for what he had done now, could Raphael ever condone such betrayal? The soldier here had obviously looked up to him, as Raphael had in the past.
"Answer me!" the boy cried.
Raphael shook his head. "I can't," he growled. "I don't know the answer."
"You don't think it's right, either!" came the challenge. "Admit it!"
Raphael could not take the added pressure. "I DON'T KNOW!" he boomed in distress.
It was to this scene of chaos that the others returned. Alexander had been unable to teleport them for two reasons—first, because of the size of the group, and second, because he had lost his sense of direction in the woods. And so they had struggled to find their way back, with the Talisman glowing blue when they were on the right path and red when they were not. And after they had come out of the deadened forest, they had encountered Chris and Ironheart, who were also on their way to the battle. As they had come the final bit of the way, the weather had steadily worsened. By the time they arrived at the battlegrounds, it was snowing.
The next moments were filled with perplexity and alarm as family members and friends desperately ran over the battleground in search of loved ones. The fighting was all but over, in favor of Colchis's side, and the wounded and dead from both sides were everywhere.
As Rishid maneuvered his way through the strewn forms, trying his best not to think the worst, he came across a sight that both relieved and horrified him. Marik was crawling, struggling with all his might despite the obvious physical anguish, to climb the mountain. Every few feet he had to stop and get his breath, but then he would start again in determination. Rishid could see that his brother had left a trail of blood in his wake.
Immediately Rishid went to him, calling his name as he knelt down beside him. Marik looked up at him in both disbelief and awe, wondering what sort of spectre this was. Then he saw the Talisman around Rishid's neck. Shakily he reached out, touching it to see if it was real.
"You found it," he said weakly, and smiled. But then he sobered once more. "Rishid, forget me. Go see if Ishizu and the others are safe!"
"I will see," Rishid replied instantly, and took Marik into his arms. "But you will come as well."
Elsewhere, Alister was wandering amongst the bodies and just feeling a certain numbness to the scenes around him. He hated war, and he hated the pain it brought. But this battlefield only made him feel weary, thinking of how nothing was ever likely to change. There would always be fighting, always people dying for their causes. And would it ever help, he wondered, or would it be an endless waltz that would repeat again and again to the end of time—war, peace, revolution. . . .
Then he caught sight of Valon laying facedown in the grass. Fearing the worst, he swiftly fell to his knees and examined the wound the brunette had gained. It looked deep, he saw grimly, and it had bled a lot. Then there seemed to be other, less serious injuries as well. But Valon was still breathing. He was alive.
As the redhead was tending to the wounds, Valon stirred, starting from the sudden touch but then looking up. He grinned weakly, blinking away the cobwebs from his vision. "Hey, mate," he greeted. "I think we lost."
Alister grunted. "I didn't know you were a quitter."
"I'm not," Valon answered in a pained tone, wincing from the pressure on the wound, "but I think I know when we've been licked."
"We'll see," Alister responded, seeing Raphael on his way over to them. "We found the Talisman, by the way. Or it found us, however you want to look at it."
"Well, that's one good thing, I s'ppose. . . . Hey!" Valon cried, jerking away. "Ow! Go easy on the merchandise!"
Alister raised an eyebrow. "Merchandise? What are you—a bounty hunter's prize?"
Valon muttered in response.
Quickly Raphael knelt down as he approached them, concern apparent in his eyes. He had finally given up on his debate with the opposing soldier and had left him bound when he heard the news that the others had returned. "Is Valon hurt bad?" he demanded to know now, wondering when Valon had been injured and if it could have been prevented if he, Raphael, had been there.
"He'll live," Alister answered.
"'Course I will!" Valon interjected.
Now Alister looked their comrade up and down. "You don't look too much the worse for wear," he observed.
Raphael sighed. "I guess not," he admitted, though he felt completely drained both mentally and physically. The conversation about Dartz and knowing that their former leader was here, somewhere, made him feel all the more uneasy than before. It seemed to him that he would never escape from the painful memories of the past. He knew he needed to forgive Dartz, somehow, but he was not certain that he ever fully could—though he did pity the man and his madness.
Alexander wandered through the carnage left by the fierce battle, his ice-blue eyes wide in confusion and horror. His wings drooped, both because he did not have enough strength to hold them up and because he was sickened by what he saw around him. He could not understand why so many people always had to die, as they had now. He supposed that they had not been afraid to die, or they would not have rushed out into battle, but he still felt sad.
As he went around a corner, he remembered something that Alister had told him not that long ago. "Sometimes people fight even when they are afraid," he had said after it had become obvious that a battle was imminent. "That takes more courage than to fight when you're not." Alexander supposed that made sense. He wondered how many of the deceased here had actually wanted to live, and felt a pang of guilt for having tried to kill Alister in the past when that had not been what Alister wanted. But Alister did not hold it against him, and since then, Alexander had strived to protect Alister and his friends and make certain that they stayed alive.
Suddenly catching sight of familiar mint-green hair in the grass up ahead, Alexander broke into a run. He felt dizzy, his thoughts racing. Dartz was not supposed to get hurt. That was simply the way it was. Dartz had hurt others in the past, when he had been under the spell of the Orichalcos, but Alexander could not think of a time when Dartz himself had actually sustained injuries. Dartz was his father figure, always watching out for and taking care of Alexander when the doppelganger was hurt. Alexander knew that the Atlantean cared about him, even though he did not expressly say so in words the way Alexander was prone to do.
Barely avoiding stepping on some of the other bodies, Alexander made his way over to where Dartz was laying on his stomach. Swallowing hard, he reached out and gripped the man's shoulders fearfully. Please be alive. . . . Upon not receiving an answer, Alexander carefully turned him onto his back, certain that his own hands were trembling as he did so. "Dartz?" he choked out, his wings going even more slack. If Dartz was dead. . . . Alexander did not want to think about that.
Dartz stirred, his golden eyes opening halfway as he tried to focus on the worried creature leaning over him. "So . . . you survived," he muttered, his voice barely able to be heard. He coughed, feeling the coppery taste of blood in his mouth. "I wondered . . . what had happened to you. . . ." He himself had ended up in a duel to the death with a man who had been sent to spy on Dartz and kill him if he did not do his job. His opponent was dead, and Dartz did not think he would live much longer, himself.
"You're hurt!" Alexander cried, shaking with alarm and worry. He could see the blood coming from Dartz's chest and he could feel it running over his hands, but he was not fascinated by it the way he usually was. Panicked, the creature looked around for something he could use to press against the wound, but found nothing. In desperation he tore off part of his own shirt and worked painstakingly to stop the flow of crimson.
"Don't bother with that," Dartz informed him, shuddering slightly. He did not fear death. Sometimes, during his long tenure upon the earth, he had longed for it. It had been a lonely time for him during most of his ten thousand years of existence. After the Orichalcos had started to affect his mind and sanity, part of him had often resisted its pull, wanting to be free of the whisperings that only he could hear. Then there had been the war, the end result of which had forced him to wander the earth, all alone with only his thoughts and the murmurings of the Orichalcos as his companions. He had often wondered what was to become of him; only after witnessing Pharaoh Atemu's actions several millennia later had he realized that the Leviathan could still be revived and that his life could still have a purpose.
After so many centuries alone, the Orichalcos had corrupted his mind completely and he had completely succumbed to it; there was no longer any small part of his soul that balked at what the ancient force wanted. To have at last been released from that force and left with only his own mind to make decisions with, Dartz had felt a strange mixture of feelings: loneliness and relief, confusion and joy. He had Chris and Ironheart with him again, though his wife was still lost to him. The Orichalcos no longer influenced him until he lost all sense of reason, but still, often on late nights, he fancied that he heard it again. He heard it in the wind blowing through the trees. He heard it in the sound of the creek that was near their home and in Sky's soft whines and growls. He could not escape from it. It had been a part of him for too long, and he often felt as though he was going mad again.
He had tried to stop Doom Reborn when it began, knowing how the force would cause the new leaders to suffer insanity and to bring chaos to the earth. But in another way his reasons for halting their schemes had been selfish. Haunted by the lost souls of many that he had imprisoned and who no longer had bodies to return to, Dartz had come to realize that the only thing he could do that would allow them to rest in peace was to prevent the same tragedy from repeating itself. And he had succeeded in freeing the trapped souls and delaying Doom Reborn, if only for the time being. That was when he had met the strange creature that was now kneeling before him, starting to sob as he realized that the man he loved as a father figure was dying.
"I didn't realize . . . that it would hurt . . . so much," Alexander choked out in broken words, trembling as the blood refused to stop flowing. Why would it not stop? "You're the one who's hurt . . . but . . . it feels like I'm being torn apart inside. Is this what it feels like . . . for someone you love to die?" He swallowed hard. "Is this how Valon and Raphael would have felt if I had killed Alister?" He leaned over, his shaggy, fiery hair falling across his face as he realized how utterly helpless he was to stop this. I can cause death, but I can't stop it. . . . I can't save lives, but only end them. . . . He wanted Dartz to live, but he did not have the power to grant it.
"Now, now . . . none of that." Dartz could hardly force himself to speak, but he still struggled to, watching Alexander with glassed-over eyes. This being, who had abruptly fallen from the sky with a badly broken and torn wing, had been a pest, immediately latching onto Dartz because he "loved what Alister hated." But even though Alexander had at last started to develop thoughts and opinions independent of Alister's views, he still loved Dartz. Indeed, it had not been mere instinct that had drawn Alexander to the Atlantean; it was so much more, and Dartz doubted he would ever fully understand.
Nor would he likely ever understand why he had developed a fondness for the odd doppelganger. But Alexander had grown on him, obviously, or he never would have allowed the creature to stay with him during the long months as his wing had healed and as he had learned to fly again. Alexander had loved him and had been devoted to making Dartz happy as well as Alister, and he had tried as best as he knew how.
"I . . ." The man coughed again, pained by the motion, and could not attempt to choke out what he wanted to say for several long minutes, during which Alexander watched him with wide, horrified eyes. At last Dartz groaned, allowing himself to go slack. He gazed off at an unclear point in the distance as he spoke again. "I am . . . trusting you to help look after Chris, now. She . . . she had always been fond of you. . . ." Even though he did not fear death, he did not want to die. He wanted to be there for Chris. He would miss Ironheart as well, of course, but Chris was still a child to him, even though she was actually so much older than she appeared to be. But they had all lost so much time together, when he had been corrupted by the Orichalcos. It seemed that he had only barely begun to start learning again about Chris and how she and Ironheart had changed over the years. He knew that Chris would take the news of his death hard, as would Ironheart, but there was little he could do.
"No!" Alexander wailed, kneeling down further and laying his head on Dartz's shoulder. Inwardly the man sighed at the contact, but he had come to accept that with Alexander it was inevitable. And it was not as if he would experience any more of the creature's cuddling sessions. This would be the last. He had to admit, he would miss the pest. Alexander was lovable and innocent, perhaps in some ways representing a bygone era, when humans were not selfish and not only thinking of ways to use other people. Alexander thought only of making others happy, in his childlike way.
"No," the redhead whispered again, burrowing against Dartz's shoulder. "Don't die! Please . . . I know you don't want to!" Again panicked, Alexander hugged his adopted father while trying to avoid hitting the wound. He could feel the life slipping from Dartz, but he did not want to accept it. He could not accept it. He had to think of some way for Dartz to remain here. And yet, he knew of nothing he could do. He was not knowledgeable with religion, either, so he did not know how to pray for help. But he did plead that if Anyone was listening, to please spare Dartz's life. He knew that Dartz had done horrible things while he had been influenced by the Orichalcos, but Alexander saw good in him as well. And of late the man had only wanted to live quietly and in peace with his family. It seemed so unfair that this war had to take him away. . . . "You've been . . . one of the only people who ever loved me," he whispered brokenly.
Dartz felt his vision clouding over, though he still managed to register Alexander's words. Weakly he reached out with a shaking hand, struggling to lay it on Alexander's head. When he felt the soft red hair against his palm, he knew he had succeeded.
That was the last thing he managed to do.
The snow seemed to blow much more fiercely at that moment, and as if in response, the Talisman glowed brighter than before. Rishid, who was carrying Marik up the palace steps to where they could see Ishizu, Kade, and Mokuba at the top, suddenly grunted in pain as the pendant burned through his clothes to his skin.
Marik looked to him in concern. "What is it, Rishid?" he demanded.
"I . . . don't know," Rishid gasped, seeing the others running to them—and to Seto, who had hiked up on his own. "I'm afraid the Talisman wants to go elsewhere, but where that is, I cannot imagine!"
Now Ishizu reached them, surveying the scene and quickly coming to the conclusion that Rishid was relatively well while Marik was injured. The boy had tied his shirt around the leg wound, but blood could still be seen seeping through. "You must both come inside now!" she declared, and snow swirled all around her—much to everyone's disbelief. It was as if the snowflakes were embracing her, bestowing some sort of honor upon her, and Ishizu suddenly had an eerie foreboding.
"Mr. Marik! You're hurt!" Kade cried in alarm, paying little attention to the strange phenomena. The only thing that he was interested in at the moment was his dear friend's well-being.
Mokuba, who had ran to Seto upon seeing him, now looked up from their embrace and hurried to the Ishtars. "Is it bad?" he gasped, seeing the signs of the blood.
Marik shrugged helplessly. "I couldn't say," he realized, "but it's not fatal."
"So you'll be alright, Mr. Marik?" Kade chirped.
Marik smiled. "Yes, I will be," he replied, and fully believed it.
Now the Talisman did not want to wait any longer. Without further warning it disentangled itself from around Rishid's neck, hovering in the air before abruptly dropping over Ishizu's head to rest around her own neck.
Her reaction was surprising. With a gasp, she doubled forward, feeling as if a strange, unwelcome force had just entered her body. It felt as if every inch was burning. Then she was almost certain that she heard a cold, wicked voice in her mind.
"The dragon is dead!" it cried in a female's tones. "Now I am free to roam again, and you will be my eyes and ears! You will provide my body!" Then it was gone, and Ishizu straightened up and blinked. The pain had vanished too, and suddenly she did not recall the voice.
"Sister! Sister!" Slowly she became aware of Marik calling. "Sister, are you alright?"
Ishizu looked at him and at Rishid, who were watching her in concern. "Yes," she said in confusion, "I am fine. Come, let's go inside."
The snow swirled around her again, following her until she and the others reached the palace doors.