Author's Note: Yes, all, I know it's been a long time since my last update. Any apology I could give you I know would be pointless. Hence, the best apology I can make is to give you this. I had intended to make this chapter alot longer than this, but then it occurred to me that AA would probably split it up anyway, and I'm not completely done with the other half yet. It needs a little something more to be finished, and I'm not going to delay the update any further. However, rest assured that the regular updates will once again commence. I had the worlds most horrid case of writer's block, mainly because of the sheer number of character interactions... important character interactions, that are coming up. As such, there isn't a whole lot of humor in this chapter... it HAS to be done this way, because I refuse to duck the important FEELINGS in this story, and it is necessary. So if this chapter is a disappointment to you after such a long wait, I can only say that I wrote it the way I've always written Shards. I let it flow out of me, looked at when it was done, and said to myself it ain't perfect, but it's as good as I'm gonna get it.

So without further ado or useless excuses... Chapter 27.

"I'm so free, it's really amazing. I'm so clean, too bad I can't get all the dirt off me. I'm so sane, it's drivin' me crazy. It's so strange, I can't believe it feels just like I'm fallin' for the first time. Anyone perfect must be lying. Anything easy has it's cost. Anyone plain, can be lovely. Anyone loved, can be lost. What if I lost my direction? What if I lost sense of time? What if I nurse this infection? Maybe the worst is behind..." Fallin' For the First Time, Barenaked Ladies

Not for the first time, (and most certainly not for the last, because he's just so damn dramatic, DUN DUN DUN!) our story continues with a slow pan downward through a ceiling of grey stone to reveal Lord Talon hard at work in what has become his personal chambers within the Sentinel Prison Tower. Picture, if you will, the eight remaining Bloodguard, lined up four to a side along a short walkway up to a plain but well constructed desk, strewn with battleplans and emergency standard operating procedures for various Sailoonian disasters. Wonder in amazement that the standard emergency operating instructions for a huge friggin' army of bloodthirsty barbarians led by a sadistic Dark Godlet attacking seem to be conspicuously absent. Since (if you are a perverse and hopelessly fan-ish individual like me) you're already doing so, throw in the Imperial March during all of this, just for good measure.

Now stop it, because not only is it inappropriate to the genre, yet ANOTHER thing we can get sued for (and I have a feeling George Lucas is going to be in need of cash soon, if you get my drift), and just plain silly, but you're annoying Talon, and he's hard enough to work with as it is.

Warily shifting his gaze around, irritated without knowing exactly why, Talon continued to scan through the various documents on his desk. His eventual conquest of Sailoon (even if it was only the means to an end... emphasis on the END) might have been assured, but it never hurt to at least give the APPEARANCE of caring how many of the bloody corpses of his people he'd be willing to walk over to get there.

It's hard to say exactly what constitutes as a "good" or "bad" day for Talon. One state of wakefulness is usually seperated from another by a period of at least a few hours of complete detachment from reality in the form of sleep. Talon does not sleep (this might explain his general crankiness) so to say he is having a good or a bad day is largely inaccurate.

All semantic bullshit aside, Talon is having a good day.

It's about to take a decided turn for the worse.

Leaning back in his chair, Talon smiled contentedly. Nothing in the documents suggested that Sailoon was going to react any differently from the pathetic defenders of Sentinel. If anything, things would be easier this time around. The idiots listed invasion as an emergency, and had STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES for dealing with attackers. Sentinel had only been so difficult to take because Tess had apparently only given them a cursory nod... operating in such a manner that the LETTER of the operating procedures had been carried out, while simultaniously being anything BUT what the SOP had intended (Which had apparently been the total sacking of the city with only confused or half-assed resistance while the majority of the city's forces helped the civilian refugees make their way back to Sailoon itself. It was one of those directives that appears from time to time in any organization that looks really good and thoughtful on paper, but when actually implemented has people looking at you with raised eyebrows saying, "what the FUCK were you thinking?") Yes, things pretty much looked like they were going according to plan.

Then someone took a sledgehammer to Talon's right temple.

At least, in the metaphysical sense.

Talon hid his reaction quite well, all things considered. His eyes crossed, to be sure, but since he doesn't have eyes, persay, that went completely unnoticed. His hands clenched on the desk, he leaned forward, and his teeth clenched. Then he slowly straightened, took a deep breath, and relaxed.

Total, his loss of composure lasted approximately eight seconds.

That doesn't change the fact that it hurt like hell.

Frowning, he probed the aching spot in his being like a man probing a sore tooth with his tongue. Seen astrally, Talon looked much like a web of malignant black energy stretched out across hundreds of thousands of points, all centered around a vaguely spider shaped (if one squinted and tilted one's head slightly to the left... heh.. ok, yeah, that one's getting old) blob of darkness. One section of "him" had just suddenly flickered out, but THAT he had been expecting. What he hadn't been expecting was the sudden tearing sensation of a piece of himself being ripped violently out of place and into... what?

It was not something Talon had ever experienced before, and he was quite sure he didn't like it. Another thing he was utterly sure of...

Arashi had failed him for the last time.

He sighed. "Pity... he was a decent chess player."

If the Bloodguard were confused by his enigmatic statement, they gave no sign.

***

The mood around the adventurers' campfire was subdued, and quietly meloncoly. Oh and irritable. Definately some irritation thrown in for good measure. This was due in no small part to the fact that Lina, who tended to be a touch grumpy even in the best of circumstances, was being forced to deal with what passed for trail rations for her well seasoned crew. While this was somewhere between the level of sumptuous feast and sheer glutinous self-indulgence for any NORMAL adventuring group, it was a bit on the lean side where Lina was concerned. It certainly didn't help that she'd gotten decidedly used to the soft living a retired adventuring lifestyle had afforded her, and it immediately became clear that Lina was not a happy camper.

Still, she restrained herself quite well, all things considered... well, considering the fact that she was no longer the heavy hitter in this group, and quite frankly, the heavy hitter that WAS in the group was probably looking for an excuse to swat her one, possible future son-in-law or no...

And didn't that little fact ALSO contribute to the well traveled path everyone seemed to be making across her last nerve.

The small (well, maybe not so small, anymore... Christ, but I'm a glutton for punishment) band of adventurers had decided that, hour being what it was, lunch was perhaps a bit optimistic, and it would be a good idea to stop for the night. While this made the more tactically minded members of the party feel a bit exposed, Filia informed them in no uncertain terms that if they thought Valgaav was in a condition to be moved... let alone Zelgadis' erstwhile (and quite mercifully unconscious) prisoner, they had another thing coming.

Considering Filia's current mood, that thing probably had spikes on it.

Lina stared around the campfire at the well intentioned group of idiots, fools, and madmen that made up her current cohort as she thoughtfully gnawed on a bit of salted beef still stubbornly clinging to the bone clenched death-grippingly in her right hand. Gaav stared moodily into the fire, one hand unconsciously clenched on his sword, the other wrapped protectively around the, by comparison, very frail shoulders of someone Lina would rather was several thousand leagues from this place, rather than snuggled up fast asleep against the brooding giant's side. It was a touching sight, Lina was forced (grudgingly) to admit, since it was obviously an unconscious display of mutual trust and comfort, but try as she might, Lina was unable to accept the idea of a Dark Lord... a Mazoku... even one with a human soul, getting increasingly intimate with her flesh and blood.

This was not simply a matter of prejudice either. The Mazoku were a race not so much steeped in evil as they were defined by it. Never in the history of Lina's world (and she was something of a scholar, despite appearances) had there ever been a recorded instance of any Mazoku displaying any sort of mercy or compassion. Lina understood this wasn't a conscious choice on their part... they were not MEANT to understand these emotions... they were meant to destroy them.

It's alot easier to destroy something you don't understand. Lina knew this better than most.

She shook her head wearily and looked at her own mate and source of support. She smiled fondly despite herself. Gourry might have been a bit slow, but there was no evil in him... no jealousy or hatred. He was just a pillar of strength who'd supported her for almost all of her adult life. There were times when she wondered why he'd decided to chain himself to an impossibly irritable and contrary young sorceress, especially considering how caring and considerate her closest rival was. If anyone matched Gourry for temper or disposition, it was Sylphiel. Lina had never asked Gourry why he'd made the choice that he had.

She was at least mature enough to realize that she was a little afraid of the answer.

Her Soulmate and traveling companion was currently gorging himself on "trail" rations as well, oblivious to her sudden introspection. Normally, his frantic consumption of food would have sparked an intense rivalry in Lina for said victuals, but today she simply turned her attention to the rest of her companions.

Zelgadis. If ever there was an individual that Lina had encountered who fit the definition of the term, "Odd Duck", Zel was it. Of all of her companions, he was the only one still standing, staring into the distance as though focused on some goal invisible to everyone else's perception. His arms were folded across his chest, one now bandaged up in the absence of healing magic (no one wanted to admit how close to defeat they had come at the hands of that strange flock of militant gargoyles that had appeared from no where). Lina sighed and shook her head. Zelgadis was defined by his feelings of estrangement and his determination to become like everyone else. He was a restless soul who could not stop searching for a better fate. Zelgadis' strange determination had forced upon him an unfortunate sort of tunnel vision. It was evidenced in the form of the fairy that fluttered nervously just out of his vision, wringing her hands in worry.

As well in the slumped shoulders and dark expression on the normally cheerful face of the sole Monarch who traveled with them. Lina felt a sort of motherly concern for the younger woman. She'd watched Amelia grow up from the hopelessly naive young champion for justice into the more world wise but no less focused warrior for justice she now was. Lina had been aware of Amelia's infatuation long before the monarch herself had been... at first she'd teased the younger woman about it, more or less expecting her to grow out of it. Amelia? With Zelgadis?! It was absurd. If any two people walked different paths down different roads, it would be those two. However, Lina was forced to admit they had more similarities then either cared to admit. Both were the type to suffer silently when hurt... Amelia behind her cheerful disposition, Zelgadis behind his cold, stony mask. Both had a deep sense of conviction... a code of honor, for lack of a better term.

Both of them were ridiculously stubborn and somewhat foolish where emotions were concerned.

An annoying, droning sort of noise caught Lina's attention and she searched for the source of the noise. As she focused her attention on it, her gaze fell upon the two most recent additions to their company. Sir Langdelin of Xoana, his armor once again polished to a mirror sheen, his features scrubbed clean of the clinging soot from his unfortunate encounter with explosives... and that ridiculously out of place hat perched on his head, gestured animatedly towards his rapt audience with one hand, the other hand holding one of those long tubes he'd used so effectively before. Miss Hydra nodded enthusiastically and bent in closer to watch his hands, which expertly loaded various objects into the barrel and tamped them down.

-Great,- Lina thought tiredly, -Looks like Fanaticus over there has managed to snag a convert. Just what we need. More nuns with guns.- She looked away.

This action brought her gaze to the small tent hastily erected (heh heh... erected. Ok, that was beneath me.) to house the injured half dragon and... whatever the hell Arashi was. Bird... Guy. Thing. Filia sat concernedly next to the two of them, refusing sleep or sustenance to care for them both. While she lavished equal attention on both parties, it was obvious where her heart was at in the unconscious caressing hand she occasionally placed on Valgaav's forehead. Lina sighed.

So much worry and hurt, and yet so much hope mixed up in one confusing bundle. What the hell was going on? Who were those freaks they'd fought? Who was this brother that Gaav kept referring to... ANOTHER Dark Lord?

And the question that haunted her most of all... where had her magic gone?

A sudden movement just in her field of vision brought her attention back to Gaav, who had stood up so fast that Mina started and blinked sleepily up at him in surprise.

Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at him.

Gaav noticed their stares and frowned. "I'm going for a walk." He announced suddenly, as though proclaiming some great revelation, belted on his sword, then strode off into the twilight.

Mina blinked sleepily, winced and stood, staring after him.

"What's wrong with him?" She wondered out loud.

Lina gave her a sour look. "Probably pissed 'cause he hasn't had an opportunity to hit something in over an hour."

Mina gave her mother a dark look and crossed her arms. "Gee mom, way to be supportive."

Lina continued to stare at her progeny, and Mina gave a frustrated scowl and hurried after him.

"Those two are gonna have problems." She mused aloud.

***

Gaav strode through the brush unmindful of the stinging branches that swung in his way. His thoughts were internalized, on the conflict within him. Only yesterday he'd been without a past, barely a quarter of what he once was, an unrepentent and brutal killer. Now he had this... this weight on his heart and a warmth in him that both pained and soothed him at the same time. Dnarc's anger and rage still surged through him, mixed with the contempt his mazoku self had for this weakness he'd allowed into himself... it was all too much... so many conflicting emotions running through him at once that the last few hours seemed like a year (Author whistles, puts hands behind back and looks skyward -DT)

Still... he would fight to the death and perhaps beyond to keep that girl safe. That sword she now carried was proof of that. He wondered if she understood how important it was. To him, a sword represented everything he perceived as strength... unyielding, strong, and sharp. You couldn't hide a sword like you could a dagger or a knife... couldn't use it as a tool. It was a weapon, pure and simple, and if it was bared then soon there was going to be violence committed.

Just like him.

Still, though an object of destruction it could be directed towards positive goals. The defense of the innocent, the protection of a loved one... it symbolized trust. She might not be aware of how vulnerable to her that sword made him. Honor and a sword were both useless if broken.

All this introspection was just pissing him off even more. Why did he think like this?! The Mazoku part of him told him that this weakness... this girl was going to get him killed. Despite this, he didn't want... no, couldn't let her go. It was maddening.

Not to mention the fact that he hadn't HIT anything in what... like an hour?

"Gaav! Gaav damnit, wait up!"

His heart lit up at the sound of that voice... it resonated in him like a tuning fork set to his soul. He gritted his teeth. It almost hurt, how much he'd miss that sound if it was gone. It increased the antsy feeling in his gut.

But he stopped.

"Gaav..." she started, somewhat out of breath. When her boyfriend strode somewhere purposefully, he friggin' MOVED. She'd had to run to keep up with him, though it hadn't been overly hard to figure out what direction he was traveling in. There were a bunch of broken branches back the way they'd come.

"Gaav, what's wrong?" She asked, feeling suddenly awkward. What if it was something about her?

"Nothing, Mina... go back to sleep." He muttered, not turning.

"Gaav, if you think I'm going to just leave it at that..."

He turned and shook his head. "It's nothing, really. I'm just... restless."

She stepped closer. "Is it something you care to talk about?" She asked softly.

"No. I don't particularly want to fight about something right now." He muttered, annoyed at her pressuring.

"Oh really?!" She snapped. "What makes you think every time something is bothering you it's going to lead to a fight between us?!" She stared up at him in indignation.

He blinked, then stared down at her, slightly amused despite himself. He crossed his arms and raised one bushy eyebrow.

She calmed down and shook her head, grinning up at him. "Ok, I guess I walked into that one."

Her grin disappeared and she took his hand. She remembered what Pix had said. It was time to set immaturity aside.

"Seriously though. I know... that this is awkward for you, Gaav. I want to be there for you... I-I... I mean I AM here for you."

"Do you really?" He mused, half to himself.

She blinked. "Really what?"

"Know what it's like?" He rumbled, almost to himself, then crouched down a bit so he was more or less level with her.

"Mina... do you understand what I am? What I really am?" He stared at her intently, uncharacteristically serious, solemn and even a bit... gentle. It worried her.

She fidgeted a little. "Sort of... I mean, I know you're a mazoku and all..."

He shook his head. "Let me explain something to you. Mazoku don't breed like people do. We don't really breed at all. Mazoku... every Mazoku that has ever existed, is just a part of another Mazoku, created to serve."

He cocked his head a little, watching her reaction as he spoke. "When Shabranigdo created me, it was for one purpose. Destruction. I was created to kill the Water Dragon King. To kill all of the Dragon Kings." He sighed and looked down, remembering. "I wasn't created to subvert, or track down and infiltrate like Xellas... nor was I intended to be used as an example of what true terror like that little Hellmonkey. I was created to destroy."

He paused for a moment, then continued. "I was good at it, too. Of course I was. I killed the Water Dragon King... I fulfilled my purpose."

He stopped and frowned at her.

"Do you remember that shape behind me the day that Zelgadis hypnotized me?"

She nodded slowly, as though hypnotized herself.

"That was my true form... my form from before..." he smiled, and perhaps that was a hint of bitterness in it. "What better form can doom take then that of the very object it is meant to destroy. I am the Demon Dragon King, after all."

His gaze found hers and held it. She thought she could see... fires burning behind his eyes. It was frightening, and yet strangely compelling as well. "I wasn't really... aware, back then. Not really. Rage doesn't need intelligence to destroy, it just needs to be set loose. Oh I wasn't stupid, I couldn't be stupid and take down a Dragon King... but I was very... singleminded. Destruction was the only thing that mattered to me."

"Then Cepheid blindsided me... trapped me in that ridiculous net of fluff that constitutes a human soul. I laughed it off and continued to fight alongside Shabranigdo, even managed to injure him, but the human soul bound me... made me too weak. I'd have probably been destroyed if he hadn't been mortally injured."

"Then I started to change I guess. I needed more. I didn't know what that was... just that I wanted it. The other mazoku saw the changes and tried to destroy me... called me a traitor..." He smiled.

"You know what? I was. After a while, I didn't give a damn about destruction, or the destiny of the Mazoku race. Shabranigdo was gone... and there was no one in control. All the other Dark Lords went off to do their own things... focused so heavily on their respective aspects that they stagnated... grew arrogant... so that even a damn mortal could destroy them. They tried to kill me, I fought to survive. Survival isn't so different from conflict... it is a form of conflict, really. So I fought... for centuries I fought... and still, in ALL that madness, there was that... yearning... that need for something more. Got so bad I tried everything... conquest... philosophy... anything to understand it."

"And then I died."

She frowned, staring at him.

"But I didn't really. That damn bit of fluff kept me around... I was still fighting to survive... the battlefield just changed is all." He sighed and looked away. "Now here I am, fighting just to be what I once was... and none of it matters. I've FOUND what I was looking for. You know what it took? It took not thinking about it. Not TRYING to find it. Just surrendering to that... web. That soul."

He sighed. "Do you know how impossible it is for me to surrender to anything? It goes against everything I was created for. Now that this thing is... in me... this thing... that is YOU." He stared at her, suddenly stricken. "I feel desperate. Trapped, with my back to the wall, FIGHTING for something I want more than survival... but the harder I fight for it, the more it feels like it's going to slip through my fingers and I just..."

She took his huge, leonine head in both of her ands and shook her head. "Gaav... I don't pretend to understand what this is like for you, but don't think just because I started out with that "bit of fluff" as you call it that I'm any better off then you are. I don't understand all of this either. Mom... wasn't exactly the best role-model for how to express yourself... Dad... well, he understands, but he just doesn't have the words."

"What I do know is that you don't have to fight for me. For what it's worth, I'm HERE... she tapped his chest. "And you... are HERE." she tapped her own.

"Fight to keep me?" She grinned softly. "Buddy, you're gonna have to fight to keep me away."

"I don't lose." She smiled.

He was silent for a long time, then that arrogant grin returned. "You lost to me."

She raised an eyebrow. "Did I... really?" She asked archly.

He blinked.

He didn't have an answer for that.

***