"Hey, Kara?"

"What?"

"I'm sorry if I've been a brat lately. I'm really grateful you kept watch over me when I was unconscious."

"Do we have to do this now?"

Gwyn ducked behind their makeshift cover as a bolt of fire struck the wall behind them. Gwyn stared at the black soot left in the wake of the hostile Technique. She met the wild look in Kara's eyes. "Well, I guess it could have been timed better on my part," she conceded.

"Kill the intruders! Strike them dow-"

"Tandle!"

Balls of electric energy formed overhead and unleashed lightning bolts with wild abandon. Gwyn winced as the smell of ozone assaulted her nostrils before she could wrap her black sash back around her nose. Pain-filled screams filled her ears. "I think Adan is losing his patience."

Once the three youths had presented the sages of Skyhaven with the lost word of power, they had watched with bated breath as the old men engaged in a long, complex ritual. Power had surged into that room as lyrical words from an ancient language had filled the air. She had understood none of it, but the words had called to her, sung to the magical heritage her mother had bestowed upon her.

Streams of light had writhed through the room as they wrapped themselves around each weapon. The fabric of reality had warped, twisted, and reformed around the ancient artifacts as something had gathered power from the force of legend. An unnatural luminescence seemed to emerge from the weapons and bathed the room in white; the light should have been painfully blinding, but was oddly soothing instead.

To the unaided eye, the weapons looked the same; to the mind's eye of an Esper, they radiated power. Gwyn could feel the great force that resided in her aunt's bow flow through her and into her body and soul. There was also a difference, something of otherness to the weapon that tickled the back of her mind with its familiarity, but she could not identify it. Even as they ran through the narrow corridors of Lashute, that otherness seemed to beat within her, a contrasting tempo to the miasma of evil that oozed out of the city.

The plan they had come up with was simple in the extreme: raid Lashute at night, reach Rulakir's throne, and barricade themselves in so that they could deal with the Undying King in privacy. It was a bold attack against the enemy's stronghold that depended on Mieu's schematics of Lashute's layout, luck, and the cover of darkness to succeed. It was an incredibly risky plan, with no guarantees and an endless array of things that could go wrong. Or as Kara had put it, "Why not just throw ourselves into a Gnasher's lair without weapons? It'd be quicker with the same result."

Unfortunately, there wasn't any time for a better plan. Every minute that passed increased Gwyn's sense of impending doom, a feeling she had quietly communicated to her brother. They both knew better than to question that silent voice that warned of the future, and the danger that had drawn back the tiniest bit when they had chosen to go to Frigidia instead of Draconia felt like a knife pressing against her throat in agonizingly slow motion.

As reckless as their plan was, it was not completely thoughtless. Aware that enough commotion would draw their enemies to them no matter how quickly they moved, Wren had prepared explosives in thin tubes. He would use his mechanical strength to throw the bombs sufficiently high and far that the resulting detonation would attract attention. The tactic quickly proved handy, if the screams and shouts were anything to go by. So they ran, through the narrow corridors and crossways, lingered in the shadows of the battlements and the niches when enemies were near, and outright fought when they blundered into patrol groups.

Gwyn abruptly stopped, her attention grabbed by one particularly loathsome piece of "art" she had seen on their first trip through the abominable city. It was the horrific triptych that depicted the mutilation of her ancestor Orakio. Her mouth tightened as she searched for and found the obscene statue of her Aunt Laya being raped by a foul goat monster. She extended her arms, one hand pointed to a specific vulgarity. Before she could cast her spell, Kara slammed into her back.

With her hands out in front, she should have broken valuable wrist bones or, at the very least, scraped her hands open, a fate that virtually invited death for an archer. But the force transferred from Kara to her back prompted her muscles to remember similar tumbles in Dahlia's training room. As her head neared the ground, Gwyn curled into a ball and rolled forward once before she ended up on her feet again. Never thought something Lune taught me would be so handy!

The moon princess was staring at her. "Are you alright? Why did you stop?"

"Just fine. About to be even better." Gwyn grinned at her friend savagely as her hands aligned with their targets, her fingertips glowing as heat gathered. "Flaeli! Secunda!"

A sphere of flame formed in each of her hands before they broke into shafts of fire. A heartbeat later, the statue exploded into unrecognizable pebbles and the triptych filled the air with its ashes. "And that's what I think of your hideous, profane, obscene art!"

"Gwyn!"

"Coming, big brother!" Gwyn said in a lilting voice. She grabbed Kara's hand and ran on, heedless of her friend's confused expression.

Though it had only taken a few seconds, Gwyn's act of deliberate destruction had put some distance between the two princesses and Adan with the androids. As they arrived at an intersection, she caught sight of three men in burnished armor charging toward her, their chiseled faces cold and distasteful. Punishers.

They caught sight of her at about the same time she saw them. Their leader brought his free hand up, aimed at her, and spread his fingers open to unleash a Technique. "Gra!"

If she had had the time to curse the Punisher for his choice of Technique, she would have. Gra was a powerful technique that distorted gravity itself to crush the enemy. Even the weakest versions of the attack felt like being stomped on by a pack of Gnashers from every direction. It was nearly impossible to avoid and a beastly nuisance to break.

But break it she would; Gra was not a targeted technique, which meant the moon princess would be caught in it as well. Kara lacked the raw power and skill to break Techniques, and Gwyn did not doubt for an instant that what the residents of Lashute used would be nothing short of lethal force. Even if she had given up on life (which she hadn't!), she had to protect Kara.

The Technique came as she expected, an overwhelming crush that rippled and warped the space around her even as it tried to fold her limbs into her internal organs as indelicately as a semi-sapient mostly-savage Trogress learning the art of paper folding. She clutched her fists as she bent the energy from the Technique into her body and absorbed the damaging distortion of the natural order. Sweat poured down her face as the destructive magnitude tried to break free of her control and rip her apart from the inside.

She couldn't keep the energy inside of herself for long. Gwyn focused her mind and channeled the Technique through her feet, forcing the energy to dissipate into Lashute's floor. The stone splintered and cracked as the destructive power spread itself out in a wide wave, leaving her and Kara untouched.

Of course, the downside to all this was that she was utterly at the mercy of the incoming Punishers. She could not spare a moment of her concentration to dodge or block an attack, could not summon up any of her powerful spells to stop them in her tracks. The trio brought up their whips, those barbed tips a promise of torn flesh and raw agony.

Their eyes exploded in geysers of blood.

Gwyn blinked as the Punishers clutched at their faces and screamed in pain. She looked behind herself just in time to watch Kara catch her father's slicer. "I'm glad I'm short."

Kara smiled. "It does make it harder to hit your head with a slicer."

"I know. Isn't it grand?" Gwyn ran down the path her brother and the androids had gone.

"Nothing in this world is going to make your hips smaller, though," Kara added, her breath a bit labored as their pace picked up.

"You leave my butt out of this, you boobs on a stick!"

The banter was out of place; they were on a desperate mission where success and failure might be decided by the flip of a coin for all that they knew. But right now, Gwyn didn't care. The miasma of evil was much denser than it had been on their first visit to the accursed city. The air felt thick enough to cut with a knife, heavy with indescribable vileness. Even with Laya's bow, blessed by the word of power, she could feel malicious psychic tentacles attempt to slip through her defenses and into her soul. Kara, whose senses were less finely attuned than hers, was an island of normalcy in a sea of abomination.

So went their assault of the city. A mad dash down a hall could be safe or could result in the spontaneous appearance of war machines out for their blood. A jog around a corner could result in a startled encounter between them and a band of roving Punishers or nothing at all. Danger was everywhere and inconsistent, and with the city's aura of vileness permeating every stone, it only grew worse the deeper they advanced. Through their bond, Gwyn could sense her twin was as perturbed by Lashute as she was. Before she could try to reassure him, someone leaped out of a shadowy niche, a hand aimed at Kara. "Foi!"

The paltry fireball lit up the night and revealed the familiar face of their erstwhile Fatima guide before the attack flew toward Kara's face at high speed. Without a wasted thought, Gwyn reached out her left hand and caught the Technique, drained it of its power, and redirected the energy into her right hand. She brought her hand up. "Flaeli!"

Those familiar bolts of fire flew from her fingertips and converged on the Fatima's arm. The smell of charred flesh joined the pink-garbed woman's screams in the night air as Gwyn ran past her and what was left of her arm, Kara right behind her.

"Thank you," Kara gasped as she tried to maintain the breakneck pace.

"No big deal," Gwyn replied with a shrug. "Are we there yet?"

"Almost!"

A short time later, they found themselves in front of what Gwyn guessed was the doorway into Uncle Rulakir's throne room. The door was twice as high as a Layan Giant and wide enough to march an army through, sixteen men abreast. When Gwyn recognized what the simplistic lines engraved on the heavy doors represented, she whimpered as her mind superimposed the details.

The hollow skull was more grotesque than any crafted by nature or man. Long, serrated fangs where canines would be, designed to tear and rip. Black hollows where eyes would have been. Had she only opened her eyes on that first visit to this city of evil! She would have known! She would have known and been able to help her uncle, do...something!

"Wren," Adan said, catching his breath. "Destroy the gate mechanism. We'll enter through the side door."

"As you command, Master Adan."

The unflappable android walked to the side and smashed his first through a simple console. When the war machine retracted his arm, a fistful of cables and wires were in his hand. Wren removed one of those thin tubes of explosives— the last, Gwyn saw— from a holster at his waist. "Master Adan, I will detonate this terminal to insure that no is able to operate the gate. Please proceed through the side door."

Gwyn preferred to think of their unseemly speed to open the door and get inside as a deliberate attempt to surprise any ambushers who might be in wait for them as opposed to a mildly panicked flight to safety. Her impulse to levity died once she was within the chamber.

The room was massive, the long distance between gateway and dais something that would combine with the immensity to grind down on those who entered the place. Gwyn perceived that the chamber became smaller the closer one got to the throne, leaving the unprepared to be overwhelmed by the seeming gianthood of her already tall uncle.

He sat there as he had before, that heavy throne of black lacquer a force of oppression for the Undying King and those who approached him. The spikes intimidated those who saw him even as they dug into his flesh. Those four corpselike bodyguards in their crimson armor still stood at the top of that elevated dais with him, their empty eyes now filled with murderous intent.

But they were as nothing compared to Uncle Rulakir himself. His head was still down and he wore the same faded yellow robes that she had seen him wear the first time they had come to the cursed city. But the dark aura that had curled around him like a vise was heavier, uglier, blacker, the weight of centuries of sorrow tainted by evil beyond knowing. But underneath the chains of evil, he was still...

"Uncle!"

Rulakir opened his eyes. Emotion seemed to peek out of those dull green orbs before something utterly alien wrapped itself around the remnants of her uncle's humanity. "I told you not to return here, Gwyn."

"I've always been bad at doing what I'm told," Gwyn managed, her usual bravura nowhere to be found. As hard as she had hoped and prayed, it was obvious Laya and Orakio had been unable to intercede; the nightmare she had experienced during her coma had been true. Her uncle was Dark Force's thrall.

"I had hoped you would manage this time."

Gwyn tried to swallow in her suddenly-dry throat. "Uncle, why?"

Rulakir did not mistake her meaning. "My heart went black 1,000 years ago, when my family died in the Devastation War," he said sadly. "Dark Force owns my soul and he shall own yours."

"Yesssssssssssss..."

Three circles of light appeared in front of the dais. Three figures emerged from the floor. Gwyn gawked. Each of the three was unnaturally tall, easily close to twice her height, their faces concealed behind narrow masks. They wore green robes that did nothing to hide the maggot-like complexion of their inhumanly long, thin arms. An unsettling dark aura and killing intent radiated from them; whatever they were, they weren't Palman, or anything like the monsters they had fought thus far.

"Sorcerers," Rulakir said with disgust. "Why are you here? This place is forbidden you and your ilk."

"Undying King," said one in a mocking voice. "Our master has returned. We do not obey the likes of yo—"

The three slammed into the floor, pinned by incredible force. Gwyn stared at her uncle. The sheer power in him! Still seated, he gestured with one finger. The four bodyguards began to descend from the dais, their intent clear: dispose of the enemies that had irritated their master.

One of the robed figures seemed to realize his compatriot's mistake. "Undying King, it seems there has been a misunderstanding. We only wish to dispose of these intruders who threaten you."

Adan touched her arm. She looked at her twin. He inclined his head at the Sorcerers. The unspoken question was clear: Can you handle them?

She pursed her lips and shook her head slightly. One by itself would be something she could handle, but all three of them together? By herself, she would barely even provide a distraction.

Her twin nodded in response, then glanced at the four bodyguards. Gwyn divined his purpose and urgently grabbed his arm. Adan was a powerful swordsman, but fighting four unknown assailants at once was far too dangerous!

"Very well," Rulakir said suddenly. The magical pressure suddenly lifted from the Sorcerers. "The Bloodsabers will fight the boy. You may have the rest."

"We thank you for the boon, Undying King," said the second one unconvincingly. The three slowly dragged themselves to their feet. The Bloodsabers were already past the Sorcerers, headed straight towards Adan. He glanced at her, shrugged and moved away to give himself space to fight.

Kara's feet were already moving to join Adan, but Gwyn grabbed the moon princess' arm. "He can handle himself," Gwyn said, the words a little hollow even to her ears, her own desire to help her brother at war with the practical need to eliminate the greatest threat first. "If you want to help him, then we have to kill these three first."

"I know that stance," her uncle said, still on his throne. "Crescent, isn't it? Do you know Moon Dance, then?"

"I do."

Rulakir nodded slowly. "Orakio once fought four of these by himself and won. I wonder if you can do the same, Adan?"

Then there was no more time. The trio of demons were on their feet, their hostility palpable even through their masks. "We will rip you apart and lick your blood off the walls!"

Gwyn's hands had been extended in front of her, fingers splayed, ever since they had gotten upright. The moment they finished speaking, she responded with a single word. "Legeon!"

Electricity filled the air as the building blocks of the universe exploded in powerful blasts Gwyn did not bother to restrain or diminish. The three demons reeled back as their hideous shrieks filled the air. But as the light cleared, they were still on their feet, the worse for wear, but ready, perhaps eager, to fight. They pointed their fingers as one.

"Tandle," they said in unison.

Before the lightning could fall, Gwyn pushed her hands over her head. "Warla!"

An orange-tinged magical barrier spread out in the air and over the heads of the group. The bolts of electrical energy slammed into the shield with overwhelming power; the stray energy surged along the barrier and into Gwyn. The mild electrocution unsettled her less than the realization that her powerful shield had almost buckled like paper in a whirlwind.

Before the trio could follow up their attack, Wren opened fire, his rounds aimed squarely at the one on the far left, where they detonated in bursts of light. The demon reeled back in pain as smoke emerged from its wounds. Mieu charged forward to engage the one on the far right as Kara released her slicers. A spinning blade of light cut into the center demon's chest. The clash of swords rang in the background as Adan engaged the Bloodsabers in battle.

The Sorcerers were not stunned for long. Clutching at its chest, Wren's opponent pointed one skeletal finger at the war machine before a powerful fireball flew from its wickedly sharp nail. Mieu's opponent attempted to use the razor wind and long range of a Zan Technique to keep the gynoid at bay and tear her apart.

Neither of which were her problem. The one in the middle had apparently decided to dispose of Gwyn and Kara as one. It pointed at them and cast Tandle again. Gwyn reinforced her magical barrier and watched with some contempt as the lightning dissipated harmlessly. Without its friends to help, it didn't have the raw power to beat her.

Lack of strength didn't mean lack of cunning. While she was distracted with blocking its attack, it called out, "Flaei!"

"Shi-"

Gwyn didn't have the time to finish the curse before she was tackled from the side. The bolts of fire struck the floor behind where she had stood. The hint of fresa told her who her savior was. "Kara!"

The demon that had attacked them roared as Kara's slicers cut it once more. "What?"

Gwyn clambered to her feet as Kara's weapons began their lazy return to their mistress. "Can you be a bit more gentle when you tackle me next time? That hurt!"

"It's not my fault your boobs and butt make you a squishy wizard," the moon princess replied as she caught her weapons.

The middle Sorcerer launched another Tandle attack even as Gwyn said something delightfully pithy in response. Irritated, Gwyn extended her left hand. "Flaeli!"

She felt even crankier when she saw the demon dispel her fire spell with a dismissive gesture of its hand. Bursts of light continued to explode to her left as Wren engaged his opponent with mathematical precision. Bursts of light? Wren didn't have any such rounds. Nor was Lune's slicer supposed to radiate light. Why did...?

"GiZan!"

Her opponent unleashed the razor wind at Kara and her. She caught the attack and snarled in disgust. The dark energy that powered the Technique felt like malodorous slime slithering across pure white, its disgusting tendrils intent on desecration. She channeled the power through her right hand even as she slashed across the air. "Hewn!"

Invisible spirals formed in front of their enemies; the power of the wind created a high-speed vortex that would have drilled through the best steel armor but merely staggered the trio of demons. Dark and light? There was an answer there, but what...?

Then she remembered two of her lessons as a child. One from Mieu, and one from her mother.

"The universe exists in equal and opposite halves," Mieu had said. "Contact between matter and its opposite results in annihilation."

"Learn this spell," her mother had told her as they had practiced. "It may not seem like much, but my sister said it was her strongest."

If they were creatures of darkness, then they could not stand up to light.

"Efess!"

Space in front of her became a wall of light. Exactly like the light that had suffused the weapons of legends, it was a soothing sight.

For her.

Shrieks that sounded like flesh being run through a meat grinder was enough to tell her the Sorcerers did not agree. Even as she prepared to follow up with another Efess, she sensed a surge of dark energy behind that wall of light. Killing intent struck like a needle before something heavy fell to the ground. Gwyn waited, her intent changed from offense to defense as the wall of light faded. Her caution increased when she saw the middle Sorcerer's body on the floor, clearly dead. Was my spell enough? No, if it had been, its friends would be dead too...

Ignorant of her wariness, Mieu had already closed with her opponent. Gwyn watched the redheaded android leap into the air. Even as Mieu's reeling foe tried to strike out at her with its wickedly long nails, the gynoid twisted and caught the attack in midair with one hand. The arm that sported Miun's claw swiftly beheaded the Sorcerer. The demon's head bounced several times before it rolled to a stop. Wren's opponent had no such opportunity for a final blow; the war machine had switched to actual explosive rounds that blew the Sorcerer's head into fragments of flesh, bone, and cloth.

Gwyn quickly turned toward her brother, but saw that her worry had been misplaced. Two of the Bloodsabers were already down. The terrible menace of the black sword seemed to make even these demons wary, as the two remaining Bloodsabers strove to keep their distance. Adan sheathed the blade. She grabbed Kara before the lime-haired girl could rush over. The moon princess glared at her. "Adan needs help!"

"No, he doesn't." Gwyn watched as her twin placed his right leg forward, crouched back on the left leg, Orakio's scabbard in his left hand. "That fight is pretty much over."

Adan launched himself; powerful footwork brought him to top speed before the two Bloodsabers could even react. The distance between them closed in the blink an eye. Her twin drew and cut down one of the two monsters in a slash of light. He then used the momentum of his blade to reverse directions and brought Orakio's sword down on the last Bloodsaber's head. Her twin turned away from his vanquished opponents. Gwyn could sense his relief when he saw they were all fine before his resolve hardened and he turned to gaze at their uncle on his throne.

"Well done," Rulakir said, visibly unperturbed by the demise of his bodyguard. "Moonlight into Moon Drop, wasn't it?"

Her twin inclined his head. "Just so." Adan sheathed his sword and moved to rejoin them, one eye intent on Rulakir. "Not many would be able to identify a sword art at a glance. Or recognize combinations."

Rulakir said nothing. An additional tinge of sorrow seeped into his eyes before those alien thorns tightened. The Undying King slowly rose from his throne. Unable to bear it, Gwyn cried out, "Uncle, isn't there another way?"

The despair returned, heavier than before. "I already told you, Gwyn," he said as that menacing black aura scraped her senses raw. "Dark Force owns my soul. Unless you kill me, he shall own yours."

"Orakio's Law forbids killing directly," Kara protested. "So does Laya's Law!"

"Then you've lost."

Waves of darkness poured out from the Undying King. The psychic assault caused a singular lurch in Gwyn's stomach. She swallowed hard, both to force down her rising fear and contain the impulse to vomit. Glances at Adan and Kara revealed they were in similar straits, but still able to hold on to their gorges.

Tongues of blue flame appeared around the Undying King. Faces leered out from within the dancing fire, their destructive desire clear even through the flickering heat. A cold sweat trickled down Gwyn's back. Elemental creation was a power very few Espers possessed. With fire elementals, the color of the flames was a good indication of the strength of the Esper. Red flames were common, generic, nothing special. Blue flames burned hottest and came only from the strongest. The dozens of dancing blue fires demonstrated a raw power greater than any Gwyn had ever imagined. Her mind whimpered at the implications, but she refused to let such a display of dominance intimidate her. Much. "Very pretty. Can you make pink ones too?"

A look of surprise broke through the Undying King's depressed expression for just a moment. A wry twist of his mouth was all the reaction he gave before the Azufires stormed toward them.

Gwyn slashed the air as the elementals approached. "Hewn!"

A half-dozen of the violent vortexes tore apart the same number of Azufires, leaving only a wave of heat where blue flames had been. Kara's slicers took apart another pair before they began their lazy return to their mistress. Adan and Mieu stayed close, to dispel any of the elementals that made it past their long-distance attacks. Wren, however, ignored them all. He took aim. When Gwyn realized his target, she shrieked, "Wren, don't!"

Too late. The war machine fired, his shot aimed squarely at Rulakir's head. The round should have struck her uncle's head faster than she heard it, but she was startled to see an explosion in midair. An Azufire had formed directly in the bullet's path and blocked it from its target. The Undying King seemed indifferent as he moved his hand. "Tandle."

Without hesitation, Adan threw his hands above his head and shouted, "Warla!"

Blue bolts of energy fell from above and struck his shield with merciless force. Gwyn had just enough time to perceive that her twin's barrier was about to shatter before she cast her own magic guard on top of his. Her mind shuddered as what felt like the fist of a thousand Titans strike her with a violence that made the triple blow from the Sorcerers feel like a baby's caress. The twinned defense shattered in thousands of splinters of orange glass. She clutched her head in agony as the dark backlash flowed into her like a thousand barbed needles.

"Did you think such a puny buffer could stand against me?" Rulakir asked, his tone of voice distinctly disappointed. "Learn how to make a true barrier."

Gwyn gritted her teeth as she forced the agony to dissipate. There had been something in his tone that demanded she look at her uncle, that she observe every detail. He brought his left hand up from waist height in a gesture similar to a slap until the hand was even with his shoulders. Power surged into little sparkles of light that built one on top of the other in an interlaced lattice of stars. Even from across the throne room, she could feel the power in that barrier.

"Gwyn," she heard her brother say, the throbbing in her head somewhat lessened. She could sense his intent, could already feel the power for the spell he had in mind gathered.

"Right," she said unenthusiastically. The last thing she wanted was to use such a powerful attack against her uncle, but it seemed they had little choice. She extended her hands at the same time he did and pushed all of her might into the spell. Together, they shouted, "Legeon!"

Light exploded. The puissant bursts of energy exploded across the throne room, sweeping aside Azufires like insects in a maelstrom. The powerful dual casting struck the Undying King's barrier at full strength...and dissolved like a puff of air on a winter day. Rulakir slowly moved down the steps of his dais, away from his black throne.

"Corrosion."

Adan swept his hand in front of him even as Gwyn spun and performed the same gesture. They jointly called out, "Hewn!"

The dust and stone that had coalesced to shred them to pieces was dispelled before they could be harmed. Gwyn completed her spin in time to see the cadavers of the Sorcerers and Bloodsabers shredded to fine particles and tried to still the beating of her heart. If her mother had not taught them how to defeat this dark spell, they would have been dead, plain and simple.

Wren opened fire once again, his rounds aimed with surgical precision. They harmlessly exploded against Rulakir's barrier. Gwyn glanced at her twin as new Azufires formed. "Good ideas really welcome right about now, big brother."

"Why don't you use that spell from before, Gwyn?" Kara said as she joined them. She launched her slicers once again, and destroyed three Azufires just as they attempted to form. "It killed at least one of the Sorcerers, so it may reach him."

Trust Kara not to mistake Legeon for Efess. Gwyn pursed her lips and considered the suggestion unhappily. She really didn't want to use that spell against her uncle either, but things looked grim. "It may work," she allowed reluctantly, "but I doubt it's enough to hurt him."

"Hewn."

The Undying King's wind attack was blunted by Adan as the young Orakian prince countered the deadly vortexes with his own. Wild winds tore across the chamber in powerful gusts that violently twisted hair and clothing. Gwyn quickly tugged her hair out of her face, her eyes intent on Rulakir at the bottom of the dais.

Slicers flew toward the Undying King. Recognition flowed into Rulakir's eyes as he caught a good look at Lune's slicer. A spark of hatred burned through his sorrow as Gwyn sensed killing intent focus in the Undying King's left hand; she recognized the accumulation of evil energy. He pointed his hand at Kara. Without hesitation, she stepped in front of the moon princess.

Her uncle froze, the dark energy an ugly ball of black light in his palm. Gwyn gritted her teeth and extended her hands. "Efess!"

Even as the wall of light surged across the room and dispelled Azufires, she sensed the release of the death spell. She screamed, "Adan, GO!"

Adan charged forward and vanished into the light. Gwyn closed her eyes and readied her bow in a single heartbeat. The arrow drawn, she took a deep breath and reached out through the mental bond that connected her with her twin. She sensed the slight shifts in the air as her twin ran, mentally calculated where the Undying King stood, how Adan would attack. It took less time than the single blink of an eye. She released her arrow.

Something collapsed.

Her eyes still closed, Gwyn ran, her bond with her twin and the diminishing dark energy a beacon not even the blind could miss. She did not want to look. She did not want to know. But it was her responsibility to do both. The metallic stench of blood assaulted her nose even as her twin's distress flowed through their mental link; when the smell became overwhelming, she opened her eyes and gasped.

Her arrow had plunged all the way to the fletching through the upper right section of Rulakir's chest. Adan's Moonlight technique had torn her uncle open from hip to shoulder. Blood poured out of the injury even as she caught the glimpse of damaged organs. It was a mortal wound, but Rulakir wouldn't die yet.

Her uncle's eyes had been closed when she arrived, but they seemed to open the instant her feet stopped. A little bit of light gave those dim green orbs more life than she had ever seen in them. "You're...safe...good."

The warmth in that voice tore at her heart. She fell to her knees. "Please don't talk. W-we can heal yo—"

"No," her uncle said weakly but clearly. "You have...freed me. The demon...is gone. Don't...want him...back."

Tears welled up in her eyes as Rulakir coughed. Bright red flowed out of his mouth. Internal injury; blood had entered either his lungs or his stomach. Either wound could be the cause. Gwyn crawled over to her uncle's head, elevated it and put it on her lap so he could breathe for just a few more moments. "You missed on purpose?" she managed to ask around the lump in her throat.

"Was worried...I...hadn't."

Adan knelt at Rulakir's side and quietly took his hand, his face openly miserable, his sorrow and shame caught in a loop where the pain flowed into her through their bond, mixed with hers, and flowed back and forth between them. "You held back."

"Little...bit."

"Why?" Adan asked as he chafed Rulakir's hand.

A gentle smile lifted the corners of her uncle's mouth as his green eyes took them both in. "You're...family. O...rakio and...Laya...would be...proud."

There was no stopping the tears now. They flowed down her cheeks and onto Rulakir's head. "I- love you, uncle. T-thank you for...for..."

She couldn't continue. The sobs broke through. Every time she tried to finish, the words vanished into inarticulate blubbers. She couldn't even see Rulakir through the tears as the entire world blurred.

The dying man seemed to understand. His free hand feebly rose toward her. She latched onto it and squeezed it tight. He closed his fingers around hers softly.

"W-wren," her uncle forced out weakly.

"Yes, King Rulakir?"

"You...kill me. Not...these...children. Under...stand?"

How could a man who had been enslaved by evil for so long show them so much mercy?

"Yes, King Rulakir."

"Use...sword."

Her uncle continued to speak. "A...dan. Sink...Lashute. Evil place...must die." Suddenly, Rulakir's voice hardened and gained strength, a hint of the man he had been before he had been a thrall to evil. "Destroy Dark Force," he ordered in a voice that would brook no argument.

The black sword plunged into Rulakir's heart. Warm liquid splattered on her face as the hand she held went limp. Whimpers and moans scraped her throat raw as a flood of tears burst through the insignificant dam of her eyelids. She mourned the man who had kept Dark Force at bay, who had prevented the demon from eating her soul when she had been an infant. She grieved for the man who had suffered a thousand years in unholy slavery, who had been forced to exist alone, surrounded by enemies, everyone he ever loved dead.

She wept for family.