The Baron Bayard is wounded and lies at Lord Kirodiel’s feet, but hy is not unaware that sweet Victoria stands between hym and certain death on the keen edge of Gerash steel. And hy thought her to be insanely reckless, for she bore only the broken hilt-shard of the diamond blade known as Dragonthorn, and it would shatter once again should she attempt to block a single blow from the White Beard patriarch’s blade.
But both Victoria and Kirodiel, and everyone else for that matter, are gazing skyward at Joy, who has appeared in the sky above the queen’s barge riding on the shoulders of Demonstroke. Joy has caused the dragon’s deadly mouth to aim directly at Queen Aurra, who is helpless, confined inside a wooden cage on the ship’s main deck.
Victoria rushes into the sky bearing the remnant of Dragonthorn and sets her flight path to lead directly at Joy.
For the first time Joy becomes aware that her niece has come to Barbelo to stop her. B’nei eloah on b’nei eloah violence, but that is not unprecedented. As Ariel, after all, Joy’s first death in the skies over Luna had come as the result of a Brushfire missile loosed by some other member of the b’nei elohim. Perhaps it had even been Victoria did the deed.
Joy does not for a moment deceive herself that Yeshua will give her yet a third chance. To protect herself, Joy causes the mouth of the beast to drift away the queen and point instead at Victoria. A burst of white fire from the belly of the orange sun over Barbelo roars out, and Victoria alters her course directly upward to evade it. Like an arrow that has missed, the flame strikes the house of the king of Menkant and sets part of it ablaze.
Then Joy causes the dragon to rise into the sky and follow her niece. When his flight path matches that of Victoria’s, he bends his snake-like head and neck under his belly and looses a continuous blast of fire, and Joy is thrown back against his collarbone as the acceleration mounts like a rocket.
By a supreme effort of will Baron Bayard stands again and draws hyz blade, but hy is an honorable yang, and hy will not strike at his foe in hyz distracted fascination at the drama unrolling far above the queen’s barge.
“Killing you wouldn’t be murder,”Bayard says, and Kirodiel turns hyz gaze from the sky to the baron once more. “It would be atonement for allowing a monster such as yourself to exist among us for too long.”
The two yeng salute together once again in mock ceremony and the dance begins anew. They circle, waiting for an opening.
Bayard lunges forward suddenly in a ferocious attack and forces hyz opponent to the defensive momentarily. Kirodiel’s counterattack focuses the baron’s whole attention on the patriarch’s blade flashing forward in a blur. Forced to give ground, the baron keeps speaking to attempt a distraction.
“Frankly, I’m quite astonished that you’ve done so well, Gerash so-called Lord. More than once Lady Haziel regaled us with tales of how you held har captive much like you’re holding my mother, because you were afraid of what another yin, Princess Khondiel, might do.”
Kirodiel rewards hym with a prickly scratch from shoulder to left breast. Bayard risks a glance down at the blood beading up there and in that moment Kirodiel is in the air leaping high and aiming a foot blow at the baron’s head.
Almost instinctively Bayard puts both hands together as a single fist and sideswipes the offending boot. Lord Kirodiel sprawls badly and lands on hyz back. Both yeng recover their stance but they have a renewed respect for each other.
Victoria can only fly so high. She isn’t Hunky, after all, she can’t make her own oxygen for her body to use. So she stops accelerating and tops out at about four miles high, bending back toward Menkant in a broad arc. Joy sees this, of course. Demonstroke stops his burn and brings his head forward to bear on Victoria again. Short bolts of fire race out like tracers from World War II fighter airplanes over Midway.
Victoria dodges randomly as she falls to avoid being struck by the fire. When she has descended far enough to see individuals on the ships commandeered by Kirodiel she deliberately flies toward them to draw the dragon’s fire, allowing Joy herself to set four of the soldiers ablaze. Then she flies through an open hatch on the deck of a fifth vessel which had been a cargo vessel, but now carries only troops.
The hatch clearly isn’t big enough for Demonstroke. But Victoria isn’t to escape that easily. Joy commands the beast to burn his way through and make the hatch bigger. Then Victoria and Joy are briefly together inside the large hold of the ship as screaming men are crushed under the feet of the thrashing dragon.
“This is the part of the movie where you tell me why you did it, Aunt Ariel,” says Victoria, but Joy lets Demonstroke open his mouth and answer for her.
Kirodiel and Bayard face each other anew, focusing on probing each other’s defenses. Gaging the changes, at the same time seeking not to be changed. Bayard, slowed by hyz wound, fights with calculated risks but never rash ones. Kirodiel is rash, and attacks with supernatural speed. The blades thrust just here, or there. Bait or blow? The combinations are infinite. It becomes a game of looking for the opponent’s hesitancies through a net of deception and decision.
Bayard tries to ignore the pain of hyz wound, but the whole point of pain is that you cannot ignore it. Pain is a priority organizer. Yet one thought keeps hym going. Victoria has become hyz highest priority. Bayard longs to see how she was doing, but hy dares not tear hyz eyes away from the fight for an instant.
When Kirodiel says, “You lousy cunt,” Bayard merely continues the high tension ballet. However, when Kirodiel describes the things he will do to Bayard’s mother the queen when hy was finished here Bayard does an unexpected thing: Hy throws hyz blade away.
Astonished, Kirodiel tracks the errant blade with hyz eyes as hyz training required. In that split second Bayard blasts the White Beard lord with a kick squarely and solidly in the face.
Then they are rolling and thrashing on the ground. Faces are punched. Fingernails and teeth go for eyes and other soft spots. Kirodiel pulls the classic move of aggravating Bayard’s wound, which makes the baron howl in agony.
Briefly, just briefly, stopping the pain becomes a higher priority to Bayard than Victoria is. And knowing that makes hym fly into a rage. Hy literally sees red, and isn’t entirely clear exactly what happens next. Hy ends up kicking Kirodiel’s head again and again until Kirodiel’s son Hovan and crosses the deck to restrain hym. Hovan says, “Baron, stop. You got hym.”
Young Hovan, leaning over hyz father, confirms hy is dead. Yet there is no anger. It has been an honorable death match, and the Baron has prevailed. But Hovan is fully confident the expedition would yet attain victory. The dragon Demonstroke remains the most powerful weapon of House Gerash.
The dragon sets half of the ship’s hold ablaze, condemning a hundred soldiers of House Gerash to burn alive, yet Victoria escapes by rising through a second open hatch. Joy commands the dragon to exit the ship through the same hole he has just made. Yet Demonstroke is less agile than Victoria, and even as the dragon’s neck and Joy clears the burning hulk, Victoria seats herself neatly behind her aunt, with the point of Dragonthorn resting on Joy’s back next to a kidney.
“If you choose to commit suicide, dear aunt Ariel, you are just seconds away from True Death. Or you can decide to live, and we can talk about whatever it is that you think is your problem. So what will it be? I recommend you live, because if you die it’s really going to smart.”
For an answer, Joy tries to slam her right elbow back into Victoria’s face.
“Then I guess my daughter is right,” Victoria said, “and you really are Jill.” So with a shrug she presses the jagged tip of Dragonthorn smoothly into Joy’s back and deep into that kidney.
Joy’s scream of agony is inhuman. The only mercy she receives is her instantaneous death after she falls five hundred feet to thud like a sack of wet garbage on a cobblestone city street.
And Demonstroke, free at last of Joy’s overweening control of his movements, doesn’t much like having Victoria crawl up his neck to get within striking distance of his head. He thrashes as violently as he can to shake her off, but she holds on for dear life. Dragon fire doesn’t help him, he can’t very well aim his mouth at his own head. And his arms are too short to swat her off.
When Victoria has shimmied high enough to reach, she buries the fragment of the diamond blade in the dragon’s brain.
Demonstroke falls to the surface then, and if his brain had been working any better he would have thought to give Victoria a parting spray of fire on his way down, out of spite. Because that was the sort of dragon he was.
When the dragon Demonstick falls from the sky and in his death throes belly-flops upon the river Sabik, and the last embers of hope for House Gerash have been thoroughly extinguished, Baron Bayard turns to Hovan the son of Kirodiel. And hy says, “Now carry out the terms of the death combat and release my mother Queen Aurra from har captivity, and get your ships hence, for neither shall you bring Lady Haziel into a cage once more.”
Then Hovan nods hyz head once, and bows, and orders hyz yeng to cut the ropes that secure Queen Aurra in har confinement.
With as much dignity as sha can retrieve, sha emerges from the cage and moves to within a few paces of har son, but har gratitude and pride in Bayard cannot be contained, and hy sees that.
Then from the air Victoria alights on the gopherwood deck of the queen’s barge and in the same movement is swept into the arms of Baron Bayard Sala. Both are overjoyed that the other has prevailed against their respective foes. Gently, gently, the baron embraces Victoria, and though hy winces with the pain of hyz wound as she squeezes hym back, the fact that she did squeeze hym back was a very encouraging sign to hym. Hy asks her, “Victoria, is it possible for a mere nephil to fall in love with one of the b’nei elohim?”
“I see no reason why not,” she replies. “As I’ve told you before, we b’nei elohim are mere human beings or nephilim ourselves, with a few fancy tricks up our sleeves grounded in what you call alchemy and natural philosophy.”
“I am very relieved to be reminded of that,” hy tells her. “Thank you! For now I can say with utmost confidence that I have fallen irretrievably in love with the b’nei eloah named Victoria.”
“Then there must remain only one more thing for you to say, Bayard, so let me hear it. Come on, you’re among friends. Lay it out there.”
“Victoria, will you consent to become my wife?”
“The thing seems to be written in the living stars,” she says with no trace of hesitation. “But let me ask a question of you, Bayard, and of your mother, and when I have your answers, then you will have mine.”
“Proceed with your questions, Victoria, but beware, I cannot foresee any that would deter me from what my heart has already resolved to do.”
Victoria catches the eye of the Queen. “Is it safe to say, Your Highness, that with the whole House of Sala now moving at your command from their cities to many thousands of scattered faith assemblies, that there is no longer, in a real sense, any kingdom for you to rule, or for Baron Bayard to inherit?”
“Alas, Victoria” answers the queen, “that is true, and were you to marry my son and had your heart set on the title of Baroness, I’m afraid it would be little more than a figment, just an empty title. Our society is being profoundly transformed even as we speak. The irony of the situation is not lost on me, of course. For most of hyz life I have sharply rebuked my son for hyz taste in commoner women. I was trying to guide hym to wed one of the Highborn, and now at the very end I find that the very word Highborn is a sound without meaning.”
“Thank you, Queen Aurra,” says Victoria. “And for my part let me say that my ability to fly, which is the biggest thing that sets me apart from humanity as one of the b’nei elohim, is not a power that can be sustained outside of the land of Haaretz, save it be on Earth. Soon I must lay this power down again, and if I stay in the west of this land I will be little more than a commoner woman, something that might interest the Baron of course, but I had thought you might have an intractable objection to that.”
“Victoria, you are far too modest! You have killed the dragon called Demonstroke and brought an end to the world war on Barbelo. Such a deed, which will be memorialized in songs for ages to come, makes you entirely uncommon.”
“Thank you once again, Your Highness Queen Aurra. And so I am led to ask my question of the yang who has asked me to become hyz wife. Bayard, would you be willing to quit this world forever, and dwell with me on Earth?”
“Victoria I would eagerly follow you right out of this world if you consent to marry me.”
“I do consent to marry you Bayard! But I warn that it will be absolutely bewildering to you at first, and you will find yourself to be what we frequently call a ‘fish out of water’. For we do not merely live on the surface of the Earth, but in the skies above and in the ground below.”
“I am full willing, Victoria, if the Queen will give har blessing.” And hy turns to face hyz mother, who at first thinks to roll har eyes, but thinks better of it and nods har head yes.
Then the Baron, filled with happiness beyond hyz capacity to bear, fall to the deck of the queen’s barge in a dead faint from hyz wounds.
“I have done everything I can,” Haziel says after sha has tended to Bayard and restored hym to consciousness. “Hy has lost very much blood and I marvel that he still slew Kirodiel. Do not permit hym to stand on hyz feet until we have taken hym downriver to Yeshua, who can provide a temporary blood substitute.”
“Lady Haziel, there remains a slight problem with carrying out that order,” the Fallen Angel Ambe Omphal says, pointing to many of the Gerash nobleyeng and officers who remain standing on the deck of the barge all around them.
Queen Aurra stands forth to confront them. She says, “Your dragon is dead.” And the yeng muttered aye, for the queen speaks a truth.
The Queen catches the eye of Hovan just then. “You have killed my husband.” And Hovan’s eyes fall. Hy nods in assent and says aye.
Sha says, “You are in the middle of Haaretz with a greatly diminished force, and the long road home will be much longer if you must fight your way there. The war is over, young Hovan, do you not agree?”
“I do agree, your Highness,” says Hovan.
“Then get yourself and your yeng to another one of my boats and depart this land!”
When evening falls and the queen’s barge has reached the place where the rivers Sabik and Arhena become one, Haziel climbs, somehow, to the top of the highest mast where few would dare to follow har, and there sha meditates on many things. Victoria, returning to the ship from a night flight she took for the sheer pleasure of it, sees Haziel sitting in that precarious place and asks to join har.
“By all means, Victoria, please make yourself as comfortable as you can.”
Then Victoria, knowing that no one could overhear, says, “Aliwe told you, didn’t che? That you and Yeshua find a way to win.”
“Aliwe told me things that would have been perfectly safe for our companions to overhear on the way to the Catwalk,” Haziel replies. “But I obtained the detailed update directly from hem in the way that you and the other b’nei elohim already know so well. Yes, we found a way to beat Thaumiel, both my daughter and I.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
“It’s a very curious thing, Victoria. It is like I have a splinter of wood that bears a tiny flame, and I must walk that small flame to a great pile of wood and kindle it to keep my loved ones from freezing to death, yet it is windy, and I dare not do the slightest thing to let the flame go out.”
“I think I understand what you mean. Even after Aliwe assured me I would defeat Demonstroke, I did not relax my guard for a single instant. It still required the utmost effort.”
“That is precisely what I’m trying to convey to you.”
“Lady Haziel, will I meet my daughter Aliwe again?”
“You will, after that big bonfire really gets going. But if you and Bayard have a child, even a jist child, che will not be the same Aliwe. Not even if you name hem that.”
“I understand. Aliwe already said as much.”
“I will go with you and Bayard to Earth,” Haziel reveals. “It’s very strange, you know. My real body is the sun that warms the Earth and drives all life and movement there, but in this body, as Haziel, I have never been there.”
“And will you return to Barbelo someday?”
“Just once, as an important part of that successful way Aliwe spoke of. I must save this planet from a second deluge, many centuries from now. As Haziel I will not survive it. But Aliwe tells me the other Chokhmah, the one I must soon merge with once more, is already making arrangements to live in another body.”
“Please do not make that into a habit, Lady Haziel. “We have seen what serial possession has done to one among us named Jill.”
“I will not make that mistake, and Aliwe told me that the other Chokhmah is making arrangements to deal with that problem as well. Thaumiel is about to fall into that trap. I knew long ago there would be no real joy in bringing Thaumiel to defeat. Imagine contriving a total victory over your bitter lifelong enemy only to discover the fellow, in the end, was in the advanced stages of dementia.”