"Touched... You say I am too, so much... of what you say is true. I'll never, find someone quite like you, again. I'll never find someone quite like you. Like you..." VAST, Touched

Once, Sentinel had been a living, breathing place. Once, soldiers had patrolled her streets daily, and the sounds of commerce had echoed in the town square. It had not been uncommon to see children running, shouting, and playing, no cares in the world other than dinner, chores, bedtime, and whatever bogey man was lurking in their imaginations at night.

The bogey men had come to town, and what Sentinel had been, it could never be again.

Scattered about the garrison, like lions who had brought down a gazelle, Talon's army made good the orders of the previous day. Feasting on the dying flesh of the city, the horde collectively crouched amongst the rubble and the dying cook fires that the bones of the city had become. The bodies of Sailoon's dead had been piled into a gigantic pyramid of carnage and burnt 'till all that remained was a handful of blackened fragments of bone and grey ash.

One building still stood relatively unscathed. The prison tower stood like an accusing finger pointed towards the sky, a judgment against a goddess that would allow such devastation to exist.

Talon found the symbolism, lost upon his brutish followers, to be a source of constant amusement. In the highest room of the tower, he smiled.

"Checkmate." He announced decisively after setting down his knight. Arashi blinked in surprised confusion at the board, then shook his head in wonderment.

"This game is easy to learn, yet I cannot seem to master it, my lord." he muttered ruefully.

Talon shrugged and began setting his pieces back into their starting positions. "Well... you are playing against me, Arashi. I've had considerably more experience at this sort of thing than you..." he grinned. He didn't need to mention that he was also a god, whereas Arashi was not. Some things went without saying.

He frowned. "Still, that was a particularly miserable showing, even for you. Whatever could you be thinking?" He tapped his chin with a bishop.

Arashi sighed. "I... am troubled my lord."

Talon raised an eyebrow. "Doubting me again, Arashi? This is beginning to become a bad habit."

Arashi shook his head vehemently. "Not doubt... I... simply do not understand."

Talon grinned and set down the bishop with a startlingly loud click onto the board. "Let me guess... why did I accept that foolish girl's challenge? Why did I let the survivors flee back to Sailoon... WHY oh WHY did I submit to her ridiculous conditions?"

Arashi nodded, looking miserable. It had kept him up nights, thinking about what had happened. He had failed his lord in the worst possible way, allowing that Lieutenant to cut his forces in half single-handedly, though his lord hadn't seen fit to accuse him of anything. He could only surmise that Talon was being merciful, for which he was grateful. Still, as grateful as he was, his questions buzzed like hornets in his head, stinging him constantly to seek answers. He began to set up his own side of the board again.

"Hmm... how to explain." He tapped his chin, then grinned. "I suppose the best way to explain would be..."

He stood up and turned, gloved hands clasped behind his back.

"If I were to... punish you for your failure during the battle-"

"My lord!" Arashi stepped back from the table and knelt, shaking in fear. Arashi was a consummate warrior; death held no fear for him. The sort of oblivion that Talon visited on his enemies, however, filled him with instinctive terror. He trembled with the effort of trying to conceal his cowardice. There was only one punishment for displeasing his Lord.

"Don't interrupt." Talon snapped. "I said, IF. Not when." he shook his head in irritation. Mortals. "IF I were to punish you for your failure, it would send a message to the tribe. What might that message be?"

Arashi remained silent. His lord had not given him leave to speak.

"The message," Talon continued, "would be that failure is not an option. They would fight harder, the alternative being worse than death. A benefit in the short run, but one that would lead to eventual collapse. Even the Talon tribe has its limits. In effect, in death you would serve a purpose, albeit unintentionally on your part. This holds true to the pitiful remnants of Sentinel's army as well."

He turned and grinned unpleasantly at Arashi. "The once undefeated army of Sentinel, the greatest fortress ever constructed in Sailoon, beaten, dejected, leaderless, and tattered, rushes with its tail between its legs back to Sailoon's capital. Five hundred more soldiers will make no difference in the long run, not against hundreds of thousands. The message they carry unintentionally however, is one of terror, and worth thousands of warriors. Oppose me, this message says, and you will be ground into dust. The defenders at Sailoon will be shaken, waiting for the hammer to fall. In the time they have remaining, while we rest and relax, they start at shadows... they will quibble over what to do, and end up making inadequate preparations or no preparations at all. They cry out, 'Where? Oh WHERE is the Queen? Has she deserted us?' " He gestured out mockingly.

"They will fall before my army like frightened sheep. Her conditions? I had intended to do something along those lines ANYWAY. Her chances of beating me? Impossible, as you well know. She threw herself at me and thus added her power to mine, as opposed to possibly dying to a lucky sword or arrow, and depriving me of her essence." He sat down and gestured at the other side of the board. "The most effective agent for subversion is one who works for you without his knowledge. Remember well... and do get up."

Arashi stood and sat down silently, obviously deep in thought. Talon smiled. "Have faith in me..." he chuckled.

Something about HIM saying those words struck him as horribly ironic.


There was something inside him. Something coldly angry and malevolent. It ripped at his insides like a handful of rusty razors, tearing at him like a pack of rabid wolves. Valgaav doubled over as he flew clutching his chest and stifling an agonized shriek. Though the physical wound to his chest was relatively small, the pain had increased with every breath until he was forced to focus all of his attention simply on flying and remaining conscious, which suited him just fine.

The pain of losing Tess was far more difficult to hold in check.

He was dimly aware that he was being pursued; and also aware that in his current state he couldn't possibly fend them off. It would be very easy to simply let them kill him... to put an end to his torments physical, spiritual, and emotional. Grim determination kept him flying. Determination, and guilt. His lover had sacrificed herself for him and Sailoon... he could do no less. Death was not an option... at least not until the right people had been informed.

Until the only person who had mattered to him had been avenged.

Somehow the hatred that raged in him at the thought of that empty-eyed demon made the agony burn all the brighter. He let out an involuntary hiss of pain and dipped several feet in the air, his feet trailing against the top of the forested canopy he flew over.

The action saved his life.

Black arrows whizzed and hissed overhead as the Bloodguard began their assault on the weakened half-dragon. Snarling silently to himself, Valgaav struggled to gain altitude, throwing a beleaguered glance over his shoulder at his tormentors.

-Great... looks like twenty of them... not the greatest of odds. Well... time to show them what the Guard are made of.-

He launched upward, his wings straining to cup the air, climbing upward so rapidly that he soon became little more than a speck. The Bloodguard silently followed, relentlessly matching his exhaustive but still horribly weakened pace. Another volley of arrows arced towards him, and this time one buried itself up to its cruelly barbed shaft in his lower back. Utterly lost in his own agony he simply grunted. Valgaav spun limply in the air, then started a sickeningly fast spinning dive towards the treetops. The Bloodguard formed a "V" formation and followed him, arrows notched. It would have been much easier to finish him off by using their repetoire of spells but since their unit was primarily a ground one, they'd been forced to use spells to keep themselves in the air, which limited their casting options somewhat.

Not that it appeared to matter.

Valgaav continued his sickening tumble towards the unforgiving earth. Four hundred meters... three... two...


Slamming into branches and leaves face first jolted him back into consciousness. Spreading his wings, he gritted his teeth in a painfilled roar and darted at breakneck speeds around two large, moss-covered tree trunks. Flapping mightily, he pulled up over the canopy, continuing on his blind course. A quick glance behind him showed no sign of his ghost-like pursuit. He shuddered violently and tried to increase speed...

A crashing sound behind him dragged his attention rear-ward as the Bloodguard formation crashed through the canopy a scant hundred feet behind him, arrows leaping as one-

-He closed his eyes and clenched his hands into fists, his last thought an apology.

-I'm sorry my love... I've failed you again."

He opened his eyes a split second later as the the arrows simultaneously bounced off of the air behind him. Hovering in midair, he blinked at his enemies, confused to his core. The Bloodguard stopped as well, mutely staring at one another before notching arrows again and letting loose.

Again the arrows bounced off of nothing.

An amused voice floated on the wind.

"My, my... it seems the Bloodguard doesn't know when to take a hint. I do dislike stupidity... at least, when I'm trying to get a point across to someone."

Valgaav blinked wearily. He knew that voice. "Xellos? What..."

Xellos appeared comfortably seated in mid air between Valgaav and his enemies, his staff resting across his crossed legs. He inclined his head slightly to regard the stunned half-dragon.

"Not too much further Valgaav... you just have to hold on a bit longer."

"But... Why?"

Xellos shook his finger in chastisement. "Now, now... no time for reunions... quickly, get out of here. I'll take care of this."

Valgaav winced and turned quickly, his thoughts a whirl of confusion. Only pain and his sense of duty forced his weakening body onward. Xellos turned back to the Bloodguard with a pleasant smile.

"I don't suppose we could dispense with any unpleasantness, could we? I find it's so much easier to do business when both parties feel they are on equal ground, and I doubt you'll be able to do that with half of your number as little clouds of vapor."

The Bloodguard looked at one another, then turned as one and launched another series of arrows at the grinning mazoku.

He shrugged and grinned wider...

...then opened his eyes.

"To be honest with you, I was hoping you'd do that."

He narrowed his eyes and they flashed momentarily. Casually waving his hand, he made a shooing gesture at the cluster of Bloodguard. Eleven of them shuddered and silently clutched their heads, then flashed into brilliant yellow stars that instantaneously flickered out, leaving nothing behind but a small puff of smoke.

Exceptionally confounded smoke.

The others looked at one another again. This time they looked worried.

Xellos scraped his hands together as though he were brushing off a bit of dust. "I know what he must have told you... the pledge of immortality protects you against death as long as you keep your pledgestones safe... It does wonders for one's confidence level I know, when one thinks that one is unkillable. He neglected to mention that mazoku of greater power can avoid that little stricture... how unfortunate for you."

He opened his eyes again. "I suggest you leave. I dislike having to repeat myself."

The remaining Bloodguard looked at one another again, then turned as one and fled at full speed in the opposite direction. Xellos shook his head.

"How horribly bothersome. I suppose this conscience will have me APOLOGIZING next. Oh well... at least it'll drive Talon crazy trying to figure out why I did this." he chuckled to himself and disappeared with a pop.

Valgaav vanished slowly in the distance, as did the tattered and horribly demoralized remnants of the Bloodguard.


Mina and Gaav parted quietly and blinked dazedly at one another. Once one got beyond the now plainly obvious fact that the two were completely, sickeningly, head-over-heels in love with one another, things were rapidly becoming rather awkward. For one, they were in the middle of nowhere (which is a suburb of Katatoe) and for another, neither of them were quite sure how far to take this revelation.

Gaav, being a Dark Lord, was not exactly an expert on the ins and outs (get your minds out of the gutter) of love (with the possible exception of his sword), seeing as none of this was mentioned in the "So You're a Rampaging Dark God of Rage, Brought Into Existence For The Sole Purpose Of Rending Your Enemies" pamphlet he'd been issued. Smashing dragon kings? Furthering the cause of terror and hopelessness in mankind? Making snappy witticisms to the dismay of one's enemies? Child's play. Second base?

Houston, we have a problem.

Mina, on the other hand, while slightly more experienced (she was, after all, human) in the whole concept of emotional sugar high, was no Professor either. Most of her romantic experience had been in the form of lewd comments made by bandits immediately before she thrashed them, and she somehow doubted that her normal tactic when dealing with such responses (namely, char-broil or skewer, depending on her mood) was very appropriate.

All of which was absolutely eclipsed by the fact that neither of them wanted to get more than five feet out of the other's presence.

Mina was the first to speak.

"Um... wow." She grinned sheepishly, blushing.

Gaav blinked.

"That was... wow." Mina continued adroitly.

Gaav blinked again.

"Are... you ok?" Mina frowned.

Gaav started and nodded enthusiastically. "Absolutely... er.... so now what?"

Mina blushed. "Well..."

Gaav widened his eyes. "Here!?"

Mina kicked him in the shin. "Absolutely not! I'm not that kind of girl."

Gaav grinned. This was less confusing ground. "You were thinking it."

Mina blushed. "Ok.. maybe I was... but there are better places for that sort of thing."

Gaav looked rather pointedly at the blasted ground where they'd recently fought, including the battered, empty set of platemail that had once held the Bloody Eyed Darkness. "Oh I don't know... there's a certain morbid appeal to-"

Mina crossed her arms. "Shut up."

Gaav stopped, but grinned.

She chuckled, eliciting an amused snort from her burly companion. She cast her gaze around until it lit on the broken hilt of her longsword. She'd dropped it in the... intensity of moment and it rested forlornly at Gaav's feet. She bent down and picked it up sadly.

Gaav frowned. "I didn't do that, did I?"

She shook her head. "No.. it was Dnarc."

He took it from her and stared at it mutely. "Not much you can do about this sort of damage... the blade is snapped."

She looked down.

He grinned. Brainstorm. "Was it important to you?"

She looked up with a start and misinterpreted his grin. "Of course it was! My father gave it to me!" She snapped angrily.

He held his hands out placatingly. "Easy... easy. I understand how you feel. Here."

Taking the ravaged blade from her curious hands, he snapped the remainder of the blade free from the undamaged hilt and held his hand over it. His eyes burned a brilliant crimson as his aura began to twist about him. Mina took an involuntary step back. "What are you...?"

"Shhh." he whispered distractedly, clenching his hand into a fist. Fire erupted from the hilt, twisting up under his hand like a cat seeking an ear scratching from its adopted "owner". He turned his hand and seemed to grasp the flame, straightening it out and condensing it. Mina watched, spellbound as a new blade began to take shape, finally turning from white to deep red to a cool metallic crimson. Gaav smiled.

"I know it's a poor substitute for your old sword... but please accept this."

Mina let out a sigh of wonder as she took the proferred blade. It was light, as though the flames hadn't gained weight, merely density. She passed it back and forth, amazed at how easily it obeyed her... as though it had a mind of its own.

"It's... it's amazing... It's like it's alive." she whispered.

Gaav shrugged. "Well... in a way it is. It's a part of me you see."

Mina stared at it dubiously. "WHICH part?" she asked pointedly, raising an eyebrow.

Gaav shook his head. "Oh come off it. It's not like that, you pervert."

She smiled up at him. "I... thank you... Gaav."

He looked at her intensely. "For you... anything."

The two of them stared at each other caught in embarrassed lover's limbo until an irritable voice brought the stirring sound track to a screeching halt. They turned and blinked at the interruption.

"Are you two quite done yet?"

Zelgadis came up over the hill with a disgusted look on his rocky face. Pix was trying valiantly (in vain) to keep him back, pushing with all her might on his chest.

"Sorry Mina... I tried to stop him."

Zelgadis rolled his eyes. "Look, they weren't doing anything." He raised an eyebrow. "You weren't, were you?"

The two of them had the grace to look embarrassed.

"Well at least you had the decency to wait until the two of you could...." he droned off looking at the sky.

Pix frowned. "decency to what? Finish your sentence master! That's very rude!"

He pointed calmly skyward. "Incoming."

Pix blinked. "Decency to incoming? What does..." she followed his finger. "INCOMING!!!" she exclaimed swooping around behind Zelgadis.

The group scattered as Valgaav came crashing down into their midst.


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