They made good time through the night. They made it to the hills quickly, and Kaori’s ninjas, who had scouted out ahead, reported that there were no enemies in sight. They crossed the hills, passing under the pine trees, which were just as silent as the plain had been. There were no birds, no crickets, not even a breath of wind.
Many of the knights wondered what it could mean, and what had happened. In the end though, the speculation always came back to the same answer: once they got to Hyleran, they would know.
Past the pine forest lay the larger plain, stretching to the horizon, where, Dan knew, was the forest which would lead them back to where Hyleran lay. If they could just make it to those trees by daybreak, they would be invisible from the air.
Everyone seemed to know it, and they moved across the field at a determined speed, keeping up a brisk pace. The first hints of orange had appeared on their right when the trees finally came into view. They were just thinking that in two days’ time they would know what happened, when a kyrie landed in front of them.
The kyrie was easily visible in the predawn light, dim though it was. Dan instantly recognized him as a kyrie of Vydar; the black armor was unmistakable. A ripple of relief went through the column. And then the ripple shuddered and died, as another kyrie landed next to the first. This kyrie had red skin, and black leathery wings. He was a kyrie of Utgar.
Gideon drew his sword, as did Laelia and many of the knights. However, Vydar’s kyrie held up his hand.
“Hold!” he commanded.
“What is this?” Gideon said, the command clear in his voice. “What is he”— he pointed with his blade at Utgar’s kyrie —“doing here?”
Vydar’s kyrie approached them, hands at his sides. Dan noticed that he had no weapons. The same could not be said for Utgar’s kyrie, who sported a buckler and a massive axe.
“You don’t know the situation, Gideon,” Vydar’s kyrie said.
“Enlighten me,” Gideon said tensely.
“Alliances have shifted,” the kyrie said. “Vydar sent me to tell you what has happened.”
A tense silence followed this news. Everyone looked at each other, wondering if their Valkyrie were now enemies. Dan, already guessing what had happened, looked closer at the kyrie.
“I know you,” he said. “You’re Terav. You were there when Vydar left Montfre to deal with the orcs.”
Terav nodded, but then faced Gideon again. “Vydar has left the alliance,” he said, his voice carrying in the stillness of the air.
No one spoke.
“Vydar believes that the end of the war is near. He has joined Utgar, and together they have already claimed two amulets from the alliance.”
There was a collective intake of breath. Dan closed his eyes. That was it. Vydar had already betrayed the alliance. He hadn’t expected him to do it so soon.
“Vydar understands that many of his soldiers have formed attachments within the alliance. He knows that breaking those attachments will be difficult. That is why I am here: to offer you a choice: stay with Vydar, or choose another Valkyrie.”
If anything, the predawn grew more silent. Slowly, an orange light began illuminating the plain, coloring each stalk in fiery relief.
As he looked over the column, Dan realized that he and Gideon were the only representatives of Vydar. Everyone else served the alliance.
“No,” Gideon said. Terav looked at him. “No,” he repeated. “My loyalty is to the Vydar I know, and the Vydar I know would not betray his friends in such a way.”
Terav looked at him with an expression which came very close to pity. “Then you do not know your Valkyrie,” he said. “And you, Dan?”
All eyes turned to Dan. This was it. This was Dan’s last chance to rejoin Heleer. Otonashi knew what he had done, but if he joined Vydar now, there might still be a chance he would see Heleer. If not, and if Vydar already had two more amulets as Terav suggested, then Dan might never see her. If he joined the alliance, and if they lost, he could die in Valhalla.
Dan looked over the column. The knights’ faces were shadowed by their helmets, the ninjas’ shrouded by their masks. Gideon’s face held nothing but angry confusion. Laelia was looking down. Only Ana showed trust. In her green eyes, Dan could see that she believed he would make the right choice. It was her look which swayed him.
“I’m with Gideon,” Dan replied.
“If you stay loyal,” Terav said, “Vydar will still honor your bargain. He knows what you did, but he is willing to overlook it.”
Dan was silent. The offer was tempting.
Terav took a step towards him. “Why did you do it, Dan?” he asked. “Why did you betray Vydar?”
“I didn’t,” Dan said without thinking. His voice carried in the silence, reaching everyone. “Vydar never told me what he was planning.”
“You knew what Vydar was planning though,” Terav said. “You knew enough to expect it.”
Maybe. Maybe he should have expected there to be a double purpose to everything Vydar did. But that was before he had met Gideon, Trela, Ana, Jaseff, and all the others. That was before he had gained friends – something he never thought would happen on Valhalla.
“I wasn’t about to leave them,” Dan said. “I wasn’t going to let them die.”
“These people,” Terav gestured at the whole column, “the ones you saved – they are enemies of Vydar.”
Dan said nothing. What could he say? He had gotten in the way of Vydar’s plans. Worse, Terav had just told everyone that he had been in on it, at least to some extent. Dan risked a glance at Ana. She looked hurt and betrayed, but Dan still saw a glimmer of hope in her face. She still had faith that he wouldn’t betray them. Dan couldn’t let that down. Not even for Heleer.
“I’m not sorry,” Dan said, hoping his voice sounded more confident in the words than he felt. “I couldn’t let them die. If Vydar can’t live with that, then I can no longer serve him.”
Terav watched him for a moment. Then he sighed. “So be it,” he said. “You did not hold to your half of the bargain; Vydar will not hold to his.” Then without warning, he snapped his wings out to either side and drove them to the ground, propelling himself upwards. Instantly, twenty or so kyrie – a mix of Vydar’s and Utgar’s soldiers – dropped from the sky, surrounding the column.
“You have all chosen to side with the alliance,” Terav said as he flew still higher. “As such you are enemies of Vydar, and you shall be treated as such. Surrender to us, and you will not be harmed.”
No one looked like they wanted to surrender. Several of the knights drew their swords. Gideon’s eyes burned with a fierce light, and Laelia glared at the kyrie about her, daring them to come closer. Even Ana looked flushed, an anger flickering in her eyes Dan had only seen once before.
That was good enough for Dan. He had made his choice, and he would make it again if he could. He was tired of Vydar, tired of the deception, tired of the blackmail. Maybe he would see Heleer again, maybe he wouldn’t. But it wouldn’t be through some twisted deal with a traitor.
Dan pulled his pistol from its holster on his hip, aimed, and fired at Terav.
Terav raised his hands, as if to ward off a blow. Instantly, a blue mist swirled into existence in front of him. The energy from Dan’s gun dissipated on the mist, and the magic faded. Without waiting for any more confirmation, the kyrie surrounding the column charged.
It quickly became evident that the kyrie were elite soldiers. Despite being outnumbered nearly two to one, knights and ninjas began to fall under their onslaught almost immediately. Vydar’s kyrie used some form of magic which seemed to bypass the knights’ armor completely, felling them from a distance. Only the ninjas were a match for them, and even they were hard-pressed.
The knights formed a protective circle around Ana and Sharwin, trying to keep the kyrie from them, but their line soon buckled and broke. The ninjas dove at the kyrie, desperately trying to pull them away from the mages. None were deadlier than Kaori, who descended on Utgar’s and Vydar’s kyrie alike, ducking or blocking every blow aimed for her, and slipping her sword between the ribs of all she met. With her ninjas, she cut a swath through the kyrie, until she met up with Terav himself.
Dan leveled his gun at Terav, but he didn’t have a clear shot: there were too many knights in the way. Terav spared Kaori only one glance before summoning a frothing ball of blue mist in his hand, and flinging it towards her. The blue energy lanced from his palm like lightning, struck Kaori full in the chest before she could move, momentarily illuminating her in an eerie blue glow, and then dissipated.
Kaori crumpled to the ground like a piece of burnt cloth. The kyrie instantly surged forwards, hiding her from view.
Without their leader, the ninjas began to lose ground. The knights were all but gone; only a few were left, still fighting valiantly back to back. The kyrie surrounded them easily, and then fell upon the undefended mages. They both fought hard, Ana weakening the kyrie who approached her, Sharwin dropping them to the ground with a touch. But there were too many. Ana went down as a kyrie’s axe clipped her, dangerously close to her neck. Dan thought she might still be alive, but she was instantly trampled as the kyrie surged towards Sharwin.
For a moment Sharwin held her own, no kyrie wanting to be the first to face her. But then magic from one of Vydar’s soldiers lanced into her, she fell to one knee, and the kyrie were on her instantly.
“No!” Sharwin screamed, desperately reaching for her attackers. Dan could hear fear in her voice, and he knew why: she couldn’t die. She needed to see her son. She surged to her feet, and for a moment the red tide about her fell back. But then a minion leapt behind her where she couldn’t see him, raised his axe, and brought it down cleanly on her head.
Dan turned away as Sharwin fell. They had to win. He had to win. He had to see Heleer again; he couldn’t die like this, here, alone. Dan looked down, and saw his gloves.
Dan knew full well that if he used his gloves, and any of the kyrie escaped, the Khyta soulborgs were sure to learn of his secret weapon. And if they were ever sent back, and if Dan returned to Isadora, his advantage would be gone. But there was no time to worry about that. If Dan died, then he would certainly have no chance to see Heleer again. So he switched off the safety on both of his gloves, gritted his teeth against the pain he knew would come, and shoved his palms outwards.
The tide of the battle turned. Kyrie were blown away from Dan, the pulses of energy slamming into them repeatedly, always pushing them a little further. When they finally landed on the ground, many did not move, blood leaking from innumerable cuts on their bodies.
Once the kyrie realized what was going on, they turned on Dan, but there was nothing they could do. Utgar’s kyrie couldn’t get near him, and the magic of Vydar’s kyrie simply flickered and died against the energy pouring from Dan’s gloves.
It didn’t take the kyrie long to realize that staying would be suicide. Dan had already cut through nearly a quarter of them by the time they leapt to the air and flew away as fast as they could. Once the kyrie were out of range of his gloves, Dan lowered his hands, stopping the stream of energy, and turned the safeties back on. He winced as he moved his arms: they were throbbing in pain. Both were covered in bruises and cuts, and blood was slowly and steadily dripping from the fingers of his gloves.
Without warning, something hard crashed into Dan’s shoulder. He fell to the ground, and looked up, thinking a kyrie had snuck back. But he was wrong: it wasn’t a kyrie. It was Francois.
The knight stood over Dan, his sword point uncomfortably close to Dan’s chest, quivering inches above his heart. The rising sun painted his armor – stained red – in a golden aura of light, forcing Dan to shield his eyes from the reflected glare.
“Francois!” Ana called from beyond Dan’s range of vision. “Stop!”
“He’s a traitor!” Francois yelled back, glaring at Dan with hatred. “He knew this would happen. He knew Vydar’s plan. He’s a traitor and a coward!”
“He also saved us!” Ana cried, running up beside Francois. Blood covered her side, dripping from a wound on her collar, but she ignored it. She tugged at his arms, trying to lift the sword. It didn’t move. “Back in Valkrill’s tunnels,” she said, “and just now too, for that matter. Without him, we’d all be dead twice over.”
Francois glared at Dan. “Gideon!” he called. “What do we do?”
Gideon arrived on Francois other side and looked down at Dan. Dan had no trouble believing Gideon would let Francois execute him then and there: he was looking at him with an expression of disgust and anger which clearly said that Dan was a traitor in his mind.
“You betrayed all of us,” he said, his voice trembling with contempt. “For that, you deserve to die. But…”
Dan held his breath.
“But,” Gideon said slowly, as if each word caused him pain, “Ana speaks the truth.” He paused, watching Dan. “We won’t kill you, Dan,” he said. “Not yet. But I won’t trust you again, and I doubt anyone else here will either. Betray us a second time, and I won’t hesitate to run you through myself.”
“Agreed,” Dan said. He couldn’t blame any of them for their reaction. Terav had told them he knew Vydar’s plan from the beginning.
Gideon gave him one last distrustful glare, and then turned and walked away, placing a hand on Francois’ shoulder and pulling him away too. After a moment, Ana knelt by Dan’s side, and silently began healing his arms.
Neither one of them spoke. Dan didn’t know what he could say. He had made his position clear when he attacked the kyrie. He glanced at Ana’s face as she worked, and saw a battle being waged there, clear as the new dawn shining on them. She wanted to trust Dan. He could see it. But he could also see the doubt and the hurt in her face. She couldn’t trust him. Not anymore.
None of them could.