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"Because you are not evil. Evil has just consumed you. But they a" Johnis pointed at the hundreds of Shataiki now on the ground, bowing to Darsal, tempting her with their service. "They are evil!"
"Nooooooo!" Darsal screamed, weeping, "Noooooo!"
"Yes!" Johnis cried. "Yes!"
Johnis began to weep. Darsal sank to her knees.
"End it, Darsal," Johnis said. "You've killed Alucard. Now rid yourself of his evil."
She let her hands go limp by her sides, sobbing, her face tilted up, eyes closed. "I'm the Dark One," she mouthed. "I'm the Dark One."
"Fight, Darsal! Fight for Elyon," Then in a raw voice that made Silvie want to cry, "You are the chosen one!"
It was as if this truth had hit Johnis for the first time, Darsal might have convinced herself that she was the Dark One, but even being the Dark One, she was the chosen one.
Silvie suddenly felt the weight of the idea and began to cry with them. Because she, too, was the Dark One, wasn't she? They all were, as much as they were all Forest Dwellers, without Elyon's cleansing waters.
Yet they were chosen. It was up to them to follow either the one who had made them dark, or the one who had chosen each of them, Teeleh or Elyon.
"No, no, no, no, no, no a" Darsal was rocking, sobbing the words.
Shataiki continued to stream into the room.
"Please, Darsal," Karas cried. "Please a"
Without warning, another larger Shataiki spilled through the gateway, landed next to Alucard's dead body, and flapped to steady itself.
"Darsal!" Silvie screamed.
She jerked her head up at the warning, seeing the second female. She stood shakily, staring, gathering her wits.
And then something behind her eyes snapped into place. She rushed the dead slab of meat that used to be Alucard and jerked the stake from its heart.
Rushed the second female from behind.
Slammed the stake into its back, right through the rib cage, through whatever innards filled the heartless creature, and right out its chest.
She held the stake in place, resisting the attempts of the flailing beast to break free.
"Back to hell!" Darsal thundered. Then again, in a voice that cracked with emotion, "Back to hell!"
She released the stake and staggered back, breathing hard. Her heel struck her bag, and she stopped. Still Shataiki poured in through the gateway.
It was all Johnis needed to say. Darsal's face wrinkled with anguish for just a moment. She glanced up, saw the beasts bowing to her, and swept up her bag. Flung it sidearmed at Johnis.
"The keys!" Silvie cried. "Quick!"
Johnis frantically rummaged through the bag.
Darsal was already sprinting toward the Books of History, scattering the Shataiki gathered there. She grabbed the stack of books with both hands and tore the top three from the table with a grunt.
The light vanished immediately with a crack that echoed through the chamber. The upper halves of two Shataiki spun from the closed gateway into the room and fell to the floor, dead lumps of bleeding fur.
Darsal's sudden change of heart wasn't lost on the thousands of Shataiki gathered on the floor. They began to bob and shriek with open jaws, like begging chicks in a nest.
"Hurry!" Darsal grabbed the other four books and sprinted for them.
Johnis found the keys, freed Silvie, and was working on Karas.
Thoughts of servitude no longer in their minds, the Shataiki began to take flight around the room. First a dozen, then a hundred, then a thousand, shrieking and flapping in a river of black just below the worms.
Darsal kept one eye on the Shataiki and one on the bag as she withdrew first one, then two flares.
The bats gained courage and began to sweep down, snapping their jaws. Above them, the worms were screaming.
Darsal shoved a flare at Silvie. "Light it by ripping the cap off. It's hot enough to ignite the worms' mucus. This place will go up like a tin of gasoline. "
Johnis had freed Karas, and now himself.
"Run!" Darsal jumped off the ledge and streaked for the shut door. Silvie followed hard after her. A bat brushed through her hair, and she cried out, swatting at her head.
"Light it!" Darsal slammed open the latch.
Silvie slid to a stop. She jerked the cap off the flare. It hissed and spouted red flame.
The Shataiki grew frantic. They flew every which way now, shrieking, crashing into the walls, clawing at the stone.
"Light it!" Darsal screamed again, throwing the door open.
Silvie thrust the flare against the worm salve on the wall. It sizzled but refused to light.
Shataiki had found the open door and flew out above Darsal's head now, dozens, shrieking as they disappeared.
"Go, go, go!"
Karas ran out, followed by Johnis.
Darsal snatched the flare from Silvie. "Go!"
She went. Through the door.
A plume of orange flame and heat mushroomed behind her, and she spun to see Darsal tearing for the door.
The flame spread along the walls like ignited oil on water. Whoosh! Silvie stood like wood, stunned by how rapidly the fire consumed the room.
Shataiki, now totally aware of their impending demise, clogged the door. Behind them a huge ball of fire fell screaming from the ceiling. A burning worm.
Go, go, go!
Darsal tugged her. Slammed the door shut. Bats thudded into the wood. Even outside, the roaring flames were deafening.
Then they were running up the passage. Silvie was the last up the stairway into Alucard's library, where more worms crowded the ceiling. Darsal had ripped open her flare and was lighting fire to one of the wet walls behind the bookcases.
No Shataiki, Silvie saw. They'd already flown out.
They waited for Darsal by the door this time, until her flame caught. The library went up like a tinderbox, chasing them out the door with hear and flames.
Darsal led them from the fortress in a full sprint. Out into the cool night air. Just in time to see a black stain winging frantically for the sky, Shataiki screeched overhead, scattering to find safety.
Silvie spun back to the castle. Light flickered from the hallway past the door. And when she stilted her breath to listen with the others, she could hear the distant cries of burning Shataiki and igniting worms.
Alucard's lair was being consumed by hell.
ohnis, Silvie, Karas, and Darsal stood on the side of the road for a long time, watching and listening to the flames. Little was said. Much was considered.
Silvie looked up at the graying eastern sky. "Morning is coming."
And for a while, nothing more was spoken.
"We did it." Johnis looked at the seven Books of History that Darsal had placed on the ground. "We have finally found the seven books."
For a few long beats they all just stared at them. Darsal's shoulders shook with a sob. She hugged herself with one arm and lifted the other hand to cover her face.
"No, Darsal." Silvie put her arm over the girl's shoulder. "You can't blame yourself."
"I a I a"
"You are chosen," Johnis said. "And you saved us all. That's all that matters now."
It was hard to imagine what kind of suffering Darsal's bitterness had caused her all these years. She will bear that scar, Silvie thought. But Johnis was right. They had won. They were the chosen ones, and they had recovered the seven books.
"There's still danger. The books can still be used." Karas picked up the black one and wiped Alucard's blood off its cover using a tissue from her pocket. "What now?"
"Now we have to return them," Johnis said.
A whoosh of wings disturbed the air behind Silvie, and she spun around, expecting Shataiki. But this wasn't a wad of black muscle.
It was a ball of white fur: Roush. Michal!
And hard on Michal's heels, Gabil landed a ways off, tumbled three full turns on the ground, and launched himself into a spindly but much improved karate kick.
"Hiyah!" he cried, and then landed on both feet where he managed to keep his balance. "What do you think? Was that better?"
Silvie now realized that the white streak she had seen among the flood of black Shataiki had been Michal and Gabil! They stood like two soldiers on the grass, green eyes glimmering, fur so white they looked like the marshmallows Karas had served them with coffee.
Karas rushed up to Gabil and dropped to one knee. "Thank Elyon!" She hugged the Roush. "How is Hunter?"
Gabil nearly toppled backward with her hug. "Easy, easy! My improved skills don't include protection against the hug of death! Hunter who?"
"The Roush who guards Middle?"
"Oh, Hunter" Gabil said. "As full of himself as always, I'm sure."
Johnis hurried up to Michal, dropped down to one knee, and bowed his head. "You have no idea how good it is to see you, Michal."
A thin grin crossed the Roush's lips. "Actually, I do."
Then they all crowded around the two furry, white bats, peppering them with questions and offering details about their close call with Alucard. And in short order, some things were finally set straight.
Yes, both realities were linked in so many ways that not even Michal had known before. Thomas of Hunter's dreams were indeed true, all of them, in both places. Teeleh's attempt to destroy the world through the disease borne in Shataikia"the Horde diseasea"was now foiled.
But in reality, Thomas of Hunter's greatest tests remained ahead of him. He might be a figure of history here in the Histories, but he was still the leader of the Forest Dwellers in a war that was being waged against the Horde. And things were about to get very nasty.
"Then we have to get back!" Johnis paced a tight circle. "Now!"
"You can if you wish," Michal said. "But five years will have passed when you arrive there."
"What? How's that possible?"
"I've been forbidden from allowing you to influence events there now that you know what you do."
"But five years! What's happened in five years?"
"The world has changed. You'll see."
Silvie put her hand on Johnis's arm. "How old will we be? There, I mean?"
Gabil flashed a grin. "Old enough to be blissfully married, if you so choose; no worries there, Silvie. And if you like, I could perform some of mya""
"Please, Gabil," Michal cut in. "No one wants to see you stumble through your karate moves at a wedding. Get a grip on reality, will you?"
"No." Johnis looked at Silvie and winked. "We would love to see Gabil perform at our wedding, wouldn't we, Silvie?"
She felt so buoyed by his statement that she nearly threw her arms around his neck and kissed him in front of them all.
"Yes." She returned his wink. "Yes, we would."
Michal nodded. "So I take it that you two would like to go back with the books?"