"Ravana, I have lost the stone," Vyan cried out, scrambling to his feet.
"Do not despair." Ravana pointed his hands at empty spots, and everywhere he directed, a mangle of arms, legs, and battered heads took shape as creatures Sasha had never seen. "They come from Fene and fear nothing since they live in hell's armpit."
Twenty creatures shrieked to life, their heads scabbed and rotting, their skin as dark as roasted meat. Sasha tried not to breathe in the wave of noxious stench clogging the air. Rags hung from the creatures' bodies, but that's where the disparity stopped. Muscles wrapped their torsos and limbs with sinewy tissue that gleamed like bands of woven metals. They crouched, pawing the ground as if waiting to be released.
A beautiful auburn-haired woman appeared next as a hologram with eyes so green they'd compete with an emerald struck by the sun. Her translucent skin was covered with a mint-green robe that sparkled when she moved, but she never completely took shape.
"Hi, Brina," Evalle said to the hologram, then muttered, "It's definitely on, now." The gleam in her smile that curved below the dark shades on the Amazon raised the hair on Sasha's arms, which was saying something at this point tonight. She wouldn't want to face this woman in a dark alley. The tall female stomped her boots and silver razor-sharp tips shot from around the soles. She shook her hands once, the water slinging away, and sharp points erupted from the smooth skin of her palm. Spiked cartilage raised along the back of her hands and up her arms to her shoulders.
"Beladors, unite and defend," Brina shouted in a voice so strong Sasha wondered if the woman was truly just an image.
" 'Bout time." Tzader spun the knives in his hands as fast as a fan blade on high.
"I should say so," Quinn drawled, clearly tired of inactivity. He reached both hands inside his jacket and withdrew four triangular discs with daggers at each corner and a woven Celtic design in the center.
Sasha's ears were burning. What witch besides Rowan was present? This burning was hotter than anything she'd experienced before. She glanced at Rowan who rubbed her ear and searched the crowd with narrowed eyes.
"Destroy the Beladors, demons." Ravana waved his hands, which must have been the sign to attack.
"Why aren't you helping Trey?" Sasha demanded of Lucien.
"I gave him a sword." Lucien shrugged.
Sasha dismissed him and her burning ear. At this point, what did it matter if another witch was present?
The shrieking demons leaped into action. Tzader dove headfirst into the fray, taking out two with knives he wielded with blinding speed. Sasha never saw the cuts, but arms and heads rolled away, turning her stomach.
Trey and Vyan were back at it, but now it was a fair fight with no help from that blasted stone. Shouts, screams, and unearthly howls carpeted the air. Bodies hitting the ground and each other, splashing blood-soaked mud everywhere. The stench of death permeated each suffocating breath Sasha drew. Her ears felt as though they were on fire.
Her gaze tracked to Trey just as he turned to cover Evalle's back while she fought hand to hand against three demons, slashing off one's head with a kick of her boot. Vyan swung his blade in a wide arc toward Trey's head.
Sasha screamed at the top of her lungs for Trey to watch out. He spun toward her, Vyan's blade barely missing him.
"Behind you!" Sasha yelled.
Trey whirled around fast and knocked Vyan to the ground, pinning Vyan with the sword at his throat.
Ravana bellowed, "Kill him and you will face me, Belador! Demons, cease!"
All fighting slowed. The trio of Belador fighters backed up to one another, weapons ready to continue. The creatures slobbered blood, dropping down to all fours and pawing the ground again.
"You any better a warrior than him, Ravana?" Trey chided.
Ravana took a step forward.
"E-nough!" The booming voice that rocked the park bounced from earth to the heavens and back. A man stepped from thin air and Sasha's jaw dropped at the striking vision. Men shouldn't be beautiful. Shimmering mahogany hair hung to his shoulders. He brushed his hand over his head in an impatient gesture and his hair flew back into a pony-tail, a leather tie holding it in place. Smooth olive-toned skin covered his cut body and the sharp-angled face. The scar slashing his forehead only added to his mystique. Mediterranean-blue eyes were Asian shaped. He had to stand close to six-foot-six and strode into the midst of the war zone as though he owned this planet.
"Hey, Sen. How's it hangin'?" Tzader called to the new arrival.
Sen glowered at him then swept his gaze over the battlefield. "You are all at fault for warring among civilians." His glare dared anyone to challenge him. He wore a leather vest, chain belt with skull engravings, and snug jeans that suggested he was hanging just fine to answer Tzader's lewd question. He shoved both hands to the heavens, flexing those rockin' biceps, his face hard and his voice terse when he spoke, yet undecipherable. The rainstorm continued, but the water fell away from where they congregated. He'd thrown an invisible canopy over them.
"Anyone so much as twitches a muscle and I'll dust you," Sen warned and sharpened his gaze at the grumbling demons. "You think Fene is bad? Just piss me off any more than I am now."
"The Beladors broke the truce," Ravana charged.
Sasha leaned forward, ready to take on that lying bastard, but Lucien moved an arm to bar, his eyes locked on the field.
"Kill me now, for I have nothing left to live for," Vyan ordered Trey. "I failed my people and deserve to die."
Trey stared down into the tortured eyes of a man who had lost his woman and his family. "No. There's been enough bloodshed." He turned to the man who had just arrived. "Good to see you, Sen, but this is not a VIPER issue, yet."
"It is when a war breaks out in this world," Sen answered.
"The Beladors broke the truce," Ravana yelled again.
"The Kujoo lured the Beladors into a battle and tricked them," Brina shouted back from her hologram state.
"You will solve this now or I'll call for a tribunal," Sen ordered, clearly in no mood to hear anyone's gripes.
Trey sighed. That would really turn this into a FUBAR situation. If the Celtic and Hindu entities that ruled the Beladors and Kujoo respectively did not resolve this issue, a tribunal made up of three entities unrelated to the problem would be called upon for a decision. That was the only way all these powerful gods and goddesses had managed not to destroy one another or the planet over the past millenniums.
"Call forth your rulers," Sen ordered.
Brina opened her arms and bowed her head. "Goddess Macha, please grace us with your presence."
A swoosh noise drew everyone's gaze up to where a giant swan glided down from the heavens to land gently at the site. Red hair flowed in waves to the waist of the elegant woman sitting upon the bird's back. Her iridescent gown glowed, illuminating the canopied area when she descended from the kneeling swan.
The Celtic goddess Macha had arrived.
All eyes turned to Ravana, who did nothing.
"Call your ruler, Ravana," Sen said in a tone not to be mistaken as a mere suggestion.
"No. You have no say over me or the Kujoo people," Ravana scoffed. "If you want to end this, punish the Beladors by sending them to live beneath Mount Meru and I will ensure that my people uphold the truce from now on."
Trey shook his head. Ravana obviously didn't know Sen.
Sen snarled and morphed into another form, one ten feet tall with a curved neck and bony face that popped further out of shape when he bared a mouth full of sharp teeth. Hair covered his shoulders and the back of his hands that turned into claws, but the lower half of his body remained human.
Trey had heard of his beast-state, but never witnessed it. He glanced at Sasha. The admiring gaze she'd cast at Sen earlier was gone. She shrank back in horror.
Evalle, on the other hand, smiled and said, "Cool."
And that's exactly why men will never understand women.
"Shiva, please bless us with your presence," Macha called out in a melodic voice.
Ravana stared in horror as a low rumble rolled across the earth and the ground trembled. Light speared through the canopy from different angles, the origins far out in the universe. When all the points met in one spot, a slender man in a white silk tunic, flowing pants, and bronze sandals appeared. Gleaming black hair fell neatly to his neck. His eyes were small like black beans, but filled with a thousand years of understanding and no apparent malice.
"Hello, Shiva," Macha greeted him, bowing her head. "It's good to see you again."
Sen relaxed, his body returning to the one Trey had heard women idolized.
"Hello, Macha," Shiva said. "I wish our meeting was under different circumstances. A break in the truce saddens me."
"I agree, but what are we to do?"
Shiva turned to Ravana. "I thought you died many years ago? How is it you are here now?"
"The Beladors broke the truce," Ravana repeated, his voice pitching high. "I rule the Kujoo and demand justice."
"You avoid my question, which perplexes me. I would know if a god such as yourself still lived," Shiva pointed out.
"A god? Wait a minute," Sasha called out.
Trey groaned. He couldn't walk away from Vyan, because the bastard might attack. The members of his tribe were still linked with him and would die if he made a mistake.
"Sasha, please don't interfere," Trey warned quickly before Macha took offense and vaporized her.
"But he's not a god. Trey, my ears were burning. I just realized he has to be a witch, a powerful one."
A collective gasp sucked through the group. Trey raced to think of what to say. Sasha had insulted an entity.
"Goddess, do you think—" Brina started, only to be silenced by a lift of Macha's hand.
"All entities, show your true form now," Macha called out, an order no entity could deny.
Ravana shrieked, "Nooo, nooo, noooooo," then wavered and bent double. His clothes spun in a fiery blur of red. When he stood upright again, he was no longer Ravana, but a woman who would be gorgeous if not for the sinister shape of her eyes.
"I should have known this was your dirty work, Moran," Macha said, her voiced no longer sweet. "How could you do this to your own people?"
Moran lifted off the ground, sneering at Macha. "Your tribe still broke the truce. What say ye to that?"
"I would ask that Shiva pass judgment with compassion for a tribe that has upheld the peace for eight hundred years and will continue to do so," Macha answered, her attention on the Hindu god.
Shiva tilted his head, a thoughtful expression on his calm face. "Your warrior spared a Kujoo life when he could have taken it. I am inclined to allow the truce to continue."
"The Beladors must be sanctioned," the witch Moran ordered.
Shiva and Macha stared at each other; a silent communication flowed between them until Shiva nodded and turned to Moran. "No, the Beladors will not be sanctioned, but you will be for impersonating another entity."
"You wouldn't dare." Moran lifted higher away.
"Oh yes," Macha answered. "We'll call the tribunal if need be. Our only dilemma is just what you deserve."
The crater unearthed by the lightning bolts yawned open and vapor escaped, arching high over their heads and settling in the center of the area.
"I should choose," the vapor whispered in an eerie voice.
"So you did die, Ravana," Shiva said, identifying the vapor.
"Yes, I demand the witch as my slave in Fene for one year."
Moran gasped. "You cannot—"
"I accept that decision," Macha interjected.
"As do I," Shiva agreed.
Moran spun around, but her hair yanked toward the vapor. She screamed in pain, clawing to break free, begging for mercy. The vapor grew, drawing her closer until she was wrapped in a swirling cloud of red smoke. In the blink of an eye the entire mass was snatched back into the crater.
Shiva turned to the demons remaining and said, "Go. Now."
The demons scrambled to the hole and disappeared one by one. As soon as the last one vanished, the crater filled with earth, returning to its original state.
"What about him?" Trey asked, indicating Vyan.
"He has suffered enough and came to save his people," Shiva replied. "I will not release the others from Mount Meru, but he may remain if he swears not to attack you again."
Trey backed away and allowed Vyan to stand. What would this warrior do now in a world where he's an outcast and unfamiliar? There was one place Vyan could thrive if he would truly keep the peace. And in spite of all that had transpired, Trey knew he would be just as tortured if Sasha were killed.
When Vyan retrieved his sword and slid it into the sheath at his side, Trey said, "I understand the depth of your pain and feel for your loss, but as I told you to begin with, I'm part of a Belador tribe that is sworn to protect the innocent, not ravage them. If you can put aside your hate, I might be able to get you into a group called VIPER where your abilities would be welcomed. A place where you could belong."
Vyan's hard gaze shifted to one of defeat and exhaustion. "I want nothing to do with you, Belador. I will not attack you, but neither am I ready to join you, either."
Trey nodded, understanding Vyan's reluctance. "When you change your mind, find a nightstalker and tell them you're looking for VIPER and me. Someone will find you and bring you to me." That was the best he could do for Vyan at the moment.
Vyan stepped toward the pond and Trey tensed. The warrior was going for the stone.
"No, Vyan," Shiva said, stopping the warrior. "Now that the Ngak stone has been released from the hold of Mount Meru, it will choose its next master. It has already done so."
Vyan nodded then faced Trey. "Do not place great value on seeing me again, Belador." He turned to Sen. "Release me from this invisible tent. I wish to breathe untainted air."
Sen arched an annoyed eyebrow at the warrior then turned to Shiva and Macha. "I will rescript the minds of all civilians in this area to remember nothing more than a bad thunderstorm and return the park to its original state before leaving if you require nothing further of me."
Shiva and Macha nodded their assent.
The canopy cleared, as did the heavens. Clouds drifted lazily past a full moon. The park lights blinked on. Trey held himself in check when he wanted to go to Sasha and comfort his little kick-butt warrior. She'd saved everyone by exposing the Celtic witch Moran. But first he had to try to fix one more thing.
He approached Macha. "I wish to ask you something."
"You should be on your knees thanking me, Belador, not asking for more," Macha snapped at him. "You're fortunate not to have unleashed a legion of Kujoo soldiers or to have condemned the Belador tribe to a future beneath Mount Meru."
"I'm sorry for the risk I placed us all under, but I did so only with the belief that my actions were honorable." He lowered his head in respect, but he needed to ask about Rowan.
"That is the only reason I am not sanctioning you. As for Rowan, I have no authority over the magician Ekkbar."