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Bellon troops who had rallied to the aid of Rumbek from across the land of the Brown Beards had come to Rumbek along with the forces of the House of Antero. Already many of these were manning positions on the Nine Mile Wall to turn back the Gerash invaders.

But there in the sight of every man and woman under arms Demonstroke arrived from the east. The beast released from it’s left claw something like a star that fell from the sky burning like a torch, and it struck the ground near the center of the Nine Mile Wall with great violence, such that it dug a deep pit.

And Demonstroke released from its right claw another projectile that fell into this new pit, and there was a blast under the ground such as had not been seen on Barbelo since the fall of the asteroid that brought the second world flood, and never in living memory.

Then the bottom half of the Nine Mile Wall nigh to Rumbek blew straight out, and the masonry of the Wall above the blast collapsed in ruin, and in place of a sheer wall there was a ramp of sand, but many besieging Gerash troops also died, or were buried alive by the debris.

Lord Kirodiel paid no mind to his own casualties. He commanded his remaining generals to charge up that ramp with their divisions to the Magodon plateau above, and they immediately began to comply.

Then Demonstroke himself dropped from the sky and crashed to the battle plain behind the wall, and smoke rose from its black carcass like the smoke of a great furnace, and the orange sun was darkened by reason of the smoke.

And the dragon rose again out of the smoke glittering with black armor as smooth as glass, and its teeth were rockets which were loosed against men, and the sound of its wings were like a great waterfall. And Demonstroke had a flexible tail like a scorpion, and there was a gun in that tail which could kill men with rounds as thick as a thumb.

Demonstroke came among the ordered ranks of the allied families like a storm, killing men at will, and scattered them in disorder before they could make a counter-charge down the ramp in the Nine Mile Wall.

When Khondiel saw this she held Talishi’s hand, and squeezed it, and Talishi said to her, “Alas, our enemy Mastema is come.” And Talishi knew the dragon had the power to snatch her victory away when she was on the cusp of attaining it, and that was reason enough to summon her own avatar, but she found that neither victory nor defeat meant anything to her now.

A new thing had come to dominate Talishi’s consciousness. When she looked upon Khondiel she saw her anew, as though gazing upon her for the very first time. Talishi found that Khondiel had suddenly become the most important thing in creation to her, and she was desperate to get Khondiel away from the field of battle.

A living star had fallen in love with a planet-dweller.

Demonstroke lighted near Lord Kirodiel on the battle plain, and Joy dismounted the beast. She came before the Gerash Patriarch, and bowed deeply. After she paid obeisance they both witnessed the avatar of El Shaddai landing on the plateau of Magodon close to them, and Kirodiel said to Joy, “Your orders are to destroy the avatar of El Shaddai immediately!”

“Yes, my Lord!” Joy bowed her head in acknowledgement and ran back toward the waiting dragon.

Khondiel guessed the time was very short now. She said, “Speak plainly to me now, Talishi. What do you want me to do?”

And Talishi said, “My avatar will take you far away from this place. I want you to go. No, I need you to go. Something happened to me just now. Khondiel, you…are now the most important thing in heaven or Barbelo to me.”

But Khondiel said, “If I leave in your avatar, House Bellon and House Antero will have no defense against the dragon. Forget about me, Talishi!”

And Talishi recalled Khondiel’s own words at the Battle of Salem, when she saw her naked in a cage and Talishi told Khondiel to forget about her, and Talishi repeated them here for Khondiel now, tearfully, “Don’t you know by now that’s the one thing I can never do?”

And Khondiel open wept, because for the first time she knew her undying love for Talishi was truly being reciprocated at last. Yet they were mostly tears of happiness.

Talishi told her, “All those things I preached to everyone about love were so much straw, because I didn’t know what love meant until now, neither as Talishi nor as El Shaddai, neither as human nor living star.”

Khondiel still wanted to protest, but she could see the dragon starting to rise above the battle plain, and she could see that Talishi desperately needed her to do this thing. So she kissed Talishi and climbed inside the avatar of Binah like she had done several times before.

Then the avatar of Binah immediately leaped in to the sky with fire and smoke and noise, and Khondiel felt herself to be too heavy to move, and once again she was deeply terrified, which was an extraordinary thing, for Khondiel led the Fallen Angels. But her terror was not rooted in her own safety, but that the love that had been acknowledged by Talishi would never take root and flourish. Such a good thing! And it wasn’t going to happen. No. Khondiel of a surety knew that now.

Demonstroke lumbered into the sky after her and smote the avatar of El Shaddai with a fearsome white flame from the heart of the orange sun that poured from its open mouth, and the avatar was destroyed, which was no small feat, for it had been made in the belly of Sol. And Princess Khondiel, riding inside, instantly died and was lost forever to Talishi.

Mastema felt the fold-line that had linked El Shaddai to the avatar retract through the fold-door that he kept open in Canterwood, never to return again.

In that very moment Talishi knew Khondiel was dead, and the world seemed to turn empty and gray to Talishi. She refused to speak a word until long afterwards, for she was utterly lost in her grief. In a daze, Talishi fell in among the forces of House Antero as they returned to the west, fighting with the stragglers of Bellon a rear-guard action against Kirodiel.

And when Joy returned to her master Kirodiel he praised her for removing the thorn of El Shaddai’s ancient avatar from Barbelo, but he also lamented, “There remains a second avatar in the Land of Menkal called the Ark of the Covenant, and it would be no difficult thing for El Shaddai to enlarge his link with that avatar, and cause the seed of one or more avatars to pass through it and unwrap, and thus attempt to hinder me yet again.”

And Joy was astonished, because she discerned that Kirodiel did not know a thing that she was free to reveal. She said to him, “It may please the Lord to learn that since the conception of Bat-El, El Shaddai is no longer free to construct an avatar within her body, nor may Bat-El construct an avatar within hers, for the life of both Elohim share a single sun, and to build an avatar now would kill one or the other.”

Then Kirodiel was literally rubbing his hands in glee. “The Ark of the Covenant is the only remaining avatar of El Shaddai, and if we destroy it, neither El Shaddai nor Bat-El shall have the means to antagonize me on Barbelo again!”

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