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by Stephen J. Herron

The Sacrifice of Angels

1st December 1996

Enough was enough.

The Rebels had been waiting for seven months, protecting Matthew, and listening to the stories of the war in Belfast.

They held a council one morning, with the Duchess and Malcolm, and they decided that they were moving back to Belfast, to get involved in the war properly. Aishling carefully suggested that they should not, Her words were careful and measured.

Malcolm said nothing. He would go wherever Matthew went, wherever the Rebels went.

He did insist upon going to Belfast first, and warned the Rebels not to travel until it was dark.

He went, and the Rebels were left again, counting down the hours and minutes until it as time to leave.

Giant cleaned his axe, while Robin sat watching the fire. Eithne and Matthew spoke quietly, and Rocky sparred with a punching bag hanging in the kitchen.

They were getting ready.

Cars and vans of all colours were parked around the Ducal Manor of Belfast. It looked almost beautiful, a splash of random colour on the grey gravel of the driveway around the white building.

Their owners were oblivious to their vehicles whereabouts, and if they hadn't reported them missing, it was because they didn't know yet.

Inside the Manor, Lorenzo was addressing his people. He told them how well they were doing, and how much he would reward them when the war was finally over, which was but days away, he promised. He gave them new instructions, and sent them away to maim hurt and dismay the people of Belfast.

Folly watched them clear out of the room, and when they were gone he turned to Lorenzo.

"It's going to be soon, isn't it ? That thing you're worried about."

Lorenzo nodded, and stood from the chair he had been seated in during the meeting.

"Yes. King Finn has been quite clear that its any day now."

Folly nodded. Then he bit his lip, and smiled weakly.

"What exactly ?"

Lorenzo shrugged.

"I don't know. Three things will happen, fairly rapidly. I don't know what the first two are, but the last one involves a bit of a trip to a nasty old pit in Antrim."

Folly was still curious.

"What about the first two ?" he insisted. Lorenzo shot him an annoyed glance.

"Something about sacrifices. You know, all that Seelie nonsense about giving up something for the greater good."

Folly nodded.

"And ?"

Lorenzo grinned.

"And the first one has something to do with our friend the Smoke Dragon..."

Kestry stood upon the balcony of the ballroom at Belfast Castle. He stared out across the city below, and was silent.

He had never been a poker player, and while he was good at it, chess had never been his favorite game. He had always avoided the intrigues of court, and under his rule, Belfast had been free of the politics, there being more than enough mortal politics to deal with.

But he was about to play a gambit that could turn the war around, and it made him nervous. It wasn't carved pieces of ivory and ebony at risk here, but the lives of people who he knew and loved. And, ultimately, the lives of thousands of people who would never be aware of his existence.

"Maybe I'm not cut out for this game," he murmured.

No one answered.

The sun was setting, and he glanced down at his watch. He knew he had one last chance to talk with the Harpers, before things went crazy. He walked out of the Castle, and drove with Galway down to the pub in the city center where he knew they'd be waiting.

He would later regret his decision.

The Trod to Cave Hill opened, and the Rebels emerged, eyes wary. They were about five minutes walk from Belfast Castle, and they knew that they would only be safe within its enchanted walls. It was dark, and they knew now why Malcolm had insisted that they wait until nightfall. He would regain his powers, and be better able to protect them.

Malcolm eyes flickered open, dead again. He felt the supernatural strength return, and within seconds he was a blur, as his celerity engaged. Malcolm was a machine of violence, harnessed and controlled by his Oath to Ardry.

The Formori had entered the grounds. The battle had started.

Peter, in Crinos form, was leaping into the back of one giant beast, and with a single motion had it in two pieces. Two others grabbed him, and Peter punched through one, and squeezed the other one until its head came off in his hands.

Malcolm seemed to just appear behind Formori as he stopped his preternatural movement just long enough to put his huge gun to the back of a head and fire. Sometimes he needed to use his long clawed hands too.

Twelve seconds into the fight, and the pair had killed over fifteen Formori. It was a horror of blood and gore, the two most dangerous entities in Belfast celebrating their skill and power. They fought on the right side.

The Rebels were trying to get into the Castle, to safety. Rocky was boxing with a Formori monstrosity, while Giant stayed protectively at Eithne's side. Robin held Matthew's hand, and her eyes were darting about, looking for something she felt was nearby.

And out of the night sky came the Smoke Dragon, dark shadows of dust and vapour. Robin screamed and pointed. She gathered up her Glamour, and wrapped Matthew in it, hiding him. A shimmering image of him appeared by Eithne holding her hand. She looked over at Robin, and nodded, understanding.

The Dragon landed between them splitting them up. It ignored Robin and Rocky, having eyes only for Eithne and the illusionary High King.

Elsewhere In the grounds of the Castle, the fight went on. Peter was jumped on by a huge bearlike Formor, which left him with deep steaming wounds. The Garou lifted the Formori, and in fury, threw the creature into a rock outcrop. It howled and gasped its' last breath, stuck in the rock with the power of the impact.

Malcolm's claws were deep inside the chest of a female dog-like Formori. He grabbed her heart, and pulled it out of her chest. It stared at its beating organ, and tried to grab it back. Malcolm stepped back, and with a sneer of contempt threw the heart down the slope.

"Fetch," he suggested, and walked away from the dying beast. He looked back up the slope, and saw Peter nodded back at him. Malcolm checked his pocket watch.

"Thirty seconds. Not bad for a dead guy," he commented to himself. Then he heard the roar of the Smoke Dragon.

"Ah, damn," he said, and blurred into motion. It would take him twenty seconds to reach the Castle. He hoped it would be enough.

"You will not pass."

Giant was resolute, tall, strong. He heard Eithne behind him, crying out for him to run, to escape. She lay on the ground, hurt, bleeding from the wound that the Smoke Dragon had inflicted upon her.

Giant looked up, and saw Rocky with Matthew disappear over the wall. He smiled.

"You will not pass."

The Dragon hissed at him, and its' claw plowed through the air. Giant raised his axe and parried the blow, though it made him stagger back. The blow came again and again, and each time Giant winced at the power. He struck out at the Dragon with a mighty swing of his axe that spun him around on his feet. It sliced deeply through the Dragon's snout, and black soot spouted from the wound. The Dragon howled in agony, blinded by the pain. Then with hate filled eyes, it struck back at the Troll.

Eithne pulled herself back, not able to feel her legs. She watched Giant stand his ground, knowing that he was only buying time for Matthew... and for her.

"WHERE IS HE ?" boomed the Dragon, its maw maimed by the Trolls. Giant swung his axe, and the Dragon tossed it away, bored of the little Troll.

"Giant ! Michael ! No !" screamed Eithne. She was near the door, but not through it. Once she was in the Castle, she'd be safe.

He turned, and grabbed her, and kicked the door open.

She held onto him, and was crying in fear, as he threw her through the doorway. He stood in the doorway, facing Eithne, his back to the Dragon. His face was resolute. He would block the doorway until she was out of reach.

She crawled backwards along the floor watching his face as Giant took blow after blow upon his broad back. With each impact from the Smoke Dragon's claws, his face grew paler, but not less resolute.

Eithne reached out, to try and touch Giant. His hand reached for hers, and all his love and respect for Eithne was in his pained gaze. She saw it, and knew that she was losing the first man to have loved her completely, for all she was, not just her title, or her looks. He loved all of her soul with all of his.

His eyes carried his love to her, even as the Smoke Dragon plunged its claws through his back and out through his chest. Then the life in his eyes went out.

Eithne screamed with loss, and poured her hate and anger out at the Dragon in the doorway with all the Glamour she could muster.

The Dragon staggered back, stung but unhurt. It looked around, and realized that it had been tricked. The child was not with the Sidhe wench after all. It roared in frustration, and shot upwards. into the night, forever scarred by the dead boy below.

Eithne crawled forward, and cradled Giants huge frame in her arms, weeping in heartbroken pain at the loss.

"I didn't know... I'm sorry... " she rocked him back and forth. Now she knew what it was to love, and she knew that whatever she had felt for Kestry had been fantasy. Giant had died for her, and she now knew that she rather have died, instead of the brave, kind Troll.

"Michael...I love you too..." she whispered to him. "I did all along. I just didn't realize..." She hoped, somewhere, he'd hear her.

Malcolm appeared in the doorway, and stared down at the pair, for but a moment. Somewhere in his dead heart, he vaguely envied the depth of her feeling. He said nothing, but vanished in pursuit of the other Rebels.

Robin and Rocky ran through the trees of the dark forest, heading towards the secret door into the castle. Matthew clung to Rocky, afraid. The Smoke Dragon's roar echoed through the trees, and Robin cried out, a painful sob.

"Giant's dead !" she yelled, knowing somehow. Rocky nodded, tears on his face. They had all felt his leaving, part of their Oathcircle gone. The reached the hidden door, and were inside the tunnel within moments. Then they had time to grieve.

When word reached Lorenzo about the fight at the castle, he was initially upset at the failure to get the child. He was worried about the presence of the Formori, though only the mention of the death of the Troll managed to raise a smile. Lorenzo was too concerned to see that the King's first warning had come to pass. And moreover, he had never understood that the Kings predictions had been warnings.

In the back of Lorenzo's mind, the part owned by Doireanna, he knew that the Formori had been there at her bidding. He had sent the Dragon to watch over the place- or so he thought. Perhaps even the Smoke Dragon was working for her.

The thoughts barely surfaced, such was the woman's grip on his mind. He smiled.

"So that Troll is dead ? Shame. Next time kill that wee birdy, and bring the pretty girl to me."

He sipped his wine, oblivious to the movement of fate.

Giant had been dead for a day. They had taken his body, and laid it out upon the ground outside the castle. Eithne had been weak with tears, and there was nothing that could console her. Robin had held Kestry, and wept into his shoulder, while Galway had been silent and heartbroken. Eventually, a subdued and bloody Peter had spoken with Kestry, and had arranged for Michaels body to be taken to the nearest police station. He would make arrangements for Michael's body to be returned to his family, and a hit-and-run accident to be the cover story. Kestry nodded, but said nothing. He trusted the Garou to make it all happen.

They spent the rest of the evening in silence, just remembering their friend.

So it was now the next day. Kestry was preparing for the moment he had been waiting for. Two long years of preparation had led them all to this point.

"We're going back to Aishling's," he told them, and they stared.

"So, we didn't have to come here ? Giant died for nothing ?"

It was Eithne who spoke out. Kestry shook his head.

"He saved your life. You chose to come here, and it you had not, the the Sluagh who Aishling's brothers caught last night in the manor would have killed you all."

She blinkd, went pale.

"Oh. I see."

Kestry nodded.

"You made the right decision. Giant died, but he would have been only one of five deaths at the manor last night."

He looked away, eyes stinging with sudden tears. He forced them back.

"But yes, we're going back. I want you to be there. And Matthew has to be there anyway."

They looked blankly at him, and he just grinned.

"Where's Malcolm ?" asked Rocky. Kestry shrugged.

"He said he had things to do."

Malcolm was walking through the Ulster Museum. He wasn't looking for exhibits. He'd seen them all before, but this was the first time he'd been here during the day. He wondered how the visitors would feel if they knew that the whole place was run by a Vampire ? And that at night it became the playhouse of a Malkavian who had an interest in traps ?

He smiled despite himself, remembering the many nights he'd spent here with his friend, trying to come to terms with their madness. He wondered if Stephen Harper had survived.

Malcolm opened a secret door behind an exhibit of precious stones that even the staff didn't know about, and vanished into the bowels of the museum.

Eventually, he found Stephen's haven.

The Malkavian was sleeping in a shipping crate, surrounded by pictures of the woman whose death had sent him first into madness, then into the arms of an unnamed Vampire twenty years ago.

"Wake up," he said quietly. The other Vampire was silent. Malcolm slapped him.

"wha..."

"Stephen... it's me."

The Vampire opened his eyes.

"Malcolm ?" he asked. Malcolm nodded.

"Hello, my friend."

Stephen looked around.

"It's daytime. You're mortal."

He looked at his watch.

"And it's been three years."

Malcolm nodded.

"Kinda. It's a long story."

Stephen nodded.

"A faerie story ?"

Malcolm grinned.

"Yeah."

Stephen yawned. He didn't need to, but he did.

"What can I do for you ?" he asked. Malcolm smiled.

"I need the O'Brinn artifact."

Stephen nodded. He reached beneath him, and pulled out an ancient gold torc. He handed it to Malcolm, who slipped it into his pocket.

"Cheers."

"Don't be a stranger," said Stephen settling back into Torpor. Malcolm patted his shoulder.

"Sleep well. I'll see you later."

He resealed the packing crate, and left the museum. He slipped the torc on, below his shirt collar. It was cold, heavy, but he could feel the magic within it working already.

"Soon," he commented to the security guard at the museum door. The guard nodded, but looked bewildered.

Malcolm walked out into the cold winter sunshine.

They all stood silently watching the three figures. Kestry, Aishling and Matthew were holding hands around the standing stone at the top of the small, secret hill in the grounds of Castlewellen. Few knew of the hill, fewer still had ever found it.

"It's time."

Ardry's voice came from Matthew's mouth, and Aishling nodded. She closed her eyes, and wove Glamour around the stone, her voice moving with a silent song. Then Kestry joined in, and the stone began to shimmer. Their voices were joined by Ardry's and the magic of the stone was ignited with multicoloured flame.

Lorenzo stood, bolt upright in his Ducal Manor, as did each and every Duke, Count and Baron in Ulster. King Finn too was held by the Glamour, as a hundred years of suppressed magic was called forth.

"Once a century, the Duchy of Down may call upon an ancient law, hidden by the King, and rediscovered by Kestry, former Duke of Belfast."

The voice was that of the Stones, yet it used the harmonic trio of Kestry, Aishling and Ardry, a chorus of Seelie voices that shimmered like light.

"This law was written a thousand years ago, and it was written with this day in mind, though it has proved useful in the past."

Finn, in his throne room of Emain Macha, cried out in fear.

Lorenzo swore in anger.

Doireanna screamed in pain, as Balor itself struck out at her from inside her heart.

"It was a law of balance. Once in a hundred years, the Duchy of Down may make a decision that may not be overturned by any King or Queen, though it may not counteract a decision already taken. Thus it was hoped that the worst excesses of a corrupt ruler could be countered."

Lorenzo waited, listening, wondering what the decision would be. He could not be deposed as Duke, and he could think of nothing that could endanger him or his campaign... yet he knew that Kestry would have a plan, a course of action, that no matter how long and careful, would ultimately lead to a confrontation between them.

"Duchess Aishling of Down chooses to stand down from her position and grant her Duchy and title to Kestry ap Liam of Belfast. "

The King sat heavily down upon his throne, and put his head in his hands.

Lorenzo smiled, pleased at Kestry's decision. It had been at least as clever as he had expected. He touched his blade, and knew that they would finally have a meeting that would end in the death of one or the other of him. But mostly Kestry.

Doireanna lay on the floor, bleeding from a hundred black wounds across her body, which healed shut with a dark light as Balor let her be, finally.

Aishling let go of Ardry's hand, and looked up in the face of Duke Kestry of Down, who still held her hand gently in his. Her other hand touched his face with soft affection.

"My Duke," she smiled demurely. Kestry kissed her cheek.

"My lady," he whispered.

The Rebels stared in amazement.

"Wow," commented Robin. Eithne was smiling, yet her heart was still laid low with the loss of Giant. Rocky put hand on her shoulder.

"He'd be happy, Eithne. He knows."

She nodded but couldn't stop the tears. Robin looked concerned, but Eithne shook her head.

"I'm happy, really. I think that we're going to win, and that's the best memorial for Michael that we could ever have."

Robin smiled, and held Eithne's left hand, and Rocky took her other hand. They stood there, at the edge of the hill, with the new Duke watching them.

"We'll win," he whispered to Aishling. She nodded.

"Because of them," she agreed.

Kestry hugged her, and took Matthew's hand. The little boy looked up at him.

"We have to go now ?" he asked. Kestry nodded.

"Yep. Come on."

They walked over to the Rebels, and then out of the clearing. Kestry looked back at Aishling.

"Are you coming ?" he asked.

She shook her head.

"I have to stay here for a while. Kestry..." her voice trailed off, a glimmer of fear there. Kestry looked helplessly back at her, as emotions passed between them.

"I know. Me too." he said softly. The Rebels were around him, Matthew holding his hand, and she knew that this would be the last time she'd ever see him.

Then he was gone.

She sat by the stone, and wept.

Then she prayed, until the sun set over the hill.

The throne room at Emain Macha was busy with courtiers and squires. Lorenzo watched the activity with disinterest. The King stood silently, watching the repair work upon the windows progress.

"What now ?" asked Lorenzo. King Finn shrugged.

"He is a Duke once more. He will evoke the Right of Confrontation, and face you as an equal. You will fight, and he will win, and he will claim the Duchy of Belfast as his once more. Then he will hand Down back to Aishling, and they will most likely be married. I will be overthrown, and peace will rule in Ulster once again."

"Bollocks to that," commented Lorenzo, and he turned on his heel and walked out.

Finn watched him go, and his dark soul smiled at what Lorenzo was sure to do next.

Aishling walked up the long path to her manor. Not hers, not anymore, it was now the manor of Duke Kestry of Down. She smiled, pleased that their plan worked. Now the King could not stop a confrontation between Kestry and Lorenzo, in public, with all the power of the Eschat to back Kestry up.

She knew she'd given up a lot, but for the first time in years, she felt hope again. If Kestry got Belfast back, then she would regain her position. If not, Kestry would remain Duke of Down, which was fine, because she loved him more than she could explain, and she would be by his side forever.

She couldn't remember why she had been so scared.

The road to the Manor was empty, silent. Night had fallen, and only the moonlight illuminated the road. Then, a figure stepped out from a behind a tree, some paces ahead. Aishling stopped, stared.

"Well, my common little Sidhe," said Lorenzo with glee, "Now I can finally deal with you properly."

Aishling started to summon up Glamour, but a heavy blow to the back of her head stopped that.

Blind with pain, she fell to her knees with a sob, and her hand went to the back of her head. It came away wet with blood. She coughed harshly, and tried to look up. Her eyes were filled with tears. She could feel her Glamour slipping away, and she knew she was Undone.

"Why ?" she asked, he voice a whisper. Sir Vasrik lifted his club, pierced with long cold iron spikes, ready for another strike. He looked to Lorenzo, who looked like he was thinking of an answer. Then he just grinned, and shook his head slowly.

Vasrik struck her again, once.

Once was enough.

Lorenzo spat onto her motionless body, watching her life ebb away, and turned on his heel, and they were gone.

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