Meanwhile, back in the sacred grove, the gods were feeling the effects of Wajen´s sacred spring water and struggling to their feet. As their heads cleared, Zitkala hastily explained the situation. The gods were furious. Estereal´s eyes glowed in anger, and Jvelto´s cry of rage was echoed by peals of thunder rolling through the grove.
"We must save my beloved," Estereal declared.
At this moment, Briseis´ messenger bird winged into the clearing, trailing a rainbow in its wake.
"Follow me, oh god of rulers." it said. "I will take you to your missing bride. Your first born son and my mistress pursue her."
Remiére´s eyes widened. "They are getting in way over their heads," he whispered. He´d been chased by Athelstan´s demons before, and he knew what the evil gods were capable of.
"We will help them, and my bride," said Estereal. He cast a spell and summoned silver dragons for the gods to ride. Estereal had just created the magnificent animals, and he´d meant them to be a surprise for the wedding. But their speed and strength was needed now.
The gods hopped onto their draconian mounts, except for Torodin. His eyes suddenly grew white and pupil-less. "Azkal is in great peril," he said, and abruptly vanished into the shadows.
Jvelto shuddered. "I hate it when he does that."
"Especially the way his eyes roll back in his head until you can´t even see the pupils any more," said Remiére. "It´s disgusting."
Estereal frowned at them. "The Shadowlord´s powers are a mystery, sometimes even to us. But I have faith in him." He conjured forth a glowing white helmet and tossed it to Zitkala.
"Follow him. He may need help to free your father."
With that, the gods flew away on the silver dragons. Zitkala, after staring distastefully at the magic helmet, put it on. She suddenly felt a telepathic link grow between her and Torodin, and she knew how to follow him. At once she darted out of the clearing, leaving scorched earth in her wake.
No one was left to see the fire that began smoldering among the rose vines.
Natanael and Briseis, meanwhile, were still flying through the trail of mist, led telepathically by the captive Soltana. Gradually, the strange fog around them began to thin, and they could perceive a reddish light ahead.
"Mother warns us to be careful," Briseis whispered, placing a hand upon Natanael´s arm as he guided the chariot.
Looking down at his half sister´s lovely hand, Natanael impulsively drew her close and put his free arm around her.
"Fear not, my beloved."
Briseis looked up at him in astonishment. "Beloved?"
"Oh yes," said Natanael, and they kissed with great passion.
A sudden shrieking startled them from their embrace. The two younger gods looked up in horror as three enormous Fiends - one black, one red, and one blue, hurtled toward them from out of the mist. As one, the huge dragons opened their maws and breathed death upon the chariot.
Natanael held up the Shield of Truth, a gift from his father, deflecting the deadly acid, flame and lightning from himself and Briseis. But the sun horses were not so fortunate. They died instantly, causing the chariot to plummet out of control.
Reacting quickly as always, Briseis grabbed Natanael´s hand and together they jumped onto the nearest level spot -- the back of the huge, red dragon. Natanael fell forward along the beast´s neck. As the fiend snaked its head around, the god of redemption found himself staring straight into a pair of massive, yellow eyes. He reached for his sword even as the fiend opened its maw to bite off his head, but Natanael was too slow.
Fortunately, Briseis was not. She conjured forth a flock of her divine messenger birds, sending them flying down the dragon´s throat. The astonished dragon choked and died.
"I did it!" she cried excitedly.
Natanael smiled and kissed her. "You saved me, my love. But that was our ride."
His words sank home as the dragon twisted, plummeting through the air. The two gods fell. Beneath them they could see the bubbling cauldron of Mt. Cartaigne, waiting to swallow them whole. The remaining two dragons bellowed in triumph, then snatched up and devoured their dead cousin.
Luckily for the two young gods, their elders and Remiére had been making good time on the silver dragons. Just as volcanic death beckoned, Estereal swooped beneath them and caught them neatly. Jvelto and Remiére quickly dispatched the two evil dragons, and all of them flew off on Soltana´s trail.
"Soltana is very close," Briseis cried. "And she rejoices to feel her beloved so near. She is confident that we will triumph."
Estereal smiled. His beloved was never one to give up hope. He urged the silver dragons to greater speed, and they soon caught sight of a dark and twisted castle floating among reddish clouds.
"This is it," said Briseis. "This is where Soltana is imprisoned. The evil gods are there, surrounded by demons. They are conducting a ritual..." The young goddess gasped. "Oh no! They are preparing to sacrifice Soltana! We must hurry!"
Estereal bellowed in rage and drew the Unbreakable Sword of Truth. Othniel and Athelstan would not hurt his beloved, not while he still lived.
As they approached the twisted castle, the gods were attacked by a great army of demons. Their general was an exceptionally intelligent maralith, who´d been ordered to slow the gods down as much as possible. All of the evil gods´ demons were not enough to destroy Estereal and his allies, but it did not matter. All they needed right now was time -- time for the ceremony to be completed.
Inside her prison, Soltana had been bound by eldritch chains to an enchanted black pentagram. Athelstan paced restlessly. He wanted to hurt Soltana himself, but their ancient pact forbade the gods from directly harming each other. Othniel, however, was quite serene as he watched their executioner, the lovely queen succubus Lilith, prepare the Dagger of Soul Stealing that would drain Soltana´s life force and give her powers to the evil gods. It would be enough, Othniel believed, to tip the balance of power and allow them to destroy Estereal.
Natanael and Briseis were fighting back to back as the terrible battle raged. Briseis suddenly gasped and leaned close to her beloved. She had to shout to be heard above the din of battle and Jvelto´s mighty lightning bolts.
"We must go to Soltana now." There was no time to explain. The fleetest of the gods grabbed Natanael and raced inside the twisted castle with such speed that the attacking demons did not even notice their departure.
Briseis and Natanael raced into the Black Sanctuary just in time to see Lilith raise her dagger to cut out Soltana´s heart. The sanctuary was massive. Natanael drew his sword, but knew he could not possibly reach the altar in time to save his mother. And so he called upon his divine strength and drove his holy blade deep into the obsidian floor of the castle. The ground buckled, throwing the succubus to her feet. Forbidden to attack their nephew, Othniel and Athelstan could only scream in rage as Natanael leaped forth and severed Lilith´s head from her body. Furious, Natanael tossed the bloody head at Athelstan, hitting him squarely in the chest and spreading drops of demon blood everywhere.
"How dare you do this to my mother?" Natanael raged. "Even after everything you´ve done, your brothers and sisters might have forgiven you if you´d only tried to redeem yourself. But now, it is too late. You have trespassed one time too many, and the hatred between you will never end."
Othniel cast a spell, and Athelstan abruptly vanished. "Forgive him," said the god of death calmly as we watched Briseis free Soltana. "He was going to kill you despite the sacred edict. I couldn´t allow that. The consequences are too dire, and I still need him."
At this point, the other gods arrived, having dispatched the army of demons. (Only the maralith general escaped.) They all glared at Othniel, even while Soltana ran forth to embrace her betrothed.
"You will pay for this!" Jvelto bellowed.
Estereal smiled grimly as he stared at Othniel. "They already have, brother. Torodin warned me that the evil ones would try to disrupt my wedding. But he also prophesied that they would lose far more than they gained. It will take you some time, brother, to rebuild your demon army."
A flicker of anger ruffled Othniel´s usually calm facade, and then it was gone. "Ah, well... one does need a hobby to pass the millennium. I believe I enjoy making improvements upon the demons almost as much as Athelstan enjoys begetting them. Good day. Do enjoy the rest of your wedding."
Othniel vanished in a puff of smoke.
"Insufferable, flea-bitten, thrice-cursed --"
"Jvelto, enough," said Soltana, who knew that the sea god´s curses could go on for days. "We have a wedding to finish. Shall we?"
Estereal kissed her, and the gods began their journey to the sacred grove.
While the battle had raged, the other gods had been very busy (except for Sharess, who had fallen asleep while waiting in Soltana´s crystal castle). Torodin used the shadows to travel deep beneath the earth, where he found Azkal trapped in his magical cage. The Shadowlord stared in horror as he saw Azkal lying on the bottom of the cage, weak and gasping for breath.
With great effort, Azkal managed to raise his head to regard his younger brother. He was surprised to see tears in Torodin´s eyes, for the two of them had not always gotten along.
"Save yourself," Azkal whispered. "There is nothing you can do for me."
"No. I owe you this," Torodin replied, remembering the time Azkal had saved him from the Abyss. Calling upon his magic powers, Torodin cast a spell to destroy the bars of the cage.
Azkal could only watch in horror as the bars of the cage, in fact the living tendrils of a very powerful demon that Othniel had created, reached out and dug smoky, black tentacles directly into Torodin´s heart. The trap had been meant for Torodin as much as for Azkal, as Othniel had long coveted the Shadowlord´s powers. Knowing that most of the gods would chase after Soltana, he had devised his wicked plan to destroy Azkal and Torodin, gaining the Shadowlord´s powers in the bargain.
Torodin screamed in agony and sank to the ground as the demon drained his life force away. Azkal tried to struggle to his feet, wanting to help the brother he loved more than he was willing to admit, but he was far too weak.
Fortunately for the two gods, Zitkala emerged in a flash of lightning, wearing Estereal´s magical helmet. The artifact had many properties, and Zitkala knew at once that it would protect her from the demon´s foul powers that were killing her father and uncle. Reaching out, she grabbed the bars of the demon cage and sent lightning coursing through its body, killing it at once. She picked up Azkal and Torodin, both now unconscious and near death, and sped back toward the sacred grove.
She was met on the way by Wajen, Ushas, Raaba, and a very astonished young priest named Oghma, who had cured Wajen of her poison. As a reward, the goddesses had decided to ask Estereal if they could grant divinity to the humble Oghma.
Horrified at her brothers´ condition, Wajen insisted that they all stop long enough to heal them. That accomplished, the gods returned to the sacred grove.
Only to find nothing left but ashes. The fire started by Zitkala´s departure had destroyed everything.
"Oh no," said Ushas, and began to cry. "Mother will be so sad."
Torodin chuckled and kissed the goddess of the dawn on the forehead. "Ushas, my dear, don´t worry. We´re gods. We can fix this minor mishap."
And so they did. By the time Estereal, Soltana and the others arrived, the Sacred Grove had been restored to its former, rose-strewn beauty. The rest of the ceremony went splendidly.
Afterwards, the gods celebrated. They had much to be thankful for beyond even the blessed union of Estereal and Soltana. They had survived great treachery, Natanael and Briseis announced their engagement, and Estereal asked Torodin to grant god-hood to a very astonished Oghma.
"But, I´m not worthy," the young scholar priest protested.
"You saved my life," said Wajen. "You are more than worthy."
"It was meant to be," said Torodin, whose eyes had grown unfocused. "There will come a day when our followers will seek knowledge from your shrine -- knowledge that will help them to defeat the minions of the evil ones."
Jvelto shuddered and grimaced at Remiére. "I hate it when he does that."
Remiére agreed, but he was distracted as Raaba grabbed him by the hand and asked him to dance. Wajen summoned faeries to make music, and all the gods soon joined them in their revelry.
The only one missing was Sharess, who slept forgotten in Soltana´s palace. Afterwards, the petulant goddess vowed that she would find some way to avenge this insult. But for the time being, no one missed her. They were all too happy for Estereal and Soltana, who had finally begun their married life together, rich in a love that would never end.