The story concludes.
WHAT GOD DID I PISS OFF?
See chapter one for disclaimers.
"We only need to get the Heart of Meridian away from Nerissa for a little while," Taranee insisted, hampered in her efforts to sell the idea by her inability to explain why it would work.
"So you said, but will this really work? How will it help?"
The Fire Guardian suppressed the urge to sigh. "It seems like a cheap trick Will, I know, but it should buy us the opening we need. Just keep her focused on you. I'll pull it off. For the rest... You're just going to have to trust me."
The Guardians' leader nodded. "Okay then." She glanced around at the others, who also nodded, although somewhat reluctantly. Will could understand their hesitation. The plan required brutal efficiency, which meant tactics they would normally shy away from using. It couldn't be helped, though. "Lets go."
The quarry was in the quarry. Irma thought it, but didn't say it. It sounded silly, even to her. A mental summons from Taranee got her attention, and they all focused on getting quietly into position. Each would attack from a different point along the rim, neutralizing the Knights of Vengeance in a carefully coordinated surprise attack. For the plan to work, each one would have to be quick and decisive. It would also have to be simultaneous. That was where the telepathic link came in handy.
Each of them checked once they were in position and each waited for the word to go. Everyone got her target? Will sent. Then... GO!
The ground erupted under Khor's feet, raising him high into the air even as it opened like a flower and then closed around him. He found himself pinned, arms and legs tightly constricted as the air was forced from his lungs, making resistance impossible. He struggled and raged for as long as he could, but felt no anger to draw on. His attacker was infuriatingly calm as the air in Khor's lungs ran out and he lost consciousness.
Shaigon spread his wings and beat downward with them, attempting to launch himself into the air. There was no resistance, and he staggered at the unexpected development. Behind his golden mask, his mouth opened and closed as he desperately tried to draw in air that wasn't there. Collapsing to his knees, on the edge of unconsciousness he used the last of his strength to turn toward the column of stone that had borne Khor away. An energy blast took a chunk of the column, but it reformed before his eyes even as he fell face down into darkness.
The chill cut Ember like a knife, and the paralyzing ache that came with that cold brought her almost instantly to her knees as her flames and all of the heat in the air around her were pulled away in a heartbeat. Then it got worse.
The flames engulfed Tridart without warning, vaporizing the ice walls he raised to defend himself with almost instantly. His wings withered and he screamed as his strength deserted him. The only desperation he felt came from his fellow Knights. The only fear he felt was his own.
Halinor tried desperately to reach the edge of the sphere of water. She hadn't had time to take a breath before being engulfed and was almost out of air. Their attackers had planned well. She couldn't use her power under water, even if she could have concentrated on doing so.
Cassidy didn't know what to do. She didn't have orders and, in her current state of mind, was lost without them. Halinor, one of her oldest friends was in trouble, and she drifted in that direction, only to find another old friend blocking her path.
"Snap out of it, Cassidy," Kadma commanded. She'd always been good at that. It had been Kadma who assumed command of the Guardians when she herself was killed. Cassidy frowned. Something about that should bother her, she knew, but it was hard to think. So much easier to just do as Nerissa told her to.
"Nerissa needs me."
"Nerissa killed you, just as her underlings killed me,"Kadma countered. "You owe her nothing." She had the satisfaction of seeing Cassidy blink slowly, a puzzled expression crossing the formerly blank visage.
Nerissa dodged a jet of high-pressure water even as she used the Heart to counter a bolt of lightning from the Guardian's leader. None of them were holding back, Nerissa realized with a shock, and wondered what had caused the change. A crippling or even killing blow from one of them was suddenly a distinct possibility. A quick glance around showed that all of her servants were down or occupied, and she cursed their luck and hers. She had expected the new queen to be less decisive, less effective, or both. The well-coordinated, vicious attack had come before she could finalize her plans to relieve the new queen of her Heart.
She knew the child's weakness, she was certain of it. To take advantage of that knowledge, however, she had to choose the time and place. Her current position was untenable, and she had to escape. Knowing this and accomplishing it were two very different things.
She could simply teletransport away, but that would mean abandoning her thralls and her knights, into whom she had put so much hard work, and she wasn't prepared to do that just yet.
Nerissa had always been a planner. She made plans for every contingency and thought them out thoroughly. When those plans fell apart, as this one was doing, improvisation became necessary, and that was not her forte. She could think on her feet during a fight, certainly, but at the moment, she needed room to breathe so she could rethink her entire approach to the campaign. Clearly, the Guardians weren't going to give her that.
It was easy enough to decide to abandon the Knights, but her former teammates were another matter. She might never be able to retrieve Cassidy and Halinor. Grinding her teeth in frustration, she raised the Heart, preparing to transport herself away. The gesture became a reflexive jerk as she screamed in pain and threw the Heart and its chain, which was suddenly glowing cherry red, away from her.
Realizing her error she turned to retrieve it and found it dangling, still glowing, from Taranee's fist. "For me?" the Fire Guardian asked sweetly. "Thank you."
"I surrender nothing child! A Heart cannot be taken by force."
"I didn't force you to throw it away," Taranee pointed out. Last minute doubts assailed her. The prospect of what she was about to do made her skin crawl, but as Kadma had pointed out, there were no real options. This was their only chance. Ruthlessly quashing her self-doubt, Taranee took hold of the magic as the former queen had taught her, and began forming the spell in her mind, drawing on the power of both Hearts. "You want it back? All of that power that you know doesn't belong to you?" Nerissa dodged another bolt of lightning from Will and lunged at Taranee, too late seeing the trap. "Desire for what you know you shouldn't have? A lust for power that isn't rightfully yours? That's the chink in /your/armor Nerissa! And it's all /I/need."
How?! Nerissa howled internally, even as she felt her free will slipping away. How had the child learned that spell? No one on the Council would have taught her. It was very dark magic, and those fools would never have condoned its use for any purpose. /How-/?
Nerissa stood complacently among her fallen thralls. The battle was over and the guardians could only stare in astonishment at Taranee.
"That...that's Nerissa's spell," Hay Lin was the first to find her voice. "It's how she's been controlling people! Where did you learn that?"
"And how could you use it?" Will demanded angrily. "Is this why you wouldn't tell us what you were planning?"
"That's right," Taranee agreed, raising the Heart of Meridian, and wincing as her friends took a collective step back. "Kadma told me how. She also told me how to do this." A moment's concentration caused the jewel to glow brightly. When the light faded, Elyon stood before them. "Your Majesty?" Taranee addressed her. "I think this is yours." She bowed as she handed over the necklace
"Um, thank you." Elyon glanced about at her friends. "I could see some of what was happening from inside there, but could someone fill me in? I'm clearly missing some details."
"In a bit," Taranee said wearily. "First we need to take care of these guys," she gestured at the fallen knights and the former Guardians, "and then, there's still one Heart that isn't where it belongs."
It took time to sort everyone out. The power used to create the Knights of Destruction was reabsorbed, destroying Tridart and Ember and releasing Matt and Mr. Huggles from Nerissa's spell. Two ghosts were sent on their way and Halinor was returned to Kandrakhar.
The Guardians, Elyon, Peter and Theresa Cook, Yan Lin, Matt, Nigel, and, at Taranee's request, Ironwood, also traveled to Kandrakhar to speak to the Council. Of the steps she had taken, Taranee would only say, "I only want to tell this once. Let's wait till we get to the Oracle."
Once Nerissa had been turned over, Taranee stood before the Council and the rest and told her story.
"Nerissa summoned Kadma's spirit and tried to gain control over her. It didn't work, so she punished Kadma by trapping her here, leaving her alone to wander with no one who could see or hear her. What Nerissa hadn't realized was that I could see Kadma because of our shared link with the Heart of Zamballa. It gave me one advantage where everything else was beyond my control. I honestly don't believe I could have held onto the Heart if Nerissa had been allowed to make plans." Some of her audience started to protest, but the Oracle raised a hand, asking them to wait. "We've been on the defensive since this began, and we all know it. Kadma realized, after her talk with Nerissa, that she was being manipulated. Her victories over the Knights had been too easy. Nerissa wanted to make her overconfident and careless. The spell she used allowed her to take advantage of any weakness, any'chink' in a person's armor, whether that was arrogance, fear, vanity, greed, self-doubt, whatever. It gave her access and then control. It's..." she trailed off, looking at her feet, her shoulders slumped.
"Go on child," the Oracle prodded after a moment.
"It's a kind of rape," Taranee spat the words out. "Just a moment's weakness... vulnerability is enough. It lets the person casting the spell force another to act against their nature, even attack the people they love." She couldn't resist a glance at Matt, who was looking particularly miserable and pointedly avoiding Will's eyes.
There were murmurs of distress from the Council, and ashadow passed over the Oracle's normally placid face. He nodded for her to continue.
"We knew we had to end it fast. Kadma had worked out how the spell worked, so she taught it to me."
"Why?" Will demanded. "We would have found a way without you having to do... that."
"No, Will, and you know why? Because you were right. Getting her to throw the Heart away by burning her was a cheap trick. I knew I'd have seconds at best, and after that, she wouldn't have let any of us walk away." Will opened her mouth to protest, but stopped and slowly nodded instead.
"You're right about that. I can't see her taking another chance. I guess you really didn't have a choice."
Taranee turned back to the Council. "That doesn't mean it was right." She turned to Ironwood. "Rituals or no, I want you to take this, Ironwood. You'll be much better at leading your people than I'd ever be." Ironwood bowed low and accepted the Heart of Zamballa.
"Don't berate yourself, Taranee," the Oracle stepped forward. "You made a difficult decision under very difficult circumstances, and now, you surrender your throne and your power without hesitation. The Heart of Zamballa made the right choice in guiding Kadma to you."
"I don't want to argue the point," Taranee answered tiredly,"but I'm going to need a little time." She glanced at the other Guardians, none of whom looked terribly happy. "I think we all will."
"I understand," the Oracle nodded. "Try to remember, though. This was a victory."
"Yay us," Will said with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. She glanced around at the other Guardians who were clearly remembering some of the things they had done during the last battle that they weren't proud of. Setting her shoulders, she took Matt's hand despite the way he stiffened at her touch. "Taranee's right. We'll need time. If you need us, don't hesitate to call, but... try not to need us for a while."
"A new crisis will arise soon enough," the Oracle predicted as he watched the diverse group prepare to go their separate ways, two anxious to return to their kingdoms and the rest just wishing to put the day behind them, "and I have no doubt that W.I.T.C.H. will be ready."