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The Fallen Angels shove Belial's snigger right back down his throat.

At sunrise Khondiel beheld Talishi again on the hilltop, naked and shivering within the wooden cage which was locked securely and was surrounded by a heavy guard representing a fair fraction of Belial's available yeng.

And that is Belial's fatal flaw, Khondiel told her father who was mounted on his own horse beside her. Talishi has now become a precious jewel tying down a third of Belial's soldiers just as our attack begins.

At a shout from Khondiel flags danced and the armies began to clash fiercely. With the disparity in numbers the battle gradually began to go against Belial. Only when this dawned on him did he throw in his reserves, and Khondiel sliced through them like a mounted whirlwind ascending the hill.

Belial was not distracted. He spotted what Khondiel was trying to do even in the fog of battle and moved to head her off. He knew Khondiel could not cut Talishi out of the cage with anything she could carry in her hand, but Belial was much more concerned that she might solve the Gordian Knot and become the beneficiary of the prophecy, not to mention wheel Talishi away.

Alone on the summit they dismounted and launched into a sword duel. Belial did better than Khondiel would have guessed. She was slashed by the tip of Belial's blade as he attained first blood. Khondiel feigned shock at the pain and injury and pretended to slow down. Belial let his guard down for just a fraction of a second, but it was enough. Seeing her opening, Khondiel let loose a ferocious kick to his face. Belial was laid out cold.

Khondiel was tempted to finish him off right there with a thrust of her blade, but her eyes settled on the Gordian Knot and she ran to it instead. She tried to untie the unbelievably complicated knot which secured the wagon to a mighty tree, but like many who came before her she made no headway. Meanwhile Belial's cavalry was ascending the hill and closing in on her.

Finally, with no time to lose, Khondiel simply cut the knot with her sword. The wagon began to roll downhill and she jumped on the side of the cubical cage which held Talishi. Her shrill war-cry gripped the attention of the troops guarding Talishi, and they gaped at the horror approaching them. All of the yeng fled as Khondiel's desperate gamble played out. Khondiel braced herself as the wagon collided with a tree at breakneck speed, shattering both the cage and the wagon and not doing the tree a lot of good either.

Both yen were more bruised and beaten than they had ever been in their life before but Talishi was alive and free. King Gordiel and the Fallen Angels continued the rout and pursued the scattered remnants of Belial's army into the forest. When Belial regained consciousness he saw his utter defeat from his vantage on the hilltop, and fled the field alone on his horse.

Talishi accepted a blanket from her student and threw it around her naked form. Khondiel! Why did you throw away everything you've worked for since you first questioned who you were, just to obtain my freedom?

Teacher, did you not you find our icy world to be a little drafty?

I'm talking about the Gordian Knot, Talishi said. Now you are destined to rule Gorpai. The unreformed Khondiel must return now.

What if the oracle really meant the spirit of the new Khondiel will take over Gorpai? I'm talking about the Khondiel who changed on that unforgettable day when she first listened to you speak.'

Talishi was shocked at first, then she smiled as understanding fully dawned. The new Khondiel? If yen and yeng everywhere became willing to do for each other what you did for me today...then love won today, Khondiel! Love! It may take many centuries to play out but you may have turned the corner here today. Once and for all . . . love won!

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Strangers In Paradise