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~:: The Big Day - Chapter 2 ::~

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As they broke for air, Sheken stared deeply into her beloved's eyes. Marcus smiled and whispered, "I love you so much, Sheken." She felt a warm glow flush all over her.

Keres beckoned to Marcus to join him in the den and DawL retreated to the kitchen to finish up the dishes.

Sheken followed her mother into the kitchen, whispering, "Mom, there’s something I need to talk to you about."

Her mother’s eyebrows raised but she never took her eyes off the dish she was scrubbing.

"About the wedding night…" Sheken began, in a hushed voice. She blushed furiously. "I was hoping to get something…you know… "

"Sexy?"

"Umm… yeah. Like a… negligee or something."

Her mother turned to her with a sage smile. "Come with me," She grabbed her wallet and stormed into the den, kissing Keres on the cheek. "I need to run a quick errand to pick up some things for the big day. I am taking Sheken with me. Be back in a bit!"

Keres nodded and turned his attention back to his conversation with a grinning Marcus, who chuckled and shook his head, knowingly. Both of them knew DawL's "quick errand" was likely to be anything but quick.

"Follow me," Dawl said, taking flight. Her daughter leapt after her into the cool evening breeze. A few minutes later, the little empath dove towards a small side street, landing clumsily just a few feet from a small brick building nestled discreetly among the other stores. The name "Monique’s Angelic Intimates" was inscribed tastefully on a single sign over the door, belying the nature of the business within. Dawl held the door and motioned her young daughter inside.

Sheken’s eyes widened as her gaze swept the breadth of the store. Racks of delicate scanty items of clothing were scattered around the room, and shelves lined the walls. Some displayed small baskets of wisps of underwear, other held objects she’d never seen but had a fairly good idea of their intended purposes. Her face paled as her cheeks blazed crimson. "Mom!" she hissed under her breath.

"Calm down, Sheken," Dawl laughed. "Nothing is going to bite you here."

"DeLara!" A tall, well-dressed woman with the stature of a model and obviously enhanced décolletage approached them. "Welcome back! Is there anything I can help you with?"

"This is my daughter, Sheken," Dawl motioned towards her blushing offspring, "Sheken, I’d like you to meet Monique."

Sheken blushed harder and replied with an embarrassed mumble.

"You’ll have to excuse her, Monique. This is her first time shopping here. I think she’s a little overwhelmed."

"Ahh, no problem," Monique said. "Sheken, would you prefer to go sit in the lounge in the back and allow me to bring items for your perusal in private?"

Sheken looked to her mother for guidance. Her mother nodded. "I think that would be good until she gets over her embarrassment."

Monique gestured for them to follow her as she led them through a small curtained doorway to a lovely room that was opulently furnished with several dressing screens around the perimeter of the room. In the center of the room was a divan and a grouping of wingback chairs, tastefully arranged around a large round low table of beautiful mahogany.

"Please, have a seat, ladies," she urged. "What might I help you find?"

"She’s getting married," Dawl said, quietly. "She wants something special for her wedding night."

"Ooooh," Monique cooed. "Congratulations! What kind of special are you thinking of? Something that looks pure and innocent? Something that looks wild and adventurous? Lacy? Racy? Somewhere in between?"

"Well," Sheken began, shyly, "I am not sure."

"We have things here ranging from modest, virginal looking gowns, to role-play items…"

"Role-play?" Sheken asked, her eyes widening.

"You know," Monique gave her a coy wink, "playing dress up. Although this is the grown-up version. You could be everything from a nurse to a school-girl in uniform, to a cat-girl. Now, unlike Icon, our outfits are not made to withstand the rigors of… fighting. But they are suitably sturdy for a little bit of fantasy play."

Sheken shook her head. "I just want something that will look…sexy."

"In white?" Monique queried.

"Or something soft and feminine," Sheken said with a nod. "I like pink, and purple. No blue, I don’t look good in blue."

Monique nodded and bustled from the room. Sheken sat nervously glancing between the floor and her mother, who was engrossed in reading some gossip magazine. When their hostess returned, her arms were full of samples of her wares which she spread across the table in front of her customers. A gentle chime indicated that someone else had entered the business. "I’ll let you look over those and if you don’t see something you like, I can certainly bring more. Please excuse me," Monique bowed politely as she backed out the door.

Sheken picked up one of the tiny bustieres and held it up to her chest. Dawl looked up over the magazine. "I like that one," she purred.

"I dunno, Mom. It’s kind of…more…well… I want something…that…looks…more…innocent," she blushed once again. "Even though I’m not exactly a virgin…"

"He only has himself to blame for that, you know," her mother retorted.

"Mom!"

"I didn’t mean that in a bad way, Sheken. I’m just saying. If he hadn’t…" Dawl’s voice trailed off at the sound of Monique’s voice raising from beyond the curtained doorway.

"Protect me? Hah! That will be the day!" Dawl could hear an edge of anger mixed with fear creeping into her friend’s voice.

She stood and moved swiftly to the door. Sheken dropped the negligee she’d been holding and moved to her mother’s side. Dawl brushed the curtain aside to see a familiar brightly colored skirt and coolie hat, typical of the Sorcerers who were members of the Asian gang known as the Tsoo. His back was towards the door as he sauntered around the shop as if he owned it, followed by two tattooed henchmen.

"This is nothing but a con. Just who are you supposed to be protecting me from?" Monique shrilled.

"Why, my dear, of course we are protecting you..." He picked up a small perfume bottle, holding it aloft as he gazed at the light reflecting in the multifaceted glass before tossing it violently at the edge of a rack, shattering it into sparkling shards of glass. "We are protecting you from us," he snarled. "Pay me now, or suffer my rage."

The frightened shopkeeper turned resignedly towards the till. Before she could enter the keypress to open the drawer, a fiery redhead thrust aside the curtain and shot an arc of electricity at the three startled thugs.

"You picked a bad time to interfere with my business, silly woman," the Sorcerer growled menacingly as he stepped towards the empath. Unnoticed, her daughter had pulled threads of darkness around herself and slipped out of the backroom. Closing her eyes and focusing the power of her mind, she revealed herself with a demonic wail. She sent a wave of psionic energy forth that knocked the Tsoo from their feet.

The Sorcerer regained his footing quickly and with a wave of his hands he set the air currents in the tiny shop spinning. But before they could begin to gather enough speed to become destructive, the little empath raised her hands and spun a cage of crackling electricity around him. He twitched from the continuous jolt as his friends leapt forward, one of them striking Sheken so hard it dazed her. Her mother spun and used her magic to clear the girl’s mind as the second sailed a shuriken towards her. She ducked but it caught her in the shoulder. "OW," she roared. "Look, you pajama-wearing clown, that HURT!" she shot a bolt of lightning across the room that made him dance like a puppet who was being jerked by invisible strings. Her daughter aimed her mental power at his mind, penetrating his already stunned thoughts, and rendering him nearly comatose. Her mother turned her attention to the other thug who had struck her child, and returned an equally strong blow, dazing him. As he staggered back she widened her stance and steadied her aim, hitting him squarely with the full force of her power.

He crumpled to the floor. She reinforced the glowing arc that encircled the now helpless Sorcerer as her daughter rushed the remaining henchn, bringing her fists down at the base of his neck and dropping him to the floor.

The sound of sirens just outside the door let them know that Monique had managed to sound the silent alarm when the fight broke out. Three groups of Paragon City’s finest rushed into the store with guns drawn. They found two of the perpetrators unconscious and one nicely gift-wrapped in a sparking ball of electricity.

Shortly after the police arrived Dawl's cell phone pealed, playing a risqué ringtone. She reached into her décolletage as her daughter rolled her eyes and the policemen tried hard not to snicker.

"Hey, baby," she said, cheerfully. "No, I am still shopping. Yes, well, we actually did run into some trouble, but it was nothing the two of us couldn’t handle. I’ll tell you about it when we get home. Sure, I can pick up milk on the way back. See you soon," she purred, blowing light kisses into the phone before hanging up. "Sorry, that was my mate. He worries about me," she shrugged.

The Tsoo had already been safely ensconced in the police cars and carted off to their accommodations at the Talos Island jail. Monique finished giving the officers all the information they needed for their reports and as they left she turned to her two brave customers. "I don’t know how to thank you, DeLara. And you, as well, Sheken! Those Tsoo won’t be harassing me any more after this."

"It was nothing," the empath answered. Her daughter nodded.

"No, indeed it was something. They were demanding payment for their protection. I would have had no choice but to give them the money they were asking for. This is the second time they have been here. The first time one of their bosses showed up and I was scared witless. I just gave him what he asked for and he left. I guess they figured that made me an easy mark," she dropped her head.

"Well, now they know that you aren’t. You let me know if they come back, okay?" Dawl said, with obvious concern for her friend.

"Thank you," she breathed, hugging the empath. "Now," she exclaimed as she abruptly broke her embrace and turned to face Sheken, "Let’s find something magical for your wedding night!"

Sheken perused a large selection of dainty and delicate items before finding a beautiful gown in a creamy pearlescent lace. The bustline consisted of two underwire lace cups lined with satin with a narrow satin ribbon below from which a full, flouncy skirt of opulent lace flowed down to mid-thigh. "Oh, it’s so pretty!" she squealed as she tried it on. The cups accented her pert breasts, and the creamy color lent warm blush to her skin. A matching set of satin-lined lace panties completed the look.

Her mother pulled out her credit card but Monique shook her finger in the diminutive redhead’s face. "Don’t even think of trying it. I am going to take care of this as my present to your lovely daughter."

"Monique, you don’t have to do that!"

"Of course I do," the attractive businesswoman insisted. "It is the LEAST I can do after what you’ve done for me."

Sheken beamed, "Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, Monique!"

Monique became silent for a moment. "Oh, wait…this is the last one in the store, so I will need to order another one. Why don’t you come by the day after tomorrow and pick it up, and I will have it in two colors AND gift-wrapped as my wedding present to you?"

Sheken looked disappointed at first, but she knew she didn’t need it right away anyway. This would mean that she wouldn’t have to worry about hiding it from Marcus. "Okay," she said, "and thank you so much!"

As they returned back to her mother’s house, they found Keres watching a movie and Marcus asleep in Sheken’s room.

"I think the stress of all this wedding planning has him worn out," Keres told Dawl, as they got ready for bed. "He looked so tired I told him not to worry about going home."

Dawl smiled. She loved having Sheken back at home in her old room. She knew it wouldn’t last, but for now, her baby girl was home. She was even glad Marcus was here, she realized. How wrong she’d been about him. Now she knew just how deeply he loved her daughter – enough to die for her. She wondered to herself how she ever came to hate him enough to betray him as a deep twinge of guilt cut through her like a flaming dagger.

She suddenly began to cry. "What’s wrong, sweets?" Keres asked her gently. He put a strong arm around her and pulled her close.

"My baby. She’s my baby… " Dawl sobbed into his chest. He held her and rocked her softly. He knew there was nothing he could say that would make her feel better right now so he simply let her cling to his strength and cry until she could cry no more.

The following morning, Dawl woke Sheken early to accompany her to King's Row, to visit Fabian's Floral Designs. They hadn't even made it through the door when a man behind the counter yelled "They're here!" bringing a man who looked like a younger, slimmer version of Frankie rushing out from a back room.

"Miss Mandana," he exclaimed. "Come right back here." He motioned through the doorway towards the back of the shop.

They followed him to a room furnished with a low round table surrounded by three velvet wingback chairs and a small loveseat upholstered in a rich brocade. Several thick photo albums were neatly laid in the center of the table.

"Have a seat," he beckoned.

The ladies chose to perch together on the loveseat as he took a seat directly across from them. "I am Fabian," he said flashing a perfect smile. The family resemblance to Frankie was unmistakable.

"Welcome to my humble shop," he said warmly. "These books contain examples of most of our arrangements, but if you have something specific in mind, please don't hesitate to ask. I don't mean to brag, but I consider myself an artist. Bringing your vision for the perfect flowers for your wedding to life would be a challenge I would love to master!

Sheken lifted a book and began to thumb through the pages full of crisp photographs of some of the most beautiful flowers she'd ever seen. "Wow," she exclaimed with widening eyes, "these are ALL so beautiful."

"First," Frankie said in a serious tone, "you need to choose whether you prefer fresh, silk, or hybrid arrangements."

Both females gave him a confused look. "I guess we had not thought of that," Dawl answered. "Which is best?"

"That," Fabian answered, "completely depends on your wishes. Each choice has advantages and disadvantages." Opening one of the albums, he turned the photos toward the lasies and continued, "With fresh flowers come the amazing scents that only they possess. And although we use only the finest silk flowers, they cannot match the nature beauty and radiance of the real ones. However, the beauty of fresh flowers is fleeting, where the silk arrangements can be saved and enjoyed for many years."

"What is the cost difference?" Sheken asked hesitantly.

Fabian shook his head slowly, "No need to be concerned with the cost. I will make sure whatever choice you make is quite affordable. Frankie was very clear with his instruction that you be treated as Family. You will get the Family discount." He grinned widely.

"Mom, I think I'd like fresh flowers," Sheken said, turning to her mother.

Fabian added, "And for the bouquets, we can also use both to create a beautiful bouquet that is embellished with fresh flowers, but can also be saved as a keepsake. "

"Honestly, I think that is a good idea," her mother suggested.

Fabian nodded and motioned towards the albums. "Now I just need to know your colors, and how many members in your wedding party, including honored family members who will be receiving corsages or boutonnieres. Once you select the style of flowers, I can make a suggestion on creating your bouquet."

Sheken's head was spinning with all the details as she glanced over photo after photo. After a bit of back-and-forth with her mother, they decided on beautiful mauve roses with some lacey silver foilage, glitter-dipped baby's breath, and beautiful silver ribbons. Fabian beamed his approval over the suggestions.

As they approached the front of the store to check out, DawL shook Fabian's hand and gave him a warm smile. "I don't know how to thank you."

"Well," Fabian suddenly adopted a very shy, hesitant demeanor, "there is something you could do for me..." he paused.

"Name it," DawL answered.

"It always helps to have a celebrity promoting your business, and if it wouldn't be too much trouble, I'd love to get some photos of you, and your lovely daughter, to put on our website, along with a small endorsement, if you'd be so kind as to give me one? And perhaps, with your permission, I'd like to use the images and endorsement on some billboards and maybe even a new sign on the side of our building."

DawL beamed. "I'm not so sure I am what you'd call a celebrity, but I would be more than happy to do an endorsement, and photos and you can use them in any advertisement you would like!"

"Wonderful!" Fabian beamed. "Then I will consider that compensation for my doing the flowers."

Both the empath and her daughter dropped their jaws in unison. "No, no, we cannot do that!" DawL argued. "You must accept payment."

"No, ma'am," Fabian countered. He ran over to the cash register and tapped the keys. "With the Family discount, your bill would have been only HALF of what I'd already planned to offer to Shining Tempest and Lady ColdFront, who are getting married late this year. They've already arranged for me to do their flowers. They aren't quite as well known but they belong to a large group and I figured the publicity would help. But you are far more well known, AND you are both incredibly beautiful, and I think you'd make wonderful models for our advertisements. Please allow me to do the flowers as payment for your modeling! By the way," he turned to Sheken, "Do you have a wedding photographer?" "Well...no." She looked frustrated. "I am new to this whole wedding thing and I guess I had not even thought of that." "Not to worry!" Fabian fairly shouted. "I will be happy to arrange for a very talented photographer. Not only will you get the Family discount with him, but I will split the cost of whatever package you choose and he can take the promotional photos of the flowers while he's shooting the wedding." He handed her a beautifully gilt business card printed in a flourish script: "J. Romeo Vitello, Photographer - Weddings are Our Speciality" with a phone number and address printed below. "In fact," he smiled, "let me call him right now." Pulling out his cell phone, he hit a number on his speed dial and soon a deep voice answered, "Rome, is Fabian. I have a deal for you." A few minutes later, it was all set up. Sheken felt like she was in some kind of strange dream world. The wedding of her dreams was coming together beautifully.

The wedding day dawned clear and beautiful. Sheken was a bundle of nerves. Marcus was strangely calm. "You’re not nervous at all," she asked her husband-to-soon-be.

"Nope. Why should I be?" he murmured softly in her ear as he pulled her into his arms.

"No second thoughts? No urge to back out?"

"Nope." Marcus cupped her face in his hand and turned it upwards as he looked deeply into her eyes. "Sheken, I have never wanted anything more in my life than I want to be your husband right now. I am absolutely one-hundred-percent-positive that this is what I want, and that it won’t ever change."

Her eyes flooded with tears but they were warm, wet tears of utter joy. "That’s so… beautiful. I love you so much, Marcus."

"I know you do," he murmured softly. "I can feel your love the same way I hope you can feel mine for you."

They were deep in a torrid kiss when Keres rapped on the door frame. "Save that for the wedding night," he teased, chuckling at the young lovers. "We are getting ready to take the stuff to the dock. Is there anything else you two need to go?"

"The flowers were delivered to the dock already, and the tables are with the chairs and, oops, what about the favors for the bridal party?"

He nodded. "Your mother," he began, in a tone that let her know he was about to say something he’d rather not have the little empath hear, "didn’t think the gifts were adequate, so she went out and bought Syn a beautiful little ruby pendant, and Zakai a fancy wristwatch."

Sheken laughed. "Sounds like Mom. So much for our ‘wedding on a budget’ plan."

"Don’t worry," Keres said, smiling broadly. "We will make sure you have a nice wedding, Sheken."

"Thanks, Keres," she said earnestly.

"Yes, thank you," Marcus echoed. "I can’t thank you enough."

"Just take care of our baby girl. That’s thanks enough," the kind scrapper smiled.

Sheken arrived at the yacht to find that Frankie had ordered even the yacht itself be decorated to the hilt with white, silver and mauve flowers, the colors that she had chosen for their wedding. A deep red carpet was rolled from the dock up to the boarding ramp. Her eyes welled with tears.

She lifted the garment bag high as she stepped up the ramp. Two young men came trotting down the dock holding what appeared to be a large folding screen above their heads. She gave them a puzzled look as they approached.

"Sheken Mandana?"

"That’s me," she answered.

"Monique sent these. Your mother told her it was an outdoor wedding so she thought you might need some privacy to get changed into your dress."

"Oh, how thoughtful of her! I hadn’t even thought of that. Will she be able to make it to the wedding?"

"I don't think so," the taller of the two young men answered. "The shop has been very busy today. But she did say to tell you she's going to try to make it to the reception!"

"Please tell her thank you very much, for me?" Sheken shouted as she was escorted up the ramp.

"Will do," the shorter of the two answered as they turned and made their way back towards the shop. "Where would you like this?" the other asked. The captain of the yacht nodded and thumbed in the direction of the aft deck where supplies were already being neatly arranged. The young men gently placed the screen alongside the piles of chairs.

Sheken turned to Marcus with tears in her eyes. "Everyone’s been so wonderful. This wedding is turning out to be a much bigger deal than we’d planned."

"I think a lot of people love you," he said, kissing her forehead tenderly.

Soon the boat was full of cargo and guests. Dawl had flown on ahead to get pick the perfect spot. When the yacht arrived at the bay, the captain lowered a small craft and ferried the passengers to the shore. Marcus stood on the beach looking up at the azure sky with a smile. He’d never been happier in his life than today.

Sheken flew off to find her mother, bidding Marcus to wait for her to summon him. The crew from the yacht had the cargo unloaded and with the help of the captain, a skilled Consigliere, the supplies were quickly levitated up to the plateau and the chairs arranged in neat rows. They set the screen up just at the back of the chairs and Sheken gently hung the garment bag there, summoning Marcus and giving him a mock-stern warning about peeking. Soon the guests began to arrive. Syn flew in from Talos, having hopped a covert ride on a submarine that dropped her off near the beachhead just past Spanky’s Boardwalk. She looked a bit tired but Sheken was happy to see the little succubus and greeted her with an enthusiastic hug.

"I have something to show you," she whispered. Looking around, she spied the screen. "Can we go in there?"

Sheken grinned. "Are you wanting to change your clothes?" Syn smiled and nodded. "Yeah, me too. But I wanted to wait because I have to stay in there once I have the dress on."

"That’s fine," Syn answered. "But I want to show you the dress I found." The two set off towards the privacy of the screen, giggling like schoolgirls.

The five panel screen was set up in a pentagon-shape, allowing plenty of room for changing and complete privacy. Sheken moved one panel aside like a door and stepped inside as the succubus followed close behind. She unzipped the bag with a grin. Inside were her dress, shoes and a small box containing the accessories. She pulled the dress gently from the bag and hung it on the screen. Syn’s breath caught in a dainty gasp. "Oh, Sheken," she purred in a silken voice, "it is beautiful!"

"Thanks, and thank you for being here. I know you must have gone to a lot of trouble to make it. But really, I owe all of this to you. Probably even my life."

"I think you may be exaggerating a bit," Syn said quietly. "I think Marcus would have gotten you back safely."

"You helped us. I don’t think we would have made it out alive, if you hadn’t hidden us," Sheken answered her with a hug as tears brimmed in her eyes.

"No crying! Not even tears of joy! You don’t want your eyes to be all puffy," Syn admonished with a smile, gently brushing her talons upwards over Sheken’s softly blushing cheeks. The tears disappeared and Sheken felt a peaceful calm wash over her.

"Thanks," she exhaled with relief.

"Now, close your eyes," Syn urged. With a gentle ‘whoosh’ she removed herself from the time-stream, replaced her skirt and top with her new dress, and reappeared at the exact same moment she’d left with a flash of light. "Okay! You can look, now!"

Sheken opened her eyes to see the succubus standing before her. The dress was a cream color, with accents of mauve and tiny seed pearls. The rich, warm colors accented her pale creamy skin and dark auburn tresses.

"Wow, you look… fantastic!" Sheken purred appreciatively.

Syn blushed lightly. "Thanks," she smiled. "I’ve never been to a wedding before, let alone being IN one, but I read up on it and my friend Meg gave me some pointers, so I found this lovely dress. Lady Azazela told me of the colors you had selected."

"Lady Azazela?" Sheken gave her a puzzled look.

"I’m sorry," Syn said shaking her head. "Old habits die hard. In the Hierarchy, she was the daughter of a prince, therefore she must be addressed with due veneration."

"Ahh, I see. I guess that would make my mom a ‘lady’ something or other, as well?"

"She is also a daughter of Azazel, however she is fully half-human. Your aunt, however, was not nearly as much human as she was demon. Her mother was a fourth-generation Nephilim herself, so that Azazela was mostly demon. It was intended that she take her place in the Hierarchy. Upon her age of awareness, she was to be freed of her mortal bonds to become a fully-fledged demon. She thwarted her father’s plans, however, by turning away from the ways of evil."

"So that’s why Mom had to save her from Xandaros?"

Syn nodded, "More than once. Naimah, on the other hand, fully embraced her role and willingly surrendered her mortality even though her liberation was both cruel and torturous." Sheken raised an eyebrow. "Deathwynd was indeed a cruel master," Syn explained with a chuckle. "Of course, now that Naimah is bound to serve Adara, he’s lost his precious slave forever."

"Marcus explained why he bound Naimah to Adara," Sheken said, dropping her voice to a hushed tone. "He felt it to be a fitting punishment since Naimah had killed their mother. And he knew Adara has the wisdom to deal with Naimah. I’d have probably tried to find a way to simply destroy her."

Syn sighed. "Ah, today, we should speak of happier things. Like your wedding," she giggled.

"True," the redhead nodded. "I still can’t believe this is happening. And Mom’s made up with Marcus! After what happened in Siren’s Call…"

"I heard about that. Lady…umm… I mean your Aunt Azazela told me all about it. I’m proud of him. I knew he wasn’t a bad guy. It just took you to bring out the good in him."

Sheken smiled. "I love him so much. He’s been wonderful. And he’s working here as a hero."

Syn nodded slowly. "Sheken, how hard was it for him to get a job?"

The girl gave the beautiful succubus a puzzled look. "Well, not too hard. He had help from some organization that he was referred to by some people at the prison."

The succubus grew quiet for a moment. "Why do you ask?" Sheken pressed her.

"Well, it’s just that I may need to…move. Soon."

"Why?"

"Let’s just say I made the wrong person angry. It’s a long story but I was introduced to one of Lord Recluse’s hand-picked lieutenants and while working for her, this Arbiter asked me to do something I couldn’t bring myself to do. He wanted me to betray her."

"Wow. That’s harsh."

"You have no idea. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes there. Backstabbing and betrayal is common. I am sure most of the unscrupulous thugs that work their way up through the ranks have no problems betraying someone if it benefits them and the price is right. I just couldn’t. But Arbiter Daos ordered me to go against her orders and sabotage her mission. Now it appears he’s put a price on my head for my disobedience."

Sheken gasped. "Price? What do you mean? As in, he wants to have you killed?"

Syn blinked hard and gave her a shrug of her shoulders. "That’s how they deal with someone who crosses an Arbiter. It’s like crossing Recluse himself."

"What are you going to do?" Sheken asked worriedly.

"I’m not sure, yet. I just know I am going to have to leave."

"Why don’t you stay here, in Paragon City?"

Syn gave her a little laugh. "Right, I am sure they’d welcome a succubus from the Rogue Isles with open arms."

"You’d be surprised," the redhead countered. "There are a lot of different beings here. I think you’d fit right in. You’re not a villainess, Syn. You’re not evil."

Syn shook her head, "Still…I must give the matter some thought. I am not sure what is going to happen. Anyway, I thought we agreed. Only happy talk." She smiled broadly. "How close are we to time for the wedding?"

Sheken shrugged and poked her head out of the enclosure formed by the screens. "Anybody know what time it is?"

"Three-fifteen," her mother called back. "Do you have your dress on yet? Do you want me to come help with your hair?"

"No, and yes, and thanks, Mom."

The little empath stepped into the enclosure and pulled the screen tight behind her. Sheken blushed lightly as she slid out of her shorts and tank top. Syn extended a delicate hand to Dawl.

"You are Azazela’s sister," she nodded.

"Yes, I am. And you must be Syn?" Dawl actually recognized the beautiful brunette as the woman who from the reception desk at the evil doctor's clinic, but she didn't want to bring up that terrible mistake on what she hoped would be her daughter's happiest day.

The succubus smiled. "Yes, I am. I have heard so much about you. You have been quite the inspiration to your sister. She really admires you."

It was Dawl’s turn to blush. "Az tells me you are not really a villain?"

Syn chuckled. "I try not to be. I have always felt repulsed by the actions of those who have had authority over me. Especially Naimah," she spat the name as if it were venom on her tongue.

"Not much she can do, now, is there? She is bound to Adara," Dawl replied with a smile.

The succubus gave her a wide grin. "It makes things much easier on me, that’s for sure. She’s no longer breathing down my neck. And with Maritus in the Zig, well, let's say my stress levels went way down."

"Ever think of turning over a new leaf?" Dawl asked her, rather pointedly.

Syn exchanged a knowing smile with Sheken, "Actually, we were just discussing that."

Dawl’s eyebrows arched. "Really? Given any thought to joining the ranks of Paragon City’s hero population?"

"Yes, I have, but just figuring out how is the problem. I still have a lot of ties to the Rogue Isles. I don’t want to leave the Betrothed in the hands of someone who might actually carry out the doctor’s twisted schemes. And I have a couple of other loose ends to take care of."

Dawl gave her a warm smile. "Let me know if there is anything I can do to help. Az speaks quite highly of you."

Syn gave her a grateful nod. "Thanks."

"Now, let’s get my little girl dressed," Dawl said in a motherly tone as she turned to a grimacing Sheken.

"Mom," the girl moaned.

"You are my little girl," her mother retorted. "You will always be my little girl, no matter what. Even after you give me lots of grand-babies," she added with a huge grin.

"Don’t get ahead of yourself, mom," Sheken chided.

They helped her don her wedding garments and Dawl brushed her hair. Just as she was tucking the last few strands of hair back behind her daughter’s horns, Marcus tapped on one of the panels of the screen. "Sheken? Are you just about ready?"

"Don’t open it!" she cried. "You can’t see me yet!" He laughed. "I won’t. Father Riley is here. Shandie just arrived, and Inari is already here. Your aunt and Adara are here, and she said Cale is on his way and should be here any minute. Most of the other guests have been here and everyone is seated and waiting. Whenever you are ready, we can begin."

"Okay, honey," she answered. Give us a few more minutes." She turned to her mother. "You want to do the honors for the guys?" she asked as she motioned to the box of flowers.

Her mother smiled. "Of course."

Sheken picked up the corsage, as tears brimmed in her eyes. "For the mother of the bride," she murmured softly as she pinned it gently on her mother’s ample bosom, kissing her cheeks as she did so.

She retrieved the two bouquets and handed the smaller one to Syndi. "Wow, these are beautiful," the brunette exclaimed.

Then Sheken open a small jewelry box and lifted out the delicate necklace. Syn's eyes opened wide. "Wow! That's gorgeous. "

"Serge got those for me. I used to work at the tailor shop for him, during the summer. This was his wedding gift."

"That was very sweet," Syn agreed.

Dawl picked up the box containing the corsages and boutonnieresbox and kissed her daughter on the cheek,hugging her tightly. "I love you," she whispered. She ducked out from behind the screen and nearly ran into Keres. "I have something for you," she smiled.

"Yeah, but shouldn’t that wait until I can get you home and out of that dress?" he joked with a wink.

She giggled. "Later, right now…" she pulled his boutonniere from the box and pinned it carefully to the lapel. "You look so handsome," she murmured as she kissed him.

"And you look lovely in that dress," he replied with a smile. "Is the little bride ready for her escort to newly-wedded-ness?"

Dawl nodded and headed off to pin the boutonnieres on Marcus and Zakai. Marcus stooped down to let her pin the flowers to his lapel as he smiled. Zakai squirmed nervously as he adjusted his tie and fidgeted with his cummerbund. She pinned his boutonniere on and kissed him on the cheek.

"Thanks, Mom," Marcus said, meeting her eyes. "For everything."

She took his hand in hers. "Marcus, I want you to know how much I love Sheken, and how sorry I am for doubting both her, and you."

"All water under the bridge," he answered firmly. "I know you love her, and I am going to do my best to love her as much, and treat her as well as you want her to be treated."

Dawl turned away, dabbing at the tears in her eyes, as one of Frankie’s associates, who had been acting as ushers, took her gently by the elbow and escorted her to the very front seat.

Meanwhile, Keres rapped softly on the screen. "I’m ready when you are, Sheken. Everyone’s in place now and…." His voice trailed as he caught sight of an older woman being escorted up the aisle by the Consigliere. "Wow, Sheken, your grandmother is here!"

Sheken let out an excited squeal. She hadn’t seen Shanabethe Mandana since she was very young. Her mother had taken the young child back to Endur to present her to her grandmother. She remembered little but the beautiful woman’s smile and the warm feeling of her hands as she placed them upon her tiny head and gave her blessing.

The gentleman led the woman to the front row where she approached to her redheaded daughter, who was sitting with her head bowed, and softly asked, "Excuse me, is this seat taken?"

"MOTHER!" Dawl screamed, leaping from her seat and nearly toppling the woman over with an enthusiastic hug.

"I couldn’t let my only granddaughter marry and miss the ceremony," her mother said with a smile.

"Please, sit!" Dawl motioned to the chair beside her. "There is so much to tell you, but it will have to wait. The ceremony is about to start."

One of Frankie’s men had brought a small sound system, placing it near the back of the group of chairs in an inconspicuous spot. Keres waved his hand to the priest, who nodded to the man. Soft romantic music wafted over the peaceful plateau as the sun began a lazy descent to the west of them. The song played then ended, and the wedding march began to play as a radiant Sheken stepped forth and looked down between the rows of chairs. At the signal from the priest, all stood and turned towards her. The beautiful red carpet that had bedecked the yacht was laid down the aisle leading up to the handsome pair of gentlemen standing just in front of Father Riley. Tears misted her eyes as she met the gaze of her beloved Marcus.

As the music played, she hooked her delicate arm through Keres's arm. They followed behind a nervous Syndi as she slowly stepped into the aisle.

When they reached the front of the gathering, Dawl let out a loud sob. Sheken’s eyes widened but Marcus gave her a slight shake of his head. "It’s okay," he mouthed silently. Sheken turned to her mother and gave her a small smile. "I love you," she whispered.

Shanabethe put an arm around her daughter’s shoulder and smoothed her fiery tresses with a weathered hand. "There, there, my dear," she whispered softly.

Father Riley waited a long moment to give the poor empath time to gather herself. Raising his hands to the congregation, he began the ceremony.

"Friends, family, loved ones – we come together today to celebrate a most joyous occasion. We are here to witness the joining of these two, Sheken and Marcus, in holy matrimony. They spoke to me of their deep love and their firm commitment to each other, and it was decided that they would like to depart from the usual vows spoken in a traditional wedding. Sheken and Marcus have prepared their own vows, and would like to now recite them before all of you. With that, I would like to present Miss Sheken Mandana."

Sheken handed her bouquet to Syn and turned to face Marcus. She took his hands in hers. "My friend. My love. My partner. You are many things to me. You have made my life complete and given me a special kind of love that before I could only read about in stories of fiction. I never believed something so wonderful could be real. I certainly never believed it could happen to me. But today, here I am – standing before you and ready to begin our life together. I love you Marcus, and I promise you that as long as there is breath in my body I will continue to love, cherish and care for you."

Father Riley gave her a kind smile, then turned to Marcus. "And now, Mr. Marcus Vespa," he said as he gave him a nod.

Marcus swallowed hard. "Sheken, words alone cannot possibly explain the depth of my love for you. You turned my life and my heart around. You helped me find a soul within myself that I never knew I had. You helped me change my life from a path of misery and destruction to one of friendship and love so pure and so freely given. I never imagined that my life could be so happy. Yet here I am, looking at the most beautiful girl in the world who is about to become my wife. I love you more than my own life, and I promise to always love you, protect you and care for you with all my heart and all my strength, until death comes between us."

Sheken’s eyes welled with tears as Father Riley turned to Zakai. "The rings?"

Almost before he finished the words, Zakai had passed two beautiful bands of gold to Marcus in a small ornately carved box.

Marcus took the smaller band and slipped it gently over Sheken’s finger. "This ring is a token of my promise to you, and a symbol of my never-ending love for you." He handed her the box.

Carefully, she removed the other ring and gently slid it onto his finger. "And this ring is a token of my promise to you, and a symbol of my never-ending love for you," she affirmed.

"Let us pray," Father Riley intoned. The group, including the succubus, bowed their heads. Silently she wondered what the dear priest would think if he knew the maid of honor was not only recently arrived from the Rogue Isles, but was also created as a denizen of the Realms of the Dark One.

The sun was low in the sky just beyond the gathering, casting a beautiful warm glow over them and painting a halo in Sheken’s gleaming red tresses as the wind ruffled her loosely gathered hair. As Father Riley lifted his head and spoke the "Amen" he raised his hands. "By the power vested in me by the Almighty Father and the state of Rhode Island, I pronounce you man, and wife. You may now kiss the bride."

Marcus grabbed Sheken and pulled her tight, giving her a passionate kiss that sent a giggle through the congregation and brought a mild blush to the cheeks of the priest. As they broke their embrace and turned to face their family and friends, the priest waved towards the seated guests. "I present to you Mr. and Mrs. Marcus Vespa."

Tears of utter joy brimmed in Sheken’s eyes. She looked at her mother, cradled in Shanabethe’s arms and sobbing like a baby. She turned back and shot a worried glance at Syn. The succubus gave her a barely noticeable nod and focused her mind on the little empath, projecting a calming assurance. Shanabethe lifted her eyes and answered the brunette with a grateful "Thank you, my dear" projected directly into the mind of the succubus. The brunette merely met the older woman's grateful gaze with a soft smile.

The young newly-weds walked arm in arm down the red carpet and stopped at the back of the last row of chairs, turning to face their guests, as Frankie’s men ushered the guests out row by row. As each person stopped to greet them, they smiled and the photographer, who had all the while been almost unnoticed at the periphery, moved closer to get some close shots of the newlyweds.

Suddenly the bubbly joy that Sheken was feeling felt stifled, and an unusual feeling of something being wrong washed over her. Marcus immediately caught the shift in mood and gave her a puzzled glance. "What's wrong?" he whispered.

"I don't know. It's just a...strange feeling." She answered in a quiet whisper.

She turned to greet the last guest, and saw a woman standing there she'd never seen before. "Sheken Mandana," the woman growled softly, with a plastic smile that was more like a snarl plastered across her face, "Your grandfather sends his greetings, and warning. If Lady Naimah is not released from her bonds by nightfall, it will be your last night on this earth. Appollion will return to find you and will eliminate you, your dear cousin, and your husband, breaking the binding and freeing Lady Naimah himself."

Suddenly Sheken felt sick to her stomach. As her head was reeling with the words of the threat she'd just received, a burning whitelight surrounded them, causing the woman to cringe back as her skin began to melt and contort. A soft, melodic voice came from within the blinding light.

"The Creator sends this message to Azazel, Appolion, and all who would aid their cause. The prophecy will yet be fulfilled and upon that day, Sheken will strike the blow that destroys Appolion, and those who stand at his side. Azazel's crying out from his prison will be silenced and his defeat will be felt throughout the realms of earth and Hell. So shall it be."

The creature, now looking like a charred and shriveled imp, fluttered away, screeching. "We will see about that!" she screamed.

Sheken opened her eyes as the blinding light faded to see her aunt hovering over her, her shining armor glowing in the fading sun. "Do not fear the dark ones," Azazela urged her softly. "They hold no power over you, nor over Adara. They know this, and were hoping you'd be frightened into freeing Naimah. At this point, only Adara can free Naimah, and there's no chance that will happen. But yes, tonight, there will be a battle."

"What a wedding night," Sheken moaned.

"Do not worry, it will be over before most realize it began. You have the power of the Creator on your side, and more than a small army behind you." Az's confident smile gave Sheken courage.

"When will this happen, Az," Marcus asked, apprehensively.

"Soon," Az said, solemnly.

...To be continued...