Given the circumstances, Astrea didn’t bother with caution as she raced back to the village center. Elder Athene was close behind her as they swung easily into the trees with their zip lines, disappearing into the dense foliage that blocked out much of the sky. Even so, she could see the fiery light from the sky twinkling like stars between the leaves. As she drew closer, smoke filled her nose, bitter and caustic.
“Down! Everyone get down!” She could hear Reis directing the noncombatants to the swamp-level shelters. From there they would wind their way through the catacombs, hopefully avoiding whatever was coming at them. He looked up just as the pair of women swung in, and called to Elder Athene to assist him.
Astrea landed lightly on her toes on the connecting bridge between her family’s home and Orion’s. He was already there, dressed in the soft robes which would be their bonding garb, just as she was. “Orion!” she called. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know. No one knows.” He pulled her close by the arms, hands grasping her elbows for just a moment, the feeling steadying her as much as it obviously did him, and the awkwardness she’d felt before was gone. “Not even the Peacekeepers. This is not Imperium.”
She pulled away, eyes darting about the trees and bridges. “Where’s Uri?” she asked, still looking back and forth over the joined family homes.
She knew the answer before Orion spoke it. “Rounding up the fighters.”
Reflexively, Astrea reached to her sides, hands catching only air where her soul swords would have been had she not been on restriction. She swore.
As if on cue, Orion pulled the pair of them from beneath his robe.
Impressed as she was at his forethought she was only able to manage the most fleeting of smiles. In that brief flutter of time she saw the bond-mate he meant to be. As she slipped the swords retracted into the twin holsters on her harness she leaned up, pressing a kiss to his mouth. Their first. It took him by surprise, but after a moment he returned it for only a span of a quick breath longer. Both of them knew it couldn’t be more just now.
“What was that for?”
She smiled, something which felt profane considering the fire blazing across their skies. “You.”
He smiled back, as he pushed his goggles over his eyes. “Let’s go.”
“No.” Astrea put a hand on the firm plane of his chest, trying not to be distracted by how she’d never before considered the cuts of muscle beneath his clothes. “You have to stay here with—”
Astrea looked up just in time to jump out of the way of a large ball of flame hurtling their way. She shoved Orion the other way as it smashed through the bridge between them, sending splinters of wood flying that quickly ignited into temporary fireflies. On the other side of the breech, Orion covered his head as the falling bits burnt scorch marks into his sleeves.
Novi’ites soared overhead, some falling as the trees caught alight with the force of the raining fire, and others disappearing through the billows of smoke. Whatever was attacking towered over the entire horizon, blocking out any view of Xandar, and pelting them with waves of heat. It was bright as daylight, but all of it a haze of golds and white hot sparks. What could all of their best fighters do against such a tidal wave of flame? Did the Xandarians have a plan? Were they calling for backup? Bringing in damage controlmen?
In the distance, ships docked at the outpost shipyard lifted from the ground. Every last one.
“They’re abandoning us!” she screamed into the sky, as if her voice alone could shake them from the sky and send them to burn in the flames that would surely devour them all. It felt as pointless as screaming at clouds, but her rage, more alight than she’d ever felt, needed a vent before it consumed her. She let a long shout that ripped at her throat she looked across the wreckage of the bridge to Orion. “Reis and Uri are down there.”
For one heartbeat she thought Orion would argue with her directions from moments ago. The ground shook, spires of scalding steam shot from the swamp below them. The terror voiced by the noncombatants behind him pulled Orion’s senses their way. Order was breaking down, and if someone didn’t take charge, it would spiral out of control.
“Stars keep you,” he yelled. He padded in the other direction, his long arms making windmills as he ordered others to the shelters just as a stream of fire arced towards them, missing Astrea by inches, though she could feel fine bubbles rising on her skin. Orion held his body over that of an elder couple, taking the brunt of the heat himself.
She looked to the flame filled sky, smoke stinging her eyes, and met saw a molten, flickering gaze, staring back at her. Either she was hallucinating from the heat, or the fire was laser focused on her. Another shower of fire rained down.
The temperature shot up quickly as Astrea swept up into the trees, crossing quickly from branch to branch in the direction of the outpost. Steam blasted upward, scalding her bare feet. Her landing was less graceful than up on the bridge, and by the time she reached the platform, the wind had been sucked from her lungs, and she bent over to caught.
“Astrea! What are you doing here?” Reis shouted over the sound of the inferno.
She dipped a habitual bow of respect at their monarch. “I’m here to help!” As if that needed to be said. She waved her arms at the fire.
“You need to go back and help Orion get the others to safety.”
“I need to be here, fighting!” Even if she were willing to go back, some connection held her in place. Like an umbilical cord, only instead of nourishment, she felt rage. Fear.
“What are you going to fight?”
“I don’t know, but I can’t do nothing.” Astrea’s eyes turned skyward. The fire turned, facing her again and creating a vortex that began pulling everything around it inward. She felt the ground drag beneath her feet. The great fire fueled itself and rose higher and higher until it spread out, lifting vast wings to the sky. Reis was right. There was no fighting this. There was possibly no surviving this.
The ground beneath them quaked, cracking open as if the swamp had never been there. They tumbled to the ground, and Astrea steadied herself on one knee and foot. She looked again, for Reis, for Uri. Anyone. More flame washed around her, spiraling closer and closer.
“It’s alive!” she yelled, her voice being swallowed by the cacophony. That wasn’t possible, was it? Answering her unvoiced question, a massive maw split the flames that held its eyes opened wide, and it let out a shrill sound that preceded another torpedo of fire directly at them. At her.
Astrea pitched forward as hands hit her back, sending her sprawling across the hard-baked clay as the explosion struck behind her. Dust lined her singed nostrils, and the swelter and impact together made her vomit, though it hissed and sizzled as it hit the ground. A far away sounding voice made its way to her ears. Uri. Uri was running straight at them.
Or, rather, what had been a them moments ago. “Reis,” she coughed, doing a pushup to her knees and staggering to her feet. “Reis.” She repeated it again until her parched throat refused to admit any sound. She staggered to the place where she’d seen him last, before he’d shoved her out of harm’s way. There no man. No char marks. No body.
She called out for him again, her foot kicking something she’d missed through her watery vision. Reis’ soul sword.
Flaming rocks pelted down around her now with palpable force, the spire of living fire screeching, as if angry. As if she were a threat to it. Like it sought her life, and would tear their moon apart to claim it. But that didn’t make any sense.
“Uri!” She spun about on her foot in the direction of the voice, stronger now. Her brother and a small team crawled over a slight rise between her and the outpost. “Those bastards,” a crash of fire lit the ground between them and they all cried out, “left us here to die!”
“Smart of them.” Uri pulled her under the shelter of a broken tree, older than their whole village, reduced to a smoldering stump, buying them a moment’s reprieve from the creature’s wrath. “We have to take shelter.”
“Shelter? What shelter?” She flung her arm out. “It’s burning up the entire moon!” Her fingers tingled, the soles of her feet itched to move. A chunk of ground exploded near them and cries they’d heard just heartbeats ago Astrea suddenly silenced.
A form dropped from above, and Astrea flinched, expecting another impact. Her head tilted until she looked up and met Athene’s face. Was it Athene? The warrior’s eyes glowed, white light replacing the dark brown Astrea knew so well. Her voice echoed, as if everywhere at once, or maybe just inside Astra’s own mind. “Uri, take the others back,” she ordered. “Save who you can. They’ll need you.”
“We’ll never get through that,” he shouted back, finger thrust in the direction of the mountain of flame.
The fire monster screamed. Tendrils of flame lifted away, the morphing face focusing on Athene now.
“I have an idea!” Astrea yelled over the sound.
Uri shook his head, guessing her plan. “What idea?” he asked anyway.
“I’ll draw it away.”
“What?” Uri stepped forward, but Athene put her arm out to stop him. “Don’t be daft, Astrea!”
“She’s right,” Athene interrupted before their fight could escalate. “It is the only way.” She sounded so sure of it, as if the answer had always been right there with her.
Uri pushed past the elder woman. “You’ll die!”
Astrea couldn’t explain the next words out of her own mouth. “If I don’t, you all will.”
“That makes no sense!” He looked to Athene. “Elder. You can’t let her!”
“Nor can I stop her.” Then, to Astrea, she simply said, “The fight you seek has arrived.”
Astrea nodded once to the elder, as if she understood anything that was happening, then to her brother. “Stars watch over you.”
Uri said nothing. He didn’t need to. His broken expression said it all.
She could feel the way the fine hairs on her face burned away as she faced the creature. She tore off across the cracked ground, no trees to lift into, no foliage in which to take refuge. The fire-beast flapped its giant wings, flame fluttering towards the ground in bright, destructive spirals like the spinning seeds of the broad leafed trees.
“This was a mistake,” Astrea said to herself as she struggled to draw breath. Each gasp scorched her chest and warmed her through, each one bolstering her forward. The closer she got, the wilder the creature grew, but it was focused on her, just like she wanted. She cut right across the path of it, letting out a loud whoop. “Come get me!”
It lurched, spewing another missile of flame. Fire burst around her, and she ducked to cover her head. It licked at her skin, more blisters forming where it was exposed. The blast should have killed her. Instead, she felt energized.
Astrea sprang back to her feet and skirted the flames, placing herself once again between the beast and the others. Nothing hurt anymore. She could hardly feel the heat. The creature reared up, stretching tall in a frenzied attempt to intimidate her. It’s scared of me, she thought. She didn’t understand, but there wasn’t time to question it. She knew exactly what she had to do.
“Run!” she called over her shoulder, knowing they’d never hear it. Or maybe she was yelling to herself. Reminding herself to keep moving. Her feet carried her though she hardly felt the ground. As she drew closer the intensity or the brightness grew to blinding, dazzling her. The heat didn’t matter anymore. It felt invigorating. She felt more alive than she had in memory. The towering inferno drew up, screeching in horror and trying to back away. It couldn’t. It was caught. It pulled and struggled, flapping its wings ineffectually but drew towards her on a tractor beam she could not see. Astrea froze in place, her muscles going taut. She felt a tug, then a pull, and a violent snap like an engine belt snapping under immense strain and the flames came funneling to her in a barrage of energy. With one last attempt to free itself, it lifted, stretched its wings, and snapped to surrounding her. All of the fire twirled inward, ribbons and shards of brightness. The last thing Astrea knew as she hit the ground was a light brighter than the stars.
Then everything went black.
©b.r. hill-mann 2019