Astrea had not realized that death would be this painful, with sharp pricks against her consciousness. She remained still, hoping the process of returning to the stars would pass quickly. She felt full, like her corporeal form would burst into particles.
“Ouch!” This time she heard herself say it, felt herself flinch at the quick dagger or sensation. That couldn’t be right either. She let out a huffed breath, not considering that the dead did not need to breathe, and pulled in a lungful. Char and sulfur wafted into her nose, and smoke scratched at her throat, forcing a cough. She rolled to her side to let it out.
“Ow! Quit it!” Her voice little more than a dry rasp, she chided the unseen thing which was preventing her from passing on.
She was answered by a harsh squawk.
Her eyes opened to find a strange bird staring at her, leaned far forward, its head cocked halfway to upside down, with unsettling beady eyes. Astrea let a yelp and rolled just in time to dodge the source of all of those acute jabs: the bird’s pointy beak.
She struggled to push up from the ground, her arms feeling strong yet shaky beneath her weight. “Uri!” she choked, then swallowed, and called again in a stronger voice.
Her brother skid to his knees in front of her, drawing her into a massive hug. He shuddered, as if lightly electrocuted, and loosened his hold enough to meet her face. “Stars above, what were you thinking?”
The bird squawked, but this time it aimed its ire at Uri, lifting wings which Astrea was sure it meant to be intimidating. Uri swatted a hand but paid it little notice.
“I wasn’t,” she admitted, and let him help her to standing. “I just—”
“Thought you would run into a two-hundred foot wall of fire?”
The bird let one of its sounds, which began to grate on her like the scrape of metal against metal. It pecked at Uri’s foot, and he swore.
“What is that thing?” He looked around them through the haze of smoke, expecting the answer to be among the ruins of their home.
“Annoying,” she answered easily.
It ruffled its feathers with indignation, letting a series of low clucking sounds with such force that the flap of scalloped red flesh atop its head waggled back and forth. What an absurd-looking creature.
She stepped and staggered, feeling off center. Gravity pulled at her like it was desperately trying to keep her in place.
“Let me help.” Uri lifted one of her arms over his broad shoulders, supporting her weight against his. She didn’t resist, allowing him to guide her back over the ridge towards the homesteads. What remained of them, she couldn’t know until they approached the platforms that lead up to the network of bridges that kept them safely above the surface of the swamp. The further from the point of her impact with the strange fire creature, the more the singed effect gave way back to plants and trees limp but clinging to life.
The bird shrieked, pecking at Astrea’s heel. She let out a curse and kicked at it, but before her foot could make contact, the little menace vanished with a pop and what felt like a quick and subtle vacuum of pressure. “Did you see that?”
“See what?” Uri shot one of his zip lines into the solid tree above them and lifted them both to the decks.
He set her down, and she stepped to the railing to look down where it had been. She scoured the ground with her eyes as she scratched at her arms. It was indeed gone.
“Uri,” Orion called out, “Astrea!” She was pulled into another tight hug as he embraced her, and she let him hold her there, her body beginning to vibrate with what she could only believe to be her nerves catching up to her. “What happened?”
Uri’s eyes narrowed at his sister. “Astrea happened. She charged into it and then,” there was a pause while he tried to make sense of what he saw, “it disappeared.”
“Gone,” Astrea repeated, though she could feel her temper spiking. Had she not saved them? However it happened, she’d stopped the creature, and now it was gone. Who cared if they could explain it?
Orion hugged her tighter, dropping a kiss to the crown of her head. She heard the frantic thud of his heart as surely as she could feel it. So loud, and she closed her eyes to try to drown it out.
“Where are the others?” Neither Astrea nor Uri had to ask what others he meant. They’d returned a family intact; Orion’s brother was still missing.
“I lost him.” Her words muffled against Orion’s chest.
Orion leaned back so he could see her face and frowned. “What do you mean you lost him?” He looked at Uri, who shook his head.
Astrea took a deep breath, her chest aching with the effort, though not from inside her lungs. They pushed against the inside of her body, which fought to disallow them room to open. Finally, her bones, her body relented, as if grudgingly permitting this function of life within her. In the back of her mind, small pricks of light or energy or something she couldn’t quite place shone. However it was she knew it, she couldn’t say, but one was missing.
“Reis is dead.”
“What?” Her brother and Orion asked in unison, looking at her aghast.
“That can’t be right.” Orion shook his head to expel the possibility.
“I saw it. I can feel it.” He’d pushed her out of the path of destruction raining down from the sky. “He saved my life but,” she trailed off.
Orion’s brow creased, giving him a look of regal consternation. “But?”
“He didn’t have too.” Whatever he’d done, it hadn’t been necessary. “The thing… it couldn’t hurt me.”
“Uri, gather a few of the other warriors and start a search party. He could be injured and hiding.”
Astrea shook her head against him. “No.”
“You’re delirious and injured,” her brother argued. “You must have burns.”
“I don’t.” She touched her face where she’d smelled the hair singe away, but found it still there. Places the searing heat burned her skin itched, but showed no wound. “I’m fine.”
“Go,” Orion repeated to Uri. “I’ll take her inside and make sure she’s okay.”
Why wasn’t he listening? She pushed free of his hold to support her own weight. Past his shoulder, staring at her and puffing up, was the strange bird. Its dark feathers seemed to shift and change color, from deep greens and blues and pinks like oil spilled on water. Astrea narrowed her eyes. It responded with a low squawk she felt inside her head more than she heard, just before it waddled into the nearest hut. She stepped around to follow it, the sounds of Uri organizing a search party just outside of her periphery and comprehension. She was almost to the door when another voice broke through her odd trance.
“It’s too late, blessed highness,” Athene greeted Orion. “The King is returned to the stars.” She inclined her head and bent a knee in Orion’s direction, holding up what remained of Reis’ soul sword in both of her hands. “May the stars shine their blessings upon the King.”
Astrea spun about on her heel and looked to Athene, the bird forgotten, and knelt in similar fashion. “Stars blessings upon the King,” she echoed.
One by one everyone in earshot, and then in sight line, followed their example as Orion looked at them with helpless disbelief. Novi had a new king.
©B.R. Hill-Mann 2020
New to Novi: Event Horizon? You can read from the beginning here.