The horn continued in the distance, until it was overshadowed by a low, thunderous rumble that Ember knew well. Imperial rockets.
So many. Would there be anything left of that beautiful city?
Could she make it in time to do anything?
She noticed Kemdry look at her and jerk again, his eyes going even wider.
She gave him a quizzical glance.
Ember looked at Kemdry, then at her feet, covered by the cloak. Wisps of smoke rolled out from under the hem of the green garment. She gathered the fabric and lifted.
Her boots were on fire. White fire, as hot as anything she had ever breathed out. The stone under them turned yellow and began to flow even as she watched.
And she felt nothing but warmth.
She looked up at Kemdry again. He was staring at the boots, unable to look away.
“Those are the boots of Sky Chahn.”
“I think I have somewhere I’m supposed to go,” she said, unable to keep a smile off her face. “Perhaps you should muster the army and follow.”
He brought his gaze up to her eyes.
“Tegar MirDannen ordered us to keep a watch on that cave and keep any more enemies from coming through.”
“And where is Tegar MirDannen?”
“In a coma in one of the hospital tents.”
Ember studied him, seeing through the determination in his young face to the fear underneath.
“And would you like to explain to him when he wakes up how the cave is safe but Sunfire Falls is gone?”
“I have my orders.”
It could have just been the white light coming from ground level and flickering on his face, but she was certain he was trembling. She fixed him with her gaze and was certain the light grew brighter at the same time that a fire kindled inside her.
“Their backs will be turned to you this time, and they will be caught between your army and the city walls.”
Kemdry closed his mouth tight.
“As you wish. I suggest you take the next few hours to consider what you will say to your king when he finds out that you heard the sound of the horn and did not come with his army. If he’s still alive after today. As for me…”
She unbuttoned the cloak, swept it off and threw it in his face.
“I’ve been summoned.”
She changed in that instant, pushing through the pain and into her larger form.
Stiffer than ever, like her neck and tail were just too short, or her skin too tight against her muscles.
But her feet still burned, now front and back, leaving molten prints in the dark basalt of the stony ledge, and her heart flamed with a purpose like none she had ever known.
She definitely had someplace to be.
Ember ignored the man struggling to get the cloak off his head and lunged down the mountain, light and exulting in the sudden motion, despite the pain, as the fire inside connected to the fire on her feet and she remembered how to run.
Was it her imagination or was she passing the trees faster than she had in the past?
Should anything surprise her?
Aihay had called, and she was coming, on feet that left smoke in her wake.
Her skin rippled and tingled, squeezing and pokes and tugs hit her at odd moments, but she filled her ears with the distant sound of the horn and continued to run until she could see the smoke rising into the sky far away.
Then she filled her eyes with the sight of that, and ran faster still, quickly reaching the open fields that ran between the mountains and the forest surrounding Sunfire Falls.
The smoke became more obvious as she neared, and far off she was certain she saw black specks in the sky against the shining white clouds. Such a beautiful day for this to happen. It was almost as if heaven looked down unconcerned at the war below.
Ember began to pray as she ran, and then sing, for mercy on the city. The coils seemed to struggle against her even more intensely, but she felt them less.
When the forest of Sunfire Falls came into sight, a familiar voice interrupted her singing.
“What do you think you will do there, daughter?”
She tried to ignore it, but the tones of the question repeated around her, disrupting her melody until she fell silent, then pressing harder and harder until they drove in like knives. Suddenly she wasn’t sure why she was running.
Her mind was a blank. She needed… a name.
“I go to serve Yahsaw, my savior.”
The name pushed the knives out. She remembered her goal and picked up speed again.
“Tsk tsk tsk. You have no strength, Ember. You’re a sick little traitor. What do you think you’ll do for him?”
Her strength faded in an instant. She struggled not to plow into the ground as her legs collapsed.
No. She knew the answer.
“Yahsaw is my strength.”
She found her stride again, pushed up and kept going.
“And what makes you think that? What makes you think a whore like you can rely on him?”
Her skin burned with lust, with the desire for flesh. She was going to lay down and pleasure herself. Fill her mind with the her nights with the Duke and Woldmont. Throw away every pretense of purity. Dirty pleasure uncoiled in her loins and ran through her muscles, pulled at her mind and begged to be let in…
Yahsaw! Remind me who you are!
“He promised to deliver me from the snare of the fowler, and he did. He promised that the waves would not overcome me, and they didn’t. And he promised never to abandon or forsake me, and he hasn’t. He will not leave me now.”
The lust recoiled off of her.
“So certain? I’ve been generous until now, but you’re wearing out my patience. Keep going this way, and I will see you burn, just like your brother and your little servant Antan, and your Kai will not stop it.”
Again great shadowed wings rose up over her and she heard the barest hint of thunder. The sky was black with smoke and everything was charred, trees and grass and all.
She remembered one more promise.
“When you walk through the flames I will be with you,” she said, “and the flames will not consume you.”
The trees and grass were still whole. The smoke only filled one small part of the brilliant sky. But the dark wings remained.
Ember continued running.
“I know you, Ember. I know how afraid you are. There are things worse than fire in my power. I will overcome your Kai, and you will die. Remember, even he doesn’t promise to keep you safe from death.”
A parade of dead rolled into her mind from the tales told in the scriptures and histories. Stacks upon stacks of people who had trusted Aihay and died. Because everyone died in the end, didn’t they?
Ember almost stopped.
Would Aihay protect her?
Would there be any victory?
There was a promise… but…
She remembered the sword from the vision, and the wondrous mysteries she had seen blazing in its surface in the moment it plunged home into her heart.
“I am already dead, but Yahsaw my savior lives in me, and he has overcome death.”
She set that truth and all it meant at the front of her mind and pushed forward again.
Another question was likely coming, but she had lost enough time already. She poured all she had into going even faster. There was a brief tug, then a harder one. Then a pain that struck and bit at her shoulders.
Ember drank from the truth and let her heart fill even more with the fire from the sword.
“Begone, Nk’drak’sil, and take your servants with you. I have been bought out of your kingdom by Yahsaw’s blood, and you have no more claim on me.”
With a shriek the coils fell away. For a moment the dark wings blocked out all light and shadow boiled all around her, but then the motion stopped.
“Have it your way, then! See how you deal with your brothers and sisters!”
The wings of shadow vanished and there was nothing but the sky and the smoke and the far distant trees.
And at the base of the trees a long wall that looked made of felled trees, sundered in one place by a burning gap.
And a horde of Garagrans circling the skies above that wall, shooting down white fire.
And a vast army of red and steel pouring in through the gap in the wall.
Ember closed the distance faster than she would have thought possible. Her spine worked like a great spring, flexing in as she brought her fore and back legs together, and then out, launching her forward with even more speed.
And then more.
It was as if she could run forever. She was a prairie fire driven across the grasslands by a hurricane. A great train surging from the inferno at its heart and the steam raging through its veins. She was…
Black wings boomed in the sky, six of them. A hard body swept down and slammed into her side, bowling her across the plains in a tangle of limbs.
She pulled close.
Came up and spun to face.
Three Garagrans settled out of the air into fighting stances and folded their wings. Two males on the sides, marked by their forward curving horns, lead by a female in the middle, marked by their absence. The smallest of the trio outmassed her by at least two-to-one.
The female stepped forward, letting red ripple along her scales to show her anger, and locked gazes with Ember.
“I am Captain Selkran, second to General Ankrilus, commander of the invasion force of the Holy Skahllian Empire,” the female said. “I don’t know what magic you came here by, traitor, but it won’t stand you against the might of the Elder Gods and this entire army. Run away now and I’ll forget I saw you until we’re done here. Stay and you burn.”
Ember felt the fear roll over her from the Captain’s gaze, pushed by yellow eyes whose pupils each opened on an abyss and strengthened by the overwhelming scent of a dominant Garagran. It reached deep into her, twisting chords even Nk’Drak’sil hadn’t managed to touch.
Where was it coming from? Who else…?
Her mother. It was the same feeling her mother had made in her.
And that stare was the same stare. Said the same things.
So weak. So small. Just obey, or be beaten, burned, or worse… belittled.
Watch claws and fire turn her dreams to ashes.
It filled her and she felt the fire go out inside and disappear from her feet.
She barely noticed the males sidling around to flank her as she fought against the bone-deep terror. She dodged just in time to keep her neck free from one of their mouths, but not fast enough to avoid a pounding slash that knocked her right wing out of joint.
She bit down on a scream and dove under one of the attackers.
Escaped the ring.
Until he caught her tail and dragged her back in. She kicked back at him, but then the Captain was there, slapping her head until she went dizzy.
She dodged, looked for a way out.
Took another blow. Another.
All three were on top of her.
She couldn’t think. Couldn’t feel anything but cold, and her heart beating so fast the world was turning black.
“Yahsaw!” she screamed.
A fist like a boulder closed her mouth, almost taking off her tongue.
Jaws found her throat and clamped down. She scrabbled back, grabbed hold and tried to pry them open.
Huh. My neck IS shorter than it used to be…
The odd thought floated past, along with a burning desire to run through a field with Nanli on her shoulders one more time.
Was this all? Was this what she had come for?
Blackness descended as the bloodflow stopped to her brain. No Salshirans to rescue her this time. This was death.
With that realization, a strange peace settled in as well. She regretted that she hadn’t been able to help Salshira, but even so…
I am yours, Aihay. Thank you for making me yours. Thank you for making me believe.
I will not be afraid.
An image appeared in her mind, a drop in a still pool. Sunfire Falls burning. It’s people running. So many dying. Afraid, with no one to stand for them. No one to tell them. No one to show them the way. To remind them.
A question followed the image:
Who will serve them in my name?
Ember saw the faces of the people, many of them the same who had wanted her thrown out, and knew that they were worth nothing. In the same instant she also knew that she was worse than them, and that she was worth less than nothing.
She also knew that she was forgiven, and loved.
And knowing that, she forgave and loved them.
“All that I am is yours, Yahsaw. I will serve them.”
She saw a smile. A smile worth more than a thousand worlds.
Behold, I am with you wherever you wherever you go.
Fire returned to her heart and ran up her arm. She scrabbled at the jaws crushing her neck again, probed along the head until she found an eye.
She drove a claw right through the protective lens. All the way to the top knuckle. The teeth released her neck and one of the weights on top of her reared back with a scream.
Once you hurt your opponent, go at them and never let up until they’re too broken to fight anymore.
Ember followed the strike to the eye with a blow to the chest on one of the Garagrans still weighing her down, then a bite of her own that tore off a scale. She kicked with her legs, claws extended, until she got purchase on the thinner scales of a belly, sprinted the scales away until she heard another scream and smelled blood.
Spun and snapped, grabbed onto a leg. Bit down with strength she had never had before. Tasted blood. Chewed and yanked, pulling the owner closer so she could latch on with all her claws and kick and slash and tear. Struck out with her wings to keep the other two off until the one she had hold of fought with all its might to be free and threw her off.
She spun around in a circle, eyeing them as they backed away, all three of them torn and bleeding. Triumph thrilled outside her, but she pushed it away, looking only for another blow she could land, another strike that would bring her closer to victory and a way to get to the city.
She had to defend the people there.
The Captain’s voice rang out and all three Garagrans inhaled. Ember had no fire to reply with, not that kind, so she picked the one missing an eye and charged.
White agony exploded around her, blanked out everything.
Drove her to her knees and filled her ears with roaring.
She got back up, letting the fire inside push back, even as the white heat crawled along her skin looking for a way in.
She was in a tornado of fire. Scales crisped and fell off. Exposed flesh charred. Wing membrane turned to dust and whirled into the vortex around her.
Still the fire inside made her stand, and she knew that it was love.
She took a step forward. Another.
She would go. She would go if it cost everything she had.
And she would not be afraid, because her Kai was with her.
A new song whispered in the flame inside, heard despite the roaring that had driven away every other sound outside and the hatred that beat at her within the the Garagrans’ flame. A song deeper and more wondrous than any of those that had come before, yet still familiar, as if she had heard it all along.
It begged to be set free. To be declared with all that Ember still had.
YOU WILL BURN!
The last of her scales burned off. Vision vanished as eyes seared and went blind. Wingbones chewed down toward nothing.
In the midst of the inferno, caught between the flame within and the flame without, Ember said yes, opened her mouth, and sang victory with her last breath.
The two fires surged to meet each other.
Ember was smiling as the last of her fell away into ashes and was no more.