Silence fell across the clearing. “Why?” Colleen whispered.
“Because of the Lraenu.”
Ru flinched. “Lreanu” felt like it could break her ears if Fuse had said it louder. Though she was hesitant to ask what a Lraenu was, she did. She could not pronounce it the same way Fuse did.
“The first of our Skaeya rebelled against the Accilean Council,” Fuse said. “Since then, the galaxies have been under attack by his soldiers — vicious, ghostly creatures we call Lraenu. The Lraenu can shapeshift, but in their true form they are practically invincible. Practically. You four have the power to stop them.”
“Cool,” Randy said.
“But we don’t have power,” Ru said.
“You will soon. Not long ago, one of our agents contacted you. You did not know what was happening at the time, but he was taking the material necessary to make those talismans you wear. He activated your power and it has been building since then.” Fuse knelt in front of Ru. “What is your name?”
Fuse pointed at Ru’s pendant. “These talismans have been granted to help you access your tools. It is important that you always keep the talisman with you. Consider it a part of you. Don’t lose it. Don’t give it up. Most importantly, don’t break it. Ru, I can sense it will be easiest for you to learn how your power works. First, you must arm yourself.” Fuse rose and backed up a few paces. “Call out, ‘switch meteor!’ as loud as you possibly can. As if you wanted the sky itself to hear you.”
Ru looked at the others, searching for a hint of what to do. All eyes were on her, Jayson skeptical, Colleen nervous, Randy intrigued. It couldn’t hurt to say a few words, she reasoned. The forest was too quiet to be screaming, but Ru sucked in a slow, deep breath. “SWITCH METEOR!“
The cry echoed through the trees. After a few seconds of silence, she was sure her face was a bright enough red to see in the starlight alone. The fact that none of the others were laughing kept her calm. She expected Randy to be cackling, but he looked disappointed instead. “What’s supposed to happen?” Ru asked Fuse. “Why’d you make me yell like that?”
Colleen gasped. “A shooting star!”
At first, Ru could only see the twinkle of strange constellations. Then, a glittering blue streak of light came into view. “That’s too big to be a shooting star,” Jayson said. “And too slow.”
A breeze kicked up. The palms swayed, hissing ominously, and suddenly the stirring of air felt more like a storm was moving in. The star ballooned to the size of the moon and lost its tail. “I think it’s heading this way,” Randy gulped. “Run!”
The entire forest turned blue-white under the light of the incoming meteor. The trees thrashed as the wind gusted in. The winds pushed everyone away from Ru. She stood motionless at the center of the storm, unable to take her eyes away from the sky. Randy and Colleen locked their arms around tree trunks to keep from being blown away. Jayson had dropped to the sand and was clawing his way back to his sister. “Ru! Ru, move!”
His voice was so distant. Her ears were filled with the rush of air. The light of the meteor blocked everything out.
It hit. The impact knocked her spirit from her body. She was rising upwards at an incredible speed, through clouds, through the sky, stars and suns swirling endless all around her, all reaching for her. When they touched her, something inside shattered.
She never felt so free.
Abruptly she was back in the forest. She was keenly aware of every one of those trees, every grain of sand under her feet, all the stars overhead, even what she couldn’t see. Her nerves hummed with the energy of it all. The absolute clarity of her mind and senses astonished her. Fuse was close by now, and even without light, she somehow radiated color even more vividly than when she had been a bird.
Colleen peered out from behind her tree. “You’re — you’re different.”
Ru glanced down. Her clothes had changed, though they didn’t look all that out of the ordinary. A blue t-shirt with white sleeves, black jeans, blue sneakers with white wing decals on the side. A blue headband with long tails was tied firmly around her head, and there was a barrette above her right ear that she couldn’t see. A tiny light pulsed inside the gem of her pendant, something she would not have noticed if her senses hadn’t been heightened.
At the same time, Colleen and the others were different as well. It was as if Ru had stepped into a movie and they were figures in the oldest, grainiest black and white photo. They were lifeless, missing details. They approached slowly, wide-eyed.
“You are the Skaeya of the Sky,” Fuse told her. “The leader of this generation.”
The weight of the word “Skaeya” hit her opened mind with full force. In that instant she knew just what a Skaeya meant to the galaxies, what was waiting inside her to be awakened. She felt like a star just lit, burning with unimaginable energy.
“Hey, can I do that?” Randy asked eagerly.
Fuse smiled more openly now. “Give it a try.”
Randy’s meteor didn’t take nearly as long to arrive as Ru’s. It fell so fast Ru barely saw it land. The light it created on impact was too bright to look at. Even Fuse turned her head away. When the brilliance faded, Randy was wearing a green jersey with the number ten on it, a silver cape, black pants, and tall metal cyborg boots. He was not so stunned by his transformation as Ru was. “I mean, a jersey wasn’t what I was expecting for a superhero, but whatever.” A devious grin spread across his face. “What’s my power?”
“You are the Skaeya of Light.”
Randy’s enthusiasm left in a hurry. “Light?” he scoffed. “Ru gets like lightning and tornadoes and stuff, and I get light?“
Ru hadn’t given much thought to her elemental potential. She imagined summoning a big storm, and picked up the grin Randy had dropped.
“Randy, is it?” Fuse asked. To her credit, she didn’t seem annoyed at all like most people did when Randy threw a tantrum.
Randy crossed his arms and gave Fuse his toughest look. “Yeah.”
“Your clothes right now are similar to what you normally wear, based on what you think you should look like. When you are a full Skaeya, it will change. As for the power of light, it is wise not to underestimate any element.”
Randy grumbled, but had no arguments. Fuse approached Colleen. “Would you like to try next?”
Colleen jumped. There was a panic in her eyes that Ru didn’t understand. Colleen was normally nervous around strangers, but this was something beyond even what an alien should have inspired.
“What’s your name?”
Colleen’s mouth worked.
“Sorry? I didn’t hear you.” Fuse inched closer.
Colleen trembled and gripped her pendant with both hands. “I-I can’t be a guardian.”
Fuse looked concerned but unbelieving. “Why not?”
“I mean, she is kind of a coward,” Randy cut in.
“She probably has a more useful power than yours,” Ru snapped.
Colleen swallowed. Her voice was barely above a whisper. “This necklace can’t be what you think it is. My mother left it to me. I’ve had it since I was a baby.”
Fuse’s eyes widened. “May I see it?”
Colleen handed over the pendant and backed away. Fuse’s prismatic eyes hardened as she sunk into deep thought. Her gray lips pressed together. “Strange,” she said at last. “I have no doubts this is a Skaeya pendant. But you should have obtained it recently.”
Ru gasped, then burst out, “Was her mother a guardian too?”
Fuse shook her head. “It wouldn’t matter if she was or not, each pendant is supposed to be unique to the guardian.”
“Oh.” Ru deflated a bit, but her mind was already running away with other possibilities. “Maybe the same person who gave us our pendants switched Colleen’s mom’s pendant out sometime. I don’t know how because you wear it all the time,” she said to Colleen, “But I don’t know how I lived through getting hit by a meteor, either.”
Fuse handed the pendant back with a smile. “Just try switching. It won’t hurt you.”
Colleen’s mouth formed the words, but Ru couldn’t even hear a whisper. “You’re too quiet,” Fuse said. “The meteor isn’t receiving your command. Try again.”
Ru suspected Colleen was distracted by something, but couldn’t imagine what. “It’s pretty cool. C’mon, let’s see what your power is!”
“Yeah!” Randy gave her a thumbs up.
Colleen huffed, breathed deeply, and screamed louder than Ru had ever heard her scream before. “SWITCH METEOR!”
The air grew cold. Snowflakes filled the air, glistening in the pink light from the approaching meteor. It seemed to hit in slow motion. Ru felt frozen in place. She caught a glimpse of Colleen’s strangely empty eyes just before impact.
When the snow blew away, Colleen appeared hunched over. Her dewy eyes darted all around. Her uniform had become a sparkling pink dress with a short, flared skirt. She wore white gloves with lacy gauntlets and a belt with a big fluffy bow on the back, tied with a huge white gemstone. Her headband now had a white wing and crystal snowflake pinned above each ear. “Wow,” Ru breathed. “Yours is pretty!”
“What is this?” Colleen whimpered. “Why does everything feel so strange?”
“You’re awakening to the system,” Fuse said.
Randy was yelling, somewhere more distant than he had been. Apparently he’d already lost interest in whatever Colleen would be. “Light power! Shine!”
“That won’t work yet,” Fuse called to him, amused. “We’ll start practicing that when you’re all armed.”
The group looked at Jayson. He was leaning against a tree, arms tightly crossed, hat pulled down over his eyes. “That’s my brother, Jayson,” Ru said. “He thinks he’s dreaming.”
“How am I not?” Jayson said. “This is impossible.”
“He’s a chicken,” Randy sneered.
“That doesn’t work on me,” Jayson replied coldly.
Ru walked closer. “C’mon, you’re next.”
All coolness evaporated. “Um, no, I don’t have to do this. You guys, don’t you see it? Something isn’t right here!”
“If you think you’re dreaming –” Fuse started.
“There, you happy?” Jayson glared at the sky. “I don’t have to do this. I didn’t say I won’t.”
Ru grunted in annoyance, but had no time to speak. Hot winds poured in from the sky. Flames burst from the ground as the meteor struck. She was surprised none of the trees ignited.
Jayson stepped out of the fire. He had kept his hat, but the Sox logo had vanished and was no longer dusty and frayed. He wore a black jacket with a four-point star in red on the left side, black pants and shoes. But Ru couldn’t see the rest —
“Dude, your shirt’s on fire!” Randy yelled.
Jayson looked down, yelped, and batted frantically at the yellow flames that had engulfed his entire shirt.
“Stop drop and roll!” Ru shrieked.
Colleen pulled at Fuse’s shirt. “How do I use ice? Quick!”
It was then that Ru noticed Fuse didn’t seem worried at all, and Jayson stopped rolling in the sand a minute later. The fire apparently wasn’t hurting him, it seemed to be a part of his new shirt. The flames faded significantly as Jayson rose to his feet and dusted himself off.
“It’s clear what your power is, correct?” Fuse said with a smirk.
“I hate you,” Jayson replied in a level voice.
Fuse grinned, gave them all an approving glance, then closed her eyes. An undercurrent of energy radiated from her feet, into the ground, spreading and circling the entire planet beneath them. “The Lraenu do not realize we are here. I have time to grant you another ability.”
“I get to learn how to shoot lasers now?” Randy made a finger gun.
“Flight,” Fuse said.
Ru didn’t think Randy’s face could light up any more, but it did. She felt a flutter of excitement herself. “We can fly?“
“Skaeya-cyu means ‘flying fighter’ — it’s not just a name. I hear Skaeyan humans often dream they can fly. It’s because they know they can. They were made to forget.”
“By who?” Jayson demanded.
Fuse eyed the stars. “I — don’t actually know,” she admitted. “It happened long before my time. Perhaps long before the System’s time.”
Jayson was not about to let it go so easily. “And what exactly do you mean by the System? You say it differently than — I mean — well, we can’t be outside the system like you said, because Earth is in a galaxy, right? On the edge of one, anyway.”
“The System is more than the physical location of the stars,” Fuse started.
Randy waved a hand between the two of them “Um, excuse me? We were about to learn how to fly, and you want to sit here and talk?”
Fuse laughed and looked to her left. There was suddenly something there. An enormous, shadowy, but familiar presence overwhelmed Ru’s mind. She knew who it was before they stepped out of the trees. The red of their cloak was fiery in the meagre starlight.
“You!” Randy exclaimed.
“This is Ember,” Fuse said. “They are the Council’s guardian. They can help you remember.”
Ember moved no closer, but Ru felt her eyes being drawn to that void where their face should have been. Her eyes and mind focused in an uncomfortable way. Then, a click. A door opened. That weightless feeling came flooding back, that rush of previously unfathomable freedom. She bolted forward and leapt into the air.
Her feet never touched the ground.
“It worked!” Randy yelled.
She heard him grunt and a heavy thud as he landed face-first in the sand. “Ember has to teach you first. You’ll know when you’ve remembered.” Fuse smiled up at Ru. “I knew you would learn quickly.”
Ru kicked at the air and tried to draw herself forward with her hands, but she only made herself rotate in place. “It isn’t like swimming,” Fuse said. “The easiest way to start is picturing yourself going where you want to go.”
Ru’s eyes went straight to the sky. Pink starlight gleamed beyond the silhouettes of palm leaves. Fuse waved a hand at her. “Go on, try it out! Just don’t go far, and if you see or feel anything wrong, come back right away.”
The air was less dense above canopy. Ru started up slowly, taking in the full breadth of the elegant, sparkling skies. The air swirled lightly around her, tossing her hair but keeping it out of her face. There was no fear as the ground swept away from her. This was where she belonged.
A vast field of alien palms lay beneath her, blue and feathery in the night, littered with tiny, glistening yellow lights. Beyond, there was an ocean, a perfect crystal reflection of the brilliant arc of fuchsia stars near the horizon. The sheer size of the yellow moon nearby left Ru breathless, especially compared to their single, pale-faced moon at home. The more she sighted, the more she could feel. Every single star had its own energy. She felt like she was glowing herself.
“Wow,” she heard Colleen sigh.
Ru hadn’t realized she’d stopped. The others were drifting her way. She didn’t even need to look at them to know, they had a place in her mind too. Jayson flickered, Colleen shimmered, Randy blazed, Fuse beamed. The full sky overwhelmed them all. Ru recalled the sky of her home planet, perfect blue, crystal white, wild, seething gray and black, and knew she would never look at it the same way again.
Fuse’s wings hummed loudly as she drew near. “The bulk of your training will take place at the Council’s complex,” she said, “but the only gatestone from Skae leads here. You will have to come to Iresca before you transfer there.”
There was a strange implication in the bird’s voice. It was hard to tell what she was looking at. Ru squinted at the shoreline running off to the horizon. At first, she saw nothing but the thorny silhouettes of trees. On a second sweep, something caught her eye. It was very far away, but it was square and unnatural. She thought she could pick out its signal from all the others she was receiving, like a single line of smoke rising into the sky. “What’s that?”
Fuse knew exactly what Ru had found. “That is a Lraenu hive. You must keep clear of it until you are well-prepared.”
“What? Where is it?” Randy flew higher. “That’s the bad guys, right? I’m ready, let’s get em!”
“You are not ready,” Fuse said gently, “But I am going to send you home now. Especially when your powers are new, you must return to Earth to keep them strong.”
“Our powers are like a battery?” Jayson scoffed. “How are we supposed to protect galaxies if we have to stay home all the time?”
“You will see. Return tomorrow night and I will guide you to the Council’s complex.”
“What if the Lraenu are here waiting for us?” Colleen said fearfully.
“You must be prepared at all times,” Fuse warned. “They can travel to Earth. You have a few advantages there — your power is strengthened and theirs is weakened, and you have allies on your planet watching over you. Eventually, though, you must learn to defend yourselves.”
They summoned their meteors again to change back into normal. Fuse lead them to the gatestone with a few words of encouragement, then they were on their way home. Ru’s sneakers touched down lightly, as if she was still part of the air, part of the fog that had collected in Tanager Park sometime during the night. The park had been so striking when they’d left the planet, now it was just old. Quarterhill’s backyard. The Quarterstone, the gatestone, was no longer illuminated.
“This is awesome,” Randy exclaimed.
Jayson’s eyes were hidden under the brim of his hat, the corners of his mouth turned sharply downward. Colleen clutched at her pendant, which had returned to its original dolphin shape. Ru’s head was spinning, but Randy’s enthusiasm was contagious. They had powers. They could fly. They had just met an alien, of all things. Was it real?
Blue light illuminated the hedges. The Blue Star and Ember were near. There were four bracelets in Ember’s hands. They swept closer and fastened one around Ru’s wrist. Without understanding, she touched it, and gasped as symbols appeared in the air above it. The others gathered around her, even Jayson looked intrigued. “What is this?”
“These are each copies of a book of Accilean legend and prophecy, written before the system came into being,” the Star explained. “Learning the Accilean language will help you master your abilities, and we hope, in turn, you may help us better understand its contents.”
Ember handed out the other bracelets as Ru poked the symbols. The symbols scrolled sideways with her finger, rows disappearing on the right and more appearing on the left. “I’ve never seen this language before,” she protested. “How will we know where to start?”
“It will come to you.” The Star’s voice was soothing. “The Accilean language is a little different from any of Earth’s. Anyone can understand it when it is spoken, but to read, write, or speak it takes practice.”
“Anyone can understand it?” Ru repeated. “How? Like pictures?”
“You never noticed that I am not speaking English?”
All four pairs of eyes snapped to the Star. “Say something again,” Randy said slowly.
It was true. The words that whispered from the Star’s tranquil flames were unlike anything Ru had heard before, yet the meaning of the words stood out to her instantly. “You understand now. Return home. Come back to the stone at midnight.”
The Star winked out. Ember was gone with it.
“Like I need extra homework,” Randy said. “At least it’ll give us powers. Hey, you don’t think these things can break, do you? Let’s throw it in front of a car and find out.”
“This is why they gave you light powers. You guys know we gotta keep this a secret, right?” Ru said.
Randy rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mom.”
“Dude, we all know you’d be the first one to call down your meteor if you were about to get in another fight with Joe,” Jayson said. “Seriously, they said the Lraenu are here, and it’s probably better if they don’t know who we are.”
Colleen’s voice quavered. “We don’t know what they look like.”
“Hopefully we don’t need to know yet,” Ru said. “Fuse said to come back tomorrow night. What time are you guys’ parents usually asleep?”
They decided on a time to meet, then rushed home. Ru noticed she wasn’t the least bit tired. She and Jayson talked about the bracelet books on the way — they didn’t want their mother to find the books by accident, but she was rarely around to take care of the house anyway, so it wasn’t likely she’d stumble across them.
“But I guess aliens would explain all the weird stuff that happens in Quarterhill,” Ru whispered.
“Or dreaming,” Jayson said flatly. “I’m going to try and sleep.”
“How can you? There’s no way I can.” Ru was about to take her pendant off, hesitated and left it hanging around her neck. “Hey Jayson? Just because you think it’s a dream, it doesn’t mean you can’t play along, right? Why wouldn’t you want to be a superhero?”
Jayson paused at the door. “Flying is pretty cool. I just don’t trust the bird. I think she was hiding something.”
“Who knows? Since we’re dreaming, we might never find out. Good night.”