“What is that?” Randy’s eyes were wider than Jayson had ever seen, and he was actually backing away. Randy never backed down.
Jayson was the first to come to his senses. “Switch meteor!”
The others echoed him. Light fell from the sky in a flurry, fire, wind, and snow stunning the monster that had attacked Fuse. A moment later, the Skaeya stood ready to face it.
Only now there were ten.
“It’s like all the marshmallows I’ve ever eaten have come back to haunt me,” Randy squeaked.
The red one in the middle had a long pair of tails that twitched eagerly, a snake coiled to spring. “Skaeya,” it rasped.
Jayson cringed, but the voice didn’t shred his ears this time. His pendant thrummed and that was all. Now that he was transformed, these things seemed to radiate a sharp, very distinct, cold emptiness. It was overwhelming, repulsive, and strangely motivating. Vividly, he remembered the first time he’d seen creatures like this, hovering in his own kitchen, but somehow, they were clearer and easier to see here. He glanced over at Ru and found her eyeing him meaningfully.
An aura flared up around the creatures, a bonfire of negative energy. Pressure built in the air. Ru shot up into the sky, and the others scrambled into the air after her. Jayson just barely managed to hang onto serenity by picturing himself safe and asleep in his room.
Colleen screamed, some twenty feet below the rest of them. “Whoa!” Randy shouted.
A soundless explosion fanned out beneath them, bending the trees down. The icy wind from the shockwave made Jayson want to curl into a ball, but he couldn’t take his eyes away. The creatures were riding their own energy, winding their way up into the sky faster than Jayson ever wanted to believe such bulky things could move.
“Yeah, c’mere!” Randy hollered. “I burn a hundred of your little brothers in campfires every year, what are you gonna do about it?”
He dived right at them. Jayson’s first reflex was to yell at him to stop, but he was glad someone was doing something. Colleen was still flying upwards, and Ru was as frozen as he was, her vivid blue eyes darting all around.
Randy delivered a kick to one of the creatures that sent it spiraling back towards the ground. The other creatures immediately surrounded him, and both Ru and Jayson flew towards them. The creatures scattered. In most dreams, Jayson had to struggle to stay in the air, and he was grateful that flying came easier here.
A green marshmallow sprung right up in his face. He didn’t even have time to stop. Negative light engulfed his vision. He was overwhelmed by cold, boneless and void on the inside. His mind reeled, his eyes would not clear no matter how he blinked. The wind cut past him and he realized he was falling. At least this dream was over. Any moment now, he’d be sitting up in bed laughing about this whole ridiculous long nightmare. The palm leaves slapped at him as he plummeted past.
But there was no impact. The next thing he was aware of was his head resting on the sandy ground, two marshmallows hovering over him. Their feline eyes examined him carefully, and though he wanted anything to get away, the cold anchored all parts of him. He was barely aware of his body, he only knew it was there because his hair and hat brim were still in sight. He was so thoroughly frozen he wasn’t sure if he was breathing.
Thick thoughts floated through his mind. Dream. They couldn’t hurt me if they wanted to.
To his surprise, one of the creatures barked something, and both flew away, leaving him in the sand. He was relieved until he saw them split off and add to the numbers chasing his friends. He could barely see through the broad palm leaves, but even without using his eyes, he somehow knew what was happening, where everyone was. In his mind there were pinpricks of cold energy circulating with clear colorful starlight, his friends. Randy was nearby, wrestling fiercely with one and lashing out at all the others when he had a free limb. Ru twisted and swooped through the sky, graceful and elusive as a swallow, but there were too many close calls with four of them now after her, all firing that freezing energy. Colleen kept going further and further away. Jayson wanted to call to them for help, but even if he was capable, he knew it would be a bad idea with all of his friends being chased. None of them would know how to unfreeze him anyway.
A light flared and blinded him. Rainbow light. His brain tried to say Fuse’s name, but his mouth did not obey. The little bird perched on his chest, her natural light dimming enough for Jayson to see her tiny, glittering feathers bristle. She lay flat and looked him in the eye, and her light flashed again. The cold vanished. Jayson bolted upright, knocking Fuse into the air. “What happened? What’s going on?”
Randy crashed down beside them, a strangely empty look in his eyes. Fuse darted over to him. Sparkling white light engulfed Randy’s whole body. He sat up and shook his shaggy head. “Hey!” he shouted, startling Fuse away. “That was the one I took a bite out of! It’s whole again!”
Jayson blinked. “The one you what?”
“Well punching ’em wasn’t working!”
“They are Lraenu!” Fuse’s colorful light churned furiously. “You are lucky they merely immobilized you. They cannot be destroyed by physical attacks. They will regenerate.”
“Then how do we win?” Randy demanded.
The bulk of the Lraenu were focusing their efforts on Ru. Colleen had stopped more than a mile away, the Lraenu no longer in pursuit. Jayson could not tell if she was frozen. Ru was fighting instead of just dodging now, but even though he saw no fear, Jayson was sure she’d never thrown a serious punch in her life. Her left arm dangled in an odd way. Randy bristled at the sight of the Lraenu and shot back into the sky. “Wait!” Jayson shouted.
“Listen,” Fuse said. “You cannot destroy them when they are in this form. To defeat them, you must change their form. Lraenu are made by corrupting the matter and energy of this universe, whether it be pure energy or actual living things, and many of the living have been changed into Lraenu against their will. You have the power to reverse that corruption. You feel a surge of energy when you transform, yes?”
“Imagine that same energy flowing through you again. Will it back. Concentrate. It is more difficult than flight, but it is the most essential power you have. It is also easier when the Lraenu are close. When you have focused enough that you can see the energy, call out ‘crash’ and touch the Lraenu. It will revert them.”
A body crashed through the palms. Ru hit the ground, the same glazed look in her eyes Randy had when he was frozen. “Lead the Lraenu away,” Fuse ordered. “I will teach the others.”
Jayson flew up past the Lraenu. As he hoped, they gave a start and swarmed after him. His mind scrabbled for Fuse’s instructions. The transformation energy. What had it been like? Fittingly, like a fire, a huge fire. More than a wildfire, more than the fury of all the volcanoes on Earth, a blaze hot enough to match the core of a star. A flame ignited in the back of his mind, then every inch of his skin prickled. The frigid Lraenu aura closing in behind him fed the flame just as Fuse said. At first, he thought the red light around his hand was his imagination, but as the flame grew stronger, he could see it reflecting off the underside of his hat brim, a clear sign that it was not even an afterimage.
He rushed to meet the Lraenu. It wasn’t until after he shouted, he realized the word that had come out of his mouth wasn’t “crash,” but it was the right one. The energy that had been building inside obscured his fist in flames.
It was like punching something that had already been burned. The Lraenu howled and burst into ash and embers. Its howl thinned to a shriek, a panicked squawking, and beyond the plume of ash Jayson saw a feathery, fluttering shape retreat to the trees. It’s just like what happened with the Star and Crowe, he remembered, back in the kitchen.
His skin bristled as cold washed over him. He’d forgotten about the other Lraenu! But before he could react, blue light streaked past him and the creatures evaporated in mid-attack. One became a screeching, spiral-feathered bird, the other merely sparks. Ru circled above, grinning. Randy, a green light trailing behind him like a ribbon, laughed maniacally as he hunted down another Lraenu. In the distance, Colleen flew alongside Fuse. Pink fractals sputtered around her hand, then grew into a steady light. She never had the chance to test her power, though. The Lraenu were gone by the time she returned.
Randy shrugged. “Well, that was easy.”
“You did very well,” Fuse said, with as much of a smile as a bird could manage.
“It was too easy,” Jayson said.
“Ten should be,” Fuse replied. “You are the only ones in the galaxies capable of reversing their corruption. There are many, many more Lraenu, scattered throughout the stars. There could just as be thousands the next time you face them.”
An uncomfortable silence filled the tropical air. Fuse’s bird smile did not dim. “Fear not. You are learning more quickly than I expected. If your Axles awaken soon –“
“Axles?” Ru questioned.
“The meteor that comes to you when you transform is called an Axle. The pendants you wear are small pieces of that Axle. That is how the meteor finds you. It is how you connect to the System, and the source of your power. Once you are fully synchronized with the System, your Axle will awaken, and you will have access to your full power.”
“How do we do that, then?” Randy asked eagerly.
“Primarily, you must learn to speak Accilean. Anything can understand it, but learning to speak it is more difficult. It requires an open acceptance of the System. I must admit, I’m surprised Jayson learned it at all, as he thought he was dreaming. Unless I am mistaken and you changed your mind?”
Jayson felt a little hostile for being singled out. “Who says I still don’t think I’m dreaming? For all I know, I could be in a coma and can’t wake up until we beat the Lraenu.”
Fuse shook her head, clearly amused. “Our previous Skaeya were adults, like Jayson suggested. They were too set in their ways to open their minds. They could not learn. They had too many doubts. Your quick learning means you believe in me as much as I believe in you. I am grateful for that.”
Ru’s smile widened. Jayson was about to make a quip, but suddenly his senses were overwhelmed. All five turned at once towards the Lraenu hive. Nothing looked different. The palm forest swayed placidly, the ocean glittered under intense starlight, but Jayson felt like he was watching a volcano erupt. “What is that?” Colleen whimpered.
Fuse narrowed her eyes. “Go home. More are coming.”
Randy smacked a fist into his palm. “We can take ’em.”
“No. There is a Commander with them.” Fuse’s voice was calm, but there was an ominous, agitated buzz in her wings. “You are not ready for him.”
The four hurried back to the ground. “Why can’t we go the Council’s complex? I thought that’s where we were going anyway.”
“The gatestones have a repulsion field against the Lraenu. Had the four of you remained near the stone, they wouldn’t have been able to touch you.”
“That would have been helpful to know,” Jayson snapped.
“You are here to fight, not hide. But besides the field, Lraenu cannot enter the complex unless we open the gate for them, and this particular Commander is especially dangerous to the Council as well as immune to the field’s repulsion effects.” Fuse lingered behind, one eye always on the distant hive. “Caere and Ember can protect you on Earth. I will wait until the danger has passed and tell the Council what has happened here. Hurry. They are close.”
Jayson didn’t want to look back. He didn’t have to. He could feel the torrent of icy annihilation headed straight for them. The tension was unbearable, even if it was just a dream. “So Randy,” he called, “What do Lraenu taste like?”
“Kind of like dusty styrofoam.”
“How do you know what styrofoam tastes like?”