The Lraenu drones receded, falling silently and sleekly away, a wave dissolving before it broke. Kestrel scowled as he watched the last of them scatter back into the base below his feet. A few flew off to retrieve what was left of the fallen. Some were gone for good.
Kyte, the drone controller, stood near the edge of the roof. Her fists were at her sides and shoulders stiff, but it was her mind that was working the hardest. The braided tentacles on her head spiked in their ponytail, the tropical wind seemed to surround her, her skin seemed luminous under the vivid pink of the Irescan suns. As the last drone disappeared, the heavy muscles in her arms relaxed. Rough Lraenian curses filled the air.
“I said follow them,” the man beside her barked in a metal-tinged voice.
“No,” Kestrel said sharply.
Pi turned, calm, as if he’d known Kestrel was there all along. Virulent purple eyes stared from deep within the steel plates that slashed his face. As usual, he wore a jacket with the left sleeve torn away, exposing his glassy mechanical arm. It could have been crafted to look organic, but for some reason Pi liked to show off that his human body was falling apart.
“The Skaeya are Sylph and Shryke’s domain.” Kestrel rested a hand on one of his sword handles. “They do not require your assistance.”
The violet metal dominating Pi’s face did not shift, but the remaining flesh shaped into a sneer. “Why are the Skaeya still alive, then? You’ve handled this so ineptly that even though you’ve known who they are for weeks, you let them gain power. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve let mere children get the better of you.”
Kyte cut in. “He doesn’t have to explain anything to you.”
“He will to Harrier.” Pi smirked.
“I am touched by your concern for my well-being,” Kestrel said dryly, “but you are not his messenger nor his voice. I wish to speak to Kyte alone.”
There was a strange flicker around Pi’s fingers, a twist in the air, a tearing. Kestrel did not move, but never looked away from the eye-wrenching energy. Then Pi closed his fist and it vanished. “She could not possibly have anything useful to say. She doesn’t have the capacity. But, if you insist.”
Pi flashed into his Lraenu form, a tattered, red-eyed wisp, and flew off. Dismissing him from thought, Kestrel approached Kyte. She pulled up one of her tentacles in response to his unspoken question. The end was cut off and dripping pale blue blood. As painful as it must have been, her voice betrayed nothing. “You know I’m not powerful enough to fight him.”
“Is that why you failed to capture the Skaeya?”
“No, Commander. I underestimated them. Pi had me send one of the drones after Fuse, but that shouldn’t have made a difference.”
“Pi could have gotten both of you killed, attacking a Council member,” Kestrel said angrily.
“He was probably trying to lure Ember. You know how he is.” Kyte quickly transformed into a Lraenu and back again. She was entirely healed. “It’s exactly what we thought with the Skaeya, though. They’re easier to teach because of their age. We need to act immediately. We should strike at them on Earth, all four of them at once. Caere can’t be everywhere.”
“I want them alive,” Kestrel said. “It shouldn’t be difficult.”
Kyte stared. “Forgive me for questioning your orders — but why? I mean, not to agree with Pi,” her voice reflected her distaste, “but my assessment is that they could become very dangerous, very quickly.”
Kestrel gazed at the ocean, silent for a moment. “They have never been this young before.”
“That bothers you?”
“We cannot afford to show weakness, the Council will take advantage of it. I agree, these children can be as much of a threat as any Skaeya before them, even more so.” Kestrel saw more drones return, empty-handed. “But the malleability of their minds can work in more than one way. If we truly believe in our cause, should we not try to convince others rather than force our way? Especially with the Skaeyans? As of yet they have no stake in the Accilean System, they are not part of it. They are unaware.”
Kyte shook her head. “Don’t let Pi know you’re going soft.”
Kestrel glared. Kyte held her hands up, grinning. “Look, personally I think the Skaeyans would never accept us. But if that’s how you want to handle them, we’ll do it. Except Pi.”
“Leave Pi to me.”
“I’m just saying, I’m not exaggerating their potential. Sylph says these Skaeya manifested some of their power before they were first armed.”
“She mentioned that to me, though she didn’t have time to go over specifics.”
“She’s in Recovery right now, you could just go ask her.”
Kestrel looked sharply at Kyte. “She’s here? What happened to her?”
Kyte looked taken aback by his sudden intensity. “I don’t know. No external injuries as far as I could tell.”
Without another word, Kestrel headed for the lower levels. The Recovery wing of their base was small and not used often; Lraenu could heal themselves of nearly all injuries, but not everything, and some conditions stopped them from assuming Lraenu form.
The room Sylph had chosen was dimly lit from the narrow window on the west wall. Sylph lay on a padded cot near it, curled as if she were asleep, but she sat up when she heard his footsteps. He noticed a thin chain clutched in her hand.
“Is that one of their talismans?”
Sylph eyed the object in her hand. It was a silver pendant. Her eyes reflected its murky depth as did her voice. “No, mine.”
“What happened? You’re quite pale. Are you well?”
“No,” she said faintly.
She rested her head back on the cot. Kestrel turned to leave. “Has Eurus been in? I will find him.”
Sylph’s voice caught him before he left. “I’m going back to Skae. What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing,” Kestrel said firmly. “Do not return to Skae. You will not be able to access your Lraenu form if you are ill, and Caere might take advantage of that.”
“I’m not afraid of her.”
Sighing, Kestrel walked over and knelt by the cot. “Your absence will not be noticed at your post, we will make sure of that. Shryke can take over everything else.”
Stubborn light appeared in Sylph’s eyes. “All Shryke would want to do is waste more time. He’d probably end up being best friends with them and spend the rest of his days at that arcade.”
Kestrel grimaced. She was not wrong, exactly. “Sending you vulnerable like this is not worth the risk. I would rather not lose someone who has served with me as long as you have.”
She was silent for a long time, and just as Kestrel was about to leave, she spoke up. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? We’ve known each other since before we joined the Lraenu. Do you remember the time before?”
An image flashed to mind. Rain pouring from the sky. Blood and negative light on a dingy street. A man with a demonic smile. A shade of violet deep enough to drown in.
“That time is meaningless now.” Kestrel stood. “As far as you and I should be concerned, we have always been Lraenu.”
“Commander Kestrel,” a soft voice called from the door.
Sylph’s eyes went wide, her face grim. Kestrel knew who it was without looking. A man in a sleek, tight black and yellow uniform. His expression was perpetually gentle and innocent, but his presence usually meant something more alarming. “Zephyrus,” Kestrel acknowledged.
“Harrier is calling.”
Questions were not asked, nor reasons given. Still, Kestrel couldn’t help but wonder where Pi had gone.
The hall to the heartroom was long, quiet, and bathed in teal light from the glowing mist that veiled the ceiling. The color was a measure of Accilean Standard time, something Fuse had difficulty keeping track of on a planet without modern technology. She was usually the last to arrive in the Council’s complex, often after being reminded by one of her friends. Some people were thrilled about a mere lytra being summoned to represent the entire galaxy, but many had their doubts.
Her footsteps were heavy in the stone-silent hallway, even the swishing fringe of her robe echoed. The first time she’d been down this hall, she’d been awed. She’d never seen any type of artificial construction besides the Lraenu hive, that dull, grey, rough cube that everyone on Iresca knew to keep their distance from, apart from a few of Fuse’s more foolhardy friends. The walls and floors of the complex were polished to a mirror shine and lined with swirling, complex patterns that changed with the lighted mist on the ceiling. There were tall doors with ringed seals that tended to open in dramatic bursts of light, and cavernous rooms with windows looking upon colorful nebula clouds and starfields. Usually music could be heard from somewhere in the distance, echoing, never the same kind as most planets had several styles. She had been very young the first time she’d been to the complex, but then again, most of the Council considered her very young now, and given the lifespan of a lytra, probably so for the remainder of her days. She had been called to serve early out of necessity.
Fuse pressed down on the seal to the heartroom door. The seal was half her size and as round as most moons, the symbol a glass rainbow sphere with three rings around it. The door split open, revealing the heartroom. It had the appearance of a massive platform floating in space, hovering above Galaxy Axest’s swirled stars, but Fuse was told there was a barrier of some kind at the edges of the platform. That made more sense to her than a great deal of Accilean technology. Much more sense than the fact that the platform appeared to be lit, but there were no actual lights shining on or from it.
A woman lowered her hood as she approached Fuse. Cutyri’s face was lined, though young for her age, framed by long cobalt hair. Her long, tilted eyes were the same vivid blue, and worried, as Fuse would expect today. Two thin black chains dangled from her bangs to her collar, they rang as she moved, with a much more crystalline sound than one would expect from their iron appearance. She moved gracefully, flowing like smoke. “You will be called first,” she said.
Fuse stared further down the platform. “I know.”
“I have spoken to Odeny, but I’m not certain what actions he will take.”
Usually no one knew. it was Odeny’s duty as the Council moderator to be as neutral and logical as possible, and even if he couldn’t, he was very good at having people come to agreement. It would be the first time Fuse was leading an issue, and with so much at stake he thought it would be better for Cutyri to present their concerns. She had been with the Council since its beginnings. “I don’t know if I –“
Cutyri seemed to read Fuse’s thoughts. “It must be you. You have the most to lose, and you have the most power to change the outcome.” She touched Fuse’s shoulder, and even though her touch was as light as a breeze, there was a sudden and thorough warmth that shimmered through Fuse’s body. “I would take your place in an instant if that didn’t matter.”
Fuse smiled weakly. “Thank you.”
The door slid open again, a square of teal forming out of the void, and Odeny stepped in. He was a strong but fluid being, humanoid from the waist up, but with an abdomen and legs like a spider. His skin was pale with silver patches, his hair wiry, and his eyes glowed a blank, hot white. With Odeny’s arrival, all twenty Council representatives were there, and they formed a circle around the seal in the center of the platform.
Even though Odeny was potentially Fuse’s executioner, the sight of him, the way his rich voice wove Accilean words intricately with the light he radiated, emptied Fuse’s mind of all nervousness. She had taken an instant liking to him, and it wasn’t until years later that she understood why. It had come up in conversation that the amount a light a lytra gave off was a measure of its health. To lytra, light inherently meant good things, energy, happiness, safety, and Odeny was practically made of it. She tried not to let it cloud her focus from then on. It was easier to remember when she found out that some of the Lraenu glowed as well.
“This emergency meeting has been called to discuss future policies in dealing with the Lraenu,” Odeny said, after confirming all were present. “Fuse?”
As soon as Fuse set foot on the seal, sparks shot up around her. She gasped as her body was suddenly forced into the form of a tiny bird. Fortunately, she was able to catch the air with her wings, but she wished she hadn’t been so absorbed in thought. She lifted herself up so she could be seen by all of her fellow Council members. Given the variety of species here, there were quite a few differences in height, Loch from Galaxy Sylwoth being the largest, and ironically one of the smallest creatures in his galaxy. He was lying on the floor to somewhat even the field. He was fairly placid, but Fuse could not help being intimidated being a fraction of the size of his furry snout.
She was grateful the seal carried her voice so she didn’t have to shout. “The Skaeya of this generation are showing tremendous progress. They have already begun to learn Accilean words. They have also encountered drones and defeated them. But we need more time.”
A harsh whisper cut Fuse off. “Enough time has passed!”
“Veah,” Odeny warned.
Fuse could not see the entity that the voice had come from, at most, Veah’s physical form was a vague, glowing mist. Still, he was very good at making himself heard. “The Lraenu have overrun Kelsilde. How long has Ani been missing?”
Fuse put a fierce rein on her temper. Ani was the Council member she’d been chosen to replace.
“Shyra is also severely infected,” Veah continued. “Even you, Odeny, have been avoiding entire planets there. Our galaxies are not far behind at this rate.”
“It is unwise for any of us to remain near Lraenu when we are not permitted to fight them,” Odeny said.
“Then if we really must rely on the Skaeya, they should not be chosen from a single planet whose populace is collectively unaware of the System! They cannot be relied on if they can’t even comprehend the size of the system we represent.”
“Speak to Ember about it, then,” Fuse said with an agitated flutter.
“Ember has protected us for centuries,” Cutyri pointed out. “Surely we should work with what he gives us, or at least consult him? We could have more like the Golden Skaeya at hand, if what Fuse says is true.”
The wisp in Veah’s voice became more of a hiss. “Ember obviously has the power to defeat the Lraenu himself, but does he? He is playing games with us. For all we know, he’s allied with the Lraenu.”
“Do not speak of Ember in such a way,” someone else said coldly.
Everyone spoke at once.
“He could destroy us, no matter what side he’s on.”
“But Veah is right that we must act. The Lraenu have already grown out of our control and we cannot keep pursuing the same course of action.”
Odeny had his eyes closed. Likely, he could understand every word spoken at once. Finally, he called for a silence. “You have introduced the Skaeya to the prophecies?” Odeny asked Fuse.
“We are still waiting for the next sign,” he said to the rest of the Council. “The Angel has not yet appeared.”
“How long has it been since one of the prophecies has been fulfilled?” Veah’s voice was challenging, but it also sounded like an honest question. “The Angel may not even exist.”
Cutyri shook her head. “All of them have been true so far.”
“This is not a matter to be decided by fear,” Odeny stared at Veah, “or promises.” He turned his luminous gaze to Fuse. “This is a situation most grave no matter what we decide, and if anything, we should confer with Ember himself before making a final decision. We should meet these Skaeya as well.”
The Council rumbled in agreement. Fuse fluttered over the edge of the seal and out of its range, reviving her human form. Odeny followed. “Bring the Skaeya here as soon as possible. I hope you are not being overly optimistic.”
“I mean what I said. But Veah –“
Odeny’s people did not smile, but his voice was sympathetic and encouraging. “Do not let him disturb you. He has been with the Council for a long time, but so have many others that agree with you.”
Fuse nodded, her smile grim. “As soon as possible,” she said.