Chapter 20 ★ On the Way Home

Ru inhaled deeply, her eyes locked on the heavy clouds above. The sharp scent of damp asphalt and freshly fallen leaves was in the air. A drizzle began as she left the school parking lot, a lulling gray mist that put the world around her to sleep. She waved to Colleen as the bus rumbled past. The girls at Brackenridge had noticed none of Colleen’s absences, but Colleen didn’t want to take too many chances, and decided not to walk with Ru.

Ru’s mind had been preoccupied with Iresca all day. She could still feel the rush of soaring through the sky. She could hardly wait to go back. A light breeze kicked up, and she wondered about it. She had always been able to predict the weather. Was it because her element was the sky? Or was she given the sky element because she understood the weather? It was strange to think that she would be able to control something so big. Fighting the Lraenu would sure be easier with the ability to level a tornado at them, though.

The Lraenu looked ridiculous in hindsight, but just the memory of their paralyzing aura sent a shiver through her. When she’d first encountered the ones in her kitchen, she hadn’t been awakened and it was terrifying then. As a Skaeya, she could fully sense it and comprehend how powerful they were, but her transformation protected her from being truly affected.

Ru shivered again and pulled at her jacket strings. Away from school, the street was nearly silent. There were no cars, no people out walking their dogs, no other students headed home or to the park. Windows were dark and empty. The rain picked up, glossing the street, rustling the leaves, but the sound did not fill the hollowness around her. It felt wrong. Even with the weather like this, there would still be people headed to the park at this time of year just for the atmosphere.

Suddenly words filled the sour air, vicious words that rattled her entire body without being loud enough to do so. Ru’s heartbeat surged as she realized the wrongness had not been her imagination. Hands over her ears, eyes watering, she looked back. A gray Lraenu hovered over the driveway of the next house down. Its burning violet eyes cast a vivid reflection on the rain-slicked street. It sounded almost like it was singing, hypnotic and rhythmic in its own ghastly way. Ru found herself trying to run, but she only strained against solidly immobile feet. Whether it was fear or something the Lraenu was doing, Ru could not tell, but there was only one way out.

“SWITCH METEOR!” she shouted over the noise.

Roaring winds drowned the Lraenu out. It was blown backwards, then silenced as the force of the meteor impact sent it hurtling into a mailbox. Ru dashed out of the swirling residual energy with glowing fists. She swung wildly. Though the Lraenu had tails, each of Ru’s strikes missed by inches. The Lraenu spiraled around her, faster than she could turn and just out of arm’s reach. Its voice formed recognizable words, still in that horrific parody of sound. “Crashwave has been tried,” it mocked.

Ice shot down her spine as one of its tails tapped the back of her head. Her mind went blank and her body went numb. The light faded from her fists as she folded to the ground. The Lraenu scowled down at her.

Angry, frantic thoughts broke through the haze that had settled over her mind. This time Fuse wasn’t there to undo the freeze, but there was no way she should have been alone on the street at that moment. Where are all the people? How did it cut me off from all the people?

Did the Lraenu kill them?

Would it do that? Of course it would – they were the bad guys, right? Was she too late to protect them? Wasn’t that what she was supposed to do?

The urgency that followed that thought cut cleanly through the fog. Her pendant flared with brilliant blue swirls of light. The Lraenu jolted backwards and shielded its eyes with one of its tails. Ru sprang back to her feet, dashed across the nearest lawn, and ducked into a cluster of pine trees. The rain thickened, but strangely, she remained dry. When she looked back towards the street, the Lraenu was gone.

First, she tried to slow the huge, gasping breaths she was taking. The Lraenu could probably hear that, but surely it would have attacked if it knew where she was? She had to find the Lraenu first. As fast as the creature moved, Ru would have to surprise or outwit it if she wanted to catch it with “crashwave,” as it had called the attack. Running away was not an option. If it was trying to infect Earth like it had done elsewhere, and she was one of the only people on the planet capable of stopping it, she couldn’t let it get away.

It was still on the street, out of visual range, but Ru could pinpoint its aura down to the foot. She tried to remember if Fuse had mentioned how to use her elemental power. Something called an Axle, right? How do I activate it?  If he’d told her, it was lost in the racing of her mind. But maybe it was already active. She’d just been wondering if she could predict the weather because of some latent power she’d had before transformation. Maybe she could use her power all along and Fuse was unaware. If she could summon lightning, it could set the Lraenu on fire. Fuse said they couldn’t be destroyed that way, but setting it on fire might disorient enough to reach it with the crashwave.

She focused on the pouring clouds. She imagined streaks of lightning raining down, the Lraenu sparking and bursting into flames, smoldering in the street. She tried to call back the feeling of weightlessness the came from her transformation. Wait, no! That’s how to summon the crashwave, she thought in a panic. The glow will give me away!

A new plan formed. She couldn’t close the distance on foot in time to surprise the Lraenu, but she could fly a lot faster. Could she fly on Earth, though? She stepped into the air, one foot at a time, and remained there. Then, she started to concentrate. If she could bring the crashwave up right before she hit the Lraenu, she might stand a chance.

The world disappeared. Her head snapped around as her feet were yanked out from under her. She sailed high into the air feet first, arms wheeling, and caught one breathless glimpse of the tops of the surrounding houses. Then the void force gripping her ankle slammed her down onto the street.

She tried to scream, but sudden weight on her chest would not allow her to draw breath. Jarring, thorough pain kept her motionless. She felt warmth trickle down her face along with the cold rain. Then, a heavy cord whipped around her neck and wrenched her off the ground. The Lraenu had her coiled in one of its tails. Randy had been wrong, it wasn’t like styrofoam at all.

“Don’t -” she gasped, just before the tail closed her throat.

She lashed out, scraping the tail with her fingernails. The Lraenu’s violet eyes raged in the mist, a steady, malicious stare that darkened her mind even more quickly than the lack of oxygen. Ru’s hands fell away, she raised her face to the sky. One last frenzied thought glimmered in her head. The Lraenu was close enough to use crashwave.

The thought bloomed like a firework. Blue light flashed. The tail was gone. Ru dropped to her knees, shaking, choking, her head swimming. Where the Lraenu has been, a black shape stirred on the concrete, much bigger than most birds Ru was familiar with.

The Lraenu stirred, and Ru realized it was a woman. Her silver hair shined intensely under the rain. Her eyes were unfocused. There was a stick at her side with a long blade on the end. “You’re — Sylph,” Ru said hoarsely.

The glare Sylph gave curdled Ru’s blood. There was a swirl of negative light, and the former Lraenu vanished along with her weapon.

Ru wanted to curl up on the street right where she was. She wasn’t sure she could get up, but she had to try. She spared a glance at her body and was relieved there were only a few scrapes that she could see. No obviously broken limbs. Her head was still very fuzzy, though, and her muscles were slow to draw and aching. If the others were under attack at this very moment, she might not be able to help them. But she had to at least warn them. She slowly angled her way to her feet.

There was a small, sharp prickle in her spine, then her back and chest exploded with pain. Never in her life had she felt agony this intense. She tried to scream, and was unable to draw breath. Cold concrete slapped against the side of her face. Sylph appeared out of the corner of her eye, then vanished once again.

The last thing she saw was a small silver figure with wings. It reminded her of an angel figurine her mother kept in the study.

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