Everything was light. No weight, no substance. It was not sleep, not this time. Even she was light. She’d lost her name to it.
When she saw the angel, she had form again, though still no weight. She floated through the air under no volition of her own. The world painted itself out of blinding whiteness, an endless, shimmering sea of stars and iridescent clouds, an ocean, a galaxy, in all the colors she could imagine and even more she could not put a name to. A perfect golden sun was at the center of it all. She felt drawn to it, but the angel’s presence kept her where she was.
The angel was no stranger. He had skin and hair as iridescent as the clouds, red and black armor trimmed in gold. Giant, pearly feathered wings curved up over his head. She’d seen him many times before. An old friend. A relief to see after what she’d just been through. What had she been through? She couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter, it was done.
The angel’s startled expression turned to sadness. No, young one. This is just the beginning.
The look devastated her. She thought she was crying, but it was hard to tell, being less than air. His shadow crossed her, and he wrapped his arms and wings around her. She could feel the very warmth of the nearby stars with it, all their energy reaching out to her, enveloping her and whispering encouragement in her mind.
Then she was drifting back.
Muffled voices created a moody hum in the Council heartroom. An occasional sharp word would rise above, but no severe arguments were sparked. Fuse had a difficult time keeping her own voice down, as it was hard to do with Tourmalyne at times, but she knew she had to be especially careful about what she said at the moment.
Tourmalyne was from Valynahar Graen, the closest represented galaxy to Fuse’s own. The Skaeyans Fuse had met called it the Andromeda Galaxy, which had startled her. At the time as she did not know Skaeyans were aware of the existence of galaxies at all, and the methods they had used to discover things beyond what their eyes could see were extremely inventive given their resources. Still, Skae’s lack of common Accilean technology was one reason many Accileans looked down on Skaeyans, and even argue that the System’s guardians should not come from there — not like they had a choice in the matter. Ember did what he willed. Tourmalyne was one of the ones who wanted the Skaeya to be chosen from elsewhere.
Tourmalyne was of a planet and species that was very similar to that of Skaeyan humans, but they were generally more elegant, a bit weaker in physical strength, and more of an anti-social nature. Fuse also found that most people she’d met from that planet were strikingly beautiful. Tourmalyne was willowy despite that everything about her seemed to be made of precious stone, from the pure lustrous gold of her hair to the diamond whites of her eyes. The dress she wore, littered with actual gemstones, seemed drab compared to her.
“You picked up right where Ani left off,” she said. “Just one more chance. One more. It’s good you’re carrying out her will, but at some point you will have to make your own decisions.”
Fuse frowned. “I did not speak much with Ani. But Skaeyans, I’ve been around all my life. Might I add, it’s easier to detach yourself from the decisions you must make when you’re not affected by the results.”
There was a spark of anger in Tourmalyne’s eyes. “My galaxy is closest to yours. It could very easily affect mine.”
“The Skaeya –“
“Forget the Skaeya. You’re using a spoon to dig through a mountain.”
Fuse suppressed a growl. “And you want to use a mountain to crush a fly.”
“The Lraenu are not a mere annoyance.” Tourmalyne’s fingers tightened on her cup. “If you’ve had so much experience with them, you should know that.”
“I do know that. And I still think the Skaeya –“
The main door slid open. After a short silence, murmurs began anew. Everyone was already here.
Instead of the misty glow of the hall, a sharp white light blared in. All froze, except Odeny, who moved towards the door as if nothing unusual was happening. He let the harsh light meld into his own soft luminescence, reading the intentions of its source. His blank eyes widened. “It’s Unity,” he announced.
Fuse’s stomach plummeted. She couldn’t breathe.
The little silver sprite lifted her head at the sound of her name, but looked away just as quickly. A ball of light followed her in, drawing flowing mist after it, following the movement of her hands. She guided it to the center ring, and as it reached the floor, the light wafted away. Ru lay on the seal, pale and motionless. Large, dark patches of blood stained her shirt.
There was absolute silence as the Council surrounded the seal, some staring in horror, some with heads bowed. Fuse shoved her way through, followed closely by Odeny and Cutyri. She reached towards Ru, then yanked her arm back when her hand suddenly sprouted feathers. Cutyri took Fuse’s arm and pulled her aside, then stepped into the ring herself.
Veah’s voice filled the air with the harshness of a rattlesnake tail. “This is one of the Skaeya?”
“Unity does not bring us civilians.” Tourmalyne could barely be heard.
“This is a child. Who in their right mind would assign this task to a child?”
“Unity was wrong,” Cutyri said sharply. “She’s alive.”
Everyone drew a bit nearer to the seal. Ru stirred, a faint moan humming in her throat.
“Well, don’t make Unity right!” Veah ordered. “Switch the girl back!”
“Be careful,” Odeny said.
Cutyri reached into the collar of her robe and pulled out a round medallion with the Council’s symbol in stained glass. Touching the medallion to Ru’s pendant, Cutyri closed her eyes and murmured a few words. No meteors fell; instead, a tiny light shined inside the gem in Ru’s pendant, and Ru was instantly in her old street clothes. She lay on her side, still.
The chamber seemed to dim, and startled voices filled the air. Fuse barely noticed. She stood as close to the edge of the ring as possible. Her eyes never left Ru. Finally, she had no patience left. She leapt inside the ring and embraced her bird form, then landed on Ru’s upright shoulder. It was then that Fuse noticed something was off. Ru wasn’t breathing properly, it was ragged, whistling. Fuse was about to speak up when Tourmalyne cried out, “She’s still hurt!”
The pastel blue of Ru’s sweatshirt had growing red stains. Odeny skittered to the ring. “That’s — impossible. Reversing her transformation should have healed her.”
The Daeneata leader, Tarian, spoke up. She was never difficult to hear, being one of larger members of the council, her deep voice practically shook the non-existent walls of the room. “The ring is known for casting illusions when we need to know something important.”
Cutyri touched Ru’s shirt. Her fingers came away red and glossy in the dim light.
“I’m curious, Fuse.” Veah was somewhere near the back of the crowd, but his wispy voice carried well enough for everyone to hear. “How much protection can a dead Skaeya offer us? Are the other three children as well? Are you willing to let them die just to hold on for a few more days?”
“Hypocrite,” Fuse snarled, lunging towards Veah. She burst into her human form outside the ring and was stopped by the thick press the others had created. “If we had it your way, all Skaeyans would die!”
The soft whimper came from the ring. Fuse turned back. “Are you talking about me? Please don’t let me die. Please?”
Cutyri’s expression was grim, but she gently laid a hand on Ru’s shoulder and began to summon healing energy. “You’ll be all right, young one. Rest.”
To Fuse, she turned knowing, cold eyes. “She doesn’t know.”
Fuse looked like she’d been suddenly caged. “I told them what they needed to know at the time,” she said shortly.
“What?” Ru seemed barely awake.
Cutyri’s stare was relentless. “You tell her of the Council’s plan, or I will.”
Fuse bowed her head, then knelt as close to the ring as she could without transforming. “Ru — I’m sorry, I — I didn’t want to set you back from the start. It’s just — the majority of the Council has no faith in the Skaeya.”
“Almost every Skaeya that has come before you has died at the hands of the Lraenu.”
Ru looked like she was quietly processing, but not deterred, and Fuse could barely force out what she had to say next. “The Lraenu are getting far out of control, and their source seems to be Kelsilde. In order to solve the problem — the Council –” Fuse took a deep breath. “They want to destroy the galaxy.”
Ru seemed completely lifeless for the moment, her eyes blank, and it looked like she wasn’t breathing. Then she curled into a ball. “Rest,” Cutyri repeated in Ru’s language, as best she could. “We will help you.”
She reached her hand out, but the ring was empty.
Cutyri jumped and blinked her eyes rapidly. A gold feather drifted down in front of her. She reached out to touch it. There were more, spiraling down in a column bordered by the edges of the ring. Motes of light were starting to float up from the floor, fireflies circling up into the sky. Cutyri stood carefully and stepped back. “The ring must be about to show us something about her.”
Just as Cutyri came to that conclusion, an enormous pair of wings unfolded out of thin air. Fuse felt a rush of warm raw power burst through the heartroom, which sent exclamations rippling through the Council ranks. The ring showed visions, not sensations.
And then there stood Ru. Only it wasn’t Ru — this person was much older, much bigger, with gigantic gold feathered wings and armor of a deep ocean blue, a long black cape, and radiating more energy than any normal living being should have been. It was more like Ru was only a small part of this person, part of this humanoid star that was slowly turning the light of the heartroom gold.
“The Angel,” Odeny said breathlessly.
He knelt on the floor, and the others in the Council immediately followed his lead. Even Fuse, who had only heard of this figure in passing, dropped to one knee and looked on with a mix of awe, fear, and confusion. The ring tended to reveal the true state of who or whatever entered, but she had not sensed a thing like this from Ru before. Was this her true form? Or was something borrowing her?
A voice spoke in clear Accilean, a kind they hadn’t heard in a long time, one that pierced through every thought in their minds and drew every ounce of their attention, if it hadn’t been focused on the Angel in the first place.
“We three have been separated by a deep rift in time. We need unity.”
The Angel met Fuse’s eyes. A thought crept into the back of Fuse’s mind, a truth she had been hoping not to find. Then there was a burst of feathers, and Ru crumbled to the ground. This time, Fuse was the only one who didn’t go to help. She flashed into bird form and flew from the room.