Chapter 23 ★ The Challenge

“Shryke, why are we here?”

He ignored Sylph and slouched further down on the wood-slat bench. The mall was fairly busy, it was Friday and not long after the high school got out, so a rogue Blue Star was unlikely to pop up and start a battle. Still, Sylph could see no purpose in being at this particular location.


“Who’s Shryke? My name’s Shawn.”

Sylph rolled her eyes. To be fair, he was right. “Sylph” and “Shryke” would be too uncommon of names for most people here even though they were based on English words. “The Skaeya won’t be here,” she said. “They don’t get out of school for another hour.”

“I know.”

“Then why are were here?”

Shryke took a long sip of the soda in his hand. “I don’t know why you’re here. I’m looking for a date.”

“What?” Sylph yelled.

Shryke barely gave her a glance. “Look, for one, do you expect me to go running into their school and just take them out in front of all the other students and faculty? Even if you just used your poisons they’d pick you out for a suspicious person, and then our cover would be blown forever. But we’re not supposed to go after them in an isolated area either so what do you think we’re supposed to do?”

Not be several miles away from them?”

“We can’t stalk them, that’d look weird too.”

Sylph crossed her arms. “You’re just making excuses.”

“Please. And you just want to suck up to Kestrel. I know you’ve got a thing for him and as far as I’m concerned you can have him. I don’t have to go around all day pretending every idea he has is pure gold and that all his orders make sense.”

Sylph gave a strangled, exasperated cry, her face almost as red as her hair. “That is not why — you’re going to be in big trouble when Kestrel finds out you’ve been hanging out here all day doing nothing.”

Shryke’s eyes widened and he scoffed in mock offense. “Nothing? Surveillance is important.”

Sylph followed his gaze to a group of young women peering at shoes through a window. “Not the kind of surveillance you’re doing.”

“By the way, that’s a big if. Kestrel doesn’t like being seen in broad daylight, probably a good thing because he doesn’t know how to blend in like we do. And even if he got over that for whatever reason, he’d be distracted by that shiny new bookstore at the other end of the mall.”

“He would be focused on the mission.

Shryke snorted. “You call it focus. I call it obsession.”

Sylph pointed a finger inches from his nose. “Listen, scrub. You’d better be willing to be a little more ‘obsessed’ than you are. Just because you’ve been with us for a few centuries does not mean you’re irreplaceable. And you know what it means to be ‘replaced.'”

A flash of nervousness crossed his face, but he grinned. “It almost sounds like you care about me.”

Sylph resisted any denial, knowing he was both trying to derail and fluster her. “Exactly how much work have you done in the past decade?”

“First of all, maybe I’m not into kidnapping or fighting middle schoolers? Consider that for a minute. It’s weird, OK? I know that might be the entire point of the Council making those kids Skaeya, but it’s still weird. I know Kestrel thinks so because he tried making up all these excuses about why we need to capture these Skaeya instead of killing them. Which by the way, you screwed up.”

“Killing Ru was an accident.”

“Sorry, what? How does someone ‘accidentally’ fall onto the end of a naginata? And second, I’ve done tons of work over the past decade. In the past week. I’m super busy like, most of the time.”

A cold voice cut in. “Yes, you look absolutely swamped.”

Shryke jumped, crushing the soda in his hand and spraying the remains everywhere. Kestrel loomed over him. Unfortunately, just as Shryke had mentioned, he’d made no attempt to blend in with the crowd. He had his usual long black coat and blue hair, which drew several eyes.

“Sylph — why did you not bring the Skaeya leader to me?”

Sylph looked startled. “There wasn’t any point. We can’t reform a dead Skaeya.”

“She is alive and recovered.”

A silence in the group.

“Someone’s in trouble,” Shryke sang.

Sylph spared him a glare. “But that’s not possible! I –“

Kestrel silenced her with a look. “Do not make assumptions next time.”

Sylph shrank, and Shryke just barely suppressed a snicker. Kestrel rounded on him. “I know how long you’ve been here.”

“OK, and?” Shryke wiped the soda off his arms onto his shirt. “Like I was just explaining to Misty here, our operations are pointless right now. Kinda are in general. Harrier should just blow up this planet and then we wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore.”

“Harrier does not want Skae destroyed.”

“Why not?”

“Question him if you like. I will not.”

Sylph was not quite over the verbal lash she’d gotten from Kestrel, but she said, “Do you even know how much energy it takes to deconstruct a planet? We don’t have it. Only the Council has that capability, because of the system.”

There was a sudden, subtle change in Kestrel’s expression. A strange thought had crossed his mind, strong, but not enough for him to express. He seemed uneasy. “Return to base,” was all he said.

Even Shryke picked up on his mood, which was unusual. The hall to the mall security headquarters was well-hidden between the gaping entryways of a jewelry store and a candy shop. The three of them slipped into one of the empty conference rooms. One by one, they morphed into Lraenu, and used the electrical system to teleport away.

Upon arrival back at the Irescan base, Shryke and Sylph found Kestrel in human form at a window. A continuous, shrill ringing filled the air, distant but just loud enough to jar the ear. “What is that?” Sylph asked.

That is the earth-shaking, bone-chilling, all-consuming sound of pure unadulterated lytra rage,” Shryke said, shielding one ear. “And I haven’t eaten one of the little fluffballs in years, so don’t look at me.”

Kestrel climbed onto the windowsill. “Fuse.”

“Kestrel, no!” Sylph cried. “Get Pi! He’s the only one who can –“

“Whoa, whoa,” Shryke interrupted. “No. You know the rule. Never pretend we need Pi for anything.”

“His assistance will be as unnecessary as it is unwelcome.” Kestrel checked his swords, which had fortunately been hidden in the mall. “The bird has called us out. For this, she has waived the protection of the Council’s guardian. She is not a fighter, but she is more dangerous to us than the Skaeya.”

“But it could be a trap.”

“I intend to investigate first. Gather a squadron to follow, but keep your distance. If this goes well, we may have one less of the Council to worry about.”


Jayson slammed his hat on the ground. “I told you! I told you the first night, something was wrong, didn’t I?”

No one answered, no one even looked at him. The four Skaeya stood in a circle at the edge of Tanager Park. Ru had been reduced to tears explaining, and Colleen was about to join in. She could barely believe what she was saying, on a beautiful warm day like this with a crystalline blue sky, her classmates in the distance on some of the picnic tables, younger kids on the playground, park workers setting up more decorations for the festival and tourists with their cameras. They had no idea how close they were to the end of it all.

“We have to get out of Quarterhill,” Colleen said.

“Weren’t you listening?” Jayson shouted. “The whole galaxy is about to be destroyed!”

A mother pushed a stroller past them, either oblivious to what they were saying or thinking they were talking about some game.

“There has to be someone we can talk to? The FBI? The Army?”

“What are they going to do? They know how to get to the moon. The aliens can cross the galaxy like it’s nothing.”

“Nah, dude, it’s just us.” Randy’s voice was unusually calm. “We’re the ones that gotta fight.”

“That’s your answer for everything,” Jayson said.

“Look, if we stay and do nothing, we’re dead. Even if we leave the galaxy, the Lraenu could find us. Sooner or later we’re going to have to fight ’em if we want to live. This Cutyri lady said we have a chance to prove ourselves and we could save the lives of everyone on Earth in the process.”

“You’re right,” Ru said, “For once.”

“Is a week from the end of the world really the right time to be making jokes?” Jayson groaned.

“I can’t run,” Ru said. “I don’t know about you guys, but I couldn’t live with knowing I didn’t do everything I could to save everyone.”

The others were silent, even Jayson, though Randy nodded in fierce agreement.

“Let’s put it this way.” Ru picked Jayson’s cap up from the dirt. “Do you still think you’re dreaming?”


She handed to cap to him. “Then what do you have to lose?”


            Kestrel was unsure of how to approach the bird. As Sylph said, it could very well be a trap. In Lraenu form, his mind was not nearly as sharp, clouded by persistent destructive instinct and suggestibility. Even though he had worked hard to minimize these weaknesses, he knew they would always be there. Ultimately, though, he decided to make his approach as a Lraenu. While Fuse seemed to be used to the Lraenu aura due to frequent exposure, anyone accompanying her would likely not be, a possible advantage for Kestrel. Furthermore, the only attacks that could be made on him as a Lraenu would be to force him out of Lraenu form or to capture him. He wished he knew if Fuse was alone – the ability to sense living things was granted to his enemies via the system, but the Lraenu did not have it and likely would not unless the System was fully infiltrated. Harrier’s plan was not to keep the System at all.

In any case, there was no use in trying to sneak up on Fuse. Not only would any Accilean know if he was near, his physical appearance would likely give him away. He had several more tails than most of the other Lraenu, a yellowish-white hue and lantern-gold eyes, all of which glowed. The palm forest was full of glowing things, but not like him. He knew he had no element of surprise. What he did not expect was Fuse to launch straight at him the moment he was in sight. The bird was quick enough to strike just above the eye and bounce off. Kestrel would have been amused if he wasn’t acutely aware that something about the situation was very wrong.

            “I won’t let you destroy this galaxy,” Fuse growled.

            “I hardly see how you can do anything about us. You can’t even stand the sound of my voice.” Kestrel did have to admit he had a little admiration for how steady the bird’s flight was, even though she was cringing hard. “But we’re not destroying your galaxy. We’re simply neutralizing the hold the system has on it.”

            “Show me your true form!”

            “I have no reason to.”

            Fuse divebombed him again, but this time Kestrel was ready. He dodged and tried to grab her with one of his tails, but her feathers were too slippery. Again he tried, this time with more tails at once, and missed. He needed all his concentration just to keep track of where Fuse was. On top of that, the more he fought, the more the destructive influence of his Lraenu form seeped into his mind. It was a rage, pure fury that this bird even dared to exist, and Kestrel did not have anyone above him in command to rein that instinct in. If he was not careful, the instinct would completely take over his mind.

            Something changed. A thread of light, from the distant gatestone, then a bar. So he would be outnumbered soon, once whoever was coming through caught up to them. Who would it be?

            Fuse had not yet noticed the stone’s activation, but she did when one of the arrivals called out her name. She stopped, and Kestrel lashed out with a tail. The little bird went tumbling through the air and landed in the sand in a burst of feathers. A second later her human form appeared, face-down in the sand.

            “We have to help,” a small voice said.

            Kestrel froze in mid-air. That voice had been in English, a child’s voice. It had to be the Skaeya. He saw the four of them near the edge of the stone, still, uncertain. Sylph had given him all of their names and descriptions, but it was a shock to see such small humans armed with Accilean energy, and the only thing that kept him from rushing at them with full force in accordance with the building anger inside him. It distracted him enough that he didn’t notice Fuse rise, and the world tumbled when she landed a punch.

            He just barely stopped himself from charging and wiping them out in one swoop. The sheer amount of Accilean energy surrounding the lot of them brought him to a level of rage he hadn’t felt in years. It took all his mental strength to keep himself still, focused.

            The smallest of the group – Randy, Sylph said his name was – was tensed, fists clenched, ready to run right into the fight. The two girls watched with wide eyes. There was a strange, detached calm in the other boy’s expression. “Why is Fuse fighting?” Ru asked faintly.

            “Hello?!” Randy yelled. “Do you see that marshmallow octopus trying to kill her?”

            “No, no!” Ru grabbed his sleeve. “Don’t you remember the first night we were here? Jayson asked Fuse why she didn’t fight. She said she wasn’t allowed to!”

            “Oh yeah, I’m sure the rules matter a whole lot when a monster’s trying to murder you,” Randy jerked away from her.

            So they knew the rule, but not Fuse’s purpose for being here. Kestrel tried to reason through it. If the Skaeya didn’t know what was happening, the Council might not know either. And the Council’s seemingly omniscient guardian was nowhere to be found, so likely Fuse had challenged him on her own. But why?

            “Does she not believe in us anymore?” Ru asked, to no one.

            Why Fuse would ever believe in them in the first place was a mystery to Kestrel. Even if they hadn’t been children, they would have been very new. He was going to speak again, but Randy dashed forward. Green light burst from his fist, a beacon of pure Accilean energy. The fury that Kestrel had struggled to contain surged and broke free.

“Skaeya, no! Run!” Fuse shouted.

            Randy skidded to a halt. “What?”

            “Go back home!”

            Before Kestrel knew it, he was flying towards them with the intent of obliterating them. The only way he could think to slow himself down and save his directive was to turn back into human form. Rust-colored negative light dimmed the air around him as he drew closer. As he did, he noticed Colleen go still, extremely pale, a look of pure horror on her face. And then – anger. Anger? Wasn’t she supposed to be the timid one? Against all that Sylph had reported to him, she was the first one that rose up to meet him. She just barely missed Fuse, and headed straight at Kestrel, hands splayed out in front of her. Unfortunately for her, her awkward flight path was easy to read. He dodged her arms at the last moment, seized her by the throat with his newly-formed hands, and dispelled the bulk of the Lraenu rage by hurling her at the ground. She bounced once and lay still. He put his sword to her throat. “Colleen, NO!” Ru screamed.

            She tried to fly at him next, but Fuse grabbed her arm and set her firmly on the ground. “Back off, Kestrel,” Fuse threatened. “Leave her alone.”

            “You started this,” Kestrel said. “I only meant to have a discussion.”

            Jayson inched closer to Fuse. “That’s not just another Lraenu, is it?”

            “No. This is the Lraenu High Commander.” Fuse bared her teeth. “The four of you need to leave. Now.

            Before any of them could take a step, Kestrel disappeared in a flash of negative light and reappeared between the Skaeya and the stone. Green light flared around Randy’s fist. “Out of the way!”

            Kestrel shook his head solemnly. “Crash,” he said with perfect Accilean pronunciation, “won’t do you any good. Even if you were skilled enough to catch me with it.”

            “I said move!:”

            Kestrel easily deflected the glowing punch, which had no effect on his human form, and in one smooth motion, grabbed Randy by the arm and hurled him towards the others. It knocked Jayson down and both boys went rolling.

            “Stop!” Ru stood tall. “You and your Raenu have to quit messing everything up or the Council’s going to destroy us all!”

            Kestrel gave her a critical look. “What do you mean?”

            “The Angel has appeared,” Fuse growled. “Why do you think I called you out?”

            “The Angel” meant nothing to Kestrel, but suddenly everything else clicked.

It was desperation on their part. They did have the power to destroy the planet, let alone the galaxy. And the Caere, suddenly attacking all Lraenu unprovoked, using its precious energy and threatening to expose the truth to all the unawakened Skaeyans? What would be the point of hiding if Skae was about to be destroyed?

            He stared at Ru. “They told you the Lraenu are ‘corrupting’ your world.” Anger began to seep back in, and lightning sparked in the air around him. The Skaeya and Fuse backed up, Ru all the way to Colleen, who was still lying lifeless in the sand. “Yet they are the ones who force all their inhabitants into the system, send their children unprepared into battle, and threaten to destroy an entire galaxy because they cannot have complete control over it? The Accileans are not fit for such power. We will not surrender to them!”       

            He knew it was a mistake, but the new revelation combined with the remnants of destructive Lraenu instinct took over again. He raised his blade above his head, and a single bolt of lightning flashed through the air. It was all that was needed to entirely level the Accileans.

Fortunately they seemed to still be alive; they were all moving, though not much. Not one returned to their feet. He took a moment to clear his head, reminding himself of his intent, and calmly walked towards the leader. Glazed blue eyes stared up at him. He was unsure if she could actually see him. “Disarm and surrender your talisman,” he commanded.

“W-what?” she whispered. “Disarm?”

“Return to your normal form. This entire battle is unnecessary, and we have much to discuss. However, I cannot let a Skaeya live. Surrender your power and I will spare you. What more, I will give you the truths the Accileans will not.”

“Fuse? What is he talking about?”

“Nothing.” Fuse’s voice was hoarse. “You know what we know now.”

“Do I sense mistrust here?” Kestrel said. “It appears that the bird was deceitful before. Why should you believe her?”

“I –”

“Why does he need you to give up your power if he just wants to talk?” Fuse said, louder.

Kestrel bristled at the sound of her voice. “Quiet!” he barked. Lightning bolts shimmered around his hand. “The Accileans have said enough!”

            In the moment just before he sent it, he heard Ru speak. He paid no mind to her at first, until he noticed the glow. Blue light sparked from her pendant, and her glazed eyes were now focused sharply, swimming in the same glow. She took a deep breath.

            “I WON’T LET YOU TURN THE SKY AGAINST ME!” she screamed.

            In Accilean.

            Kestrel rerouted the lightning towards Ru. It struck him instead. He was blown off clean off his feet. Another bolt flashed, lightning he did not summon, followed closely by an explosive crackle of thunder.

            Both Kestrel and Ru slowly regained their footing. Churning light surrounded Ru, as did a sudden gale that stole his breath and nearly took him down again. A maelstrom of blue meteors and greenish clouds swirled up around her. She curled her fists, and the storm exploded outwards, temporarily blinding him. When he could see again, he knew the danger was real.

            The only thing that had remained the same about Ru was the blue headband with tails, flapping wildly in the wind that encircled her. She now wore shimmering, deep blue armor. A seal with the four-winged symbol of the Skaeya was held at her chest by two sashes. She wore gloves with gauntlets and metallic boots, and her eyes were alight with the blazing blue of a midday sky. She pointed at him with a certainty and intent he would have never expected to see from someone so young, and for the first time in ages, he felt something beyond simple wariness, beyond a challenge, something bigger. It could have been fear.

Another deafening boom drew his attention to the sky. The clouds were twisting, a deep mass of blue-green, swimming with lightning. Ru spoke another Accilean word — a command, unheard over the roar of the wind, and raised her pointed finger to the sky. The sky understood and obeyed.

Kestrel made one feeble, last-ditch effort to launch an attack. The lightning he sent immediately turned back on him again, and the shock made him lose track of all that was happening. The last thing he saw was Ru engulfed by a tornado, and an uprooted palm tree sailing through the air towards him.

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