Counting Stars

Normally, this high up, me and Malawa would count the stars. We’d lay on our backs, partition the sky with our hands, and see how many stars we could count before we lost track or got bored. But tonight would be different. Tonight, for the first time since we’ve been together, she was going to run with me. I’ll admit, I’m a bit nervous. No, not about our families finding out that we’re still together. We’ve mastered the art of stealth romance. I’m nervous about Malawa’s health. I don’t know if she’ll be able to handle a run. She is sick. Really sick. But she is doing her best to keep it from me. But I know. Knowing when people are the type of sick they cannot recover from is one ability shared by all of my family. In-home family and extended. We’re wonderful to have at gatherings. 

I hear gravel skitter across a distant rooftop. Sounds to be about three blocks away. I decenter myself and blend in with the shadows. While I know it is Malawa, I don’t know if anyone is following her. Her bio-signature is unique. I could pick her out of a crowd over a mile away. I sense other bodies. Not with her, but near. Could be one of hers, or one of ours. The patrols are everywhere. The city is supposed to be divided equally between Malawa’s people, the Bandas, and my people, the Apregos. 

The Bandas had the north and east, while me and my family had the south and west. But there are incursions on a too regular basis. Many soldiers lost on both sides. But territory is territory. Pride is pride. Honor is honor.  There is a ten mile by one mile stretch of neutral territory. We have to allow the government to feel as if they have some power and control. The Bandas and the Apregos have been seen in the same bars, clubs, and cafés in the non-aligned zone. But let a foot be set even a millimeter outside it—someone, or someones, will not be going home that night. 

Malawa, beautiful Malawa. I’ve seen her people use their gifts on multiple occasions—usually when we’re warring. Light, heat, flight. All of them are fast…in the air. That is why we developed tactics to ground them. But when she flares, there is nothing like it. She moves effortlessly. She’s faster than her kin by a factor of five, deadlier, too. I’ve seen her almost every day for a year, but to see her like this, so bright, hovering several feet above the roof, I’m in awe. I’m in love with a star, and the star loves me back. “Espada,” her voice weak, her light flickers. “You can come out. I know you’re here.” I shed the shadows and hit her with the grin she calls ‘cute, but cocky.” Then she does the unexpected, she lands. I’m stunned. I don’t know what to say or do. Of course, I’ve seen her walk before, but only when we’re in our hideaway. In public, the Baroness Malawa Banda is never meant to touch the ground. A safety precaution as much as it is royal ritual. I move to her, and she doesn’t hesitate to lean into me. She doesn’t exactly collapse, but I can feel how grateful she is for the support. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she breathes into my chest. 

I tell her I was early and then we get into our little back and forth. She asks me what I’ve eaten, I lie about having ate vegetables. I ask her about her studies, she lies and tells me she’s all caught up. I will this moment to never end, but her deep and rattling sigh forces me to be hyperaware of the moment. “I’m sick, Sharpie. I’m sick.” Sharpie. I’ve always hated this nickname she’s given me. I’m proud of my name and she annoyed the hell out if when she reduced it to this cute little joke. But she says it now as if it is a refrain from a last rites prayer. Call me sharpie all you want, love. I don’t tell her I know she’s sick. It would break her if she knew I was keeping secrets. 

“What’s wrong, love? What do you mean sick?”

Our eyes meet for the first time since she arrived. I see the tears and sadness. I close my eyes and go deeper and feel the sickness coursing through her body. A jagged, undulating, sluggish mass violently interrupting the multicolored light. “No one knows, hon. The only thing that all sixty healers could agree on was that I am dying. That there is not any hope for me. That they have no idea where this thing that is colonizing my insides came from—my father blames your family—but that it is winning and there is nothing we can do to fight it. My parents spent a fortune to try to heal me, but all we got for all that money was inconsistent information of how long I have left to live. I’m so sorry. I should have told you sooner.”

I don’t know what I’m feeling. Sadness. Rage. Helplessness. All of it. Nothing. I feel empty and full and the same time. This hurt worse than when I lost my brother. 

I move us to a wall and ease us down to the roof. I may be heart hurt, but I’ll be damned if anyone will sneak up behind us. Part of me wants one of her people, or a member or two from the sub-families, to show. The only thing that would make sense now would be a fight. No thinking, just reacting. I need a fight right now. 

I stroke her hair and hum to her. She playfully pinches me when she recognizes the tune as one of the songs her mother is famous for. I whisper, “We can’t run. We can’t. I don’t want to do anything that will, I don’t know, make you feel bad, or exacerbate your sickness.” 

My lap gets warm. Warmer. The crotch of these expensive jeans begins to smolder. Malawa rises off my lap and into the air. She is in her full powers. No flickering, just pure and living flame. “Do not dare wimp out on me. I may be sick, but I will not have you walk back a promise. This may be the last time I am healthy enough to do this. I will run with you. You will run with me. Honor is honor.”

As she descended, I felt nothing but awe. How can someone so magnificent die? Her people were very long-lived, and it was almost unheard of for one of hers to pass before their ninetieth rotation. But there she was, dying right in front of me. I could feel it. I could taste her sickness. 

I asked her to turn down her light. She gave me that look, head cocked to the side a slight smile, that made me feel as if the corners of her mouth could save my life. The flames were gone, but she emitted a slight glow. A glow that flickered around the edges. 

I motioned for her to turn around for me. She did so in a way that made me instantly hard. She wore precisely what I told her to wear. The way she wore it, she looked as if she’d done this before. She looked like a veteran. 

“We’ll start off slow,” I told her. “Not because I don’t think you can handle it (that smile again, ugh.) but you’re new to this and I don’t want you to get overwhelmed. The first time you make a Run…it can do all types of things to you. You may see and hear things that aren’t there. You might feel time move a little differently. The only thing you need to do is focus on these beacons.” I indicated the two on my shoulders, the one on my back and the other on my chest. I moved towards her, pulled her into me, and kissed her long and deep. “You’ll be fine.”

I moved away from her and began my natwa. The mental and physical exercises came to me as easily as recalling my own name. Now that I was a prime-Runner, I really didn’t need to perform my natwa, but it felt good to honor the Run by acknowledging the basics. 

Malawa paced, a wild look in her eye. “I am so excited for this, love. I have heard about Runs, but never thought I would be able to make one. It is one of the things I wanted to do before I died. I thought that would be a long time from now. But since it isn’t, I am glad it is happening now. That it is happening now, with you. I still do not understand how I will be able to Run with you.”

Starting with an overview of the mechanics of Running, I then explained to her that since I’d become a prime-Runner I was able to form a kind of wake behind me. The wake would envelope her and allow her to follow me, as if she were being pulled by a magnet. All she had to do was run within the wake. I would take care of all the rest. 

"Are you ready?” I asked her. My own excitement barely contained. While I did fantasize, once or twice, about being able to fly, nothing could beat running. 

“Never been more ready for anything.” 

I indicated where she should begin—behind me and slightly to my left. I counted down from five. When I hit two, the sky exploded with so much light that I was momentarily blinded. A voice boomed, “Baroness Banda. By the express order of Duke Kapeni Banda, your father, you are to return home. Now. I am authorized to use a dampener if you fight or resist in any way.” 

My eyes clearing, I was just barely able to see three Banda soldiers. My eyes getting better, I was able to make out the maroon and gold flames emblazoned on their jackets. These were members of the Duke’s personal guard. We are screwed. 

Malawa erupts. Literally. Her flames outshines them all. She rose above them, looking down at the soldiers of her house with unveiled contempt. “You will stand down. You will leave me. You will tell my father that his affairs are his. My affairs are mine. I do not wish to harm a member of House Banda, but if you do not follow my directives to the letter, this is an eventuality.”

The elite soldiers stared at each other, looked at Malawa, and then back to each other. “Baroness, “one of them pleaded. My eyes still attempting to recover, I couldn’t figure out who was saying what. “Baroness, please be reasonable. Think of your reputation. Think of the reputation of your father’s house. You’re traipsing about on rooftops with…that…Aprego…it is unseemly. Do you know how much damage could be done to House Banda? You will return with us this instant.”

I’m fast. Abnormally fast. Fast even for an Aprego. I’m normally a few seconds ahead of everyone.  But when Malawa hit her soldier, I didn’t see it. All I saw was the soldier flying back several meters and crashing into the ground. He wasn’t getting up soon. 

“You will keep a respectful tongue when speaking to me and speaking about my bond-mate. I am your Baroness. You do not order me to do anything. I told you the conditions of this exchange, but you refused to heed them. You have been chastised for it. Do not pursue this further.”

One of the Banda soldiers made his way behind Malawa, a dampener clutched in his shaking fist. I sped up to him and struck several nerve clusters within milliseconds of each other. To the soldier, it must have felt like being hit by multiple attackers, in various parts of his body. Before the dampener hit the ground, I caught it and attached it to the final soldier. As he felt his flame being suppressed, he executed one of the most elaborate and innovative curses I’ve ever heard and then passed out. I filed that one away to use in front of my mom, just to annoy her.

Malawa was flickering again. I could feel how much this display took out of her. I didn’t mention a thing. 

She floated over to me. Her heat, while not unbearable, was warm. I didn’t mention a thing, I was now a little afraid of her. And that turned me on. I wanted her here and now, damn the crumpled bodies of Banda’s elite. My erection strained at my jumpsuit. Malawa noticed this as she turned down her heat and stroked the front of me. She leaned in and whispered, “Later.” I stared at her and she stroked me again. “We have things to do first. You have to show me your world.”

I was fully charged from my natwa. I indicated where she should stand. “Ready?” I asked her.

“Run, my love. Run.”

That was all the encouragement I needed. 

We were on the thirtieth floor of the Assegai tower. Then we were on the ground. I heard Malawa breathing heavily. “Are you okay?” I asked. 

“What just happened? Did we fly down here?”

I laughed. “That wasn’t even a thing. Just run at your normal pace. I’ll be doing everything else.”

Taunting her, “Are you sure you’re ready?” Her wide eyes and gigantic grin told me everything I needed to know.

Then I ran. I truly ran.

When you’re a fledge, a sub or a dart, you have to build up speed, reciting your mental natwa as you run to generate more charge. But I am a Prime. I can choose whatever speed I want. I decided that now was the time to see what I could really do. 

We ran up and over buildings of varying heights. We can across water. I forced us to dematerialize and we passed through houses and vehicles. I went faster. I felt Malawa’s awareness begin to shift. I yelled at her to focus and activated the beacons. We went faster. 

Runners are prepared for sensory distortion. When a runner is a fledge, we are told the horror tales of the Run. We heard about creatures that existed just outside of our paths. All tentacles and eyes and fangs. We heard about the possibility of new worlds flashing by in our periphery. I’ve even heard about some runners seeing dead loved ones calling out to them. Rodrigo, one of the best runners, not just of our house but of all the great houses, saw Jcan, the first runner. On his honor, Rodrigo said that he and Jcan raced so far and so fast that when they stopped, Rodrigo was a Prime, completely skipping over being a Sub. This line of thinking sparked something in me.

Half a continent away from our home, I extend my awareness to completely engulf the thing that was forcing Malawa’s body to betray itself. I slowed a bit and heard my bond-mate’s yelp of adjustment. I asked her if she trusted me. After hearing her loving affirmative, I attempted to dematerialize the mass inside of her. It was slippery. It was alive. It fought back. I told her to prepare herself. I sped up. I hurled us forward while attempting to force the sickness to remain behind. I felt a tug. It was a new sensation. In all of my runs, never once have been hindered by anything other than my lack of ability. I moved forward, faster. Malawa exploded.

I heard her scream and was slammed by both her light and her heat. I crashed for dozens of miles. I felt bones break and instantaneously heal. Muscle ripped and immediately knitted itself back together. This is agony. 

Eventually I stopped. Malawa was gone. Terror infected me. I mentally called up a map of our path and retraced our route. I found her, over seventy-miles away. She was huddled on a beach, curled in a ball, hugging herself. I rushed to her side. 

“What did you do?” She said to me through violently clenched teeth. Her face a rigor of betrayal.

I told her my plan and why I thought it would work. Thankfully, her face softened and she caressed my forehead with her thumb.

“Things are the way they are. What the universe has determined, it has determined. We are not allowed to go against that. I love you. I am sick. I will die. I will die, soon. It is as it is meant to be. I wish this was not the case, bond-mate. But this is the truth of it.”

I cried. I cried like I never have before. Everything I’ve held back came spilling out on our beach. As quickly as the sobs and tears came, I stopped them. I didn’t know how much longer we had together and I didn’t want to waste it with sadness and blubbering. 

Malawa looked a little better and slowly climbed to her feet. I offered my arm, but she pushed me away. When she looked steady, I gently grasped her hand and led her through a recovery natwa. Color flushed her cheeks, her breathing was regular, and she seemed like herself. For a brief micro-moment, I forgot that she was sick. She gave me her smile and said, “How do you not get hungry running like that. I need to eat.” Part of me was angry with her flippancy. How could she think about food? Damn. She was right. I was terribly hungry. “Give me a second.”

I ran to town and came back with a bag of her favorites and a blanket. I set our sand-swept table and we ate. Not a word exchanged between us. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. We sat. We ate. We stared at the sea. Together. Comfortable. In love. When we finished, I policed our garbage and drew her into my arms until her body went limp with sleep. I took two of the beacons off my suit and tossed them far to each side of us. I touched the stud on my belt and activated them. They’d form and invisible bubble aroid us, acting as perimeter alarms. I slept soon after. 

The 120-decibel alarm shocked me to my feet, ready to fight. The instant adrenaline rush gave me a slight headache, making it hard to fully concentrate as I powered down the alarm. Malawa wasn’t on the blanket, or anywhere close that I could see. Her clothing was but she wasn’t. I searched the entire island in a handful of seconds. All kinds of wild animals, midnight fishermen on the northernmost tip if the island, but no Malawa.  Panic bubbled and then subsided as I caught a slash of light whirling and diving in the sea. It was extremely difficult to track, it was moving so fast. With a roar of pure joy, Malawa broke the surface and launched into the air. The resulting shower illuminated by her glowing form. Living light. She flew to me and pulled me into the air. “We ran, “she said to me. “Now, let us fly.”

I don’t know how far we flew or how fast, but I’ve never experienced anything like this. With a run, you’re constantly negotiating terrain. You’re avoiding obstacles, you’re constantly monitoring your body in relation to the environment you’re moving through. Flying with Malawa was nothing but speed and direction. No constraints. Full throttle. I heard the familiar thunder of breaking the sound barrier. The sound became so commonplace that it no longer registered with me. She climbed and I began to shiver. She noticed and increased her heat. She shot higher, moving up in a slow corkscrew pattern. “Look,” she said. “Look how nothing matters, except for this. Except for now.”

Our home was beneath us. The Banda-lands and the Tierra de Aprego. The neutral territory looking like an embarrassed and outclassed mediator between the two. “You would think,” Malawa began. She adjusted her voice to contend with the altitude. “You would think my people, after being this high and seeing how small and inconsequential we are, that they would have made peace with yours and found a way to live together. It all looks so silly from up here. How much blood has been lost? How many of our soldiers have died for no reason other than class, house-name, and reputation? How much of my family’s blood have you spilled? How many of your fighters have I burned?”

How she was holding me with zero signs of fatigue, I had no idea. She was stronger and more confident than I’ve experienced her. 

“Our love should have been the first step towards some kind of cessation of clan violence. Instead we were forced to sneak around as if our hearts were fallible. As if we were engaged in some kind of cosmic mistake that would destroy our families. To be honest with you, love, I am glad that I am dying. If we cannot be who we are, have what we want, in full witness of our families, it does not seem to be worth it to me.” She hugged me and let her heat bleed into me, eliminating my shivering. “Do not think for a minute I do not love you. You are my family. Having to hide this…” Malawa didn’t finish. This silence felt graceless. It was uncomfortable. “Malawa, we’re floating in the air above our home, and you’re naked.” 

She dropped me.

I didn’t scream. I was too in shock. I wasn’t able to run because there wasn’t anything for me to spring from. This was one way to go. I ticked off four seconds until I saw Malawa’s mischievous face blaze towards me and her warm arms wrap me up. She flew us back to our beach. We landed and I had no idea what to say. She dropped me from somewhere around thirty thousand feet in the air. Fine, she caught me, but still. It was thrilling, but still. 

” Are you angry with me?” She asked. I admitted to her that my comments were unnecessary and that I deserved some kid of reprimand, but I didn’t think what I said warranted my plummeting to earth. Her laugh was husky and musical. I was stuck. I was angry. I was elated. Malawa was dying. I had trouble reconciling all I was feeling. Part of me wanted to die with her. Part of me wanted to live so I could find a cure. Part of me was still elated from flying. Instead of trying to speak, I handed her her jumpsuit. She threw it aside. 

“Make love to me.” Not sure why I froze. Too many conflicting thoughts and feelings. Malawa moved closer. She unzipped my suit. “Please make love to me.”

“I have to get protection,” I stammered. 

“No. You don’t,” she countered. “I want to feel you. I want to die with the thought that we possibly could have a baby together.”

I yanked off my suit and laid down on our blanket. She floated over and lowered herself onto me. As soon as I entered her I was almost overwhelmed by the heat. I instantly began to sweat. She ordered me to lie still and used her gift to move up and down—varying the speed and the depth. She turned us over and wrapped her legs around me, forcing me to take control. She lifted us both off the ground as I thrusted faster and deeper than I have before. She got hotter. Her heat leeching some of my energy, but I kept going. I knew this was the last time. Her body, her breathing, her hungry moaning told me this would be our last time. Her nails dug into my back, leaving slightly burning trails. I felt the buildup and told her that I couldn’t hold on any longer. She bucked harder and bit my neck. I exploded into her. She contracted around me and I felt her orgasm. She flared up, singeing my skin and nearly destroying my hearing with her growl. I came again and we both passed out. 

Coming to, I noticed Malawa’s light was dim and flickering. I was still on top of and inside her. Her body was cool—cooler than her normal resting state. I gently shook her, she stirred, but did not wake. I shook her a bit harder. She was listless. I whispered her name. I yelled her name. I got off her and roughly shook her. She opened her heavy-lidded eyes and smiled. “Thank you, love.” 

I probed for her sickness and felt that it had spread throughout her body. What was Malawa and what was the sickness was indistinguishable. I helped her to get dressed, offering her some food and water which she accepted. Her light got a little brighter He body a bit warmer. But the sickness was nearing its goal of killing her. 

“I think it is time I went home. Will you take me? I do not think I can fly.” Her request was monumental. An Aprego entering Banda territory with the dying Baroness in his arms? This was instant death. This was a declaration of war. 

So be it. 

I put her on my back and connected our suits with the tandem latches. She was so alive and powerful a few hours ago. Now she was on my back, harnessed in like a fledge, about to be led around like an invalid. I kissed her hands.  

I ran. 

I was in Banda territory for no more than a few seconds when an entire air wing of Banda soldiers converged on our location. I could easily outrun them, but I stopped instead. I wanted to get Malawa to her parents and an escort would ensure I wouldn’t be killed before I reached the Banda palace. Their captain, a mountain of a man who stood over seven-feet fall, floated just above my head. “Aprego trespasser. You will give me the Baroness and submit to council review. If you do not, your presence here will be considered an act of war.” He increased his flames and heat, trying to intimidate me. I got ready to run. 

Malawa waved him away but was unable to speak. “Baroness? Your majesty? Are you alright?” The flaming mountain soldier came within an inch of the ground. “There will not be a second request. Hand the Baroness to me.”

I felt Malawa unlatch herself and ignite. She floated over to the captain and rose to meet him eye to eye. “Espada Aprego is under my protection. He is taking me to my parent’s home. You will not interfere.”

At the mention of my name, several of the air wing shuddered. My reputation preceded me. Others puffed out their chests and screwed their faces, thinking about taking their shot. Killing me would secure their honor for generations. 

Malawa flew into my arms and shot a daring glare at the captain. He did not want to lose face in front of his men, nor did he want to find out the consequences of disobeying the baroness. I actually felt sorry for the impossible position he is in. 

“Baroness. We will escort you to your parent’s home. Once there, the Aprego will be at the mercy of your father’s decision. Whatever he decides will be attended to. You will not have a say.” He fixed me with his flaming gaze. “Aprego. You will move at a reasonable speed. Any deviation will be dealt with.” 

I ran at a reasonable pace, admiring just how beautiful Banda-land was. The architecture was astonishing. Very few straight lines—all curved structures and conical spires. I slowed a bit to let the people see an Aprego proudly traveling through their territory while carrying their Baroness. I sped up to piss off our escort. More than likely I’d be dead before the first star shone, might as we’ll have a little fun. 

We were within sight of the Banda palace when Malawa’s bodyweight shifted and I heard her jagged exhale. I encountered her sickness and there was nothing left of Malawa. The living mass had completely taken over every part of her insides. She died in my arms. 

I knew it was coming. I was well aware, but it didn’t hurt any less. My bond-mate—whom I hoped would be my life-mate, someday, is no more. I felt fantasy creep in. Fantasy of me and Malawa having children, uniting out houses, and the both of us dying of really old age. I drifted into seeing our parents visiting us in our home, exchanging stories of the bad old days, and kissing their grandchildren. I saw my father take my son, Juan, on his first run. Juan’s little eyes wide and eager. I saw Malawa’s mother teaching Mwanawa how to juggle fire and create flame-forms. Reality inserted itself as we approached house Banda. It is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

The royal home was carved out of what looks to be volcanic glass. Impossibly smooth and shiny. The square is made from the same material, but a slight glow emanates from it in a way that would be comforting if I wasn’t in such a dangerous position right now. There were guard towers everywhere—they were more paranoid than my family—and a guard in each tower, a flamecaster aimed towards me. Despite the crowd being no more than a few meters away, I barely made out their yelling. But by the looks on their faces, I knew they wanted me dead. And not slowly. 

When we got to the royal square, Duke Kapeni and Duchess Chiwa Banda stood there in all of their flaming glory. I’ve only ever seen them on television. They were the epitome of regal. Her father was well over six-feet tall, stoic, handsome, and stood rod straight. His hair a whirling tangle of flame. Her mother, whom Malawa uncannily favored, was the single most beautiful woman on this or any other world. She was slightly taller than her husband and seemed to be more flame than woman. Her face was the only thing that was recognizably human. I presented them with Malawa’s body. I showed respect and deference to the dead and performed the passing ritual in their language. AS I was performing the ritual, I fully expected to be immolated where I stood. 

The ritual completed, I dropped to my knees, exhausted in every conceivable way. Malawa was dead and I’d helped her to cross over. Nothing mattered. I tucked my chin into my chest. I didn’t want to feel the blow that would end my life. The eyes of House Banda were on me. I glanced to each side and saw some of the house looking at me with respect, others with murderous rage. Malawa Banda was beloved by her people. I thought about my parents, my little sister and brother, wishing I could say goodbye to them. But without Malawa, nothing mattered. 

“Rise, son of Aprego.” Duchess Banda said. “You have brought our daughter back to us. You have respected her body and her spirit. I did not expect that…from one of your house.” 

The Duke. “I want to extend to you my respect for not taking the lives of the men, my men, who came to collect the Baroness. You spared their lives but took their honor. They have been…reprimanded. However, I am surprised. You could have left my daughter’s vessel in the neutral territory and never face us. You could have dropped her body here and sped away before any of us could recognize what was happening. Yet, here you are. At our mercy. Your family knows you are here. They know our daughter has died and that you helped her to cross over in full view of our house. They recognize that they may very well never see you again. You have both honored and dishonored your house. I must admit, I am perplexed. Explain yourself. Rise to your feet and give us your eyes.”

I stood. I’m not sure if the Duke compelled me or I stood on my own. I cautiously fixed my eyes on the Duke and the Duchess. I almost turned away, but that would be the height of disrespect. The pain of their loss was painted on their faces. It was almost too much. 

“Your majesties,” I addressed them. I am Espada Aprego of the House Aprego. I loved your daughter. I love her still.”

Murmurs and gasps escaped the crowd. The soldiers became restless. 

“Approach, Espada of house Aprego.” There was no denying the Duchess’s command. She held up her hand in the traditional Banda greeting. I followed suit. She grabbed my life-mate finger and I felt her focused flame burn through my skin and cleave through bone. I barely registered my finger hitting the polished ground. She took my finger and placed it on her daughter’s chest. 

She looked at me, tears turning to steam on her face. “Honor is honor.” 

The Duke was losing the battle to hold back his tears. He exchanged a brief glance with his wife. “House Banda,” he began. His dark skin glowing as his voice grew deeper, more assured. The heat washing off him was incredible. “This Aprego had nothing to do with the death of your Baroness. Our daughter was sick and we were not able to rid her of what was destroying her. If his presence here is an indication of anything, no matter how distasteful, your Baroness, my daughter, died with someone she loved watching over her. He will leave hear unharmed.”

“Go, Espada of Aprego. Tell your father that he and I shall talk after our mourning cycle. You will not bear witness.”

I ran. I fingered the cauterized wound where my life-mate finger used to be. I ran faster. I entered Aprego territory and a squadron of my father’s runners escorted me home. 

My mother was waiting for me at the first gate. She dismissed the runners and drew me in to her chest. Princess Sabine Aprego scolded me. “You’ve caused us a lot of trouble, mi amor. You’ll pay for it. Your father will make sure.” She smacked my wound and laughed when I winced. 

“Rest now. Heal fully. You’ll face your father’s anger soon enough.” 

Eurelian

Eurelian slowly descended from his sleeping perch. He let gravity pull him to the floor, relishing the stretch of his transversospinals and longissimus dorsi. He hung there for several minutes, cataloging every ache and pain. Some were sharp, some were dull, and all of them carried a story. He made his way to his full-length mirror. He was in fine shape for his age. He flexed and admired how tight his skin was, how shiny his scutes were, despite the deep scaring. A hero’s body, he chuckled to himself. He grabbed his tablet, thought better of it and replaced it in its dock. He needed to be with his thoughts.

His world had achieved peace. Well, the kind of peace that local law enforcement or the military could protect. The time for spectacle heroics was at an end. Citywide battles with alien enemies—that chapter was closed. Eurelian was sure that the citizens, and the government, were happy that wholescale civic destruction in the name of protecting freedom was a thing of the past. Those in the construction trades were probably pretty angry. My antics provided them all with some measure of wealth, he muttered to himself.

Looking out the window of his cloaked penthouse, he couldn’t stave off the emotions. Not for lack of trying. His heart swelled. He loved his world, but he loved his adopted city with everything he was. He knew every alley, every nook, he even knew what shops had the freshest meals on which days. His knowledge and adoration of the city was matchless. But then the melancholy inserted itself. 

He saw the corner where little Gryal was crushed by a transport. He focused on where thirteen disaster response workers were killed because he was careless in his execution of heroics. 

He tapped the window to bring up multiple screens. 

These screens were linked to a worldwide satellite and oceanic surveillance network, a network he formerly used to spot and respond to crime and discord. Now what good were they? The world no longer needed him and he no longer needed this detection system. The people had rendered him a relic. A highly regarded relic, but a relic nonetheless. And this detection system had turned him into nothing more than a voyeur. He felt cold and instructed the house system to increase the temperature by fifteen degrees. He heard the humidifiers working and immediately felt the much needed warm moisture fill the room. Thunder pealed, and he wondered which was more the storm, his thoughts, or the morning sky.

As he did daily for the past two cycles, Eurelian closed his eyes and recited the names of all the dead that were either directly or indirectly killed because of his actions. For the past six cycles, a new name has been added to the list: Samuel Cragmont. He doubted if he was pronouncing the name correctly, as the language of Samuel Cragmont’s species was very difficult to master. He carefully formed the name in his mind and uttered it towards the city he so loved: Samuel Cragmont. You deserved better.

+   +   +

He did not expect to end his legacy this way: something of an afterthought. Not so much vilified by his people as turned into a kind of living landmark. Acknowledged on special or holy days, then immediately forgotten. Anger was not worth it. Neither was sadness. Eurelian entertained the idea that he was nothing more than a tool. No different than a machine that built the interconnected habitats of his city. Shaking his head, to dissipate the negative thoughts and feelings, he went to his armory. He stared at the massive door and envied its stillness. 

The code was an impossibly complicated one. He felt his mind reach and stretch for the correct combination of symbols, tones, and gestures. He was old, but not that old. But as of late, his once coral-sharp mind had gotten a little murky. Past events were a little harder to recall. He found himself in rooms of his home, with no knowledge of how he got there. But his heroism, his rescues, were always there. He could recall the days and times of each of his exploits. He could recall these instances down to the barometric pressure. 

His armory door swung slowly open. He inhaled deeply, and felt immediately at peace. Every manner of weapon, every form of rescue equipment lined the vault. These were meaningless compared to what occupied the center. His armor shone with a magnificent iridescence.  

This was his second skin, almost as much of a partner to him as Kulyai was, may the deep keep him. 

Eurelian completed the painstaking ritual of cleaning and polishing his armor—event though it had not been utilized for over three cycles. He donned the armor and felt flush with bravery and the desire to serve. His honor, integrity, and power magnified by the inter-linked scales. He hefted his limpet-toothed spear and despaired that there was no one to fight, no one to rescue. The mid-day chime sounded and it was time for him to leave. He walked towards his private aqua-way entrance. He keyed in the opening  sequence but stopped. He recognized the day for what is was: a day for glory and remembrance. He opened one of his windows and climbed outside of his habitat. 

The storm had subsided and the suns barely pieced the clouds. But the light that did shine through turned Eurelian into an enormous ball of multicolored-colored light. He roared. He roared again. He continued to roar until all eyes were on him. He had just exposed here he lived, where he plotted his war agains those who would harm this city’s, this world’s citizens. He didn’t care. He had given so much. They would recognize him for who he was, and for who he continues to be. He jumped. 

The wind barely eased his descent, and he relished the feeling. Moisture collected on his face, and he refused to wipe it away. He felt truly alive. He executed several mid-air rolls to the astonishment of the growing audience. He landed deftly and lightly. He did not feel a day over his two-hundred cycles. 

The now enormous audience erupted with cheers and applause. He stood to his full height and let the love and appreciation erase his melancholy. He raised his spear and there was a near-immediate hush. 

“My people,” Eurelain boomed. “I require mere moments of your time. If you will, please join me in our square.” No second request was needed. En masse, they moved to the city’s center.

Instead of taking an intra-city aqua-tube, Eurelian moved on the surface, among his people. By the time they reached the center, the crowed numbered in the hundreds, with a hundred more news-drones hovering about . The slithering, seething mass of his  people filled him with gratitude. They split as he made his way to the announcer’s terrace, situated at the exact center of the city. He wound his way up the terrace, and motioned to the crowed. They cheered him, but it was not as robust as he was used to receiving.

He made a cutting motion with his spear and the crowd fell quiet. 

Eurelian gave himself several moment to steady, to collect his gently drifting mind. He forced his thoughts to coalesce. He noticed that this a little harder than it was earlier. He slowly knocked his spear against his armored tail three times. He did it again, this time more rapidly. Three by three. The cycles the dead took to fully pass-on and the level of the sub-sea they settled. Once again, he pulled himself to his full height. When he did this, there were few in the entire world who were as big. 

He cleared his throat and intoned the names of the dead. All of those who were either directly or indirectly killed by him, Eurelian uttered their names with intention. After each name, the amassed crowd expressed their collective condolences. There were a lot of names. Sixty-one cycles he had served the world, had served his city, his people, but the cost had been steep. When the crowd thought he had completed this ritual, Eurelian forced himself to preach the name of his former partner, Kulyai. Kulyai was not the most recent death, but his as the final name secured his place of honor in the sub-sea. 

The crowd waited for a respectful moment and then slowly began to disperse. 

“Samuel Cragmont,” Eurelian said, though his sibilance made it difficult. The crowed stopped and reconvened. They were reverent moments before. Now, they were angry. There were shouts how including the mind-fighter’s name was dishonorable and robbed the dead of esteem. A mother lifted her hatchling to show where Samuel Cragmont’s telekinetic grasp had crushed its skull. 

“Silence,” Eurelian ordered. 

“He deserves our respect. He was different. He was from a reality white different than our own. Instead of trying to help him, when we could to understand his communications, we immediately labeled him as hostile. We did not take the time to learn his language or his ways.”

No one said a word. 

“Samuel Cragmont was a warrior and will be honored as such. How many of you would have survived his homeland, for as long as he survived ours? He hurt us. He killed some of us. I will take his responsibility for that. If I had not been so concerned with being your protector, your hero, more of us would be alive today, We may have found a way to return him to his place. But it was easier for you and for me to label him a threat and wage the most epic and glorious battles.”

He left from the announcer’s terrace and strode into the crowd. 

“I have spent time in sadness that you no longer needed me. The shining hero, once beloved, is now to be put away like all weapons during peace time. Now, as I stand here before you, I understand the wisdom of this. My time has passed. I have no mate, no hatchlings. All I have are scars and stories and fading memories.”

Eurelain’s mind stretched and bent in a multitude of directions. He felt sick and stifled. He started discarding his armor. When he was done, he snapped his spear in half. He smiles, roared, and launched into the air. He cleared a quarter of the width of the city before he landed, roughly, in the kelp beds. A harvester drifted over to him and offered him a hand into her skiff. He was disoriented, but took the proffered. 

“That was a…landing,” she said. Here scales were of the most beautiful pattern. Eurelian had never seen anything like it. 

Supine on the skiff, Eurelian stared unblinkingly at the twin suns.