Photo by: Bill Gracey
They are the souls of warriors that have soared to the heavens. They are glow bugs that became stuck after flying too high. They are good deeds that have coalesced into burning points of light. They are cracks in a delicate, blue shell. They are the ships of people who have fled this land, dwelling among the currents of air and space. They are the stars.
I’m not sure why they intrigue me so much—those flickering lights. Perhaps it’s because of their sheer mystery, or perhaps it’s because of their beauty. But each night I find myself looking upward, hoping to catch a glimpse of them through haze and smog. Each night, I wonder what they are. And then I wonder what happens to the ones that fall.
“What do you think they are, Mickey?”
It was a non sequitur question, completely at odds with the situation at hand—a situation that involved Old York gangs and turf wars—one which Alexa would have preferred to avoid. But she had gotten involved, anyway; she couldn’t help herself. Is it because you need redemption? She exhaled faintly, watching the man next to her. She really needed to learn to stop meddling.
They stood in the middle of the crossroads in the darkness. Chilly, spring wind whispered past their faces, cooling off the sweat and mild heat of the day. A few people still milled around the dusty road, examining the sheet of faded paper that had been tacked to one of the trees nearby, claiming scavenging rights for the area. Welcome to Old York, land of gangs and headaches. Above them, the stars stretched—endless. Twinkling lights glittered and winked amid the blackness.
There had been a lull in the conversation, and it wasn’t as if they could do more at the moment than speculate. Besides, she couldn’t help wondering—couldn’t help asking. She liked collecting each person’s myth, after all; she liked knowing what they thought of the stars.
Mickey looked back at her, his face shifting from serious to slightly confused. His brow wrinkled as he glanced upward, dark eyes gazing skyward, “If you had asked me that before, I would have said that it was light shining through cracks in a blue shell. But now, I’m not so sure…”
Alexa arched an eyebrow, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. The others had fallen silent around them, listening in. Of course he’d no longer think that—especially after what happened in Bravo…
His accented voice continued as if he had read her thoughts, echoing them, “After what happened in Bravo, I don’t know. You saw what fell from the sky. I hung onto it as I passed through…” He trailed off for a moment, looking downward. Alexa inwardly cringed. Way to bring up his death, Alexa. That was smooth.
She quickly spoke, interrupting him, “Yes, I know.” Give him a way out if he wants it. She turned her head slightly, watching him out of the corner of her eye. She traced his jawline, examining his serious expression. For knowing how to talk to people, you can be surprisingly awkward, Alexa. She hesitated for a moment and then spoke again, “House says there are people up there. That they’re ships.”
He nodded in response, “They’re up there. We didn’t just encounter this in Bravo, either. They’ve been falling all over.”
Falling stars. Alexa turned her gaze away from Mickey and instead looked upward once more. Points of light burst and shattered, shining without the moon’s dim glow within the night’s embrace. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.
Alexa stumbled backward, heart pounding in her chest as she watched the woman across from her. Sydney. She could already feel the blood trickling down her side from the latest blow, coating her shirt as a sharp pain throbbed whenever she moved. Sparring without armor. What joy is mine.
The sun shone brightly overhead, warming Alexa’s back as light filtered through the branches of nearby trees, bright green leaves just beginning to unfurl in the early spring air. A group surrounded them—other members of the Delta Orleans mercenary company, armored and waiting, and spectators who just wanted a good show.
Alexa exhaled slowly. The whole situation really was her fault. She should have checked the patrol schedule before leaving the building that morning. She should have been more responsible—should have acted like the lieutenant she was. But she had been tired—worn thin from a night spent running through woods and walking beneath stars, stretched by forces that had command of her time. She had struggled with late night visitors and empty threats. And now, she had to face the consequences.
There really was no excuse.
Alexa raised her two swords as her eyes darted across her opponent’s face; whorls of paint highlighted Sydney’s cheekbones and green eyes with intricate colors. You have to be better. Sydney had her shield raised, sword at the ready as she watched her from under the brim of her hat. It’s what they all expect.
Under normal circumstances, Alexa enjoyed sparring with Sydney—enjoyed learning. The captain was a good teacher, one who knew when to push and when to back off. But this wasn’t so much a lesson as it was a punishment from Commander Dantes. There is no room for failure. You don’t have the luxury of making this kind of mistake again. Alexa gritted her teeth. Best get it over with.
Sydney darted forward, sword flashing in the sun. Alexa quickly backpedaled, blocking her strike with one of her blades. The sound of clashing metal rang out across the road as Sydney quickly backed away, moving from one side to the other. Checking my footwork. Alexa turned with her, following the steps of the dance. Then Sydney attacked again.
One strike, two, three. The second hit, slicing through cloth and skin. Alexa inhaled sharply, trying to ignore how it was becoming harder to breathe. Snap out of it. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Stew watching, his tall form shaded slightly by an overhanging tree. Was he all right after the cure? Alexa shook her head. Stop getting distracted. Focus.
She blocked a fourth strike, and then the fifth strike struck home. Cold metal sunk into her leg, slicing through flesh before quickly withdrawing once more. There was a moment of numbness—a moment where Alexa’s mind struggled to make sense of what had happened and tried to catch up with what her body was telling her. Damnit.
And then she fell.
Wind whipped through her hair as it streamed behind her, as her breath caught in her chest, as her feet pounded across the road. She could just make out the figure in front of her in the darkness—tall, lanky. He rushed away from the battle behind them as the sounds of cries, of gunshot, of crashing steel mingled together—as blood slicked the grass and as the town fought.
Alexa gritted her teeth, putting on another burst of speed. I can’t let him get away. She pushed her body, forcing it to move faster. Trees blurred on either side as she darted into the night.
That’s when he stopped, turning toward the bushes by the side of the road. Alexa skidded to a halt next to him, blade out and at the ready as she watched him. He was panting, his dark eyes gazing at her, “There was…a battle. I didn’t want to get killed. It has nothing to do with me….they broke both of my arms!”
He could be lying, though his arms certainly look broken. Alexa watched him for a moment before she glanced to the side. Someone else had followed, armor clanking slightly as he caught up with them. Bruce. He paused, and Alexa turned her attention back to the problem at hand, “What’s your name?”
“Donald. My name is Donald.” The man looked panicked, on the verge of running again, “I just wanted to get away. Just let me go.”
He’s far too panicky just to be a Hayvenite. Alexa watched him for a moment, glancing sideways at Bruce. He wouldn’t lift a finger if she struck—wouldn’t do anything to stop her. Donald—he’s the one who was creating the fans this morning. They needed him to stop the device.
Donald, I’m afraid I can’t let you go.
Evening was falling quickly, the sun sinking below the horizon as late afternoon light gilded the wagons and dusty roads and spring grass. The sound of laugher rang through the circle of caravans as conversation mingled with the smells of cooked food and alcohol. A gentle breeze carried the scents of flowers and regrowth, tugging on the clothing of men and women who smiled and chatted and enjoyed themselves.
Alexa took a deep breath of clear air, eyes gazing across the field. She had enjoyed herself at the gathering. She had enjoyed watching the Harpers win a game of skill against Commander Dantes, his face turning from serious to smiling in an instant as he relaxed. She had enjoyed watching the other members of the company laughing as they used Corbin’s shield as a table, sipping from their drinks. She had enjoyed watching Antigone joke with the others—more of a sister than she had ever accounted for. She had enjoyed being able to simply be a spectator, for once not having to worry. These are the moments we fight for. It’s a pity they don’t last.
She could sense his presence next to her, feeling it without having to look at him. He was a reminder of why she was now standing at the side of the field rather than in the midst of the others—a reminder that life was full of balance, and that with good times also came bad. The shadows are drawing closer. Can you feel them, Rook?
His accented voice took her from her thoughts as it drifted toward her, pitched low to keep others from overhearing. She didn’t meet his eyes at first, instead looking downward at the grass as she listened, “It was as we suspected—at least partly. It’s a combination of the two methods.”
Alexa nodded as she exhaled faintly, her breath stirring a few of the pale strands that had fallen in front of her face. Circles within circles, plots within plots. “And why did he seek you out in the first place?”
“It was a long time in coming. He wanted to see how things had progressed and there were some…personal matters that needed to be discussed.” He paused briefly, and then continued, “I also asked about his interest in you.”
Alexa looked toward him, her green eyes briefly meeting his dark ones. In the late afternoon light, his pale skin took on the hue of the living—made him look as if he breathed, as if his heart beat. Not that it ultimately matters. He’s more alive than most people I know.
“What did he say?”
He looked away, eyes scanning the field once more before he responded, “He thinks you’re good for this town.”
Alexa nodded in response. It made sense; she was useful. She wanted to be useful—to help others in whatever capacity she could. You may not know exactly what you want, but at least you know that. She watched him for a moment, noting how his face had turned grim beneath his hat. There’s something else. She waited for him to continue. Finally, he did.
“He also asked me to give you a warning.”
Alexa felt her stomach churn faintly as he looked toward her again. She watched as his dark eyes hardened, turning into flints of stone. She waited.
“The Kings want their ‘tool’ back.”
Alexa felt her heart plummet, felt her limbs stiffen as she looked back at him—felt as ice flowed through her veins and threatened to choke her. I will beat you down and drag you back…
Then she pushed it away—pushed down the mind-numbing terror that wanted to overwhelm her. Instead, she gritted her teeth, lowering her head slightly, “They’re not getting it back.”
He smiled faintly in response, “That’s what I said.”
They stood in the middle of nowhere.
Darkness surrounded them—darkness and the shapes of trees and stones and grass. The only things that were real were the stars that stretched overhead, flickering within the vast expanse of night.
It was cold in the blackness, chilly air cutting to the bone as the whispers of a thousand leaves murmured their secrets to no one.
“Do you ever become lonely?”
His face was turned upward, eyes glimmering faintly in the dim light as he responded, “Sometimes. So much of what we do involves being someone else.” He paused and then turned toward her, watching her, examining her, “But we’re back to talking about me…again. Good deflection.”
She shrugged in response, “Thank you.”
“Let’s talk about you. Do you ever become lonely?”
“Do you know what you want?”
She watched him for a moment longer before she turned her gaze upward, forcing herself to ignore the fact that if he wanted, he could kill her right then and there—slit her throat as easily as cutting through butter. She ignored the feeling of him watching her—how his eyes tracked her every movement, so similar to someone else she once knew.
Instead, she focused on the lights overhead, the way they shimmered. One suddenly broke off from the others and raced across the sky, streaking past as is flew across time and space.
And then it fell.
“Where are your wings?”