In the hundred and thirty-first year of the Byzarian Empire’s reign over all Terevia, Emperor Virgilus Oroacer introduced a new way to show just how much power he had over those he ruled and just how undefeatable his warriors were. The Justice Battles pitted those criminals who had been sentenced to death against the finest warriors in the elite Emperor’s Legion of the Byzarian army in brutal, bloody duels with only one possible outcome. Lesser criminals also had their chance to fight in less fatal battles, and should they acquit themselves well, they would be offered a pardon and a place in the army in return for swearing absolute allegiance to the emperor. The Justice Battles quickly gained popularity with the general public, who viewed them as excellent entertainment. As time went on, the Justice Battles became less and less just and more and more brutal. The rules against killing in the lesser battles were forgotten, as was the custom of pardoning those minor criminals who fought skillfully. A new class of soldiers, the Vengeance Legion was established simply for the purpose of fighting in the Justice Battles, and before long, these glorified executioners began to receive more fame than the soldiers who protected Byzaria. By the time Gratius Thales succeeded Virgilus as emperor, the Justice Battles had become the bloodiest and most popular form of entertainment in the Byzarian empire, though those who thought far into them would likely wonder how just they truly were. Any criminal and any person judged to be a rebel to the empire could and most likely would end up facing the swords of the Vengeance Legion. Some brave citizens, especially those who followed the One God rather than Byzaria’s six deities, saw the perversion and lifted their voices to speak against it. These people were all too often branded as rebels and killed in the very events they decried. And so the bloodshed continued until one fateful summer day.
“Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” The cries of a thousand dusty throats rolled through the arena and echoed off the walls. Justus, one of the many Justice Legionnaires, stood in the center of it all, his sword held ready to kill his latest conquest. He held up a hand, silencing the crowd’s cries, and looked down at the man lying at his feet. He’d fought many men in his career: men so terrified they could hardly hold their blades, men who raved and cursed and fought like berserkers, and men of nearly every attitude in between. Never, however, had he faced one who acted as calmly as this foe. The man had defended himself surprisingly well, but he’d never attacked. He’d just blocked, blocked, blocked until Justus sent the man’s sword spinning from his hands, kicked his legs out from under him, and planted a foot on his chest to hold him down. Even then, however, he hadn’t lost his composure. He stared back at Justus calmly, without any last, begging pleas for mercy or curses upon Justus, Emperor Gratius, or anyone else. He didn’t even struggle or put up a futile fight to try to get back up and regain his weapon.
Justus gripped his sword hilt tighter but didn’t bring it down. In a voice too low for those in the stands to hear, he asked, “What’s your name, man?”
The man’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, but he answered in an equally low voice, “Hykinos.”
“Hmm.” Justus had never heard of this man among the criminals or the major rebels, though he seemed vaguely familiar somehow. “And what’s your crime, Hykinos?”
“Speaking truth,” the man replied, evenly. “Declaiming how perverted our culture has become and declaring the redemption of the One God.”
“Ah.” A rebel, then, though the calmest rebel I’ve ever faced. Not that Justus had faced many rebels; other Justice Legionnaires were usually chosen to fight them. “How many men have you injured in your so-called truth-speaking, Hykinos? How many officials’ homes have you attempted to destroy to make your point?”
“None,” Hykinos replied. “I follow the One God, and His way does not involve violent protests. He commands me to speak truth and do good to others, and so that is what I do my best to do.”
Now Justus knew where he’d seen this man. He was one of the men who went about collecting food and clothes for the city beggars and offering to pray for people. Justus recalled one time in particular when he’d noticed Hykinos give his own cloak to a ragged beggar shivering on a street corner. He wondered, as he had then, what would prompt the man to do such a thing, and if it was that same influence that allowed the man to face death so calmly. Was it the One God they claimed to follow? Or was it something else? Either way, did this man really deserve death?
“Justus!” Emperor Gratius’s voice rang out from his private box, cutting short Justus’s thoughts. “Get on with it! Kill him!”
Justus nodded. “Yes, Emperor.” He raised his sword higher, ready to bring it crashing down on Hykinos’s neck. However, he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. Killing a murderer, a violent rebel, or another who endangered others was one thing. They deserved death. But this man did good. Justus had seen it himself.
The crowd’s chant of “kill him!” began anew. Justus looked up and surveyed the crowd. What if he’s onto something? What’s good or just about killing a man who hurts nobody, who helps those who cannot possibly have done anything for him, whose only crime is speaking his mind? Are we really as great as we think we are when we view the death of one who does not deserve it as nothing more than entertainment?
“Justus!” the emperor called out once more. “I said get on with it!”
Justus took a deep breath. He knew what he had to do now. He shifted his grip on his sword so he’d be using the point rather than the edge. Then he drove the sword down-
Into the sand by the man’s neck. Silence fell like a boulder over the arena. Justus looked up at the crowd. “No.” His eyes traveled to the emperor. “No. I will not kill this man. He has done nothing to deserve death.”
Emperor Gratius rose to his feet. “He has defied his emperor and the ways of our empire. I have judged him and ordered him dead. That should be enough for you, Justus. So kill him!”
“I said no.” Justus’s heart pounded, but he would not back down. “I cannot and will not kill this man.”
“Then your own life is forfeit.” The emperor at him. “Guards! Seize and kill them both!”
Justus didn’t wait to see if the guards were obeying. Sheathing his sword, he bent and pulled Hykinos to his feet. “Come on. “ He started running towards one of the archways leading out of the arena and heard the other man following. “We’ll have to move fast if we want to make it out of here.”
“Indeed.” Hykinos drew level with Justus. “I’m glad you made the right choice, Justus.”
Justus didn’t stop running or even glance at the man, but a slight smile crept over his face. “So am I.”
Lost and Found
“Well, officer? Any word?”
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Roberts. We’ve uncovered nothing new in well over a week now. In fact, that’s why I called.”
Mr. Roberts’s grip tightened on the phone. “What do you mean, officer?”
There was silence over the line for a moment. “Well, she disappeared three weeks ago, Mr. Roberts. There’s been no new information in over a week. All the information we do have points to her having run away, with no signs of foul play of any kind. It’s a cold case, Mr. Roberts, and we’re stretched thin at the moment. I’m afraid that, until further notice, we’re stopping official investigation on the case.”
Mr. Roberts had seen the words coming, but they hit hard nonetheless. He slumped back in his kitchen chair, struggling to control himself. “You won’t search for Jenna any longer?”
“Not unless we receive new information on her case, no. I’m sorry, Mr. Roberts. I’d like to be able to keep looking for her, just like I’d like to be able to keep looking for every other person who hasn’t been found yet. If we had any leads or enough manpower, we’d certainly continue the search, but as it is . . .” His voice trailed off.
“Yes, I see.” He did see, or the logical part of his mind did, anyway. The police had done all they could, and he couldn’t expect them to keep looking when they had no leads. His heart, however, wanted to cry out, “But that’s my daughter out there! It’s the middle of winter, and she could be alone, lost, hurt!” Instead, he asked, “Anything else, officer?”
“Nothing. We’ll be certain to let you know if anything changes.”
“Thank you, officer. Have a nice day.” Mr. Roberts lowered the phone before he could hear the officer apologize again and wish him a nice day as well. He rose to his feet and replaced the phone in its base. Then he walked to the door, grabbing a coat from the closet as he passed, and headed out into the cold evening. The police might’ve given up on Jenna, but there was someone else who hadn’t, and Mr. Roberts felt it was time to go talk to Him again.
She woke curled up on the pavement, cold and aching all over, just as she had . . . how many times? She didn’t know. She hadn’t bothered counting. At first she’d been certain she’d get home soon. Now it was just too much effort. She struggled to remember what she was doing out here on the streets. Where was her father? No, she’d left him. Where was Marcus, then?
Oh. That’s right. Marcus had been a liar. He hadn’t cared for her like he said he did. He’d tricked her into coming with him so he could use her. But he’d asked too much of her, and she’d refused. She remembered that much clearly now. She’d said no, no, no too many times to him. Finally he’d lost his temper and beat her until she lost consciousness. How long ago had that been? A day? Three days? A week?
She knew she needed help. She had to find someone to help her, even if it meant admitting that she was wrong. That she shouldn’t have left. Shouldn’t have trusted Marcus. She tried to struggle to her feet, but couldn’t seem to find the strength. She tried crawling, and this time she managed to move a few feet before collapsing again. She moaned and tried to get up once more, but she was just . . . too . . . tired.
Mr. Roberts knelt in the silence of 3rd Street Community Church, in between two rows of pews. He’d come here every Sunday for ten years, since he and his daughter moved across town and needed a new place to worship. In the past few weeks, he’d come here every few days, always for the same reason: to pray in the place where he felt closest to his Creator.
He bowed his head, resting it against the smooth wood of the pew in front of him. “God, You know what I come before You to ask. I’ve asked it a hundred times already: please, help me find my daughter. Somehow, some way, guide me to her. I love her so much, God, and I’m so worried for her. She’s only sixteen, and she’s out there, somewhere, vulnerable and alone. When I think of what could happen-”
He broke off, unable to finish the sentence. After a few minutes, he regained control enough to speak. “I know, God, that You have not abandoned her or me. No matter how much I love Jenna, You love her immeasurably more. Even now, no matter where she is or what’s happened to her, she is in Your hands, and for that I thank You. Protect her, God, and even if is not Your will that I see her again today or any time I’d call soon, guide her to someone who will help her. I lift her and her circumstances to You, knowing that You will not forget her or me. You’re the only hope I have left.”
In the belfry high above, a bell rang out four o’clock.
The brazen ringing of a church bell brought her back to the waking world. It seemed familiar somehow, though she couldn’t seem to figure out why. She blinked, listening for a moment, before realizing what the sound meant. If there’s a church bell, there’s a church nearby. She vaguely remembered going to church many times before she ran. It had seemed that someone there was always doing some project to help someone or another. Maybe someone there would help her.
Once again, she tried to struggle to her feet, and this time, she succeeded. She stumbled along the sidewalk, keeping as close to the buildings as she could so she could use them for support. Several times she nearly fell, and she quickly lost track of how long she’d been walking. Nonetheless, she kept moving, determined to find the church.
Finally she could go no further. She collapsed on a doorstep, too tired to try to figure out where she was. The last thing she saw before her eyes slid shut was a glimpse of a colored glass window.
Mr. Roberts rose to his feet and walked down the sanctuary aisle towards the church door. He felt comforted now, after his time of prayer. Jenna was in God’s hands; He would take care of her.
He pulled open the door and started to step out, but stopped. A girl, certainly not out of her teens, lay in a heap on the doorstep as if she’d collapsed there. Her dirty, ragged jeans and hoody made it clear that if she had a home or a place to stay, she hadn’t seen that place in quite some time.
Mr. Roberts knelt beside the girl, pulling off his coat. “Poor girl,” he muttered. He grasped the girl’s shoulder and started to turn her so he could wrap his coat around her. As he did, the hood fell away from her face. He stared for a moment at her familiar features. “Jenna?” he whispered. Can it be?
Her lips moved and she croaked out a word. “Help?” Her eyes fluttered open and fixed on him. They widened, just a little. “Dad?”
Mr. Roberts broke into a grin. He lifted his daughter and grasped her in a tight hug. “Jenna! Thank God, I’ve been so worried! What happened- Never mind. We’ve got to get you someplace warm. You must be half-frozen.”
Her eyes had already slid closed again. “’M sorry, Dad,” she mumbled. “Shouldn’t have left.”
“Shh.” He tucked his coat around her and lifted her in his arms. “It’s all right. Thank God, I’ve found you again at last.”-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Essa sat on the ground beneath the oak tree by the bend in the path, waiting. Her legs were pulled up against her chest with her arms wrapped around them as if she were trying to curl into as small a ball as possible. Her long, black bangs had been brushed into her face so they hid her right eye and cheek. As she waited, her sensitive ears caught the sound of heavy footsteps approaching. On any other day, those footsteps would’ve been cause for her to jump to her feet and run to great the approaching person. But today she just curled up a little tighter and buried her face in her knees.
A few minutes later, a concerned male voice echoed through the woods. “Essa? Essa, are you there?”
She didn’t respond.
The call came again a few minutes later and a third time after that. Then a tall young man came around the bend in the path. He grinned at Essa, his bright smile contrasting with his dark skin. “There you are, Essa. I was wondering when you didn’t answer. Sorry for missing our meeting last night. You’ll never guess who’s visiting the village!”
She didn’t answer. She didn’t even acknowledge he was there.
The young man didn’t seem to notice. “You know Father’s friend, Narion? The wandering bard? He arrived yesterday afternoon; apparently he’s staying here in our village for a while. He said that maybe I can apprentice for him after I turn sixteen. Think of that, Essa! Me, Aedon the swordsmith’s son, a bard’s apprentice!”
At this, Essa did look up for just a moment. Her lips twisted in an attempted smile, but sorrow and bitterness lingered in her eyes. “Congratulations,” she murmured, her tone strained.
“Thank you.” Aedon didn’t seem to notice her lack of enthusiasm. “His daughter’s traveling with him too this year, since her mother died and she still has a year before she can apprentice. Her name’s Iris. You should meet her; you’d like her. She outshot me when I challenged her to an archery match; I think she may even be better than you! She- Essa? What’s wrong? You’re crying.”
“I’m not.” Essa swiped angrily at her eyes, pulling the sleeve of her overlarge tunic over her hand. “What were you saying about that girl who’s visiting you?”
“Iris. Bard Narion’s daughter.” The grin reappeared on Aedon’s face. “You really would like her. She says she’s going to train as a huntress when she’s old enough to apprentice. I can believe it- I told you how good she is with a bow. She’s got a tame wolf instead of a dog. She says that she found it when it a pup and raised it. Having it around drives Father crazy- you know how he is about wolves- but since she’s a guest, he can’t do anything about it.” His grin widened. “We’re planning to go out to the lake tomorrow; you should come with us.”
“Why?” Essa muttered. “Why would you want me around when you’ve got her instead?”
Aedon frowned. “Why would I- What are you talking about, Essa?”
A hint of bitterness flavored Essa’s voice. “You’ve got Iris now. Iris the future huntress. Iris the amazing archer. Iris the wolf tamer. I’ll bet she’s pretty too. Incredibly beautiful, even. Isn’t she?”
Aedon shrugged. “She’s pretty enough, I guess. But what are you getting at, Essa? Iris can’t replace you. You’re my best friend.” A hint of anger appeared on his face. “If this is about me not being here last night, just say so and stop this . . . this . . . this jealous nonsense!”
Essa’s voice dropped to an almost-whisper tinged with both anger and hurt. “It is about last night. If I’m your best friend, why weren’t you here when I needed you?”
Aedon crossed his arms. “I had guests, Essa. It would’ve been rude to leave.”
“That’s never stopped you before.” Essa glanced up, a hint of cold anger in her eyes. “Every evening, unless one of us is sick, injured, or away from the village. That’s how often we meet here. We agreed to it. You’ve slipped away from guests plenty of times to be here for me, and I’ve done the same for you. I trusted you to be here for me when I needed you. But you weren’t. You were off with some oh-so-amazing bard’s daughter. Did you even bother to think about me? Or did I never so much as cross your mind?” She swiped at her eye once more, wiping away tears before they could fall. “I needed you. But you’ve obviously found someone else to care for.”
Aedon stared at her for a long moment. Then he reached out to brush her bangs away from her face. She slapped his hand away, but not before he caught a glimpse of black-and-blue bruises on her pale, scarred face. The anger in his face grew. “What happened last night, Essa?”
She looked down again. “Father. He came back. Caught me outside. Told me I belonged with him, not Uncle Tyr, and to come with him or else. I said no. He told me again, and when I tried to go inside, he grabbed me and started saying things. And then he started hitting.”
Aedon looked her over. “How badly are you hurt?”
She shrugged. “Not too badly this time. Lots of bruises, and he gave me a nasty black eye. But he didn’t have his knives with him, and Uncle Tyr came out and stopped him before he could break any bones.” She paused for a moment. “The hitting didn’t hurt as much as the things he said. Or as much as when I thought you’d be here, but you never came. It made me wonder if . . . if some of the things Father said were true. And now I can’t help wondering even more.”
Aedon scowled deeply. “And what did he say?”
Again Essa shrugged. “At first it was just the usual: I’m worthless; I never should’ve been born; I deserve everything he’s ever tried to do to me. I told him what you and Uncle Tyr have said about caring about me, and me not being worthless and all that. He just laughed and said that you both were lying, you especially, Aedon. He said you really didn’t care for me at all, and you’d desert me the moment someone smarter and stronger and prettier and not so broken came along. That you were just pretending you cared so you could earn my trust and take advantage of me later.”
A hint of angry fire glinted in Aedon’s eyes. “Essa, he’s lying. You know he is. When has he ever told you the truth? I would never desert you for another girl, and I’d definitely never take advantage of you. I can’t believe you think I would.”
“But you did, Aedon.” Essa shook her head. “You did desert me for another girl. You picked that bard’s daughter over me. If you’d had any other guest, if it had been Bard Narion and not his daughter too, would you have missed our meeting?”
“Well . . . I . . .” Aedon’s scowl grew. “I can’t believe you’d believe your father over me. When has he done anything but hurt you?”
Essa looked at Aedon with a mixture of sorrow, hurt, and anger. “I believe the people who tell me the truth. You can’t even deny that you chose her over me. That you saw she was better than me and decided I wasn’t worth bothering with anymore.”
Aedon shook his head, seeming to recover somewhat. “That’s not what happened, Essa. I was enjoying myself, and I just forgot-”
“You forgot?” All the sorrow suddenly disappeared from Essa’s voice, leaving only hurt, bitterness, and ice-cold fury. “You forgot your “best friend”? If that doesn’t prove you don’t really care, I don’t know what else would.” She looked away. “But it doesn’t matter anymore. I know the truth now, and I won’t let you hurt me any longer. This is goodbye, Aedon. As of now, you’re free to forget me all you like. You’re free to do anything, really. Just don’t expect me to be friends with you any longer.”
Aedon stared at her for a long moment, his expression going from shock to hurt to, finally, anger. “Fine. I don’t care. I can’t believe you’d take the word of your lying skunk of a father over me, or that you’d overreact this much to a simple mistake. But if this is how you’re going to act, you can believe me that I won’t ever make the mistake of caring about you ever again.” He paused, waiting for a response. She gave him none. So, he turned and stalked off into the forest.
And Essa, alone once more, curled up and began to weep.-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
It had been a long journey, but Charra had finally reached the place she once called home. She stood atop one of the hills overlooking the little village where she’d grown up. From up here, it appeared peaceful, untouched by the war that had ravaged nearly half the country. Nothing like her. She reached up to touch the long, jagged scar that ran down the left side of her face, marking the wound that had taken her eye. The faint feel of it through her thin leather gloves seemed to confirm her feelings: she’d seen too much to belong here any longer. And even if she hadn’t, she had other reasons she could no longer stay. Nonetheless, she started down the hill into the village. She might not be staying, but she had questions that could only be answered here.
It felt strange to enter a village with no wall around it. Elsewhere, even the smallest towns had some kind of wall to protect against enemy attacks. She walked slowly down the streets, looking around at all the places she remembered. The village seemed as unchanged down here as it had from above. The only real differences seemed to be new faces among the children playing in the streets and yards and the pine-and-poppy mourning wreathes on many of the doors, reminding her that even this place was not completely untouched by the war.
Charra’s steps slowed as she neared the spot where her house had been before the fire. She’d been the only one to survive that fire. By all rights, no one should’ve. Some nights, most nights, she called it a miracle and thanked the One God for saving her life then and so many nights since. Other nights, when she burned almost too hot to control, when the pain bordered on too much to bear and the memories wouldn’t stop storming through her mind, she wondered just how much of a blessing it had been.
Five years later, all that remained of the house was a few charred ruins. Charra was slightly amazed that the remains of the structure hadn’t been cleared away to make room for a new house, but then again, the war had meant that few people were settling and building new houses. Reverently, she approached the place where the doorstep had been. She knelt there, bowing her head and remembering. She tried her best to remember only the good: evenings around the hearth listening to her parents tell stories of Long Ago, hide and seek with her little brother and sister, picnics on summer afternoons, harvest celebration feasts. But as hard as she tried, she couldn’t forget the smell of smoke, the cries, the flames.
She wished for tears. She wished she could cry for what she’d lost. But ever since the burning began, she’d found she had no tears anymore.
A young boy’s voice broke through her thoughts. “What are you doin’ in there? Don’t you know you aren’t s’pposed to go where dead people used to live?”
“I know.” Charra stood slowly and glanced over her shoulder at the boy. He was no more than five or six, too young to have known her. Slowly, she turned away from the ruin. “I used to live there.”
The boy stared at her for a long moment, his eyes growing slowly wider and wider. Then he turned and took off running away from her. Charra bit back a groan. What had she been thinking? He probably thought she was a wraith or something else of that sort now. With her scar and black uniform, she certainly looked the part.
With one last glance back, she walked away from the site of her old home and continued down the street. She pretended she didn’t feel the stares or hear the whispers of those she passed. Did any of them recognize her? She wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t. She was certainly a far cry from the almost-sixteen-year-old who was always getting caught with her head in the clouds, who often preferred the company of younger children to people her own age, who still wore her hair in pigtail braids even though she was old enough to start putting it up.
It took about five minutes’ walking for Charra to reach her second destination. She circled around to the back of the familiar little cottage and knocked. A few moments later, the door was opened by a woman in her late fifties. She and Charra stared at each other for several long moments. Confusion clouded the woman’s face at first, and then suddenly recognition shone out. “Charra? Is that you?”
The woman pulled Charra into a tight hug. “Charra! My, but how I’ve missed you! And how you’ve grown! I didn’t recognize you at first! What happened to you? That scar . . .”
Charra gently returned the woman’s embrace. “The scar is a long story. I’ve missed you too, Tatia Ama.”
Ama released Charra and stepped back. “I was wondering when I’d be seeing you again. I hoped that you’d come home now that the war’s been won, but I wasn’t certain, especially as I’ve been hearing that you’re something of a hero now. You should’ve let me know that you were coming; we would’ve had a grand celebration.”
Charra shook her head. “I didn’t want a celebration. Being a hero isn’t all it’s made out to be anyway.” She took a deep breath. “Besides, the reason I came back is that I need to talk to you about . . . certain things.”
“Ah,” Ama sighed. “That’s what I feared. Come in, then.” She stepped aside, allowing Charra to walk into the cozy kitchen, and then she shut the door. “Are you thirsty? Hungry?”
Once more, Charra shook her head. She sat down at the worn kitchen table. “No, thank you.” She waited until Ama had taken the seat across from her. Then, quietly, she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ama regarded her, a hint of sadness in her hazel eyes. “Tell you what?”
Instead of answering, Charra pulled off her gloves and pushed her sleeves up to her elbows. From her fingertips, past her elbow, and into her sleeves, a pattern of red and orange flames covered her skin. “You know me, Tatia. I’m not the sort for tattoos or other skin marks like that. And these aren’t anything like that. I just woke up one morning and they were there, and I felt like I was burning up inside. The next thing I knew, I’d been moved to Gifted training and had to struggle not to set things on fire whenever I was upset.” She paused. “You knew all along that I had the FireGift. I put the pieces together. That’s why you let me join the war, even though I was just barely old enough to be a soldier. That’s why I overheard you telling the recruiters to keep an eye on me for any unusual behaviors or any odd fires around me. That’s why you gave me that strange advice when I left about not burning too hot, no matter what. That’s why you were the only one in the village who wasn’t surprised when I survived the fire.” She looked up from her arms and met Ama’s eyes. “You knew. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ama remained still and silent for a long moment. Finally, she took Charra’s flame-marked hands in her worn ones. “I knew? That would be a bit strong of a word. I didn’t know until the fire. But I suspected. I saw the clues. You always had a sort of spark under your sweetness. You seemed perkier around fires, never feared them, and they seemed to burn hotter when you were around. You never seemed to mind the heat, even in summertime. And you never seemed to get burned. It wasn’t enough to prove anything. But it was enough to make me guess.
“Why didn’t I tell you? As I said, I didn’t know for sure. And even if I had, I wanted to protect you, to give you normal life for as long as possible. I wanted to make sure you didn’t have to grow up too fast. I was just trying to do what’s best for you. Can you understand that?”
Charra looked down at her hands. Trying to protect me? What about trying to prepare me? What about giving me some warning that this might happen so it didn’t take me completely by surprise? What about warning me that having a gift like that has its downside? Ama trying to protect her, she could understand. That was the sort of thing Ama had always done for her. But surely there would’ve been a better way to do that! The burning inside her started to rise with her anger. She should’ve told me.
Charra took a deep breath and shut her eyes, trying to force herself to calm back down before the burning became remotely dangerous. She focused on wrestling her fire back down to a manageable level, knowing that calmness would come easier if she wasn’t focused on her problems. When she’d forced the burning back into submission, she considered the problem again. Would I have understood before the fire? Before the war and my training as a soldier? Maybe before the war, but not before the fire. Childlike, she would’ve grown excited over the thought of having a gift and stuffed the warning in the back of her mind to be forgotten until it was too late. And even after the fire, she would’ve been too hurt to understand. It had taken both the fire and her training to make her mature enough to handle the truth of her gift.
Charra opened her eyes once more and looked up at Ama. Slowly she said, “I think I understand. It still hurts, but I understand. And thank you.”
Ama gave Charra’s hands a squeeze. “You’re welcome, Charra.” She tilted her head. “So. What will you do now? Will you stay here, now that the war’s over?”
Charra shook her head. “I can’t, Tatia. I have duties. My company’s been assigned to help track down any groups of enemy soldiers still in the country and make sure they return to their own country without making trouble. And once that’s done, I’ve been asked to help with training others with the FireGift.”
Ama looked steadily at Charra for a long moment. “That’s not the only reason, is it?”
Charra shook her head sadly. “No. It’s not. When you have the FireGift, you have to have something to put all your passion into, to burn for. And if you don’t, you just burn up inside. That’s why I have to keep moving, keep doing things.” She pulled one hand free and touched her scar. “Besides, I doubt anyone would want me around. I scare people now.”
“I’m sorry, Charra.” Ama rose to her feet and walked around the table to embrace the young woman once more. “Surely, though, you can stop here, just for a few days? Surely you can rest for a bit? More people want you here than you think. You’re our hero. They want to see you. Even if they didn’t, you’d always be welcome here at my home, scar or no scar.”
Charra sat for a moment, still and quiet, contemplating Ama’s words. “You’re sure they’d want me to stay? That you want me to stay?”
“Without a doubt.”
For the first time in a long time, Charra smiled. “Then I think I will. Just for a few days. Just to rest a bit.” And maybe, just maybe, while she was here, she wouldn’t burn quite so much
The stars fell in a silver rain, leaving sparkling trails that quickly faded from the night sky. Brooke sighed happily as she lay on a picnic blanket in her backyard, watching the meteor shower. All around her, peaceful silence reigned, undisturbed by the rustle of a breeze or the rumble of a car engine.
“Perfect ending to an amazing day, huh?” Alex asked as the last of the meteors faded away.
Brooke glanced at her best friend and grinned. “Definitely. Though . . .” She looked back up at the sky. “Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel like something even more special’s going to happen before tomorrow gets here.”
Alex peered at his watch. “Well, if it’s going to happen, it better happen soon. We’ve only got about fifteen minutes left in the day.” He paused. “We didn’t forget to do something today, did we?”
Brooke shook her head. “Nope. It was the best sixteenth birthday I could want, especially since you came over.”
Alex grinned. “Good.” He reached for the soda can sitting by the blanket and frowned when he picked it up. “Empty. I’m going to go get another drink. You want anything, Brooke?”
Brooke nodded. “If you can find any more cream sodas, I’d like one of those. If not, just my water bottle from the fridge, please.”
“I’m on it.” Alex stood and walked over towards the house. He pulled open the door and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him.
Once he was gone, Brooke turned her gaze back up to the star-filled sky. A bit of movement caught the corner of her eye, and she looked to see one last shooting star arcing across the sky. This one appeared bigger and lower than the others, and it almost seemed to be coming towards her. Then it faded from sight, just as the others had.
Suddenly, there came a noise from behind her that was both musical and mechanical at once, followed by the sound of something heavy settling onto the ground. Brooke sat up and turned to see what had made the sound. She gasped. At the edge of the yard, a large, torpedo-shaped capsule had appeared. Its surface looked as smooth and polished as silver, and seemed to glow with the same light as the stars. There was a single porthole-style window set into it at about head height, but all she could see through it was a warm, comfortable golden glow.
She stood and approached the thing curiously, but cautiously. When she was less than a foot away and nothing jumped out at her, she reached out a hand to feel its surface. Just before her fingers touched it, however, a line appeared in its side and extended to trace out the shape of a door. Brooke stepped back as the door swung open and revealed a golden-haired man standing in the doorway.
The man looked her over and smiled. “Hello, Brooke. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Brooke’s eyes widened. “You have?” She felt as if she should be frightened, but she wasn’t. Just curious and cautious. “Why?”
The man’s eyes sparkled. They were honest, ancient eyes, though the man himself looked quite young, and gave Brooke the feeling that this man could not lie at all, even if he wanted to. “Because I have chosen to Call you, but you have not been ready until tonight.” He held out a hand. “Will you answer?”
Brooke hesitated, looking from the man’s face to his outstretched hand. “Calling me for what?”
“To come with me, of course.” The man seemed genuinely surprised by the question. “To travel with me in my ship. There are hundreds of adventures to be had, Brooke, hundreds of wrongs to be righted, and I can’t do it alone.”
Is this it? Is this the special something I thought would happen? Brooke felt it had to be, but she didn’t say yes. “But who are you?”
“I am a Guardian,” he replied, simply, “a protector of Good and a wanderer of the worlds. Surely your mother has told you something of my kind; she knew us well enough at one time.”
A Guardian. Brooke remembered her mother mentioning them once or twice, though never in any great detail. All she’d ever said when Brooke asked for more information was that “saying yes to one will break your heart eventually, but it’ll be worth it. It’s always worth it. And if you say yes and break your heart, it’ll be healed again before long.”
Brooke had never known her mother to steer her wrong. Still, she didn’t say yes. “What about my parents? What about Alex?” What about everything here?
“Your parents will understand,” the Guardian replied. “I have spoken with them, asked their permission to Call you, and they gave it. As for your friend, you will have to say goodbye to him for now, but if all goes well, you will see him again.” He paused. “Brooke, understand this. If you come with me, I cannot promise you that you will not face danger and hardship. Just the opposite, in fact; I am certain you will. But I can promise you that I will do my very best to protect you through it all, and that whatever happens, it will not be without a reason.”
Brooke bit her lip. Is it worth it? She didn’t want to leave Alex. She didn’t want to leave her safe, comfortable home. But at the same time, she wanted to say yes to the Guardian. She wanted to go with him, have adventures, find out how her mother knew about the Guardians and why she said that saying yes to one would always be worth it. What do people say? Nothing good is easy? And I guess you can’t really have adventures without facing danger too. Only Alex remained to hold her back now. “Couldn’t Alex come too?”
The Guardian shook his head. “No. Not yet, at least. Perhaps one day he will be ready to be Called, but not today.” He looked steadily into her eyes. “You are ready, Brooke, and I have Called you. Will you answer?”
Brooke took a deep breath. She looked back at her house, back to Alex and her family and all she’d ever known. Then she looked at the Guardian and his ship, into his kind, honest, ancient eyes. She looked back at the house once more. Then she made her choice and took a step.
It took Alex longer than he’d hoped, but he’d finally managed to find a cream soda for Brooke. Carrying her soda and a Coke for himself, he pushed the back door open and started to step out into the backyard, but stopped short. In the far corner of the yard, he could see Brooke being helped into a silver torpedo-like thing by a strange, golden-haired man. He dashed out, dropping the sodas in his panic. “Brooke, no!”
He was too late. She glanced back for a minute from the doorway and gave him a smile and a wave before stepping all the way inside. Then the strange man nodded to Alex, walked in after her, and shut the door behind them both. There was a hint of a rumble and a musical sound, and the silvery glow around the craft intensified near the ground. The thing began to lift into the sky, leaving a trail of light like stardust and moonshine. Alex could do nothing but watch as it rose above the trees and up into the sky until finally it looked like nothing more than another shooting star.
Only when it was lost to view did Alex lower his head and notice a faintly glowing sheet of paper on the ground. He walked over and picked it up, and for a moment, he thought he heard Brooke’s laugh; saw her eager face staring out an immense window at the stars. Then laugh and image both faded and all he saw was the letter, written in Brooke’s familiar, curly handwriting.
I’m sorry I couldn’t stay. I’ve been Called. I could’ve said no, but I think I would’ve regretted it if I had. I’ll miss you so much, and I hope that you’ll be Called too so we can have adventures together. If you aren’t, I’ll see when I get back. Until then, keep me in your heart and I’ll keep you in mine. Your best friend,
Alex stared at the letter for a moment, despair slowly crushing the faint hope that had risen in his heart. Then the paper began to slowly disappear from his hand. He watched sadly as it faded away until it was all gone, just like Brooke.
This is the song that inspired "Called". It's called "Alligator Sky," and it's an awesome song.
This is the song that inspired "Called". It's called "Alligator Sky," and it's an awesome song.