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Ephemeral: Chapter 35
Clara felt hollow at Raven's command. She wanted to shout in protest, but she barely managed to croak out, “Wait!”
Raven did not hear.
Commander Ballitor raised his staff in the air. “Soldiers of Silex, advance!”
The stoic guards lowered their crackling staffs into attack position and started inching the tired, frightened elderly toward the edge of the quarry.
“WAIT!” Clara shrieked once she found her voice. “Raven, wait!” She waved her arms to get Raven's attention. “It’s me, Clara! Can't you spare a moment for your best friend?”
Raven looked with disdain on her old comrade from Earth – as if Clara were a reminder of some former weakness. “I no longer need friends, Clara Milton,” she said. “I need no one now I have eternity.”
Clara's eyes stung. It's the stone talking ... “You don’t really mean that!” she called. “A life without love is empty!”
Raven scoffed and took a step toward Clara. “It's more efficient to be feared than loved.”
Clara furrowed her brow. “Raven, that thing around your neck has poisoned your reason! What’s the point of ruling a planet if you have no soul?”
Raven threw her head back and cackled – a grating sound closer to an animal cry than to human laughter. “Clara, Clara,” she shook her head. “Only mortals have need of souls. But I am mortal no more.”
Raven raised her hands to the stormy heavens. The Fire Stone gleamed with such laser-like intensity, Clara had to shield her eyes. A red bolt of lightning flashed from Raven's chest to the black clouds overhead. Deafening thunder followed, sending many in both crowds to their knees.
Clara looked up in terror as a dark, swirling funnel began to form directly above her in obedience to Raven's outstretched hands and ruby-red eyes.
Children screamed. Women fainted. Men paled. Even the guards glanced upward in dismay and halted their advance on the elderly.
“His Eminence was a fool!” Raven sneered, her arms still outstretched toward the slowly-descending funnel cloud. “He didn’t know half the Fire Stone's power! He grew too comfortable in his position. But I will not content myself with the status quo!”
“Raven!” Clara had to shout above the howling wind as her garments started flapping upward. “Stop! You'll kill us all!”
Again, the cackle. “Death is no concern to me now!” Raven’s eyes rolled back in her head.
Gusts of wind tore wildly at Clara's hair and clothing. She could barely see through the rising dust which flew in her face. Her heart panged at the ugly truth. Raven's going to kill me … she's actually going to do it!
Then something solid whizzed through the air and landed at her feet.
Clara turned around and squinted through the dust to find Aaric standing on a boulder about a dozen yards away. Why had he not aimed for Raven? This was not the plan! He knew she couldn't throw a hatchet!
But Aaric stood atop his rock and mouthed the words, “I never miss.”
And that quiet voice from earlier whispered in her inner ear: The hatchet is yours.
Then Clara finally understood.
With a heavy heart, she bent down and picked up the translucent weapon. Dirt specks pelted her face, making her squint to see Raven alone on the dais, arms raised, eyes unseeing.
Clara plodded through the wind toward the stage as if her feet dragged invisible chains.
“Raven!” she called. “This must stop one way or the other!”
Raven ignored her completely.
“This is your last chance, Raven!” Clara shouted above the wind as she climbed the first step. The hatchet felt like lead in her small hands.
Raven continued guiding the funnel cloud. It would soon touch down.
“Please!” Clara cried out, now onstage.
Raven stood, completely absorbed by her own power and deaf to Clara's cry.
So be it. Clara raised the hatchet high with both hands and rushed toward Raven. She brought the Omnia stone down on the fiery pendant with as much force as her five-foot-four-inch frame could exert. The Fire Stone shattered into a thousand pieces with a blinding red light and shock wave which sent Clara and Raven both sprawling toward opposite ends of the stage. The blast sent the electrical equipment sparking. The towering stage screens and audio system died.
Dazed, Clara pulled herself up onto her elbows as the swirling funnel cloud overhead started to dissipate. The dust cloud which had nearly blinded her earlier now started to settle. She saw Raven at the other end of the stage put her hand to her head as if shaking off a bad dream.
“Raven!” Clara called, hopeful the Fire Stone's spell had finally been broken. “It's over!”
Raven turned to Clara … and snarled. “YOU IDIOT!” She jumped to her feet and roared with rage at the sight of her precious Fire Stone in countless shards strewn across the stage. A misty red haze ribboned upward from the fragments of her highest ambitions. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!” she screamed. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!”
With unnatural speed and strength, Raven closed the distance to Clara, struck her former friend full across the face, then lifted her up and threw her off the stage to the ground.
Clara turned a half somersault in the air and landed at an awkward angle. She heard her ankle snap, felt a sharp pain that took her breath away, then lay stunned in the dirt.
Onstage, Raven continued to curse as she tried to take the Fire Stone's pieces into her shaking hands.
“Raven, don't!” Clara coughed, still winded from her landing. “It's still dangerous!”
But Raven disregarded Clara’s warning and continued gathering the fiery fragments – now hotly radioactive without the stone's protective insulation. At first, she did not notice the cuts on her hands, nor the eerie red glow coursing up her arm from her fingers. But suddenly, she doubled over and cried out in agony! The red glow spread like a cancer through her body, turning living flesh into scarlet stone. She dropped the pieces and tried to run away, but her feet had painfully solidified, immovable as the red infection spread upwards. Terrified, Raven shrieked and swore as her calves, thighs, and torso made the terrible transition from soft skin to hard rock. Clara could do nothing but watch in horror.
Raven's brown eyes widened in panic as the red glow rose up her neck ... then the screaming stopped altogether.
The elderly had backed up as far as they could from the guards and stood inches from the canyon ledge. Several wept openly, and some of the weaker ones had swooned from the emotional strain as the swirling funnel cloud continued to descend. They were running out of time and space.
Then the soldiers heard their mistress cry out in the distance behind them. The angry clouds overhead suddenly stilled as the raging wind gentled. They paused their advance and looked questioningly at Commander Ballitor. Seizing his opportunity, the commander stood upon the same flat rock Governor Solidus had used earlier. Ballitor withdrew his helmet's black visor and lifted his staff overhead. “Guards! Let us not shrink from finishing what we have started! Now, for the liberation! For the …”
His words were cut short as a hatchet from the across the canyon hit him in the forehead on its blunt end, knocking him backwards. He fell to the ground with a less-than-dignified thud.
All turned to gaze across the chasm in wonder as they saw the forest nearly ablaze with a thousand torch lights. Men and women in brown and green garb armed with hatchets and the controls to hundreds of whirring white drones stood at the trees' edge facing the elderly. A large man with high cheekbones and a jeweled circlet gracing his dark hair spoke through a hand-held amplifier: “Soldiers of Silex! You have attacked those who did not threaten and abused those whom you should honor. Lay down your weapons at once, or you will face a people who can actually defend themselves.”
Governor Solidus had recovered from unconsciousness earlier and had placed himself between the elderly and the foremost guards. The soldier who'd just been pointing his staff at the governor's chest quickly threw it on the ground and removed his helmet. Solidus glared at him sternly, but felt mercifully relieved. He turned toward the canyon and bowed deeply to his Silvan savior.
Chief Dekohta nodded to him in return.
Soon, all the soldiers lined up to relinquish their weapons at the governor's feet as the elderly moved from the canyon edge to reunite with their younger relatives. Almitians and Silexians, both young and old, ran to one another with joy and held each other close. Some of the younger citizens, however, stood aloof as they recalled their earlier jeering.
But Aaric had turned from the excitement and scrambled down from his boulder to get to Clara. He spotted her sitting on the ground, her head to her knee a few yards from the stage where Her Worship's red statue stood motionless. The Omnia hatchet lay in the dust within her easy reach. “Clara!” he called. “We did it! We won!” He slowed is side-to-side advance when he saw her beleaguered, tear-streaked face.
Aaric's first impulse was to wrap his arms around her, pull her close, and tell her all was well. But somehow, that seemed premature. He glanced again onstage where Raven stood in scarlet memorial, her face deeply tormented and her arms raised in desperation. He shivered and hesitated, knowing nothing he said would fix everything. So he merely limped toward his grieving friend and sat on the ground beside her. She leaned against his strong shoulder; at least he could give her some support. For three degrees, the Almitian and the Earthling sat without speaking. Then – feeling he must do something!— Aaric ripped part of his green tunic's shirt sleeve and offered it to Clara.
The sound of tearing cloth roused her from weeping. Her blotchy red face looked infinitely tired and sad. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, then accepted Aaric's impromptu handkerchief. “You must think I’m a fool … crying over the enemy.” She blew her nose and rested her head against his shoulder again, still sniffling.
Aaric draped his arm around her and sighed. “It must have killed you to go through with it.”
“It nearly did.” Clara balled the green cloth in her fist. “And you didn't exactly stick to the plan, Aaric Alden.”
“No,” he admitted. “But in helping my clan, I would have hurt you – deeply. ”
Clara considered as she wiped her nose. “I could have refused to do it, you know.”
“You could have,” Aaric assented. “But I knew you'd have help to do the right thing.”
“Ha!” Clara snorted. “Why do I feel so much regret if I did the right thing, then?” She brushed away a tear.
“You lost someone you loved, Clara,” Aaric said quietly. “It's only human to notice.”
Clara dabbed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I really thought Raven would give up the stone. I had no idea she'd sacrifice herself for it.”
Aaric stroked her shoulder with his thumb. “We can't control other people's choices – only celebrate or grieve in response.”
Clara sniffed. “I know I should probably be celebrating right now, but I really don't feel like it. I feel dirty and exhausted and ...” she grimaced as she tried to extend her throbbing right foot. “... I think I broke my ankle when I landed.”
Aaric gasped when he saw Clara’s swollen foot; it was turning purple. He rose to his feet. “Shall I go get help, or carry you to the nearest hovercraft?”
“Oh, please,” Clara said, turning her green eyes up to him. “Please don't leave me alone.”
The horse-tamer bent down and kissed the top of Clara's haggard head. “I won't leave you, then,” he promised. Then he tucked the Omnia hatchet in his belt.
Despite his own fatigue, Aaric beamed as he carried Clara in his arms across the plain toward the chattering crowd. Gladness flooded all hearts and flowed down many a cheek. Families clung to each other in emotional reunions. The Silexian guards, stripped of their helmets and weapons, now shuttled people back to the city and country via hovercraft.
Mother Alden spied Aaric and Clara coming from a distance. She ran to meet them and threw her arms around them both. “Praise the Lord! You're alive!” she said through her own happy tears. Then she noticed Clara wince and released her embrace. “Clara, dear, are you alright?”
Clara grimaced as she shifted in Aaric's grasp. “My ankle hurts pretty badly.”
Mother Alden gave her shoulder a knowing squeeze. “We'll attend to it.”
“I'm so glad you're safe,” Aaric said as he leaned over and kissed his grandmother on the cheek. His eyes smarted as he noticed her shorn white head.
Mother Alden caught his pained gaze. “Don't you worry about a little thing like that,” she said as she ran her gnarled fingers through what remained of her snowy locks. “I'd almost decided to cut it, myself. Mother Grace says people who get too set in their ways promptly fossilize.”
Aaric laughed aloud – my, did it feel good to laugh! “That sounds like something she'd say.” He then grew serious. “Is Mother Grace alright?”
Mother Alden sobered. “In essentials, yes. But I think these events have dampened even her enthusiasm for life. I think she may transition soon.”
Aaric saw the flat stone used as a platform earlier and carefully sat Clara down upon it to rest. He scanned the crowd as he stretched his sore arms. “Where's everyone else?” he asked. “Mother? Father? My sisters?”
Mother Alden joined Clara on the rock with a slight groan. “Your family was anxious to get back home – especially what with little Henry; he was so frightened. Your Father wanted to wait for you, but I told him to go with the others. I'm too tired to return to Almitas just yet. We can stay in Agilis for this Elpis-setting.”
“Good.” Aaric hid a yawn behind the back of his hand. “Because I could sleep a thousand revolutions.”
“Excuse me,” a man's voice said from behind the ladies on the rock.
All three turned toward the speaker. “Governor Solidus!”
The tall man bowed and smiled wearily. “I understand we have you to thank for this … this ...” he searched for an appropriate phrase, “... more positive outcome. Things could have ended far differently. You have my deep appreciation.”
Clara nodded silently, but did not meet the governor's eyes.
“We're grateful, too,” Aaric said. “Though a little worse for wear, I think.”
Clara whimpered; her ankle was the size of a cantaloupe and throbbed painfully every second.
The governor nodded. “It will take time for the clans to heal, and there is much to do. But I digress. For now, we must rest. I absolutely insist you three take the next hovercraft to Agilis hospital, then stay in the Sapphire Hotel. And if there's anything I can do for you, please let me know.”
“Thank you, governor. There is one thing you could do.” Aaric reached into his belt to procure the Omnia hatchet. “If you could please return this heirloom weapon back to the Silva people, I'd be most obliged. We would not have survived or succeeded without their help. We owe them much.”
Governor Solidus accepted the hatchet. “It will be my top priority,” he said. “I am to meet with Chief Dekohta after next Elpis-rising. First time our clans have gotten together in over two hundred and fifty revolutions!” He lifted his eyes and hailed an oncoming hovercraft. “This is your transport. Thank you again!”
After their visit to the hospital to attend to Clara's ankle and Mother Alden's bruises, the hovercraft took the three exhausted travelers to the Sapphire Hotel. Mother Alden had fallen asleep en route, so Aaric went inside to fetch a wheeled chair. Thanks to the instantaneous pain medication, Clara's ankle no longer bothered her, though it still looked like a small melon. She did not know she had dozed off until Aaric cleared his throat, startling her awake.
“Sorry to disturb you,” he said quietly. “Most of the Almitian elderly are staying here with their families. We were lucky to get the last two rooms available – so long as you don't mind bunking with Mother Alden.”
“At this point, I think I could bunk with a horse.” Clara yawned. “Even if she snores, I'm sure I won't hear her.”
Aaric gently lifted his unconscious grandmother from the hovercraft and set her down in the chair.
“Wh-what?” Mother Alden stirred drowsily. “Aaric?”
“It's alright, Mother Alden,” he said gently. “I'm taking you to your hotel room. Clara 's staying with you.”
“Good, good ...” The older woman yawned, leaned her head back against the seat, and closed her eyes.
Aaric held out a hand to help Clara from the hovercraft. “How's your ankle?” he asked. “Should I go back in for another wheeled chair?”
Clara held it up. “I'll be fine on my crutches. It looks way worse than it feels. Like Aliyah said, the medicine is incredible here … Oh, no!” Clara's eyes widened as she put her hand to her forehead. “Aliyah! I completely forgot about her! She's not still sedated back at the house, is she?”
“Don't worry,” Aaric said as he reached in the hovercraft for Clara's crutches. “My father messaged me while the doctor was helping you. Aliyah is perfectly safe. She was assessing some star charts in the our library's basement during the Silexian evacuation. When she went to the main floor and saw no one, she thought everyone had just gone home for Elpis-setting. So she returned to Mother Alden's house completely oblivious.”
“Thank goodness.” Clara smiled sadly. “Though I bet it was a shock to hear she'd lost another teammate.” Clara gripped her crutches and shook her head. “Back on Earth, most deaths occurred by appointment. But on this planet, death seems to live next door to everyone, and you never know when it'll knock.”
Aaric guided Mother Alden through the hotel entrance into the elegant photopetrium lobby while Clara swung herself along pendulum-like beside him. “Life is short no matter which planet you're on,” he said. “But death is not the end – just the gateway to eternity.”
“Do you ever wonder when you'll die, Aaric?” Clara asked once they'd reached the lift.
“Frankly, I'm surprised I'm still here.” He grinned as he pushed the button for the appropriate floor. “But I don't worry about it. My Maker's taken care of me thus far, so I'm sure he'll take care of me then. That's enough for now.”
Clara smiled as the lift rose upward. “So you’re not afraid to grow old at all?”
Aaric fixed his clear gray eyes on her. “No. But there is one thing that would make it easier ...” He looked down at Mother Alden as his cheeks flushed. He gripped the handles of her wheeled chair and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“What’s that?” Clara asked, intrigued at his sudden change in manner.
Aaric wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “You know what? It's late. We're exhausted. You've got so much on your mind already. Maybe we could talk about this later ...”
“Aaric Alden,” Clara said as she put a hand to her hip. “Since when are you afraid to speak your mind? Now's the only time we have, and I'm too tired to play games. So spill it!”
“Alright, then.” Aaric took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Would you …” his voice quivered. He cleared his throat. “Would you be willing to grow old with me, Clara Milton?”
Clara's jaw dropped as her green eyes doubled in size.
The lift announced they'd reached their destination. And when the metal doors opened, they revealed a woman clinging to the neck of the stalwart Almitian whose gray eyes now brimmed over with joy.
The white-haired woman in the chair smiled, keeping her eyes closed. “Good, good,” she murmured, though the other two did not hear.
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