Above The Ashes: Part Eight
Also by imogenweasley. Art by imogenweasley.
A crater of snow marked the narrow entrance to a cave that Kyruggi would never have seen had her Scorchio not marked it with a fireball. Running as fast as she could in knee-deep snow, she made her way over the lip and down the wall of the crater. Below her was a patch of blackened earth, and she was grateful for the cleared path leading directly to the sliver of rock that was the entrance.
“Kyruggi!” Lula called from the top of the crater, just as the Kyrii was about to dart into the cave. “Wait!”
She frowned. There was no time to wait, not now. Without so much as a glance back to the others, she entered the cave, arms held out in front of her in the absolute darkness. She wormed her way through the narrow passageway, heart beating hurriedly to catch up with her.
After what felt like miles to the anxious Kyrii, she noticed a slight flickering of orange beyond her. But before she could get any further, a hand clasped her on the shoulder, causing her to nearly jump out of her skin in surprise.
“It’s me,” Elisse’s voice whispered. “Didn’t you hear us approaching?”
Kyruggi shook her head. “I was a bit preoccupied; look.” She gestured to the faint light.
“Before we go on,” Titem hissed, “we should be prepared for whatever may be in there. What if the Pteri’s not alone?”
“Of course he isn’t alone; Avere’s in there too!” Elisse said impatiently. “Come on, we’ll be fine.”
She pushed past Kyruggi, who grunted but let her pass. It wasn’t worth it now that she had found her Scorchio. Instead she kept her eyes trained on the growing orange light at the end of the tunnel as she followed the faerie. Titem whimpered slightly, but followed suit as well. All that could be heard was the robot’s soft whirring.
Suddenly a voice sounded. “What do you suggest I do now?” it said angrily. The group froze in the passageway, listening intently. “Provoking the Scorchio did absolutely nothing but burn the place.”
A female voice answered. “Hey, it was worth a try. Don’t attack me when I’m the only one throwing out ideas here.”
Elisse clapped a hand to her mouth. She could recognize that voice anywhere. It took all of her strength not to run into the flickering light right now.
“Bah,” the male retorted. “Go make yourself useful.”
“Fine,” she huffed, and for a few moments all that could be heard was the deep rumble of the Scorchio’s breathing. “You know, Luminaris,” Avere added finally, “we’ve been here for weeks and still no solution. Maybe... maybe it’s not possible.”
“Shut up,” he said icily. “There is a way. Maybe if I hadn’t taken someone as useless as you, I’d have found it by now.”
“I’ve tried helping you,” she replied. “Every one of these things you’ve stolen work. But you’re never satisfied.”
“Enough,” Luminaris said sullenly. “Just be quiet, for once.”
Relative silence returned to the cave. “It sounds like he’ll only get angrier if we wait any longer,” Kyruggi hissed. “It’s now or never.”
Elisse nodded, and cautiously turned the corner into the flickering light, with the others one step behind her.
“Elisse!” cried a faerie with jet-black hair and an array of warmly colored clothing. Her face was grimy, her hair unkempt, but Avere was unmistakable to her closest friend. Elisse raced across the expansive cave, past the enormous Scorchio, to the faerie, who for her part wore a stunned expression.
“What are you doing here?” Avere asked. “How did you find me?”
But she was cut off by a sudden blast from her right. A Pteri had emerged from behind the Scorchio and, finding the newcomer, fired off a blaze of flame, which hit Elisse square in the chest. She fell to the cave floor, narrowly missing a metal box gleaming in the small campfire crackling from the center of the cave. The robot Ruki recognized the machine immediately.
“What is going on here?” the Pteri said, voice rising. Luminaris was rather small for his species, though his markings were beautiful—the deepest shades of purple, orange, pink, and yellow arranged in gorgeous flowing patterns. His expression was not one of anger, Lula noted, but rather of fear. He eyed the new arrivals with anxiety, as if they had caught him with his hand in a cookie jar. “Who are you people?”
“Friends!” Avere snapped, leaning down to Elisse at her feet. The faerie had hit the floor with a sickening thud and fallen unconscious from the blow. Lula, with a gasp, hurried to assist the faerie.
“We’ve come to reclaim what’s ours,” Kyruggi said, ignoring the attack, focusing solely on the Pteri. “I am Kyruggi, Grand Elder of Tyrannia. And that is my Scorchio,” she said, gesturing towards the beast, who had remained surprisingly calm at the turn of events. Avere, meanwhile, continued trying to coax Elisse into consciousness, to no avail.
Luminaris scoffed. “Your Scorchio? It’s not some possession to keep locked up round the clock.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “It is the property of Tyrannia’s Grand Council, and I’ve come to return it to them.”
“Are you a phoenix?” Titem blurted before the Pteri could respond.
Luminaris turned to the Kougra, who stood half in shadows. He tentatively stepped forward, watching the bird carefully. For a moment Lula forgot what she was doing and turned to hear the answer.
“How... how did you know?” he said finally. “No one has ever discovered that about me on their own before.”
“So you are, then?” Titem said, wide-eyed. “You’re immortal, and all that?”
He nodded grimly.
“Wow,” Titem marveled, thoughts wandering to his sister. “That’s... that’s an amazing gift.”
The Pteri scoffed, eyes drooping. “Some gift.”
“What are you talking about?” the Kougra said, incredulous. “You can’t die! How is that not a gift?”
“You think it’s a gift, being forced to watch every single one of your descendents die before your eyes, to watch your entire family tree disappear?” Luminaris erupted suddenly. The tips of his wings, Lula realized, had begun to flame slightly. “No matter how many of my descendents I surrounded myself with over the years, they would always die. And I would always have to be there to watch them, to care for them in their dying days.
“No,” he laughed darkly, as he hung his head. “This is no gift. I’ve been cursed.”
“But death is natural,” Lula said quietly, as the Pteri’s wings extinguished. His whole body seemed to dim, to lose its natural luster. “I’m sure all of your family lived long, productive lives, right?”
“I don’t remember,” he said, voice breaking. When he looked up his eyes were shining. “I can’t remember my mother, or my father. Their names, their faces... nothing. After four hundred years on this planet... I have forgotten anyone I ever knew.”
“What about Anna?” Avere cut in, watching the Pteri carefully. This was a new side of him, one she had not seen in the weeks she had spent with him.
“What about her?” Luminaris retorted. “I may remember her now, but a hundred years from now? Will I even remember that I had a family at all?”
“Look, I’m very sorry about your problem, really,” Kyruggi said finally, trying her hardest to sound sincere. “But what does all this have to do with my Scorchio? Or any of our possessions?”
“They are—were—going to help me stop death,” Luminaris replied simply.
“Er, what?” Kyruggi asked incredulously.
“I am trying to stop death,” the Pteri said, “by creating an immortal world.”
“I’m... still failing to see how this all connects,” the Kyrii replied, mouth open in disbelief.
Luminaris sighed. “As you correctly guessed, I am a phoenix. Instead of dying, I burst into flames and am reborn from the ashes. A cycle that persists for... eternity. Birth, death, rebirth. I have gone through it so many times—endured the excruciating heat and the pain of my soul attempting to escape to the beyond, only to be yanked back into this infernal body—I have done it so much that it is almost down to a science.
“All this to say that I know how immortality works. I believe, given the proper... push, that everyone on this planet can experience the rebirth process. And if I can induce immortality, can extend their lives indefinitely, why, there would be no sorrow. No need for funerals, for mourning, for graveyards.”
“This does not explain why you would require these stolen objects,” the Ruki intoned. “Please elaborate.”
Luminaris crossed the cave and knelt at the campfire to stoke the flames, which had fallen to a dull glow. “As I said, a phoenix is reborn from flames. The reason I took these items is quite simple—”
“They all create fire,” Lula finished, as the uneasiness in her stomach transformed into full-blown dread. “But... you wouldn’t...”
“I have to.” Luminaris nodded grimly. “If I can set the world on fire, then every Neopian will be reborn, will no longer have to fear death. In fact, death itself will cease to exist.”
“Now that is the most hare-brained idea I have ever heard,” Kyruggi growled. “And I’ve heard quite a few stinkers in my years.”
The Pteri glared at her. “This from the woman who treats a Scorchio as her own personal plaything.”
“Why all of these different things, though?” Lula interrupted nimbly, hoping to avoid yet another argument. “Wasn’t one enough to start a fire?”
“Nothing lasted. The first thing I tried, a scroll I had taken from Brightvale, fizzled out before I could even get it truly going. So I went to Faerieland, to find someone who would know more about enchanted fire.”
Luminaris went on to explain one failed experiment after the other – Avere’s inability to produce a self-sustaining flame, the uselessness of the stolen flamethrower, the volcano’s refusal to awaken. With each failure he had become increasingly desperate, only to discover in his despair yet another possibility to try.
When the volcano would not erupt, he stumbled upon the most promising idea to date. Legends as old as he was had mentioned a terrible beast in the bowels of Tyrannia; one that, like him, could control fire. Whether or not it was a legend, the Pteri had to try if it meant finally realizing his ambitions. And who was he to question a legendary creature’s existence? But the Scorchio had brought him no luck. It created immense fireballs, but none lasted longer than a few seconds, nor were they large enough to set the world on fire.
“It all became a colossal joke,” Luminaris said. “Not even Neopia’s largest fire-breather could do what I set out to do. But I pressed on, revisiting old attempts, trying new techniques. For over three weeks I’ve been in this cave, determined to find that one true solution. I know there is a way; I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life. I will not stop until every corner of this world feels the warmth of fire."
“This is ridiculous,” Kyruggi spat. “No one has ‘hidden’ immortality, and what’s more, you can’t trigger it by setting them on fire. Pushing someone off a cliff won’t teach them how to fly; it’ll just kill them.”
“Now, wait a minute,” Luminaris began, voice rising. “I am—”
“I’ve had enough of this claptrap,” Kyruggi continued. “I didn’t come here to listen to some lunatic’s sob story. Now, give me my Scorchio.”
“I would never hand him over to you again,” the Pteri countered. “He’s free now.”
Kyruggi stepped forward, glowering at Luminaris. She turned her attention to the Scorchio, who was dozing lightly behind the Pteri. “Doesn’t seem that way,” she said, pointing to the large chain restraining the beast.
“That was for our protection,” Luminaris sputtered. His wings had begun to flame slightly once more.
“As was its prison in Tyrannia,” Kyruggi shot back. “Now excuse me.” She pushed past the Pteri and grabbed hold of the chain. “It has been truly a pleasure,” she said caustically. “But I’ve more pressing matters.”
With that she tugged on the chain, which jerked the Scorchio to consciousness. It roared in surprise, but before it could react Kyruggi hoisted herself onto its back, which seemed to calm it.
“No,” Luminaris stammered. “Believe me, what I’m trying to do is for the good of everyone!”
“Enough!” Kyruggi cried. “I have had it with your incessant—”
What exactly was incessant, however, she could not say; for at that moment, Luminaris lost his composure once more. His eyes glazed over a molten orange shade; his wings erupted into flame and an enormous burst of fire shot through the cave directly at the Kyrii, who grunted with pain as she slipped off the Scorchio’s back onto the stone floor. Lula shrieked in fear, and Luminaris, completely overtaken by anger, sent another fireball at the sudden noise, hitting the Lenny directly in the chest.
“Stop!” Titem squeaked, shrinking at the violence. “Stop, please!”
Luminaris turned to the Kougra, raising his arms.
“No!” Avere cried, and leapt at the Pteri. “Luminaris, that is enough!” She hit him from the side and the two barreled across the cave, Luminaris squawking in fury, trying to escape the faerie’s grasp. Avere gripped his burning wings forcefully, despite the immense pain she was experiencing. She held him tightly, pinning him to the floor.
After a few moments, gasping for breath, the Pteri’s eyes returned to normal, and his wings extinguished, to Avere’s relief. “I can’t let them do it,” he sobbed as Avere let go of him. “I can’t let them ruin my only chance of happiness.”
Titem stepped forward cautiously. “You know,” he said finally, “my sister and I were in the bank that day you attacked. She stepped in front of me—she saved me from any harm.
“What you don’t understand,” Titem continued, “is that in all these things you’ve tried, you’ve hurt people. You put my sister into the hospital, and about fifty others. You destroyed people’s lives in Mystery Island when you caused the volcano to erupt. You hurt Elisse, who feared the worst for her friend.
“And that’s only from these failed attempts. What would come from setting Neopia on fire? Even if you did succeed and induced immortality, what about the environment? What of the homes, the towns, the forests that the fire will not spare with immortality? The world will have nothing, and its inhabitants will have nothing either. Is that really better? Is that really saving Neopia?”
“We could rebuild,” Luminaris managed to say. “We could begin again.”
“But what if people don’t want that?” Titem replied, tears forming in his eyes. This speech, these words, they were foreign to him, despite coming out of his mouth. He let them flow freely, let them teach him too what he meant to say.
“What if people are happy with the way things are? What of those people who understand death, who know it is a natural end to life? You can’t save people if they don’t want to be saved. The willpower to live has to come from within.”
Luminaris froze, and he locked eyes with Titem with surprise. “From within...”
The Pteri stood suddenly. “Thank you, thank you so much. It’s all very clear now,” he said to the Kougra. Titem nodded with satisfaction, pleased his words meant something.
“Avere,” Luminaris said, voice suddenly cold once more. “That scroll we were saving. Go get it, please.” The faerie rose uncertainly and returned shortly after with a tattered parchment.
“Wait, what are you doing?” Titem asked. “What about what I just told you?”
“You, young man, have just told me how to set Neopia on fire properly. And as I said, I thank you so very much for it.”
“How did I—what are you talking about?” Titem sputtered. “That is not what I meant!”
But Luminaris ignored him, concerned only with the fire faerie. “As soon as I am in flames, cast the spell, and not a moment later, do you understand?”
She watched him carefully. “How is this going to work?”
“It is as the boy said—‘the power has to come from within.’ If I induce the rebirth process while you are casting the flame spell, the two should join together. The resulting fire should sustain itself long enough to spread.”
“And what if I don’t want to help anymore?” she replied quietly.
Luminaris lowered the scroll slowly, eying the faerie. “You will help me,” Luminaris countered, “or I will be forced to do something drastic. This is it, Avere,” he hissed. “Do not stand in my way.”
“What can you do to me?” she retorted. “I’ve spent the past two weeks with you; my entire life has been put on hold to help you. There is nothing drastic you can do that I haven’t already done myself.”
Silently, Luminaris walked across the cave, approaching Elisse’s unconscious body. He held a wing over her and ignited it, inches from her face. “Is this not drastic enough for you?”
Avere glared at the Pteri. “Get away from her.”
“Then you’ll do what I ask of you?” Luminaris said gravely. “I am not messing around, Avere.”
She nodded, blinking back tears. “Whatever you want.”
Titem looked between them, unable to process what was going on. “You’re—you’re going to help him?” he sputtered. “He’s going to destroy us all!”
“I have no choice,” Avere said quietly. “I can’t let him hurt Elisse.”
“She’ll die either way!” the Kougra replied. Frantically, he turned to the Ruki, who watched the events silently. “What are you just standing there for? Do something!”
“As long as the Flame Engineer DG9 is unharmed, I have no business interfering,” it said. “My armor is flame-resistant; I will not be affected by the fire.”
Titem threw his arms up in frustration. In the center of the cave, campfire crackling noisily next to him, Luminaris stood, eyes closed in mental preparation. Avere stood at his side, scroll in hand. Tears rolled silently down her face.
“Remember, the spell must be cast as soon as I am in flames and not a second later,” Luminaris warned. She nodded, the tears dripping furiously onto the parchment.
“No!” Titem bellowed, suddenly darting at full force across the cave floor towards the duo. Luminaris’ eyes flew open and with no more than a frown sent a burst of flame toward the Kougra, who howled in pain as the fireball hit him, singing his fur. He too hit the floor with a groan.
Avere looked stricken; Luminaris simply closed his eyes to resume his focus. “Now then, are you ready?”
“Yes,” she whispered, and the Pteri nodded. “Now then, on the count of three.”
He braced himself for the excruciating pain that accompanied every rebirth.
She held the scroll shakily, reading the incantation silently to herself.
The Ruki stood on the edge of the firelight, recording each movement in the cave quietly.
Luminaris leapt into the campfire, and instantly ignited in flames. He screeched with pain but remained still as the fire enveloped his entire body. His eyes glazed over once more, this time bursting into a brilliant red. Smoke rose over the fire in a thick column, obscuring the Pteri. Avere, voice cracking, recited the incantation, fighting to hear her words over the cries of the phoenix.
A sickening crack sounded, and the ceiling of the cave burst open, sending chunks of rock flying. The fire pit exploded, scattering embers throughout the cave. Avere wailed in pain, catching the brunt of the explosion. The Scorchio thrashed in shock at the sudden explosion, adding to the destruction of the cave. A blinding light pierced the column of smoke, and the Ruki could make out the Pteri, encased in flames. The heat from the explosion rose through the hole in the ceiling and met the blizzard beyond the cave, melting the snow in an instant.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the fire leapt from the phoenix and burst out of the cave, launching its destruction upon the world.
To be continued...