Above The Ashes: Part Nine
Also by imogenweasley. Art by imogenweasley.
The silence felt louder than the explosion that had rocked the cave just moments before. To go from such a whirlwind of noise to the dead silence that followed shook Avere enormously, and she could not hold back the tears any longer as the cave was plunged into darkness, for every last hint of fire had burst forth into the wilderness beyond it. The only source of light emanated from the faerie’s wings, which shimmered slightly in the gloom. Avere sank to her knees and broke the silence with heaving sobs, surveying the destruction of the cave.
Beside her, a massive heap of ash had accumulated within the circle of stones which had seconds ago housed the campfire. A faint smoke emanated from the mound, but beyond that it was stagnant. How the phoenix was supposed to emerge from within, she was unsure. But she severely hoped it would take an extended period of time, so she could leave with Elisse and the others in tow before he awoke. A lifetime without seeing Luminaris would be too short a time.
Beyond the remains of the campfire, the Scorchio slumped over, unconscious, apparently knocked out from a fallen boulder from the destroyed ceiling. If there was one thing she was glad of in the aftermath of such a tragedy, it was that the Scorchio did not present much of a problem; if it had broken loose in the chaos, all of the cave’s inhabitants would surely be dead.
Which they were close to already. Four of the five new arrivals lay strewn about the room in twisted positions, oblivious to the disaster that had just transpired. Their appearance, their path to get here, it was all an enigma to Avere, but she knew Elisse would fill her in eventually.
These people, she knew, those that trekked across the globe to track down that which was stolen from them, these people were rare. Most would mourn their loss for a few days, eventually shrug it off and then move on, perhaps crafting something to replace the stolen object. But these four (for the robot disgusted her in its apathy to the fellow travelers), they were the type energized by their loss, discontented to sit back and take what life threw at them. She was instantly drawn to their spirit. And with a jolt, Avere realized, it explained why she had stuck with Luminaris these past weeks: he too was unsatisfied with simply letting death seize control of his life.
Suddenly, and without a hint of ceremony, a head emerged from the ash, coughing severely. Avere turned to the unexpected movement with a sinking sensation, disappointed at her inability to escape Luminaris’ manipulations. His head, ashen and dusty, was every bit as radiant as it had been before erupting into flame: a vibrant yellow accented with oranges and purples. He blinked slowly, eyes adjusting to the cave’s darkness.
“Help me out,” he mustered with a slight wheeze. “I need to see it.”
Silently, Avere dug a hand into the ash, searching for a wing. Finding one wrapped around the phoenix’s body like a cocoon, she yanked roughly, and the Pteri gasped in pain as he emerged. Gingerly, he stood, flapping his wings slowly to regain feeling in his limbs and shake off the dust.
“Thank you,” he said. “For everything.”
She turned from him, blinking back tears. He watched her for a moment, frowning slightly, and then turned his attention to the gap in the ceiling.
“You forced me to... I did... something unspeakable,” Avere managed finally, turning to the Pteri.
But he was gone.
Everything was black. In the night air it was difficult to see, but he was certain of it. He could make out nothing below him; it was a solid mass of darkness. Columns of smoke, illuminated by the distant moon, could be seen rising from wherever a town or village had previously stood, winding their way through the ashen atmosphere.
Terror Mountain was no more than a barren wasteland now; the snow was no match for the enchanted fire that had burned through its depths. At the base of the mountain, the remains of Happy Valley stood. As he swooped past it, Luminaris could see its inhabitants staggering through the embers in shock. He smiled with relief. The plan seemed to be working, and he could breath easily now that he saw the Kougra and the others were wrong. The citizens of Neopia would survive this; those in Happy Valley had confirmed it. He angled upwards, climbing swiftly. Now to find the fire.
“Wake up,” Avere begged her friend, shaking her shoulders slightly. “We have to leave!”
But Elisse did not wake, nor did any of the others as she hurried between them. The robot Ruki, who had stood motionless throughout the horrors that took place, had been energized into movement now that Luminaris had left. As soon as the Pteri had departed the cave, it walked promptly to the large metallic box near Elisse and began inspecting it for damage. When it had ensured its safety, the Ruki attached the box to his torso with a cable, preparing to take the same exit as Luminaris before him.
“Wait!” Avere called frantically as the Ruki ignited the rockets in its feet. It slowed and turned its attention to the faerie.
“Will you help me?” she asked, half-ashamed to even ask the despicable machine for assistance. “I can’t wake them.”
It processed her request for a moment, and then shut off its rockets, returning firmly to the cave floor. “Very well.”
With a small click a nozzle emerged from its hand. A slight stream of water poured out of his finger, spraying Elisse slightly. She wrinkled her forehead in response, and Avere sighed with relief as her friend sat up slowly, groaning. As the Ruki woke the others, Avere hurried to her friend’s side and hugged her deeply.
“Thanks for rescuing me,” she murmured. Elisse, taken aback by the sudden turn of events, smiled and returned the embrace.
The fire, direct in its path down the mountain, exploded when it reached the Haunted Woods. The dead forest was the perfect fuel for the enchanted flames, and it spread before Luminaris’ eyes with dazzling speed. As it ate through the woods, Luminaris could make out the blinking lights and sounds of the Deserted Fairground as it succumbed to the blistering heat.
And amidst the crackle of the flames he heard a sound that was absent from his flyover of Happy Valley. Cries of anguish pierced the roar of the fire and shook the Pteri. In his mind, he had glossed over this, over watching the destruction firsthand. He had only ever pictured the fire, never what havoc the fire was wreaking.
Unsettled, he dove towards the flames. Beneath the wall of smoke that masked the fleeing Neopians, Luminaris could see panicked citizens running in every direction, carrying their children and belongings in hand. To his dismay, the Pteri saw an elderly Elephante stumble on a branch and fall flat on his face, scattering his few possessions. Luminaris hastily dropped to his side and helped him up, to find his face bathed in tears.
And at last the Pteri understood what the Kougra had been trying to tell him in the cave. In all of his attempts, he had left the scene before he could witness the destruction, the pain, the terror he had caused. To him, they were all faceless crowds, subconsciously held at an arm’s length away so as not to know them, to recognize a face, to register their feelings. But now, now he understood. He recoiled from the Elephante, shocked at what he had done.
“We have to stop this,” Lula cried. “He’ll destroy everything!”
“How?” Elisse asked, rubbing the rather large bruise on her head. “We have no way to stop it, if it’s as powerful as Avere says.”
Kyruggi nodded. “Besides, I came here for my Scorchio, and now the only thing standing in my way is gone. I say we all just take what’s ours and get out of here before he comes back.”
“And go where?!” Lula fumed, surprising the others with her sudden burst of anger. “Our homelands are probably destroyed by now! Look, we came all this way to find out what was going on, because we weren’t content with our leaders’ decision to sit back and do nothing. Now that we’re here, all of you just want to give up and go home? How is that any different?”
“It’s different because we’ve come as far as there is to go,” Elisse replied unhappily. “We found out what was causing all of this—which is more than can be said for anybody else at the conference—but we have no power to stop something like this.”
“That’s not true!” Lula shrieked. “There must be something we can do. Maybe... maybe if we find the phoenix we can convince him to help us,” she suggested half-heartedly. Even to her it sounded unconvincing.
“Won’t help,” Titem said miserably. “I tried reasoning with him. It did no good at all.”
“Yes, it did,” a voice said, and the group was shocked to find the Pteri descending from above.
“What are you doing here?” Kyruggi growled. “Don’t you have a world to burn?”
“I see now what I’ve done,” Luminaris said frantically as he landed next to Avere. “I have to stop it.”
“Now?” Avere fumed suddenly. “Now, after you’ve attacked us all like a lunatic and voluntarily set a fire that will destroy everything?”
“No, listen, I’m serious!” Luminaris replied. “I saw things that I didn’t think would happen—”
“Like what? I’d love to know what horror caused you to turn around and rethink your ways,” Kyruggi replied bitterly.
“Well,” the Pteri said quietly. “I saw true terror. I never thought... I didn’t think about the people who would be caught in it.”
“I don’t believe this,” Avere snapped. “I have had it with you!” She lunged at the Pteri with a shriek. Luminaris fell to the floor in surprise, throwing his wings up to protect himself from the faerie’s rage. Elisse rushed forward, pulling her friend off the phoenix.
“Listen to me!” Luminaris said. “I was wrong, I admit it. I came back here because it must be stopped. Please, Avere! Don’t you have any spells to end it?”
Avere, still struggling in her friend’s arms, lowered her fists slowly. She shared a look with Elisse, who returned the gaze uncertainly. They both knew the answer as soon as he asked it. “No,” she replied. “There’s nothing we can do. We’re just not strong enough.”
The Pteri watched the faeries carefully, as if to ensure they were telling the truth. At last he lowered his wings in defeat.
“Then we’re doomed.”
The flames spread, waging war throughout the whole of Neopia. No corner was left untouched by the heat of the fire. Towns lay in ruins, forests were destroyed, rivers ran black, polluted with ash. The air was so thick with smoke and smog one could not see their hand in front of their face. And still the fire raged, pushed onward. Castles thousands of years old and huts built last month together went up in flames, adding to the roar of the annihilation.
Displaced Neopians the world over watched as their homes, their worlds, their lives crashed down in front of them. Those that managed to escape the encroaching flames took shelter wherever they could. Those that were caught unawares were lost in the smoke.
For hours the fire seethed. But at long last, when it had greedily eaten everything in its path, it calmed. Slowly, gradually, the firestorm died out, attempting in its death throes to claw back in patches here and there. But there was simply nothing more to burn.
The group had waited for the fire to reach them in the cave, to return to where it started. They awaited their deaths quietly, wrapped up in their own thoughts. Titem thought of his sister in her hospital bed, and he hoped she had been able to escape the clutches of the fire. Lula calmed herself by thinking of the joys she had found in living among the natives of Mystery Island. Elisse, perhaps the most content of them all, was pleased to be among the company of her dearest friend. And Kyruggi relaxed in imagining the glory she would have received for returning her Scorchio. So it took the group a moment to come out of their thoughts to realize that a change had taken hold in Luminaris.
The phoenix had paled, far beyond anything they had seen. The color seemed to have drained out of his body, until he was unrecognizable. He closed his eyes as an immense fatigue washed over him. He staggered to his knees, and soon he was lying flat on his back.
“What’s the matter?” Titem asked, noticing the Pteri first.
“I’m so... c-cold,” he wheezed. “The fire must have... d-d-...”
They hurried to his side, watched him struggle to form the word.
“R-Rosa,” he said finally.
“My... mother’s... na-name. I remember.”
He sighed with relief, and a smile crept upon his face. He would never again have to watch someone he loved die.
She was gone.
An ailing Nimmo, moaning at the change of light in the room as Titem entered, now occupied her bed. He had a bandage wrapped over his right eye. Titem had seen hundreds of patients just like this as he walked through the halls of the makeshift hospital hastily erected in the days following the fire.
But she was gone. The thought continued to rattle around in the Kougra’s head.
He had abandoned her in the hospital, and for what? A childish search, an attempt to redeem himself for the embarrassment he had suffered at the hands of his younger sister. How could he ever have deluded himself that going off on a globetrotting hunt for the Pteri was the right thing to do?
And now she was gone. All his efforts were rendered useless, for Alandra, the one person he was trying to protect, had been caught in the fire. His imagination immediately set the scene, and despite every attempt to steer it towards other, more positive images, he saw his sister, helpless in her hospital bed, overtaken by flames and smoke. He cried out in agony at the terrible irony of it all.
The others, they had all succeeded in what they set out to do. Elisse was now happily making up for lost time with Avere. The robot, without so much as an acknowledgement of the others, had left the cave with its stolen machine in tow. And Kyruggi, with Lula’s help, managed to return the Scorchio to its home in Tyrannia. Their lives would slowly return to normal. But his was beyond repair.
“Titem?” a voice asked uncertainly from the doorway.
The Kougra turned, barely registering the voice. Lost in a mist, he barely recognized the ecstatic face that met his gaze.
“It is you!” the Kacheek cried, dashing forward for a hug.
The relief that overwhelmed Titem took his breath away, as did the vise-like embrace his sister gave him.
“I was so worried! I had to busy myself with helping all the new patients,” she chattered exuberantly, to the aggravation of the Nimmo, who moaned once more. “Every time I saw a Kougra my stomach did a somersault. Oh, Titem! Welcome home.”
“We hereby declare Sabre-X, War Advisor and Keeper of the Omelette, Grand Elder of Tyrannia,” a ragged-looking Grarrl announced to cheers. The Lupe stepped forward and accepted the appointment with a bow.
“Feh,” Kyruggi muttered from her vantage point at the top of the hill. “Of all people, they picked the idiot?”
Lula smiled. “So? You’ve got a better job now.”
She nodded grudgingly. “It still reeks of irony, though. He couldn’t even catch up to us after we left the conference; how is he supposed to run Tyrannia?”
“From what I heard, he was very competent at guiding the Tyrannians out of the fire,” Lula replied. “A task I believe was in your job description.”
“I had a much more important job to do,” Kyruggi countered.
“Exactly. So I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”
A hint of a smile slid across Kyruggi’s face. “I guess you’re right.”
“Now let’s get these Blumaroo steaks to the cave. He must be getting hungry, and I have to get back to Mystery Island tonight to help with the rebuilding there.”
The two turned and left the charred hill. New huts dotted the plateau, like fresh growth after a long winter.