Wilds, 324 Era Vulgaris, Centennial 38
I was afraid of lightning when I was younger, in the same way I feared Arci guns; both had the potential to be destructive. Fatal. Vesper was felled by a bolt and a bullet, a vision I am not likely to forget as long as I live. In these past few weeks, I have held lightning in my hand, felt the electricity ripple through my fingers, and reveled in the power of a controlled heat. Lightning built me from a powerless child. I have conquered with that power, and now, I have fifteen Sparks at my back. These women are hopeful in their desire to save their tribe, and each speak to an impossible natural force. The closer we come to Quarantine, the stronger they become.
Last night, not one of us slept. We meditated instead on Ignis, abandoned our supply packs beneath a rock outcropping, and left camp at first light. Not one voice has risen in complaint; the women speak instead of reuniting with their family members and friends in Q. When one woman is mentioned, three stories are shared about her. Their joy is palpable, and I am connected to our imprisoned people as individuals, instead of my burden. Their reunion with the tribe will be not be solemn. There is much joy ahead, should we succeed.
At midday, my Sparks are giddy with nostalgia.
“Oh, Antista! You have not lived until you have heard Rahel’s voice!” Oris says.
“When she opens her mouth, the Decuriate stops to listen,” Emira adds.
“And she knows it,” Oris says. The women dissolve into fitful laughter.
“Her mother was worse! All that beauty and not a humble bone in her body,” Neci says.
“Poor Luhel,” Emira says. “Riva never forgave her—oh!” She gasps.
All are silent at the mention of the Spark Mother.
“What happened?” I ask. I do not want to indulge gossip, but I want to know more about Riva. I know so little about who she was, and even less about her relationships with other Cerani.
Neci links her arm through mine. “Riva’s partner left her for Luhel,” she says.
“Aron’s father?” I ask.
“Yes. His name was Ovid,” Neci says. “He was the worst sort of man, the kind who looks into his own past and sees only triumphs, never failures. He thought he was faultless. Ovid did not see how he broke Riva.”
“How did he die?” I ask. I do not wish to speak of death, so soon after Riva’s demise, but this is a part of Aron’s history, a history I want to share.
“Aron goaded his father into a fight,” Neci says, “and Ovid beat him senseless, and then spat on him. Aron threw his knife. Ovid was dead before he hit the ground. Aron was not punished, and that is when the men made an agreement to hold each other to a code of honor. Any man who dares hurt his partner, as Ovid beat both Riva and Aron, will receive punishment equal to his crime. No man has done so since.”
“That is not true. Aron struck Riva,” I say.
Neci pulls her arm away from mine and wrings her hands. “He did.”
“She called him Ovid by accident,” Neci says. “By her account, he whipped around to raise issue with her, but he caught her with his elbow instead and knocked her to the ground. She was stunned, and he was horrified.”
“That all happened the day you were taken to Quarantine?” I ask.
“Yes. We were taken mid-morning, and Aron deserted by first light. When Riva found out he deserted the tribe, she compared him to his father and swore he would be punished. No one believed she ought to kill Aron, but neither did they deny her right to exact revenge for Ovid’s treatment of her. Had she killed Aron, had you not come into our lives, his death would have been considered retribution for his father’s actions.”
“Death is not a punishment,” I say. “Riva would have been rid of the physical reminder of Ovid, but the guilt would have tortured her. She would not have killed Aron, even if I had not stepped in.”
“She would be comforted that Aron has found a partner in you, Antista,” she says.
My cheeks burn. I must be red because the women all giggle at my reaction.
“I do not know what you mean, Neci,” I say.
“Antista, we saw you,” Oris pipes in. “Your desires are entwined with his; you will never untie the knot of affection between you.”
“We are not pieces of rope,” I say, fighting back a smile.
“You are the same rope,” Neci says. “Woven together, stronger for being intertwined.”
“Burning in a tight coil of admiration,” Emira says, embarrassing herself and turning red. Her words remind me of my first conversation with Riva, however, when she taught me to create fire from my fingers. Riva had coiled a rope for our fire, which would have gone on burning as long as she needed. And though I do not want to indulge conversation about my affection for Aron, I am soothed by the prospect of burning for him as long as we are essential to each other.
“He is my blood,” I say finally. “Who do you fight for?”
Most of them say nothing, but Emira falls into step on my right and takes my hand. “I fight for myself, Antista. And for Riva, Vesper, and Edrus. For you.”
“For your mother, Antista, and for mine,” Oris says, taking Neci’s hand to my left.
“For the Decuriate,” Pera says, joining with Emira.
And so their pledges continue as they join hands and hearts in a chain beside me. Fifteen impossible women with electric hearts. Their intercessions become a battle cry and I raise my voice with them, loud and strong.
“Se, verum oculus! Se, verum oculus! Se, verum oculus! Se, verum oculus! Se, verum oculus!” We scream as loud as our voices can be, though we are the only ones to hear it.
The razor’s edge darkens at the horizon as we chant. Clouds pull themselves out of the gathering blackness and build upwards in foamy waves. The air buzzes so violently, my skin vibrates. Quarantine is a shadow beneath the storm, jutting into the sky.
Searchlights from the fortress join our electric diversion, sweeping out across the vast desert. The beams reach for miles, touching every strange surface with laser precision and pausing on every boulder. We are inside the light perimeter now, no longer gargoyles of the great chasm. Our thunderless storm gave us away, but it will save us, too.
“Down,” I instruct, and we flatten ourselves to the ground until the light passes. “When the light is trained elsewhere, we run with all we have. Understood?”
“Understood,” the Sparks reply. Emira and Oris jump up nimbly, but Neci lends me a hand and we sprint for the entrance of Q. The gate is a few miles off, but we are well within the reach of any officer’s weapon. The light sweeps toward us again, and I kiss the earth. A pop breaks the air and someone groans behind me, but a flash follows. A black body falls from the wall above the gate. Emira grasps one of the older Sparks, Leda, as her shoulder bleeds. But Leda stands, waves Emira away, and breaks into a fast gait. I cannot help but smile at Emira, who shakes her head and follows Leda’s lead.
The gate rises and a slew of officers file out, guns trained towards the advancing enemy: Us. There are so many of them, an endless sea of black uniforms and whirling blue orbs of electricity powering each weapon. They are strong, because they are numerous. Panic closes in on me; defeat before the fighting has truly begun. Their weapons are operational, the search lights still sweep the land, and the fortress is still locked up tight. Darius and his Sparks have not yet succeeded in their purpose; we are outgunned until they do.
“What is your will, Antista?” Emira calls, her clear tone masking any fear.
I glance at each of my Sparks and am amazed by what I see in them: each stands with her fists clenched, shoulders set, and head raised high. They look powerful, unafraid, and emboldened by the growing obstacle. Fifteen pairs of green eyes burn with the will to triumph. Even in the face of probable death. These are Sparks, my family, the women I had feared as I heard them fight for their lives outside my cell. I must stand beside them, believe in our power, and fight for our collective future. I set my feet firmly in the dirt, brace my shoulders, and train my sight on the soldiers before us.
“Show them how to burn,” I say.
Night becomes day as we unleash Ignis onto the fortress. Several officers fall to our blinding onslaught, never to rise up again. Emira and Oris step forward as they channel Ignis, while others remain where they are. It has become clear to me over the past few weeks how personal sparking is; each of us casts our power down for different reasons, employs different methods, and are spurred on by different possible futures. But we are a collective, too, each meditating on the same God and calling his name when we spark. Ignis. The time has come for a real show of power, not just our practice exercises. I am the Eleventh Star, and I must burn. The wind is at my back, whipping my hood against my neck. I raise the cloth over my head, and pull the palpable static through my body.
“Ignis,” I breathe. My bolt breaks against the fortress wall, showering rock and sparks on the officers below. I sense every flinching movement in the air as our energy prickles. The officers are cowed, but not defeated. Their shock turns to rage, and weapons rise.
I spy a gun trained on Emira and I lunge for her. The weapon pops as I collide with her, but the bullet misses. “Ignis!” she screams. The offending officer is felled by her bolt. She looks at me. “Gratulari.”
I nod and help her stand. Another three officers fall and three more guns fire. Oris catches a bullet in her temple and she is gone. Emira races to Oris, but it is too late. Emira kisses our fallen sister’s forehead and unleashes her sorrow in a blinding spark. Five men go down to her one bolt.
Blinding pain zips across my arm, but luckily it is merely a surface wound. I bleed, but no bullet is lodged inside me. Despite our powerful press forward, fifty officers remain standing. Any one of them could be the death of me, or another sister.
A bright light flickers. At first, I think it must be a bolt, but the light fills the sky as it surges to its very brightest and then goes dark. Quarantine’s searchlight. Another follows and another until Q is dark. The fading light from the blue orbs betrays the officers’ horror as their guns become useless.
I am thrilled, on the other hand. Darius was successful. We can get in.
“Do not spark unless you are attacked,” I call out to my sisters. “It is not fair to attack men who are no danger to us.”
“Yes, Antista!” several women shout.
All is dark for a few precious moments.
The first bolt after the blackout strikes so close to the wall, it is as if it comes from inside the fortress. “Hold!” I yell. Another bolt breaks near the wall, this time striking down a long string of officers.
“It is not one of us, Antista,” Emira says. “Someone is sparking from the inside.”
I am thrilled by the thought of more able Sparks, but worried too; those bolts were specific. Whoever called them down knows what they are doing, and that might be enough of a reason not to follow me to Arcis. But we need everyone we can get to save the Arci, before Achad can take measures into his own hands.
We cower at the gate. Whoever those sparks belong to must know that we are here too, but who knows if they can tell us from the officers. Most of the men have perished, some at our hands, but most at the able hands of the mystery Spark. We await their emergence from the fortress, and ultimately their camaraderie. Hopefully we can interest them to be our allies, if not also our friends.
Over an hour passes by without any movement behind the gates. I suspect they must be trying to form a plan in case the officers are waiting to kill them. I’m not sure those officers knew any better than we do. We’re all trying to preserve our place in this life.
When the locks are finally removed and the women emerge, I am struck by how powerful they all look, as if being in Quarantine has merely fueled their abilities. They look surprised to see us, at first not recognizing our bald heads and Arci robes, but one by one, each of my Sparks calls out for a newly freed Cerani, and we gain twenty three new fighters. The woman giggle and shout, cry, whisper and even fall on the ground in happiness as they exchange greetings. None approach me, but I expected as much. None except the last woman to leave Q, an old woman with silvery white hair. She looks only to me as she walks a gentle and welcoming smile filling her entire face.
“It is you,” she whispers through unfallen tears. “Lia’s daughter.”
“Yes,” I smile, holding out my hands. She accepts them readily and comes to inspect me.
“You are the Antista,” the old woman says, very accepting and sure.
“She is most certainly the Antista,” Emira adds, clasping my shoulder. “And I am glad you survived, Molla.”
“Gratulari,” Molla says, chuckling. “Tell me, my dear, where are we to go?”
I can’t help but laugh in relief. “Arcis,” I say. “Those people need saving too.”
“What more is there to say?” Molla says. “Everyone!” When she shouts, the earth practically vibrates. Molla is the Spark I was searching for. All women turn towards her.
“We will follow the Antista to Arcis. If you would prefer not to go, you may stay behind and bury Oris. The rest are with us.” Molla touches my arm and heads for the road that is paved.
“I suppose we ought to follow her,” Pera says, giggling.
And we do, across ten miles of land that looks much rougher than it did when I was fourteen, though a much shorter journey. I am elated at the prospect of seeing Aron again, finding Achad, and ending all of this.