The first day walking was the hardest, my body being weakened by everything it had endured. Ember stayed by my side the whole time, holding my arm steady when need be, and Nova strayed just a bit further ahead to keep an eye out for people. This land, all of it, silently whispers to me in comfort. Walking by this lake, I feel almost like I’m where I’m supposed to be.
It was after walking for nearly a whole day where I let myself give into the exhaustion and let Ember make a fire by the lake. Despite having walked all day, the castle only seemed slightly bigger. A sob creeps up my chest, despair knocking on my door. We’ll never reach the Somnium Court at this rate.
“I’m gonna try to go get us some grub, we’ll never get far if we don’t fuel our bodies.” Nova announced, before blinking into her cat form and taking off into the trees. I’m not sure what she planned to scrounge up, but I welcomed the alone time with Ember.
“Are you ok?” I asked quietly, seeing how I’d never even taken a second to ask her. Ember had her life flipped upside down as much as I had, and had also been burned by her brother. If I thought I’d been blindsided by Beckett, hers was a whole new level. It takes her a while to respond, contemplating as she gazes into her small fire and braiding her hair over her shoulder.
“I’m a defender, this is my job. My obligation.” She finally says, her voice harder than I’m used to.
I shake my head, reaching for her shoulder. “Just because you’re a defender does not mean you’re not allowed to feel, to be human.” I insisted, she only chuckled in response.
“You’re new to this whole ordeal,” she started, “so you don’t really know? But my job is quite literally to put my feelings aside to protect you.” I don’t respond to that, not really sure how to. Lying down I rest my eyes, my tired body begging me to sleep, and I drift off slightly.
I smell the books and the bread, but I can still feel the grass on my skin. In between both places, I grapple to decide what I want. Beckett, is he alright? No, right now I can’t care. Not with Ember sitting feet away, struggling.
I force my eyes open, even as every nerve of my being just wanted to sleep. “I think if I get some food, I can try to get us to the castle faster. My energy is low right now, but maybe I’ll be stronger after.” I’m not even sure if Ember hears me, she stares into the fire and uses muscle memory to braid her hair.
“Yeah, we’ll all move faster after we eat…” she mumbles, barely blinking as she stares. My heart breaks, where was Ember? This was not Ember in front of me.
“I can fly?” I say hopefully, and that gets her attention. Her eyes snap to me with a furrowed brow, mouth slightly agape.
“Come again?” I laugh, pushing up onto my elbows.
“Well, not fly, but I can manipulate the energy around me to sort of lift myself? I think maybe I could do it for all three of us.” Ember grinned at that, finally pulling our waters from the makeshift pack that Nova had made from large leaves and twine. We drink in silence for a moment.
“Yeah, maybe that would work.” She finally said back, and we’re left in silence once more.
“Astra?” His voice, searching for me. No, I hadn’t even noticed I’d dozed off. “Are you here?” No.
“I hope you don’t mind squirrels? That’s all I could catch…” Nova jumped me awake into a sitting position. Clearly laying down was too dangerous, too tempting for me to fall asleep. In my dreams, where I see Beckett, I am not focused on the assignment.
Ember said something about never trying squirrels before, and then they used the head of Nova’s arrows to skin them.
“What’s our assignment?” I asked, they keep their heads down. “When you and...him came to me, it was all about your assignment. Then I thought the assignment was to prevent Parallax from closing the portals, which I’ve prolonged by stealing these souls...but what now? We bring them to rest in the Somnium court, and then what?”
Nova looked up at me strangely, “well, it’s kind of your job to figure that out. You’re our leader.” I shook my head, I’m no leader.
“No, I’m just a human-” except no I’m not?
“Stargirl, you’re from this land. You’re home, do you not get that? This is where you belong, and it’s up to you to protect it.” Nova says, her eyes wide with excitement as she cooks the squirrel over the fire. “You don’t belong on earth, going to school. You belong in the Somnium Realm, protecting it.” I don’t say what’s on my mind.
I don’t say that I don’t want to protect this world, beautiful as it may be. I don’t want to have to, rather. It shouldn’t be our job, we are just a bunch of kids. Instead of saying that, I thank Nova for the extended squirrel and I force myself to eat it.
None of us talk while we eat, the meat tasting sort of like pork, and afterwards Nova went to refill our water bottles. I offered to help, but she declined and went on her own.
“I miss him, you know.” Ember whispered after we were alone, laying herself down by the fire. “Nova and I don’t know what happened to you guys, I don’t know what chronological events led to my brother trying to...kill… us. You’re the only one of us that knows-” I crawl to her side and lay down beside her, draping a comforting arm around her.
“I think it would be best, if you just keep the memory of him getting us out of there in your head. Rather than I fill you in on the details.” I’d rather take that to my grave, than ruin Ember’s vision of her brother. I wouldn’t tell her that he stood by while I was in a cell for days, or watched while I was beaten and tortured. I could hold onto that, for her sake.
“Do you think he’s ok?” She asked quietly, her body shaking slightly. I squeeze her tightly, rubbing her arm comfortingly.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.” I whispered, as her eyes closed and she drifted off. When we woke, I’d get us to where we needed to be. The sooner this was over, the sooner Ember could have a chance at a better life. A life she deserved.
“You came.” His voice is relieved, only I hadn’t planned on coming. I’m honest about that.
“It’s not like I chose to.” I say back, finding him sitting where I’d sat last night. A bruise marks his pale cheek, I try not to notice it.
“Except you did, both times. Some part of you, no matter how small, chose to find me.” Beckett says, standing to come closer. His lips are dry and his hair disheveled, he looks a mess.
“What is he doing to you?” I asked, squeezing my abdomen so as to not be tempted to touch him. This time, he was the first one to disappear. He never answered my question, before leaving me alone in the library of his dreams.