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38.) War

Stepping into the Umbra Realm was like being dropped into icy water, my skin prickled with dark familiarity. Ember and I walked out into a large field, our feet crunching on the dead yellowing grass. Before us was Ashton and the king, they sat on horses and bellowed at the troops.

“Woah,” I murmured mostly to myself. “That’s a lot of men,” there seemed to be hundreds, and that’s just from my standpoint. There could be more, just not yet through their own portal.

“That may not even be enough, and I’m sure they left some behind to defend the civilians from the vamps.” I’d completely forgotten about the creation that now roamed the Somnium Realm. “I just hope Phoebe got to her family…” shit, I’d also forgotten about Ember’s girlfriend.

“I’m sure she’s ok,” I lied. False hope is probably awful, but Ember has enough grief with her brother she doesn’t need anymore. Truth of the matter was we won’t know if Phoebe made it out alive, or if we even will.

“We need to get to the front,” Theo said, coming from the portal behind us. We nodded, and after Nova had joined us we followed him to the head of it all. The soldiers, all wearing silver armor over their brown silks, nodded their heads as we passed.

Most of them seem old enough to be my dad, and they’re all relying on me to end this? All of them there to protect me as I fight Parallax? My stomach twists in knots. The men all hold swords, and when we get to the front I notice that the first few rows have bows instead.

The wind blows, and dark clouds bunch in the sky overhead, they strike with lightning. It’s going to storm, which will only make this harder.

“Where’s Parallax?” I asked Ashton, who looked down at me with stressed eyes.

“If I had to guess? Over there-” he pointed, and there in the distance was the crumbling remains of the old meeting place. If I had to guess I’d say the space between us and the building was about a football field, and from here I can see three large columns that hadn’t been crushed. The rest of it though, was roofless, and the stones had crumbled.

The ghost of peace stood high, at the top of the left column was...people? I squint, trying to make out the shapes. “Is that Beckett?” I asked anyone who would answer, “and River?”

“And someone else...maybe your uncle?” Nova answered, peering into the distance as well. I guess her cat eyes could see better than mine, better to aim with I suppose. I gave her shoulder a squeeze as she left to stand among the men with bows, she readied hers, Nova stood out like a sore thumb among the men in armor; but she’s the one I would fear the most out of all of them.

My blood ran ice cold as the men behind me silenced their whispering, the horses beside me became uneasy, and Parallax stepped into view on the middle column.

“Well aren’t you guys adorable,” Parallax said, his voice loud and clear in our minds. I flinched, my throat swelling at the fear of him whispering into our minds.

“It’s time.” Theodore said from beside me, looking down at me with nothing but total confidence. I nodded, and released my energy into my hands.

Vamps meandered from around the building, coming from the sides and from inside the building. They don’t charge, awaiting their masters command.

“It’s time,” I repeated, my voice shaking. I will not be afraid, I tell myself. Who knows if it really is true.

“Steady, men!” Ashton yelled to the battalion of men, a silence of preparation falling over us.

When I was in middle school my aunt put me in sports...track to be more accurate, as an attempt to give me a normal life. Before every race I would stand behind the white line, my knees bent and ready to release. The air would feel still, my hands would shake, and my heart would pound as I watched the coach’s finger slowly pull the trigger on the gun.

That’s what this feels like, standing here waiting. Except, of course, much more extreme.

I look at Ember, her eyes hard with confidence and determination. Her dark hair whips in the increasing wind, and her lips are pressed tightly as she also waits. I notice her gaze keeps on her brother, who is chained along with the other captors.

Lightning danced along the dark sky, a clap of thunder pounded with the thrashing of my heart. For my family, for Beckett, for myself; I would do this. I would win.

“Everyone, say happy birthday to my son!” Parallax said into our minds, and I heard Ember let out a low breath beside me.

“Merry Christmas, Astra.” She said to me under her breath.

“Merry Christmas, Ember.” I replied, my voice tight with my lack of breath. Then Parallax raised his arms and yelled something we didn’t get to hear; and his vamps started charging.

“Archers, fire!” Ashton cried, raising his sword to the sky. All at once at least a hundred arrows soared through the sky, silver slicing the dark air before hitting true and taking out the first hundred vamps that charged.

“Again!” Ashton demanded, and they did, another hundred vamps tumbled. But that didn’t stop the others from leaping over the dead bodies and running. “Archers, keep firing!” Ashton looked a little pale from where he sat, I guess we were all caught off guard by the amount of vamps that charged.

“We didn’t expect this, did we?” I asked, looking up at him. He shook his head and his horse, River’s horse that had pulled the carriage, whinied.

“You and Ember need to get through, to that right column, from up there you’d have a straight shot at him.” I nodded, looking at it in the distance. Sure, but it’s so far...and it’s past all of those vamps.

“Ember?” She’d heard Ashton, so she just nodded, her face pale. “Let’s go then,” I said.

“Swordsmen...charge!” Ashton bellowed, and together we all sprinted across the field. Running, I tried my damndest to be brave. My feet slammed hard into the grass, I readied my power, and beside me Ember reared back her sword. The men roared as they ran beside me, some of them passed me easily. As we got closer I threw my energy down the field, orbs taking out the vamps as they came very close. Impact was coming, I held my breath, and beside me Ember took down her first vamp with a cry.

We pushed forward, I threw my power left and right, making sure I wasn’t hitting Somnium men. Ember managed to get ahead of me, her sword taking out the vampire’s left and right, but to my discouragement I saw them swarm her. Each one she let out a yell, putting her whole body into the attack.

The vamp on my left grabbed at me, but Theo came to my side and took his head off easily, his armor already dripping with blood. “Get to her!” He yelled, having seen what I’d seen. I shoved off the ground with my energy, jumping high into the air and pushing myself into the center of the bundle where Ember fought.

My feet planted firmly onto a vamp that tried to grab her from behind, grabbing ahold of both sides of his head and shooting my energy into him, turning his head to ash.

“Thanks!” Ember gasped out without turning back to me, pulling out her bloodied sword only to strike it again seconds later. In this state, surrounded by vamps, I’m reminded of the very first vamp she had killed. The one in the alley, she had decapitated him so easily, and I’d thought she was crazy.

“Yup!” I yelled back, over the sound of men hollering and swords impaling skin. “We’re never going to get there at this rate, and who even knows when he will release Beckett onto us.” The idea of him being fully unleashed, not knowing what he will be like, is scarier than the vamps.

Fighting and talking is definitely harder than I thought. I can feel myself running out of energy already, and we are probably only a quarter of a way through the distance we needed to make. Then what I would have to do once we got there?

“Clear a path,” Ember panted out, her shoulder hitting mine as we held off the hoard. I nodded, turning towards where we had to go and releasing a beacon, impaling the vamps in the way.

“Run! We’ll cover you!” Ashton yelled from behind us, him and Theo defending our six. So we did, we ran as hard as we could. Dodging under flying swords, ducking under the arms of vamps, jumping over fallen bodies, we ran. Behind us at all times I heard Theo and Ashton keeping them off of us, giving us a fighting chance.

We reached the right column quicker that way, Ember climbing up the crumbled stone ahead of me. I reached up to climb, the rough stone digging into my fingers, I tried to swing a leg up-but then I’m falling.

My back connected with the ground roughly, the wind knocked from my lungs, and a ringing in my ears screamed as I looked at the dark clouded sky. The vamp that had yanked me down lifted me by my jacket, my head throbbed as I was lifted.

I didn’t even have time to react, my energy grew in my hands, but the tip of a sword appeared through the vamps throat. His smile was frozen on his face, even as blood dripped from his lips. I’m dropped to the ground, but I’m able to regain my footing, despite the uneven ground.

The sky opened then, rain began to downpour as if the faucet had been turned on. Instantly drenched, I squinted my eyes to try to look up and see where Parallax stood. There he was, grinning at the battle field, so close now that if I just threw an orb high enough I could knock him to the ground. The columns are higher than I thought they’d be, reaching high into the sky. I craned my neck to try to see Beckett but I couldn’t see him.

“You good?” Theodore. His eyes were worried for me, I only nodded, rubbing the back of my head.

“Worry about your men,” I told him loudly, before kicking off the ground and pushing myself through the air. Easier every time, I jumped and landed in the dark hole where I’d seen Ember climb.

“Took you long enough,” Ember scolded me, resting a hand on my shoulder and checking for damage. I sighed, pushing my drenched hair from my face, peeking at her in the darkness.

“Let’s just go,” I replied, heading to my left where the winding staircase waited.

“How do you think we’re doing out there?” Ember asked from behind me, as we hurried up the white marble stairs.

“Well, some of the bodies I saw on the ground were in Somnium armor…” I whispered, my chest feeling tight at the memory of their pale faces. “But I think we’re doing ok.” We wouldn’t be for long, not unless I got up there.

Halfway up the dark staircase was a small rectangular window, I peeked through it quickly, my heart stopping. What I saw was Theo attacking a whole hoard by himself, completely surrounded. His golden hair darkened with blood and mud, stuck to his face that was grimacing with his struggle. I released my energy to throw it, to help him, but Ember grabbed my wrist and shook her head quickly.

“I don’t think Parallax knows where we are, we have the upper hand unless you give us away.” She told me, her eyes sad but persistent. With a longing glance out the window, I watched men in silver armor fight in the rain, our men definitely diminishing faster than the vamps were. The cluster outdoors was chaotic, moved quickly, it was pandemonium.

“Ok,” I whispered, deciding not to give us away, even though my chest ached and it was hard to pull my eyes away. I’m not sure what I would do, if any of my friends got hurt. I hadn’t even seen Nova in the I wouldn’t think like that.

We continued to rush up the tight winding staircase, the stairs untouched by damage, stuck out like a sore thumb against the damp, breaking, and molded walls.

“There!” I pointed, finally reaching the top. On the ceiling was a latch door, padlocked, but easily broken with my energy. The lock clanged to the ground, and Ember reached to push it open.

“Let me go first,” she begged, “please.” I shook my head, trying to squeeze past her in this small space. “Astra, stop. If this is a trap and he attacks whoever goes out first, it should be me.”

“Don’t try to be noble, his problem is with me not you-”

“Me? Noble? You’re the one that’s all like ‘oh I’m gonna sacrifice myself’,” her voice caught mid mocking me.

“Ember?” We didn’t have the time for this, but if these were my last moments with her? Sweat plastered thick strands of her hair to her bloodied and grime covered cheeks, her lip had a gash in it, as did her left eyebrow. Her eyes, the warmest thing about her, swam with tears and exhaustion.

“Please, let me be brave with you.” She begged, as though my best friend hadn’t been the bravest person I’d known since I met her.

“Together, then.” I told her, “starting together and ending together.” Ember smiled at me, and together we both placed our hands on the hatch, and shoved it open.

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