The tall, densely packed grasses that lined the jungle’s edges ebbed and flowed, revealing glimpses of the ring’s light over the horizon. Sid watched the movement, squinting each time a larger opening formed to see the city’s bridge in the distance. Its glittering shape, once leaving her in awe was nothing more than a nuisance now. A bushel of grass moved in the wind and she counted five more Starblades on the bridge, bringing the total to twenty-seven. Too many.
“Looks like the ring is almost through,” Tann noted beside her. “Should be another hour or so.”
“Should be,” she sighed.
She tore her gaze from the bridge and looked at him. “You’re not?”
“Sure. But that doesn’t help, does it? We can do it. Just have to get into the city, then the plan is solid.”
“There’s too many of them on the bridge. We didn’t account for this many,” she said, keeping her voice low. The last thing she wanted was for some of the younger fighters to overhear and get spooked.
“The Tecken will help,” Tann smiled reassuringly, “and Serryl gathered more groups from the other domes. People with loyalties to the club, all powered up and ready to go.”
Her eyes barely grazed the outline of people behind her. She listened to the chatter, periodically interrupted by the echoing moan of the Tecken herd and sighed. “It’s not real magic, Tann. We both know that. Whatever Serryl pumped them full of is just for show.”
“I know. But it’s all we have now. This is the only army you have.”
She wanted to laugh in his face. An army. These kids and a few large beasts! This wasn’t an army and she wasn’t some general. She hated that they kept asking for her advice, her thoughts, her plans. Don’t get killed! She wanted to shout at them, that’s the plan! Instead, she asked Abbot for advice on how to lead them. She trained with Dalrak every waking moment to get her own power in check. She did everything she could to keep the illusion going and their spirits high. If they were all going to die, they should do it without fear. That’s what Tann wanted her to believe but she had doubts upon doubts invading every nook and cranny of her body.
Maybe fear is what they needed to survive this.
Another low groan sounded in the distance. “I should say something,” she said in more of a question than a statement. When Tann nodded in agreement, she stepped through the jungle’s flora and made her way to her militia, leaving the glitter of the bridge behind her.
* * *
Bodies filled every empty spot in the small jungle clearing they found themselves in. More people showed up to fight than Sid had hoped for and she was told that Serryl was to return shortly with another round of Domers all willing to side with them. The small army should have made her pleased but all Sid could feel was remorse and guilt. She thought back to her days on the ship, orbiting the same people that now crowded on trunks and boulders around her, the same people she hid from for all these years. She wondered if Colton kept her away because of this very moment. If he knew she would end up in this tiny clearing in the middle of the wilderness about to lead a group of untrained fighters to their deaths. What would she do if things didn’t go like they had planned tonight? The thought of dying at the hands of the queen did not mean much to her but looking over the anticipant faces of the group, could she be just as careless with their lives as she was with her own? She couldn’t; not by a long shot.
The thought left her speechless. Not just without words but entirely dumbfounded. They were looking for her guidance and she didn’t have the heart to tell them just how misguided they were. She had no words of fight ready, no encouraging tales to keep their spirits afloat. She’d never been in a fight and now she had somehow landed herself in the middle of this mess. No, not landed — orchestrated. She chose to be in this clearing, chose these people as her own.
Great job, Sid. Way to mucking go.
“Is she alright?” Tann whispered to Ashlan behind her.
“Want me to zap her with my blade, see if she moves?”
Sid turned to see the two of them chuckling, their arms so close they could almost touch. She wondered how nervous each of them was thinking of the closeness to the other. The fools were circling each other like a hungry Tecken herd and no one could so much as make the first move. If only Ashlan had the same gutsy foolishness that she was made of. Grab his face! She wanted to shout. Kiss him! “Keep laughing and I’ll zap you both myself,” she hissed instead.
A sheet of ivy parted next to her and Dalrak’s sharp face poked through. He pushed the plant out of his way with ease and came to stand beside her. Sid immediately relaxed. The warm spark of his magic muffled her guilty thoughts and she found herself standing a little taller.
“Do not worry,” he grunted.
“Easy for you to say,” she scoffed, “they’re not all here to follow you.”
“Or you,” he smirked and nodded to her glowing skin.
Ashlan and Tann whispered something she couldn’t hear and exploded into a harmonious low cackle and she shot them a crossed glance before stepping into the circle formed by the crowd. She smiled when Dalrak followed her sneer with a raised fist, making the two stop their laughing abruptly.
“I am not someone you should follow,” she started.
“That’s a good start,” Ashlan said behind her but she pretended not to hear him.
“I’m just a girl, a kid, really. None of you even knew me until I crashed on this star not long ago,” she continued. “When I was up there,” she pointed to the sky, remembering her ship, “I thought this place was magical. I thought the towers were the only thing I wanted and I thought the queen was a savior to you all.”
A few throats cleared in the group.
“I am here to tell you how wrong I was. Not because of what I thought, it was the only thing I knew so how could you blame me? I was wrong to think that anything could be magical that included me hiding who I truly was. I was wrong to think that if I hid who I was, that I could be better somehow. That I could wear the fine clothes and eat the wonderful food and be someone that I really wasn’t. That I could be anyone other than me.
Someone I cared about deeply once told me a rule — a rule I had to follow no matter what the cost. To hide my magic and stay in the shadows. And as much as I loved that person, as much as I wish he was here today, I am here to tell you that he was wrong! You should never hide who you are!”
Sid looked around, raising her hands over her head. “So I am not someone you should follow. This,” she shouted and sank two bolts of electricity into the ground, “is what you should be after! This is the only thing you should be fighting for tonight! Because this power, this magic, is what you are. And you should never hide it. And it should never be taken away from you. Tonight, you get back what is yours! You get back your star, you get back your magic, and you get back your freedom!”
There was silence all around and she wondered if she went too far with the yelling when a loud cheer sounded at the back. She looked over the gathering to Serryl whistling loudly with over twenty more fighters at her back. The rest of the group joined in and soon, the entire clearing was filled with yelps and whistles and applause. She could even hear a few people chanting her name and the blood rushed to her cheeks instantaneously. Sid looked back to Dalrak and shrugged. He shrugged back, grinning like a wild man.
She turned. “Not bad for a rough start,” she said slyly and knocked an elbow into Ashlan’s side, making him collapse onto Tann’s wide chest. The flustered exchanges that followed were muted by the sound of her own heart beating madly.
The ring’s glow had set, replaced only by the lights of Tower City in the distance.
This was it. Their time had come.