Project Super Nex – Chapter Nineteen – Always

I was five when Mom told me about the lusiere’s role in Teönor mythology. Apparently, a group of demon gods known collectively as the Urogotha had a bothersome habit of scheming to overthrow Metura, ruler of the heavens and the mortal world. One of their favorite tactics was dispatching spirits to possess mortals and bend them to the demons’ will. That’s why said mortals had to ward off the supernatural threats by keeping lusieres in their homes and carrying pouches of seeds on their person. The flower eventually became emblematic of Metura herself, a symbol of hearth and home.Too bad that doesn’t explain the source of the lit-up lusieres that Sidney, still wearing her sleeveless jumpsuit, manages to step around while dashing into the apartment. At the same time, they figure low on my list of priorities. Even as I’m paralyzed on my back while bruises sting and ache all over my face and warm blood trickles from my swollen nose, while my mendsense unleashes a legion of needles into my body to scrub away the searing tides of pain, I want to say something, tell her how relieved I am that she’s here and that I’ve been a fool—My neck creaks as I lift my head to look at what’s making that strange, wet noise, and I cringe at the sight of Augen pulling Sidney’s stiletto out of her cheek. Tendrils of flesh hang from the nasty gash, blood streams down the right side of her jawline and neck. With a short grunt, she raises the knife as if she’s going to either stab me or lob it back at Sidney, but it shimmers purple, soars out from between her fingers and into Sidney’s hand.“What’s up?” Sidney says amiably, flicking her other hand at the sofa. It jumps off the floor, sparkling a pattern of violet stars, crashes atop Augen. A painful crunch, but not the slightest shout in response. Hopefully that’ll do it.“Sid, what’re you doing here?” I mumble thickly, feeling the sticky clots of blood underneath my nose stretch with every movement of my lips. I must look hideous.She shoots up her eyebrows, drawing taut her scar. “Fetching sichupod milk.” She curls her tattooed arms around me and lugs me to my feet. I wrap my arm over her shoulders for support, pull back on her when she starts for the door.“Wait,” I croak, gesturing my chin at my messenger bag, the box, the lusiere, all haphazardly spread out on the floor in front of the farthest chair.I struggle to not get lost in her fathomless eyes as recognition flickers through them. Cursed Cosmotic, she really is stunning. Then a wave of her hand and my lusiere hops into the box, which closes the lid and flips the latches, then rolls inside my bag. In turn, it flies into the air, and she catches it, puts it on so the cross-strap sits on her right shoulder and the bag rests on her left hip.“I’m sorry, Sidney,” I say while she guides my stumble-jogging self across the apartment, my heart banging like a fist on a gate, my muscles crying for the mendsense to work faster, our feet trampling on some of the lusieres. “I shouldn’t have been such an ass—”“I’d be happy to accept your apology when we get out of here alive.” She throws me a sideways smirk, her ragged pendant winking on her chest. “Okay?”I nod automatically, then kiss her on the cheek. The flush that stains her cheeks sends insects fluttering through my gut.In the entry hall, I catch my reflection in a small mirror on the wall, and I pause to watch in equal parts horror and awe as threads and ribbons of deep blue light course over my face and gradually wash away bruises, close up cuts, level out swellings. But it does nothing for the patches of dried blood crusted on my face and neck, or the red splatters staining the front of my shirt and jacket.“No time for ogling yourself,” Sidney urges, dragging me through the door and out into the hallway, where a number of blue and purple lusieres have been strewn on the floor in intervals. At first I assume we’re going to take the elevator, but she guides me to the stairway. The door’s open, I can see more of the glowing flowers scattered over the lower flights, one every two or three steps.While descending the stairs, I hear myself ask where the flowers came from, and Sidney answers, “I followed them here.” She must know that only mystifies me further, because she silences any queries I might throw at her with an I’ll-fill-you-in-on-the-way look.Seconds later, we reach the foot of the stairs, continue to follow the lusiere trail across the lobby, out the door onto the front courtyard, through it to the gate, which Sidney throws open. My energy is slowly recovering and subduing the last of my sharpest pains, though it’ll take longer to get rid of this overall achy fatigue. We step out, and I pause to try and work out how Sidney’s journeyer can be sitting right there in the road—vivid red with splashes of mauve, Wulven painted in white on the sleekly curved hull—in the middle of hundreds of lusieres, which stretch down the roads on either side in cerulean and deep purple trails.A minute later, we’ve taken off, Sidney in the captain’s chair, I in the copilot’s with my bag slung onto its back, indie alt thrumming on low volume. As we soar over Civit Lumin, or at least whatever dimensional space passes for it in the Welkin, I watch pale green whorls bloom and spin all across the sky, shove aside the purple and red waves rippling from the double sunsets.A thousand questions pile up in my head. The first one I ask is, “How’re you holding up?” She quirks her eyebrows like I cracked an amusing little joke. “As well as I can be, thanks for asking.” When I ask if she knows where Corbin and her mother are, Sidney shakes her head, doesn’t give any verbal reassurance that we’ll all escape together.We’re silent for a long beat, shards of the meadow dream flittering into my vision. It’s not a dream, though; it was real all along. “Thanks,” I manage, fisting my hands in my lap. She smiles sideways at me appreciatively, but something dark and ruminative hovers her eyes. Does she understand I’m grateful for more than her saving me from Augen? Watching the suncatcher hang from the rearview mirror, its white and yellow beads glinting like strings of precious jewels, I murmur, “And . . . I’m sorry.” “For what?” Her tone is light, but her brow wrinkles deeply. Remember when you were eleven, you fell off your gigabike and broke your arm?  Dad’s voice. I look over my shoulder as he ambles from the cabin into the cockpit, Mom three paces behind. I should be happy to see them, but my stomach ties itself into a firm knot.Sidney visited you every day, Dad goes on, focusing his warm hazel eyes on me, and she brought you gifts, stayed at your bedside. She did. And it wasn’t just that one time. She’s been there for me time after time. Dad points out, It’s almost like you wanted to forget Sid, the way you refused to talk about her. I did. I truly did want to erase her from my life. Wipe out every trace of her and Penelope. The two people who took into their lives after my family was snatched away.We’ll always be here for you. Always, Mom pledges. Her smile’s feeble, as if she knows she’s already broken her promise.I can smell orchids, even though they’re out of season, sings a bodiless, oddly familiar voice in a distant whisper straining under the long-held ache of longing and sadness. It fades away fast after a couple more verses from “Delusive Eyes.”One moment a dull gloom is seeping through my tired body like mold through an old fruit, the next my vision goes bleary and a hot liquid drips from my eyes and streams down my cheeks. Something grabs ahold of my chair and swivels it to the left, things I recognize as hands entwine with mine. Blinking away the tears, I lift my chin. Sidney has turned her chair to face me, having put her ship on autopilot. My gaze pinions with hers, opening a channel for us to merge into a single entity.“Everything,” I tell her, my voice shaky. “I’m sorry about everything.”The look on her face says she understands my meaning. She keeps holding my hands, rubs her thumbs back and forth over my knuckles. My skin flashes hot at the affection of her touch. I glance at my parents, wishing they could stay—No, that’s not true. Why would I want them to stay if they’re nothing more than phantoms that barely fill the void in my soul, apparitions that I’ve clung to for the past five years? I have to let them go. Not only for my sake, but for Sidney and Penelope’s too. And I will see them soon, for real. It’s going to be far from the ideal circumstances, but I will see them.I slide my hands out of Sidney’s comforting grasp, whip up a shining blue napkin to scrub the tears off my face. My eyes feel a bit swollen. After making the napkin vanish, I cup her face, brush the pads of my thumbs over her cheekbones, soak in the unyielding desire in her eyes, sit forward and slant my lips over hers.She leans into the kiss and traces her tongue over my lips, making desire unfurl from my heart so intensely it’s close to hurting. Her hands wander up my arms and over my shoulders, fingers wind through and tug at my hair, and they refuse to let go when I pull away with a ragged breath, as though I’ll throw up a wall between us once I’m released. The uncertainty and dread in her eyes confirms this. She’s got good reason to believe it.I look into the cabin and my parents are gone.I’ll see you both again real soon. I promise. As we fly onward, I prompt Sidney again to explain how she found me and her scar snarls defensively. She rotates her chair toward the controls but doesn’t take the Wulven off autopilot. Raises her hand to touch her pendant, skims her eyes over the forest of Toppas on her dashboard. I can sympathize with her going silent on me, but I can’t say I’m not the tiniest bit hurt. I turn my chair around and look out the window at the pink feathers blushing and unfurling throughout the red and purple waves and green coils in the sky. A shiver of apprehension crawls down my spine.How are we getting home? “Dad and Mom were in the middle of preparing spiced meat and golden rice for dinner when Augen and her pobs stormed into the house.” Sidney’s voice is low and husky. Painful memories fog up her amethyst eyes. “Seven-year-old me was sobbing for Augen to let us go. I wouldn’t have begged for her mercy if I knew such a thing was inconceivable to her. But I didn’t, so I kept pleading until she gave her minions the go-ahead to slice my parents’ throats. “Before they bolted—can’t have been there for more than two minutes—Augen pulled me aside and told me, ‘Take a lesson from this. After all, someone needs to teach youngsters like you how rotten the world is.’ Then she drew a knife and . . .” She reaches up a hand to stroke her jagged scar, like it’s a days-old scab she yearns to peel off. It’s a gentle, almost timid motion that seems to ignite the dark spark of raw grief in her eyes. “Once the whole mess was over, it just restarted. I couldn’t break out, I was stuck there for who the hell knows how long, forced to watch her murder my parents over and over again. I lost count after round thirty or so. It got to the point where all I wanted was for everything to end. But then . . .” The corner of her mouth tilts upward, nostalgia cracking through the sorrow in her eyes. “I gave you that lusiere for your twelfth birthday. You always wanted one.” She cocks her head. “Eagleboy.” My body tenses up at the memory of our encounter at Bassow Square. Monkeygirl, I want to reply, but my throat tightens on the word. I don’t think my reaction slips past her, because something between disappointment and guilt flicker across her face. Her gaze drifts off to the side, and I realize it’s lingering on my bag. “I was bewildered at first when a flower inexplicably blossomed at my feet. Then a second, a third, more and more leading me out the door and to my baby.” She pats the controls adoringly. “It was a cinch to follow the rest of the trail from there on.” She leans over from her chair to punch my upper arm too fast for me to counter it, a gesture no less painful for its playfulness. Thank Metura I’ve healed enough. “What was that for?” I ask indignantly, rubbing the misfortunate spot on my arm. Her grin turns impish. “For saving me.” We don’t exchange more words. For a while the only noise that disturbs the quietness between us is the music trickling faintly from her speakers. Twisting both my Olympus ring and my link round and round my finger, I focus on the ribbons of gold and blue light undulating in all directions across the sky, then lower my gaze to the purple and azure flames spilling out of the buildings and bursting up from the streets below.No, not flames—lusieres. Hundreds, thousands, millions of them flooding the city. All because of the one in my bag. The one I received from Gargant.A token of my beneficence for your imminent enterprise. I dart a sidelong glance at Sidney, her attention on the city rapt as well. Is she suspicious of where I got my flower from? Why did Gargant even give it to me?I believe you already suspect the answer in your heart. Maybe that applies in more ways than one. I don’t have time to puzzle it out before Sidney slows the Wulven to a hover above Bassow Square, which is covered in hundreds of lusieres. With the majestic kissnut tree towering over them in the center of the plaza, it has the look of a garden that’s being used as a hiding place for an ancient treasure. The entire ship rattles as Sidney touches down, like it’s alarmed by the troop of strange entities encircling the perimeter—long threads of shimmering gold light that bend and sway and gyrate with the gracefulness of a ballet dancer and the ethereality of a ghost. Outside the Wulven, the air buzzes with a gratingly high-pitched hum, as though a swarm of ravenous insects are approaching from the distance. Splotches and swirls of violently bright hues have stained the sky from edge to edge by now, transforming it into a vast canvas slathered with infinite rainbows.As if reacting to my and Sidney’s presence, all the spectral strands around us quiver, then warp the air around them until we’re left with a series of portals. I can see streets from Civit Lumin through some of them, while others lead to random environments like rolling green fields divided in half by a stream or a huge cavern littered with stone sculptures of strange creatures.“Unless you prefer loitering here some more, I urgently advise you to depart with us.”I turn to the source of this greeting—a portal across the Square on my left. Sidney and I start racing that way immediately, treading lusieres into the flagstoned ground. Through the portal I recognize Gene standing closest to it, Corbin and Belldon on his right, Penelope and Cooper on his left. I can make out a familiar-looking garden a good ways behind them.I don’t put much conscious thought into wrapping my hand around Sidney’s and giving a squeeze. She squeezes back, throws me a cautiously inquiring glance—Are you ready?In more ways than one, I try to communicate through my responding look.Sidney gives a little smile before we leap through the portal. One second we’re in Bassow Square, the next we’re back on the path we took from the octagonal garden exit up to Augen’s palace.Then Penelope barges up to me and Sidney, engulfs us in a rib-crushing hug that sparks a faraway memory, growls in our ears, “I will kick your stinky asses if I ever have to save them again.”“Duly noted,” I wheeze. I’m remembering her picking me up after Mom and Dad were hospitalized. I didn’t cry at all that day until she held me tightly in her embrace, then I buried my head into her shoulder and wept. Her hair smelled nice. Vanilla shampoo, I think.When Penelope releases us, I step back, shrug my bag higher on my shoulder, meet her turbulent gray gaze. I want to thank her for everything and apologize for everything. Not right now, but we’ll have time later.“Hey, we really should zip outta here, this whole place is bellyin’ up,” Cooper drawls, gesturing a meaty hand at our environment. The weak, sputtering glow of the buildings all around us is a stark contrast to how fiercely they blazed with light the last time I was here. The stars have fled from the sky, leaving it black and cold. I look over my shoulder, past the portal at Augen’s temple, and it’s beginning to fall apart—fractures running through the structure, pieces crumbling off, the asterlantern towers imploding, all of it emitting strange crackling and rustling noises.“We crippled the ballast,” Corbin informs me and Sidney, tilting her head to Belldon while all seven of us hustle down the pathway to the octagonal garden, pouch bouncing on her back. “Then they arrived just in time to rescue us.” She points her chin to her brother, Penelope, and Cooper.“All we had to do was wait for you,” Belldon says.We stop in front of the dark green stone archway that leads into the garden, enclosed on all eight sides by waist-high rosebushes. Some sort of energy’s still pulsating through the air above the flowers inside.Belldon disappears as soon as she steps through the archway. Her son and daughter go next, then Cooper. Penelope looks at me and Sidney cautiously, then follows him. Sidney and I go next.It’s disorienting at first, being inside this emptiness, although the soft echoing of my footsteps on the solid floor helps me to regain my senses somewhat, and then a host of multicolored lights bloom in the nothingness around us almost immediately. I hold up my hand to shield my squinting eyes; when I lower it, we’re outside the closed shop, out of Augen’s territory and back in the Welkin incarnation of my homeland.The rest of it happens in a blur—Gene withdrawing a small device from his pants pocket, tapping an input on the screen, our red links blinking once, then the streets and the buildings and the sky collapsing into each other and my body plunging into a glimmering white space that wholly consumes me.And everything pauses for a moment so I can watch Sibrilich while she’s on her knees a few feet away and facing me, head bowed, one hand balled into a fist over her heart and the other held out with an open palm facing up. A seeming gesture of supplication that also emanates an air of reticence. Then she elevates her chin and gives me a smile that shapes her eyes into golden half-moons.Why? I want to ask her.With a clench of her open hand, an invisible force yanks me backward into darkness. I open my eyes and I’m sitting in a chair in Seris’s lab, brushing my gaze over Cooper, Corbin, Gene, Belldon, Penelope, and Sidney, all seven of us in a circle.While Seris and Xavier, with demeanors of overt tension, ask us what happened, Sidney, in the chair on my left, reaches for my hand. I let her fingers entwine with mine.**** Augen is sitting at an ashmelin desk in the bedroom of her fourth-floor apartment in Elucuent House, looking out the window as people line up at a dumpling stand across the street, as cars speed along from one destination to another, as a corporate freighter soars high above and towards the skyline. She’s dressed in a drab long-sleeved shirt and black cargo pants with a single-bladed ax strapped to her back. It’s taking time to get accustomed to the unfamiliar feel of this backup weapon.Halfway through her bowl of figs, she’s fingering the threads and rough bulges of flesh protruding along her stitched-up ridge of a cheek wound when she notices a snowy-haired figure’s reflection in the windowpane. “Well,” Augen sighs, pushing back her chair, getting up and swiveling to face Sibrilich in the open doorway. In response to the slight cant of Sibrilich’s head and the thin wrinkling of her brow, Augen motions to her maimed cheek and says, “You can thank Sidney for this.” Sibrilich’s yellow eyes glitter mysteriously. “It took her a long time to repay the debt.” A beat passes before Augen says, “I think I know you’re here.” When Sibrilich remains impassively silent, Augen shrugs. “So what if I almost killed the arrogant little asshole? He deserved it.” As unconcerned of an air as the pobel lord is affecting, tension writhes through her body. Yes, she promised ages ago not to kill Wyatt Durrell—so what? Can’t Sibrilich be satisfied with the fact that he’s still alive thanks to that meddling Appleton? Why is Sibrilich so obsessed with him in the first place? “You’re an enigma,” Augen observes in her mildest inflection, picking a fig out of the bowl and popping it in her mouth. “All this time I’ve tried to read you, pinpoint what drives you at your core.” Still, Sibrilich does not answer. Instead she steps through the door, almost glides across the threshold into the room. The silver embroidery in her spotless white uniform glints sharply in the pale light from the corner lamp. “For instance, why do you care about protecting him?” Augen easily reaches over her shoulder for her ax, clutches the geometrically etched shaft in both fists, the heavy blade’s sharpened edge aimed directly at Sibrilich. “And how does Sidney play into this? I think you’ve also kept tabs on her. Plus, I still wonder if you really did pump Durrell full of the virus—” At the same moment that Sibrilich’s eyes set alight with deep gold flames, Augen’s vision turns yellow for a second, then the color is gone. Her throat spasms and her mouth closes against her will. Her grip slackens and the ax drops to the floor with a thunk. What is this— She feels her arm stiffen, involuntarily stretch out to grab the chair and spin it round. She sits down, alarm pounding painfully through her veins, gawking with a widened eye at Sibrilich as she quietly approaches her. “I pity you, Rechin. I pity any mortal whose cuts bleed gray, whose suppurating wounds choke the air with the stench of misery. It’s alien to me, the concept of living your life in darkness without a torch to show you the way forward.”She looms over Augen now. Her voice is soft, reasonable, but it does nothing to allay the monstrous rage thundering inside Augen. All she wants is to launch herself from this chair and wring this brazen fool’s neck, but she remains paralyzed.“You’ve served your purpose. Now you must—”She pivots toward the doorway. Augen peeks past her at Runa standing there with her polearm pointed at Sibrilich, her features arranged into a defiant scowl.She could follow in my footsteps someday, the pob lord thinks to herself with pride.“Runa, you need to leave,” Sibrilich recommends, sounding unsettlingly calm.“No.” The girl tightens her grasp on the polearm, as if she’s preparing to impale the intruder on it.“Leave right now.”Augen feels a flare of anger at the flash of yellow in Runa’s eyes, the brief contorting of her face like she’s making her best effort to keep her volition. But with one last terrified look at Augen, she turns and steps out of the room. As she proceeds down the corridor, Obrin can be heard saying something in a wary tone off in the distance. Runa’s muffled response must satisfy him, because their footsteps fade into silence.Sibrilich rotates back to Augen and rests a cool hand against her forehead.“Goodbye, Rechin.”Her insides thrash vehemently, images of her mama and papa and Silvena and Corbin and Gene and the final conversations she ever had with each of them scroll unbidden through her vision as if they’re being projected directly onto her eyes, and then Rechin Ihres Augen knows no more.

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