*I'm dedicating this story to Wolf Warrior simply because she's an amazing person and she has been reading this extensive series, which has made me BEYOND happy. This one's to you, Wolfy!*
It’s been a month, and now it’s finally time. Two more days for Tyrene’s test and we go home.
Rune let out a long breath. He lay quietly in his bed on the evening of their last day of training. He dreaded falling asleep, knowing his fears of what he will find when he returns home would haunt his slumber.
Frightened and restless, Rune rose and crept from the room, descending the metal stairs to the training vault. He turned on the obstacle course designed for him; He moved like a wraith through the room, his body disappearing. He phasing through the maze, dodging red lasers as he ran. Turning visible again, he morphed to a bird and soared over a pit of oozing mud. He morphed back to himself midair and landed, rolling under a barrage of projectiles. He leaped up onto a series of poles in the wall, gradually going up, he dropped off as they ceased, flipped backward and landed silently, chest heaving.
Flashes of his training when he was young filled his mind. It was so different, so much more disciplined and strict. He had long-since discovered it wasn’t the life he wanted.
The sarsh allowed his thoughts to race through his head, allowed the things he’d kept bottled inside of him to be channeled into his body as he faced a punching bag and struck it until his left knuckles were raw and throbbing. He dropped to the ground and pushed until his arm shook and his chest heaved, his clothing wet and his skin slick with sweat. The sarsh sat cross-legged and stretched his limbs, cooling his overworked body. He had made it a habit to train and workout every day, building strength and physique, building muscle. Clint occasionally joined him, but never kept himself as disciplined as the sarsh, who had learned to keep a keen edge to his body.
Tomorrow is the last day and Tyrene hasn’t even told us what we’re doing, Rune realized as he lay sprawled on the padded ground. Groaning softly, he got to his feet and faced the punching bag again.
Thump. Thump. The sound of Rune’s fear-driven fists striking cloth echoed through the room, the darkness crowding his mind dwarfed the darkness of his surroundings. Thoughts spilled into his mind, the hopeful blending with fearful, mixing into an indistinguishable medley, like a song with a deep, harsh sound dancing alongside a soft, radiant hum; they twirled side by side and the havoc wreaked by one, the other repaired.
It was an unending cycle, and the sarsh was caught in the middle of it. He tried to channel his dark, harsh fear away from the pale rays of hope, attempted to let it out through his sweat and tears. He wept freely, remembering his siblings; the hope and joy they gave him. He remembered Gallas, and the fear his cold eyes woke inside Rune’s heart. For hours, deep into the night, he pounded away, weeping and sweating. His knuckles bled and his heart ached with anguish, all awakened by his thundering thoughts of dread.
Rune slowly wound a bandage around his knuckles, watching the silver blood leak through. He stood in the restroom in the barracks. His stamina had long since vanished and his head whirled with exhaustion. His arm throbbed with pain, and he ignored it. Rune studied his tear-stained, pinched face in the mirror; his thoughts had slowed to a thin stream of confusion and grief. Why do I feel this way so often? Was the question that now dominated his headspace, but it faded as his ability to think about anything faded as well.
The sarsh left the restroom and crumpled into his bed, and it was a mere minute before a different, softer darkness filled his mind and shoved his thoughts far, far away.
Rune’s eyes cracked open as the sound of activity awakened his mind. The crust of sleep stuck to his eyelashes; he rubbed it away, wincing as the movement reminded him what he had been doing the previous night. Clint’s head came into view, his face full of nerves. “Get up, Rune. We need to start the test in forty-five minutes.”
The sarsh sat up, quiet despite every part of his body screaming with discomfort. He rose and washed his face in the restroom. He carefully bound his knuckles again and exited, where the caregivers and his friends were waiting. Clint frowned at him, noticing the white cloth on his hand. “What happened to your hand? And your face?” Rune carefully touched his cheekbone, realizing he must have bruised it during the previous night. The sarsh raised his shoulders in a slight shrug.
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” Was all the reply Rune provided; he walked past their unconvinced gazes and out the door. He yawned widely as he went, silently cursing himself for staying up half the night. His hand throbbed acutely as he walked, thundering with the pulse of his rapid heartbeat; his head pounded with weariness and his eyes felt like sand. He pressed his cold, metal fingers against his forehead, feeling a slight relief in the pressure mounting there. The sarsh relaxed his tense face as he heard hurried, light footsteps behind him; an instant later, Keila appeared at his side, her face concerned.
“Rune? Is something wrong?”
“I think you’re lying. Something is definitely bothering you.”
“I couldn’t sleep last night.”
“.. I was thinking about my family again.” His voice cracked with grief and his face twisted as his eyes welled with tears, staring down at his bandaged hand. Now Keila understood, and she touched his forearm gently.
“Why are you sad about it? You’re about to go back to them.”
“I’m going back to what’s left of them,” He uttered miserably.
Keila frowned. “What makes you think they’re gone?”
“I left my friends in the middle of a war, what am I supposed to think?”
For a minute, Keila seemed at a loss for words, collecting her thoughts. “Rune.”
Her voice was so forceful, the sarsh turned his tortured gaze to her upturned face. “When I lost my parents, I knew before I even got the news. I don’t know why, but it’s just a feeling you get when a loved one dies.”
Rune clenched his jaw, frustration and desperation welled inside his heart and before he could stop it, a tear slithered down his swarthy cheek. Keila’s raised brow relaxed as she watched his pain with pity and a similar pain in her eyes; she took a deep breath. “You know, Rune, my brother used to follow the Lord, I tried to follow in his steps, but when he disappeared, I blamed God for it and I never talk about it. But, there were many valuable lessons that I learned.”
The sarsh started as he heard that word; Lord. His watery gaze suddenly sparked with hope. “You know about the Lord? Can you teach me?”
Keila was taken aback, and she blinked rapidly, her eyes shone wetly in the red light above them. “I don’t know. It reminds me so much of my brother; I’ve tried to store away my memories of him, but maybe...” Her voice caught and a tear slipped down her face, dripping to the dirt ground. “Maybe it’s time I dealt with that stuff.” Her voice melted away into tears and she put her hands on her face, weeping with the utter pain of someone who has lost their loved ones. Rune, out of instinct and care for this younger person before him, embraced her with the rough tenderness of a big brother. He allowed his own tears to flow softly, quietly.
Keila’s tears ceased quickly; she smiled weakly at Rune, gently pulling from his embrace. “I will try to teach you the little I know. Maybe it’s time I turned back to my Father after so long.”
The caregivers and Clint joined the two young people outside the building upon Keila’s bidding. Clint and Loc both started toward Rune, resulting in an awkward moment where they both wanted to check on their friend, but were too polite to take the opportunity first. Finally, Loc pushed Clint forward and the young man jogged to his friend, who stood, solemn as ever, without a sign that he’d been weeping moments ago. Rune smiled faintly at his younger friend as Clint frowned up at him. “So, what’s going on? Are you okay? Why does Keila look like she’d been crying?”
“We’re fine. We both miss our families, that’s all.”
Clint nodded his understanding. “I miss my sisters,” He whispered. “I never thought I would; they got on my nerves so often, I took their presence for granted and miss them the most.”
Rune smiled, thinking of his own sister. “And now you are going back to them.”
“We all are.”
Tyrene heard the group’s footsteps before they even entered the building and he wound his way around the conference table in the center of the partitioned section of the room. He stood ready, waiting with his heart pounding. The next steps of Project Ignite were taking place. The short man’s eyes widened as he caught sight of Rune, the Beacon of the Embers. He had an aura of confidence and determination around him, his gaze was one that Tyrene could not ignore, it gleamed with determination, but sparking there was a small bit of anger and glowing faintly, grief. His presence seemed to lift his younger companions’ confidence, one reason he was a perfect leader for them.
The sarsh gave a nod of greeting to the man he still held a dislike for, but the month of training had forced a bit of respect into Rune’s begrudging heart. Keila was more reserved than usual; she wore a thoughtful, nervous expression on her face and held her hands clasped in front of her, twisting, slick with sweat. Clint hung back, next to Elric; the two of them had grown close over the last month.
“Welcome, Embers,” Tyrene greeted solemnly, reminding Clint of his dad when he had something important to say. “Today marks a very important milestone in your lives, and I’m going to make this speech quick because I’m sure you want to get back to your homes as soon as possible.” The man ran his fingers through his long, bi-colored hair, which hung down at his shoulders today. “Today, I will test you, but probably not in the way you were thinking. Follow me and I will give you the details of the mission ahead.”
Rune stood at the end of the long table, facing Tyrene grimly. The rest of the group, including the caregivers, sat around the border of the table.
“Today,” Tyrene began. “Is a test of control and how you handle yourselves in real-life circumstances. As you all have probably thought, three people is hardly enough to protect the people of the Edenstar, and I am recruiting more people. The first person I want to retrieve is actually not a person, but you could consider Amalia’s little brother. Questions so far?”
A din filled the room as they all tried to talk at once; Tyrene held up a hand and ceased the chaos. “Keila?” He invited the girl to talk.
“You still haven’t answered whether we’re coming back.”
Tyrene opened his mouth, glancing over at Amalia, who stood in the corner. She offered no encouragement to her creator. The short, muscular man turned back to them. “Yes,” He finally said. “I will need you to come back, after a year’s time,” He laughed softly. “One would think that after the years and years of thought I put into this, I’d have all the answers to your questions. I will need you to come back after a year, but whether you will stay here, permanently, is still unclear.”
Rune barged into the conversation angrily. “I agreed to this only because I need to get back to my family, not to have you deceive us into staying here forever. I’m not leaving my siblings, not permanently.”
“You could bring them here,” Tyrene suggested.
“They would have no life here, no friends as they grow up. No. That would not be a suitable life for children.”
Tyrene sighed, for once, his eyes were not ahead, and his shoulders fell. “I’m sorry I haven’t thought this out better,” He murmured, apology in his voice. “Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the enormity of this mission I’ve taken into my hands; sometimes I wonder if it’s even worth the lives I’m ruining.”
“Oh, so you realize you’re ruining our lives,” Rune spat, the hate for the smaller man before him growing. “But you’re continuing it, anyway? That almost makes this worse than it already was.”
Clint glanced warily up at his friend, but he felt like yelling too; this man had uprooted their lives for something he wanted, something he believed. Something the three of them weren’t even sure the Edenstar needed. The young man turned away from Rune and scowled at Tyrene. Keila was also glaring daggers; Tyrene glanced around at the young people who’s hateful gazes burned into his own fiery eyes.
“YES!” Tyrene roared, slamming his hands on the table. His eyes were wild and wet. “I’m doing this because I lost everything, my wife, my children, my home, my people! I’m trying so hard to keep others from losing everything like I did, but you stubborn, frustrating children can’t see past yourselves to realize how important this is! The Edenstar is dissolving into a cesspool of violence and war and no one is doing anything about it!” Tyrene paused, chest heaving and orange eyes blazing like an uncontrollable fire. Water droplets made his eyes more vibrant than they were before. The room was silent.
“I’m just trying to help a sick world,” Tyrene whispered, sitting back down and putting his face in his worn hands. His voice only reaching Rune’s keen ears. “Why can no one else see it?”
Rune let out a long breath and opened his mouth. “What do we have to do?”
Tyrene’s head lifted, a faint look of awe and surprise on his face. The anger was still present in the sarsh’s face, but it had faded. The short man collected himself, tapping his fingers across a screen before him. A hol0graphic image appeared on the table; Earth, Rune realized. “This,” Tyrene announced. “Is not your Earth, Rune. It looks exactly like it, but it’s not. They know nothing of sarsh. Here, there is an AAI, advanced artificial intelligence, which my old friend, Killian, named Titan. I need him, and you’re going to get him. Now let me explain how this is going to work...”
Rune, for probably the third time, glanced at his Ignition crest, displayed through a purposeful rectangle missing his uniform sleeve. Clint was jogging in place next his friend, trying to get used to the uniform Tyrene had given him; his techs were working on it over the month, they completed it in time and presented it; it looked the same as Rune and Keila’s uniforms, but was stitched with a micro amount of Xinvasen, along the spine, that would allow the suit to turn invisible with Clint.
The design of their uniforms was sleek and efficient, not unlike the uniforms of earth military, but much less bulky. The sleeves sported holsters for many weapons, Clint and Keila’s exhibited back sheaths for their parablades. Clint asked why they need weapons when they had their flares, but Tyrene shook his head, explaining that their flares were defensive, only useful for avoiding attack, but when they needed to engage in the fighting, they needed to have weapons.
The group, the three young people and their caregivers, were waiting in the conference room for Tyrene, who had given them a smile and when they asked what he was doing, he only said: ‘you’ll see.’
The stout man finally returned, his eyes shining with child-like excitement. “Everyone follow me,” He invited, beckoning them.