We were waiting in the cold, hiding in the dark; yellowed sandstone and aged, oaken barrels our only shelter. Outside those close walls was the clean air, the ocean, the rich soil. Outside it was life.
Surrounded by suffocating darkness, she breathed in deep of the damp, sheltering cold and clung to the hope, amidst fear and pain, that this would finally be the moment.
She was exhausted, working to bring forth that light when all around us was death, destruction, and terrible grief. Their beauty, their elegance, their powerful reign was gone; the entire world of the Sceleste had fallen. And now, we were at its end. Yet one last bit of hope remained. And she was working, fighting, to give it life.
“You are strong,” I said. “You can do this. Just a little longer… I know it hurts, I know you are tired, but it is so close now. She is close now…” Tears of worry glistened on my cheeks, waiting and watching, wanting to protect my love, though in this one moment I was helpless to do anything more. All I could do was hold her close and try to pass on my strength.
I could feel it with her, her terrible fear as her will, her seemingly endless strength was beginning to wane. It was through our Life Bond, an ancient gift of the Seven, as sacred as the Stars, where man and wife were brought together; were made one. We could feel and sense each other’s emotions, our pains, our pleasures. We were closer than any two beings could ever be. Yet in this I could not be with her, I could not feel the pain she bore, for she had to bear it alone. You are not alone, my beloved. I am with you in every other way, wishing more than anything that I could bear it for you.
“Please, Ember, do not give up,” I pleaded.
Her glassy-eyed gaze moved to me, and I felt a new fear run through her, one that I had never felt before. Was she about to give in?
“No… please. We are so close now, it’s almost over. If you give up I will lose you both…” My voice caught on a sob, realizing how close to death they really were. “I can’t lose you, Ember. I just can’t. I love you too much.”
Ember watched me; her blue eyes, shining like starlight, were filled with so much love. She nodded, panting heavily as the next pain shuddered through her. She leaned forward, her courage and strength renewed by my words. She bore down with a grunted cry, screaming from the force that her own body was putting her through. Nearly three full days she had been fighting this battle and in moments it could be lost. The woman, Eleanor, stood above her waiting and crying for her, while encouraging her to make it happen this time. It was just one more fierce and mighty push. She was determined it would be her last, for she had nothing left to give.
Ember fell back, gasping, her body throbbing, tremulous and weak from the long efforts.
A cry pierced the darkness, and a light of hope was held close in Eleanor’s arms. The newborn child cried for life, for warmth, for love. She wrapped the child and passed the bundle to me.
I looked at my daughter for the first time and tears of joy streamed down my face. “Ember, she is beautiful, you did it. She is here…” I laid the babe in her mother’s arms, watching over the two I loved most in this world. I felt the resonating joy that washed through my wife, this woman so beautiful, her soul straight from the light of the Stars.
We held each other for a long time, a family made whole and complete at last.
“I must take care of her, John, she has lost a lot of blood…” Eleanor was calm, but her voice still carried an air of worry.
I nodded and stepped aside to let her do her work. I was eager to leave this place for we had stayed too long. I wondered on the others. Had they survived? Did they get away? It was only a week ago that my dearest friend had become a father as well. It had happened right here in this very room. A son had been born to him. We would have waited and left together, but word had come, an urgent message coded only for us: Kahrus was on his way.
That was three days ago. We were planning to make a run for it when Ember’s labor had begun. Fraught with complications, it was too risky. She was bleeding inside and the babe had not turned correctly. If we had tried to move her, we would have lost them both. I had sent my oldest friend and his new family away. One way or another, we would meet again some day.
“John,” Ember’s sweet voice was so weak, she could hardly move or even sit up on her own.
“Yes, I am here.”
“Did Arvah and her son get out in time?”
“Yes,” I assured. “They should be far away from here by now.”
She closed her eyes and let out a slow breath of relief. I could feel her unease, she was still terribly afraid. I moved closer to where she lay on her blankets near the dwindling fire. I wanted to ask what was wrong, yet I worried I would only upset her more. Instead I knelt beside her. Our new daughter, held close within a gentle and protective embrace, was quietly suckling at her mother’s breast; a tiny hand holding on, already clinging to her.
Ember would not meet my questioning gaze.
“Her name… Have you made your decision?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yes, she is Mahren Bell, and she will take your name instead of mine. She will be a Mason.”
I was surprised, it was common in the Scelestial tradition that newborn girls take their mother’s name. It wasn’t law, they could choose either parent’s surname, but most wanted their name to live on from one generation to the next.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Bellatri is well known, and a connection could easily be made,” she explained.
“All right, then it shall be as you wish.” I understood the need to keep her identity hidden, it was even more imperative now. The thought of losing either one of them tore at my heart.
“John, my necklace, help me remove it,” Ember asked quite suddenly. She continued to watch her child as though unable to tear her eyes away.
Wondering what she was thinking, I complied. I slid my hand across the back of her dampened neck and gently brushed her long copper hair aside. The delicate chain caught the light of the fire as I worked open the clasp. I had made this necklace for her, the pendant that hung was of the rare blue Ahstra Terrah—a star stone—cut into the shape of a teardrop amidst white gold wings. A star with wings, the ancient symbol of the Sceleste. I had also made her a ring to match. It was to have been a surprise, a gift to celebrate the birth of our first child. But sadly, in our rush to evacuate the great Temple Palace, it had been lost.
Ember took the necklace from me, and stared at it, holding it close to our daughter. The pendant hung within her palm, and she closed her fingers around it. I could feel the change in the air, the familiar tingle along the back of my neck. She was using her power. This stone was rare because it could hold three of the four powerful elements of life. Ember had the ability to wield both water and earth, and she was now imbuing some of that power into the crystal. She opened her eyes and held the pendant so I could see it once more. The stone seemed to brighten with a sudden flash, before fading back to its original sheen.
I didn’t have to ask, I had an idea what Ember was doing as she wrapped the delicate chain around the tiny wrist.
“I give you this stone for protection, my daughter, my dear sweet Mahren. It will keep dark eyes from finding you, and keep you safe until you find another light, another Love that will promise to protect you.” She kissed the innocent babe on her head where soft, light hairs were already shining gold in the light of the flickering flames.
“Ember, you can rest now, but we should go as soon as you are able.” I rested my big palm on my daughter’s belly and felt the tiny heart beating within. Life, precious and new amongst such dark and despairing times. She was hope and love made real, made tangible; proof that not all was lost.
I felt the slight change in Ember’s emotion. She was shaking her head. Her gaze had lifted and was drifting across the darkened room though she was not seeing it.
“No,” she whispered. “I will not be leaving here.”
I wasn’t sure if I had heard her correctly. “Ember?” I prayed she would say something different from the words that still echoed in my mind.
“It’s over, John. My fight has ended. It is too late for me now.” She was trying to stay calm, working to keep her voice even.
I shook my head, I didn’t want to believe it. “What do you mean? No… No, you’ll be fine, Eleanor is good at healing, she has fixed you.”
“No,” she whispered. “We are not alone. The Emperor is here. He is out in the courtyard with over one-hundred of his First Ring,” she swallowed hard, tears beginning to well in her eyes. “The others, Eleanor’s husband, the soldiers who vowed to protect us…” She shook her head.
Eleanor was across the room, trying to wash the blood-soaked linens. She froze at her words.
“They are dead,” Ember met Eleanor’s stunned gaze. “Your husband is dead,” her voice caught on the terrible truth.
Eleanor shook her head, unable to believe it.
“I am sorry, Elle. He tried to protect us, they all did… I’m so sorry…”
Eleanor fell to her knees sobbing, “No… No…”
I rushed to the woman who had given us shelter, who had saved Ember’s life, but there was no way to comfort her. Though they were not Sceleste, Eleanor and her husband had been as close as two could be without the added strength of the Life Bond. In my stunned and fatigued mind this knowledge was hitting me hard in the chest. Kahrus was here. What did this mean for us? A chill ran through me.
“How long, Ember? How long have you known?” I asked.
She held her babe close, keeping her calm and quiet, yet the child began to move, threatening to cry as though she could sense the heavy despair in the room.
“Three days,” she whispered. “He arrived just after Arvah left. I knew then that it was already too late for me.”
“But if he’s here, then why hasn’t he stormed in? There must be a mistake, perhaps your senses were affected by the long labor…”
“No,” Ember shook her head. “He’s here, and he knows where I am. He can feel me. But he doesn’t know about her.” She kissed Mahren on the cheek tenderly. “He has been waiting, biding his time. He knows that I can sense him. He is waiting for me to run.”
“Oh gods,” Eleanor cried.
“Then we are leaving now. I won’t let him have you.” I rushed around the room, grabbing only what was important. “I will carry you out of here if I must, both of you. We’ve lost so many… I won’t lose you, I won’t…”
“John, you know he will see, you know he will find me. He won’t stop until we are all dead.”
“They don’t know of the passage, we can escape through here and before he realizes, we will be far ahead of them.” I was adamant that there was a way out of this new danger. It wasn’t too late; it just could not be too late.
“Yes, you are right, but I have to stay. He doesn’t know about our daughter. It is me he wants. If we run, he will catch us, and then he will have her as well,” she swallowed. Her voice a calm, warm breeze in a storm of destruction. “John, you must take her and run. You must leave me behind.”
I rushed to Ember’s side, shaking my head. “No… I cannot leave you here, Ember. I will not…”
“Yes, you must…”
As if to cement the enormity of this fact, a sudden pounding shook the heavy oak door at the top of the cellar stairs. Only three doors stood in their way.
“He knows. He can sense the change, he suspects that I might act…”
“No… I will fight, I will protect you,” I unsheathed my sword and it rang in the dark stillness. “I will die if I must, but I will not leave you, Ember. I cannot abandon you to that monster. Eleanor will take Mahren away from here; she will escape with the child.”
Ember grabbed my collar and pulled me close, finding a strength I didn’t know she still had. She was using everything in her power, everything she had left, to will me to leave. “John, listen to me. It has to be you. You must take her and protect her. You must tell her about her mother, and teach her about the Sceleste. She could be the last, John. Kahrus must not find her.”
“No…” I sobbed, pleading to stay, pleading to die at her side.
“Please, John, you must do this.” Her already depleted strength was quickly running out, she was desperate. “Don’t let our daughter be alone in this world. She needs you, John. She needs your love.” Her tears fell on her child where she was held between us.
I knew that she was right, but everything in my gut, in my heart, was telling me to stay, to fight, that running would be wrong, a coward’s act. I leaned forward and embraced her, hardly able to breathe. The pounding was growing louder, they had made it to the second door.
“John…” Eleanor was waiting for me, ready to run. Ready to take the child if it came to it.
I held Ember’s gaze and we looked at each other; the decision, a terrible decision, had to be made.
“Run now, so you can fight another day. Run now, so she can live.” Ember’s strong words resonated within. I understood her desperate need. But to leave her… Oh gods, to leave her. She was about to die… In that moment, facing our end, I kissed her. Tenderly, passionately, putting all of my love into that kiss so she could feel it, so she would not meet her end without me. “I love you, Ember… I love you… Oh gods, I can’t leave… don’t make me leave you.”
The sounds of clanking armor, of heavy boots and shouted commands, rang out from the room beyond. The door shuddered with a resounding bang. They were about to break through.
“Take her, John… Take her and run,” Ember cried against my cheek. “I love you. I will always be with you…”
My vision blurred. I could barely see as my tears came, as the sobs began to shake me. Mahren was cradled in my arms, a tiny bundle that I had to protect at all costs. I gazed at my wife, the one whom I loved more than anything in this world, the woman I would die for—already the cost was too high.
“Take him out of here, Elle, please, get them out…” Ember cried.
I couldn’t make myself move, but as Eleanor’s arms grabbed me, pulled on me, urging me toward the long, dark passage, I realized that I had to go. She was not only my wife, she was Sceleste, and I, a servant of the Sceleste; this was their last command.
“John, come with me… this way. You must…” Eleanor pleaded. Her words sounded distant and strange, yet I complied. I watched as the cold distance grew between me and my beloved Ember Grace.
I hesitated at the mouth of the passage. I held her gaze, and her calmness staggered me, never flinching, never wavering, even as she knew that this would be the last glimpse of love she would ever see. She was forcing herself to be strong for me, to meet her end with peaceful dignity.
“Avenge us, John… Avenge us,” Ember cried; her last words as Eleanor forcefully pulled me back.
The sound of stone scraping across the floor was barely heard over the loud crash of the final door. I ran blindly through the endless tunnel. Eleanor pushing me, urging me on. Their was silence save for our panted, anguished breaths, our shuffling footfalls as we staggered onward.
We made it out onto the beach, the dark of night bright and open compared to the suffocating black of the narrow tunnel; I hardly noticed. The beach was to our left, the hillsides of the winery behind us. Once a place of life and beauty and refuge, it was now a horrendous nightmare straight from the depths of Dehorc.
We ran on, as far as we could, as though more than just the need to put distance between the babe and Kahrus spurred us on. Eleanor directed me, pulling me, forcing me to change direction toward the grassy mounds to our right, where trees and hills could hide us from the soldiers. Yet they were not following, they didn’t have to, they already had what they wanted.
I was concentrating inward, using our Bond to feel my wife, to stay connected; to stay with her. I could feel her fear, her growing panic, her fight to stay strong. What was happening? What was Kahrus going to do to her?
In a sudden flash, gut wrenching pain hit me. I fell to my knees, sucking in air, forcing myself to breathe.
“No…” I cried.
Eleanor was immediately beside me, taking the child from my arms. “John, hold on… it has started. Hold on… concentrate on my voice.”
I barely heard her as the pain ignited, growing stronger and fiercer every second. I screamed my desperation, and pounded the ground with my anger, my grief. She was dying, my Ember was dying. Kahrus was taking her away from me, destroying her. I had seen and I had heard others lose their battle against the man who sought to destroy us all; one by one, he had killed them. One by one, the Sceleste had fallen; screams in the night as they suffered the loss of their beloved wives. And now I was losing her too. I had vowed to protect her, I had vowed to save her, but I had run instead. Now we would suffer it together.
My echoed screams rang out across the hills, as though praying, pleading for the mercy of the Star’s Light to save us, to save her. But it would not come this night, just as it had not come before. Somewhere just to the south, a line of light began to ascend. A pure white beacon of terrible beauty, cascading upwards, shimmering, reaching for the Stars. Ember’s light, her power, her soul, was being taken from her.
All I could do was watch and writhe in anguished despair as her pain, our pain, continued to pound through me. Its beauty shined on for several minutes, changing color only twice. And then all at once, it faded and was gone.
I screamed with heart-wrenching grief. Now the Bond would sever, and Ember’s soul would be gone from me forever.