As far as plans go, this is wildly simple. But at least that means there’s less things to go wrong.
Most of the Celestials remain in their village, but their elite have come out to this silver-rimmed clearing to lay a trap for the harbingers.
Step one: lure the harbingers by my presence. If they’re tracking my blood, I figure they’ll be here soon.
Step two: banish them to the ends of the universe.
Not really sure how that part works. The Celestials are the harbingers’ mortal enemies, and they think they can hijack their portal to create a starlight barrier that will keep them out of the Celestial’s—and hopefully us humans’—hair for quite some time. Apparently protective barriers are kind of the Celestials’ whole thing.
I’m just here as the bait. Not my favorite job, but as long as things go according to plan, the harbingers will never actually breach the portal.
I glance at the Celestial waiting beside me, crouched behind an inky-black boulder. Curiosity gets the better of me as I peek over my shoulder toward their village where Major is hiding and conserving his limited oxygen supply. “So… how come I’ve never heard of Celestials before?”
The starry being shifts soundlessly, looking down at me, then at the star-dog Kip at my side. “We do not meddle in human affairs.”
Ah. “What do you do, then?”
“We gather new souls before the harbingers taint them, and protect your worlds from their slavery.”
“Hold on.” I raise a palm. “You gather souls?” I inch away slightly.
I sense amusement. “When a person’s breath is stolen by the Void, we bring them here to become one of us.”
My mind spins. These star-people are angels, then. Or ghosts. Or both, somehow. And neither.
A question quivers on my tongue. I was merely a child when my brother was taken by the Void. I wonder… did he come here? “Do you bring… souls here often?”
The Celestial shifts again, clearly uncomfortable, but finally she acquiesces, her words pensive, “There were never so many newcomers all at once as when the Nova’s trade ring exploded.”
My heart clenches. Dare I ask? “My… my parents were there that day.”
She inclines her head. “Yes.”
I swallow down the surging hope. “Are they… here?” Despite my best efforts, my voice trembles slightly.
The Celestial hums. “We do not know even our own past life beyond vague impressions, so I cannot say.”
Disappointment sinks to my gut.
“However, most from the trade ring have passed on.”
I frown. “What does that mean?”
“They have ascended to the Celestial Realm.” I raise an eyebrow and she adds, “To peace.”
Peace. At the word, some of the weary ache in my heart lessens.
Perhaps in this Celestial Realm, my parents have found my brother. Reunited, at last.
I feel the Celestial’s gaze and turn away, blinking rapidly. “Thank you,” I whisper.
“On guard!” The Celestials rouse, tension tangible.
I spin to the clearing. A flame-rimmed portal tears through the fabric of the Celestials’ world.
The harbingers have traced me here, and now it’s time for their demise.
The Celestials rise from around the clearing, stretching their hands toward each other as they approach the portal, slowly, stately.
Before the Celestials can form a circle, a gnarled hand claws through the swirling red portal.
One Celestial jerks back, and they all stumble.
No! I stare, heart pounding. “Hurry!” They were so close.
“We are too late!” one cries.
Another smokey hand appears on the other side of the portal, stretching the opening wider. The shape of the harbinger looms beyond.
“Open another portal beneath them! Make them fall through, then banish them!” I shout.
The Celestials back away. “Portals are the harbingers’ power alone!”
My gut clenches. If they can’t open a portal, they can’t banish the harbingers, and we’re all about to die.
Unless we fight them with their own power.
The Celestials scatter, some fleeing toward the village, others into the trees, a small few standing their ground helplessly.
“Wait!” I block a fleeing Celestial. “Get Major! I’ll hold the harbingers off so he can make a portal underneath them, then you lot can do your thing.”
“You will surely die.”
“Thanks for that pep talk. Now go!” I leap over the boulder, desperately hoping the Celestial would do as I asked.
Heart pounding. Lungs tight from the extended exposure to the Void. Mind screaming at my own idiocy.
I stumble to face the growing portal as the first harbinger clambers through. The figure’s flame-hooded head turns both ways. The Celestials remain well hidden, and the harbinger’s orb-like center turns its focus on me, pulsing in the darkness beneath its hood.
“You made it!” I spread my hands in welcome.
More angular figures exit the portal. Ignoring me, the leader starts toward the clearing’s edge.
Think, think, think! How long will it take for Major to make a new portal? I have to buy enough time, and keep them all close enough together.
“Wait!” I shout. “Don’t go that way!”
The being pauses, then swivels to me. “Why should we listen to you?” Its voice booms inside my skull.
“It’s a trap!” I blurt.
In a heartbeat, the harbinger looms inches from my nose. “You think to lead us into a trap? For this you shall—”
“I know! For this I shall die.” I lift my palms. “But I just told you about the trap, so I’m clearly not leading you into it, right?”
The harbinger pauses, and the others cluster nearer, listening. Finally, the leader tilts its head. “Continue.”
I release a shuddery exhale, scrambling for ideas. “The Celestials captured me when I arrived, but I convinced them to let me go in exchange for helping them kill you.”
A ripple of fury runs through my audience, and I raise my hands higher. “A lie, of course! A lie!” I lie. “I only wanted them to believe that that so you could kill them.”
I can almost watch the harbingers trying to follow my twisted logic. They won’t put up with this—or me—for much longer, I can tell.
A harbinger growls. “If your lie can deceive the celestials, how can we trust anything you say?”
I nod a couple times. “Good—good question, yes.”
“You could be lying to us right now.”
“I could, yes. I can see why you would consider that an option.” I can almost feel his claws in my neck again. The last thing I’ll ever feel… unless Major hurries up. I curse him internally, groping for words. “But!” I step backward as the harbinger closes in again. “But, you can trust me, because why would I lie to you, knowing that you’ll just kill me for it? I’ve learnt my lesson about that. I don’t have a death wish.”
The harbinger considers this for a moment. “Then tell us where these traps are.”
“Yes, of course.” I gulp. Point toward where the harbinger had been heading before. “Over there is… a trap. Don’t go that way.” Could you sound any less believable, Jesse? “And that way” —I point the opposite direction— “not good either.”
I turn toward the Celestial village. “This way is…”
Movement stirs in the shadows. Major beckons. I curse under my breath. I’m too close to the harbingers. If he opens the portal, I’ll fall through too.
“Tell us,” the harbinger demands.
I spin back. “I’ll show you the way. Stay there—”
“You do not give orders, mortal.”
“Just did,” I gasp and sprint toward Major, praying the harbingers don’t catch on too fast.
But with a woosh, the ground sweeps from under my feet. I grope for a handhold, the Void pulling me down, down.
Something snags my sleeve, halting my backward slide. Teeth clamped on my cuff, Kip hangs on tight.
Then Major hauls me away. I turn to see the harbingers clutching at the edges of Major’s portal, smoke billowing beneath their hoods like visible rage. One by one, they slip.
“It is time.” A Celestial approaches, followed by a dozen others.
They encircle the portal, arms outstretched. As their hands touch, their forms fade, merging into a cloud of stars, glowing brighter and brighter.
I shut my eyes against a blinding flash of silver. Then stillness.