A Flame Burns Free

Lore from Beyond Haven

- December 2022 Popular Vote Pick

The gods were coming with the noontime sun and the gray stone streets shimmered with the flames of celebration. They came every year for one of their children and everyone was overjoyed. The next Gadling, they would call the chosen young one, and rejoice for them as they were whisked away, never to be seen again. Merriment carried on in the spiral streets and all eyes darted up to the only entrance into Imperyo, their hollow mountain home, hoping to see the Thesmekka as they dropped down through the Gate.

Durako, nor any of the other children, looked up a single time during the festivities. They didn’t want to see. Smiling at the revelers, huddled together on the platform wringing their little hands; their tears were dismissed as the ignorance and naivety of childhood. The round, metallic Gate at the top of their shelter would give no warning until the Thesmekka were upon them. All sound was blocked though they were allowed to see the sun as it passed over. A flame brighter than any they could ever make, forever out of reach.

This arrival would be Durako’s ninth to witness, though he only really understood what was happening during the last two. He remembered his father’s conversation with his mother in their home during the last arrival, overheard from behind his quietly opened metal door.

“For what? What do divine beings need with children? I refuse to believe it’s anything to do with the Brutes. It’s a lie.”

“Please Vosko,” his mother said calmly, “do not draw attention.”

Glancing at the walls, the front door, and even their auto-kitchen arm that dangled from the ceiling above the countertop, she put her hand on his chest and nodded her head.

“This is the last time, Lamora. I can’t live like this. I look at those people out there and feel disgust at their complacency. No, their eagerness. Their own children, for Thessa’s sake!”

“Hush, that’s enough now. You know I agree, but this is neither the time nor the place.”

Durako didn’t know why they were so angry, but he did remember one part of the conversation. His father said the Thesmekka were lying. About what? He didn’t know, but Durako thought if he were chosen, the last thing he could do for his father would be to ask them about that lie and have it answered, to finally put his mind at ease.

Lamora stood near her nine-year old son and searched across the crowd for his father, Vosko. Durako could not have been more perfect in every way. He was tall, he was handsome, fearless and proficient with his fire, and he was theirs. She held his hand tightly as he knelt down beside her on the platform. They weren’t speaking to each other, but when her eyes met Vosko’s, they locked with a fiery purpose. Her grip tightened on her son’s hand, causing him to reassure her that they were going to pick someone else. She knew he was too young to really understand what that consolation meant. Too young to understand that some other siv and sieva were going to lose their child forever and no one would expect anything but joyous celebration. No one would listen to or understand their anger. No one would see those parents turning into husks of their former selves, going about with dead eyes. No one but her and those that secretly stood in the crowd with her that day.

Durako always had a strong sense of duty. His parents knew he would be difficult to manage if things got out of hand, but they had to put him on the platform. He was of age, there would be consequences that could ruin everything they had worked towards. As Vosko stared at his son, thinking of him as a four year old, wagging his finger around in a matter-of-fact way about how to properly sit so his back would not hunch, a sudden burst of familiar sound jerked them all into a defensive crouch. Cheering launched the crowd upright again and Vosko searched around for his companions. They were ready, though the color was gone from many of their faces so much so that they began to match their stony surroundings.

Three Thesmekka lowered themselves down with the flames that burned from their backs. The rush of the jet-fire heat deafened them all. They had two arms, though one of them arrived with four. They had stocky legs, and though they were made of metal, it looked to be gold and pearl. Perfectly centered between their eyes was a single white orb so large, it could fill the palm of Vosko’s hand. The crowd parted, forming a large circle for them to land in on the top level of Imperyo’s interior, on the widest part of the only upwardly winding street. With the blazing roar echoing off every wall and blood pumping in his head and ears, Durako almost didn’t realize when the silence came. The divine intruders seemed to purposefully circle him. Everything was still abuzz and Vosko was frozen like the stone they lived in, watching the Thesmekka speak to his son.

“What is your name?” One of the Thesmekka asked Durako in its otherworldly, serene voice. The mouth, indicated by deeply set lines that continued on to outline the rest of the face, remained unmoving.

When the poor boy finally figured out how to answer, the crowd cheered him and the Thesmekka motioned their approval. In an instant, he had been chosen. They pried Lamora’s hand away from Durako and in that moment, Vosko felt sick. His whole life began to fall apart and all his plans forgotten.

“No! You can’t take him!”

The defiant voice of his sieva rang out over the silence and prodded him as if he were a sleeping Brute. All his courage returned and he bellowed the signal to attack, throwing his arm forward as his body followed. Those who were not in agreement with their actions were cowards to Vosko and proved as such when they simply jumped out of their way or, like the terrified children on the platform, fled entirely at the thought of violence before the Thesmekka.

The metallic gods turned toward the charging Impery men, unaware of the women drawing deep breaths behind them. Unleashing the billowing flames erupting from the stream of chemicals launched out of under their tongues, they coated the Thesmekka in fire. The heat licked at their slick metal bodies, but was extinguished with a single sigh of exhaust from the vents that covered them. The steam reached out so fiercely at the women that many of them did not see the retaliation coming until metal arms swept them side to side, fanning them away like leftover smoke. Lamora managed to keep close to her son, avoiding the Thesmekkian attacks.

“Mom, what are you doing?!” Durako cried, his voice breaking, grabbing her arm to try and pull her away.

Lamora slung him behind her and blew fire up between the metal plates, into an underside filled with wires and moving parts that could not have been noticed except from below. Everyone’s mind was filled with a high-pitched, mechanical screech, stopping the flames as Lamora clasped both sides of her head. Durako was able to recover from the crippling scream in time to see a precise beam of light burn a hole through the middle of his mother’s chest. She looked to him rather than her wound, and died before she started falling.

Any air that may have been in his lungs was stolen away as he watched the ground grow farther away under his feet. The Thesmekka that had killed her was jetting away with him tucked under its arm, swiftly approaching the daylight on the other side of the Gate. He was the Gadling. Probably the last, since everyone was sure to be punished. Just like his mother was. He didn’t know how, but he was certain they weren’t going to want to keep them safe anymore. His mother was dead? No, he was certain they were going to have to make it up to them. After all, they weren’t hurt badly, but they were killing Impery beneath his soft, white shoes.

“Mom?” Durako breathed, unheard by even himself.

More than halfway up to the Gate, Durako saw his father and five other men struggling with subduing a Thesmekka and they were actually holding their own. That is, until it flailed its arm around and beamed one of them in the head, obliterating it completely. Vosko grabbed the Thesmekka by what should have been the neck and lurched its head backward, until it was looking up at the Gate. Trying to ram his hand inside, Vosko stopped when he saw the laser arm swinging up to blow a hole in him next and dove onto the deadly limb just as the beam began to form. The light shot up and sliced the air above them, cutting through a small fraction of the Thesmekka that carried Durako. That small fraction was apparently more crucial than it seemed to be as the divine kidnapper began to fall, blaring flames completely shut off all at once. Durako could have reached out and touched the Gate, but the unexpected, downward momentum made him recoil into himself. He pulled at the arm, trying to pry himself free until the pull of falling made his muscles useless. All he could think was falling and all he could feel was his stomach trying to come out of his mouth. As they passed the top and second levels, Durako brought his eyes to what awaited them below. The cold, flat stone of level fourteen. He could finally scream.

Another pull in the opposite direction put speckles in his vision and cut his scream off like a muffling cloth as his chest pressed against the Thesmekkian arm wrapped around him, squeezing his air out. Above them, the four-armed Thesmekka had caught its comrade and began heading for the Gate above. Durako frantically looked for a way to safely escape, but they were too far from the edges of the street and too quickly accelerating upward.

“Let me down!”

The Thesmekka whipped its head toward him with unnatural precision, still heading in a direction it didn’t seem to be looking at with utmost consistency. Reaching an extra limb back, it began pushing and prodding at Durako, attempting to loose him from the body of the Thesmekka being flighted away. Durako slipped, but grabbed onto an arm with several dimly lit buttons and heard the high-pitched whir of energy from the lasers building up force. He couldn’t believe this god was going to kill him, but he couldn’t let go or he was certainly dead. His arms slipped a little more and the barely audible squeal released a deep boom, blasting a blinding, burning light out from the arm he dangled from. An explosion of rocks and quaking walls rumbled out, but Durako couldn’t hear any of it. Deafened by proximity and blinded by the flash, he clung to the metal arm while it whipped around as if he were welded to it. Then, they went down again. Another Thesmekka, dead, though he was not sure how. It was entirely intact.

As they passed the topmost, the second, the third, and fourth levels at a powerful speed, Durako braced himself. It’s one thing to know pain is coming, even a big pain, but there is no understanding what to do when there’s only death coming. Being a child was no help either. So, he clenched his teeth and held on tight.

“Unsafe velocity.”

His eyes popped open. Where did that voice come from? Was the Thesmekka waking up? He craned his head around to see, but they were both more lifeless than when they first arrived. No lights, no busy flickering behind their motionless eyes. Suddenly, the same kind of exhaust that had extinguished the Impery women’s flames blew out of the vents facing the ground with a force great enough to drastically slow their fall. The impact still hurt, but they were all in one piece.

The moment his senses returned, Durako scrambled away from the wreckage. His traction-less shoes scraped desperately against the grainy floor and he clawed his way to a running pose, stopping only when he reached a wall. Just as he turned to press his back against the cold stone, the third and final Thesmekka swooped down and attempted to carry the other two away. It’s upward ascent was so slow that it gave up, turned, and blasted another hole in the mountain’s interior wall. A crack slipped up the side of their towering home, reaching all the way up the fourteen levels until it reached the Gate nestled into the stone at the inner peak. The Gate jerked, lurched, and swayed as it came loose from its hinges. Then, the Gate that had been their only source of light, air, and hope to one day see the outside world again, fell. It drove passed each level with such heft that a gust pushed the onlookers back from each ledge and the crash from its landing at the bottom brought only silence in its mighty wake.

After a long, drawn out moment, the escaping Thesmekka could be heard scraping across the ground. Unable to drag both comrades after being damaged by the launched debris, it begrudgingly dropped one of them and was able to escape with the other. The one left behind was the four-armed one, the one that was dead, but for reasons Durako did not understand. Everyone hiding in the shadows slowly came forward and those who had been watching poured down from the spiral street above. It was only at the sound of his father’s frantic voice that Durako felt part of reality again.

“Durako! I can’t believe it. There you are, thank Thessa!”

Vosko was so relieved, tears filled his eyes and didn’t fall until he wrapped his arms around his son and squeezed his eyes shut. Their home had two holes in it and a dead god laying on the floor. All the Brutes had to do was walk in now. The Thesmekka would never come to them again, he was sure of it. As his father held him, letting all his terrible fears drain from his arms, Durako could feel nothing. His mother was dead. All these people were staring at them. It was his fault, it was their fault. Why did they do this? Just for him? Everything was destroyed.

“Lord Vosko, what should we do about that?”

Several Impery men came up behind him, supportive, but shaken. The one who spoke had been their family’s closest friend. He pointed toward the gaping hole in the mountain, not the Thesmekkian corpse laying in the center of their fallen Gate, cratered into the stone floor of level fourteen. That metal body was all Durako could look at. He almost couldn’t see the hole. Nothing made sense. They loved the Thesmekka. Everyone said so. This wasn’t his world anymore.

“Now that we are free from our prison and our wardens,” said Lord Vosko, trying to force the quiver from his tone. “We will go out into the world and see for ourselves that we have been deceived. Surely there are others who have been confined like we have. Our flame will light the way for a future under the sun, as we have earned!”

Vosko put his hand around his son’s shoulder, but felt the shifting weight. Durako was uncertain, they all were. He had lost someone dear to him, but most had that day. Vosko took solace in the fact that their pains would soon heal under the warmth of the burning sun. As he guided Durako and the rest of the curious inhabitants of Imperyo outside, they saw a world coated in white.

“Snow,” said a man, one known to spend too much time in the holographic library. “It’s the winter time of year, the cold time.”

“I don’t like it out here,” whispered Durako, feeling his father pull him closer in.

The air was indeed crisp and many shrunk back into the warmth of the mountain. Lord Vosko blew fire at the ground and found the earth underneath. He grabbed it, held the frosty dirt in his fingers, and smiled as he looked out over the untouched horizon.