If Belenor forgot the number of years it took him to mourn, he did so, as Brandille had announced him. There was that day when the first image that came to him when he woke up was not the severed head of his friend. Then that other time, when he didn't think about him all day. Month after month, the ghost of Garius, until then clinging to his shoulders, gained in lightness. And then one day, he vanished, without the Fyros even realizing it, leaving only the happy memories behind. Today, thinking back on this strange period, only the memory of the first two years seemed clear to him. Two difficult years, so much his relation with Varran had degraded… Because since the death of his twin, the colossus was only the shadow of himself. An aggressive and sad shadow. His friends thought they would seen him sink definitively all when his father, already quite weakened by his work in the mines, committed suicide a few months later. So when, in 2477, Melkiar obtained the highest academic rank and decided, to the great displeasure of the army, to leave Fyre for good to join his tribe, he took Varran under his wing. As sad as the goodbyes were then, Belenor experienced Varran's departure as a relief. Like a new beginning. And to move on, he took refuge in work.
Thus, while finishing his studies, the Fyros joined the teaching staff of the Academy. While the military strategy courses he was teching to the young academicians occupied much of his time, his new status also granted him certain privileges. One of them was access to the private sections of the Great Library of Fyre. Thus, Belenor had plenty of time to delve into a subject that had interested him greatly at the acme of the writing of his story: the study of the Karavan, the Kamis, and the many cults that were dedicated to them. This is why he was so interested in the study of the Karavan, the Kamis, and the many cults dedicated to them. Indeed, his encounter with the Black Kami had deeply upset him. Was it the same one that appeared a few months after his birth, above his cradle, as his parents had told him? If so, what ties did he share with him? Why had he saved him? And then, what about that voice, which he was sure he had heard, just before the Kami attacked the Dune Riders?
- "I need you, Belenor... Think of the Happy Days, Belenor... I am always by your side, Belenor. Never forget.
Obsessed by these questions, the Fyros had combed all the studies on the Kamis available at the Academy. He wanted to know everything about these spirits of nature. Of course, he knew that the knowledge compiled by the Empire was not enough, and that sooner or later he would have to go to the highest place of known Kamic knowledge: the city of Taai-Toon, where the Great Library of the Zorai people was rebuilt after the Empire had sacked Zoran in 2328. Unable to resign himself to leaving the Academy without the highest rank, like Melkiar before him, Belenor had to find something to quench his thirst for knowledge. Thus he began to frequent the Kamis temples of the capital, sometimes accompanied by Xynala, where they were both initiated into various ritual practices. Although freedom of worship was a right granted by the Empire to its citizens, the spirituality of the Fyros was never to prevail over the "Four Pillars of the Empire". That is why the Empire allowed, under certain conditions only, the construction of temples within its cities. Moving thus from theory to practice, Belenor was surprised to see how the followers of the various Kamic faiths maintained good relations, despite certain major disagreements. The most important of these was the existence and identity of the Supreme Kami. According to the majority of cults, the Supreme Kami was Jena, the Goddess of the Day Star and the Mother of the hominity, while for other more animistic currents, there was no Supreme Kami. If in "The Sacred War", the story he had written a few years earlier, Belenor had amused himself by imagining the Supreme Kami as a gigantic entity buried somewhere in the depths of Atys, none of the Kamic cults he had studied described such a being. Yet he had never forgotten the time he had met that Zorai trader in the tavern more than ten years before. He had never forgotten the frightened look she had given him as he spoke the words "Black Mask"… A black mask he had seen himself caressing in a vision, triggered by the Black Kami's physical contact, as he and Xynala had gone to Garius' improvised burial chamber. Deep down, Belenor was convinced that his childhood dreams, the very ones that had fed his story, were not insignificant. Perhaps they had something to do with this Black Kami. So the Fyros got into his head to meet a Kami, in order to discuss with him.
This is the request he made to Messen Dyn, an old Kamist monk with whom he had befriended. Hesitant at first, the old Fyros finally accepted the young follower's request, not so much to do him a favor as to make him understand that the Kamis were not loquacious creatures. In his opinion, if the young homin was really blessed by the Kami, he should by himself understand the fate they had in store for him. The first few times Messen tried to invoke a Kami, the ritual failed: sitting cross-legged in front of the great brazier that overhung the altar, the two Fyros meditated and prayed for a long time, without success. And then one day, when there was no indication that this meditation session would be special, the great fire suddenly stopped flickering. As if they had just solidified, five red flames froze, while at the bottom of the blaze, the blackened logs seemed to be animated by strange movements. Surely some unseen force was shaping the flaming and carbonaceous material. Only when the Fyros realized that the two yellow shapes he was watching at were nothing more than a pair of eyes, did he know that the ritual had worked. Endowed with long, hairless, brown limbs and five horns that looked like burnt wood, still glowing at the tip, with red and orange veins running down to its large yellow eyes, the Fire Kami was in the process of extricating itself from the inferno. A few seconds later, it is the arched back, crouched on the edge of the altar in front of the incandescent flames, that the divine creature observed silently the two homins. Messen thanked his guest for a long time then explained him briefly why he had called upon him. And while the old monk gave the word to Belenor, and that this one thanked in his turn the Kami of Fire, the divine creature jumped back and disappeared in a spray of flames…-–—o§O§o—–-
Sitting comfortably on his father's rendorhide chair, elbows resting on his magnificent solid wood desk, and hands busy playing with the braid of his long mahogany beard, Belenor stared dully at the flame of the wall lantern. Even today, the memory of this brief encounter remained burning. As much as the disappointment that was associated with it. For since that time, he had never seen a Kami again. Taking his eyes off the hypnotic light source, the Fyros turned his attention back to his student's assignment. But no sooner had he frowned, detecting a gross error, than he heard a knock on the door.
- "Come in." the Fyros ordered without taking his eyes off his copy.
- "I'm sorry to bother you so early, young master, but your friends just arrived already. They are waiting for you in the lobby."
Looking up from her copy, Belenor smiled at her nanny.
- "You know you never bother me, Penala."
The Fyros put down his igara quill, stood up leaning on his father's desk, and headed for the door. The wrinkled face of the old lady, who had just spread her arms, showed an affectionate smile. It is without waiting that Belenor snuggled up against her. The relation that the young homin maintained with his nurse was particularly strong. Much stronger than the link of blood which bound him to his parents. She was the one who had fed him, bathed him, looked after him, raised him. A substitute mother, in short. Therefore, if he was often reluctant to take his mother in his arms, Penala's embraces brought him, on the contrary, always much comforting. With her nose buried in her greying hair, Belenor tried to delay the moment of separation: the girls could wait a few minutes. It was not the opinion of Penala, who, kissing him noisily on the cheek, put an end to the embrace.
- "Come on master Belenor, you might be late. Isn't this day important for you?"
- "Yes, it is, Penala, you are right. The truth is that I'm a little stressed, I must admit… I didn't sleep well, and I feel quite tired. Four years have passed, that's a long time. I hope that everything will go well."
- "Everything will go well, I'm sure. Have you any lunch? Eating might give you some strength."
- "No, my stomach is in a knot."
- "So do me the favor to take a detour to the kitchen before you join your friends. And don't forget to enjoy this day, it would be a shame to pass that by. Oh, I also wanted to tell you that this braid looks great on you! When I was your age, your father wore the same braid."
- "So, I would have preferred to do without this compliment, Penala." Belenor grinned before returning her kiss.
His nurse gave a slight laugh, kissed him one last time, then gently pushed him out of the office. Half obediently, Belenor went through the manor at the run, but headed straight for the entrance hall, without passing through the kitchen. As agreed, Xynala, Tisse and Brandille were waiting for him next to the big doors of the cave manor.
The two Fyrossa, each dressed in her scarlet military uniforms, were busy looking at a large amber sculpture that decorated the entrance. Four years ago, when Melkiar and Varran had departed, they had both decided to leave the Academy and join the military full time. The trophies they had won during their teenage years, combined with the last academic rank they had earned and the fame they had gained in recent years as reservists, had allowed them to enter as officers. From then on, the two homines had become very close, forgetting all about the love fights of their adolescence. Xynala Zeseus, now a lieutenant, was in charge of one of the mobile platoons responsible for maintaining order in Fyre. As for her, Tisse Apoan, promoted to lieutenant instructor, was in charge of teaching marksmanship to the military and academics. In many ways, the exemplary careers of the two Fyrossa were emblematic of the porosity that existed between the Academy and the Imperial Army. Brandille, for her part, wearing loose, brightly colored clothes that matched her multicolored braids, stood on the tips of her boots and was monitoring the outskirts of the mansion through the screened hatch in the main door. Watching his friend from the top of the open staircase that led to the entrance hall, Belenor knew instantly that something was not quite right: Brandille was strangely motionless.
- "Hello, you three." said the Fyros as he came down the steps two at a time. "Is everything all right, Brandille?"
- "Except for the awful smell that's been attacking my pretty little nose since this morning, you mean?"
- "What do you mean? What smell are you talking about?"
- "Ah, so you don't smell anything either." exclaimed Xynala, turning around. "The first thing that Brandille told us at noon, when we came to look for him with Tisse, was that we didn't smell good… Here's the mood."
Turning around with a bounce, Brandille put her hands on her hips and looked falsely outraged.
- "It is not you, specifically, who does not smell good. I can't count the number of baths we've already shared, so I can attest to the impeccable quality of your grooming. It's not you, it's on you. It's in the air, and it's settling everywhere!"
- "And what does that smell look like, Brandille?" continued the Fyros.
- "I could hardly tell you, Enor. A pungent, sickening smell. For the moment that's still light. But my little nose – and you know how reliable it is – is certain that the smell is only getting closer. Ah, by the way, it has just revealed to me that it is carried by the west winds!"
- "The west winds?" questioned Tisse mischievously, his fingers lost in his long red hair. "Ah, but that's good, we have the answer! That's Melkiar and Varran, who have returned from the depths of the Desert after four years without bathing!"
At these words, Belenor and Xynala burst out laughing. Brandille rolled his big mauve eyes to the sky, opened the doors of the manor wide and pinched her nose.
- "You three make a fine bunch of comics. Would you like to join my troupe? I'm recruiting non-stop right now, for my new show. In fact, there's a rehearsal tonight!"
- "By no mean." replied the redhead. "If we're on leave today, it's not to work tonight!"
- "More seriously Brandille, this smell is worrying you?" continued Belenor while passing the door step following Tisse and Xynala.
- "Quite enough, yes. But maybe Tisse is right, and that it emanates simply from the two other weirdos. He's expected at the imperial palace, isn't he?" asked Brandille as she headed for Dyros Avenue.
- "Yes." Belenor swallowed. "That's right."
If the reception of her friends had allowed him to forget her anxieties, at least during a few moments, these had just reappeared at gallop. Because today marked the return of Melkiar and Varran in the Fyros capital, after four years of absence. Four years during which few letters had been exchanged. Four years of separation, which perhaps questioned the depth of their friendship. Belenor remembered how, eleven years ago, when to convince Xynala that the heartache she felt would pass, like all the negative and positive emotions that crossed the homins during their life, he had taken as an example the affection that all of them felt for each other.
- "One day, we won't be friends anymore, that's a certainty. The potential reasons are numerous: ideological differences, weariness, physical distance, or simply death. Everything passes Xynala. Everything…"
At this hour, the Fyros hoped to be mistaken. And if, having discussed it with his three friends, they were all much less worried than he was, he had not managed to reassure himself. Especially since he still felt responsible for Garius' death, even though he had been tried many times to persuade him otherwise…
During these four years, it was also likely that Melkiar and Varran had changed a lot. Especially Melkiar, whose father had been killed before his eyes, on the battlefield. This strengthened the bond between him and Varran a little more. Becoming chief of the Dragon's Tears tribe, Melkiar succeeded in going even further than his father, Tigriron, and perpetuated the coalition formed by the latter at the time of the war against the Dune Riders. Signing a peace treaty, the tribes of the former coalition placed themselves definitively under the protection of the Dragon Tears. But this historic event was only the beginning of a great series of political victories. So, just a few months ago, Melkiar finally succeeded in bringing all the tribes of the Western Desert under his leadership. An unthinkable feat, reminiscent of the unifying military campaign that Dyros the Great, the first emperor of the Fyros people, had led more than two hundred years earlier. But unlike Dyros, he had not had to resort to arms. His bravery, charisma and great intelligence seemed to have been enough. At this thought, Belenor smiled inwardly, and remembered the speech he had given on the day they met, already eighteen years ago:
- "When I grow up, I plan to bring all the tribes to the west of the Desert, where I was born. Life there is much harder than here. No regular army, no aqueduct… I would like to found a great city there, equal to Fyre. Of course, waging war on the rebellious tribes to force their cooperation might be enough. But that's does'nt fit my values. I promise myself to do it my way: to prove my bravery, to perform feats, to gain their trust."
Today, Melkiar's dream was within reach. For if the one who was nicknamed The Prodigy had travelled to Fyre, it was precisely to meet Emperor Cerakos II, who had succeeded his father Krospas, who had died two years earlier during a traditional varinx hunt. To discuss with him his desire to found a city that would adequately accommodate the tribes he was now federating. A city that, built around Fort Kronk, would become the great imperial city of the far western desert. Belenor understood why Xynala, Tisse and himself had fallen in love with Melkiar. His ability to gather widely around him, and to move forward - ever further - was fascinating.
- "Enor, you're listening to me?" exclaimed Brandille, her nose still pinched.
Not observing a response, the acrobat leaped in front of his dreamer friend then continued in his nasal voice.
- "You think too much, I can see it in your eyes. In those moments, it's like time expands. Like you pause the conversations, and take the time to write your thoughts in between everyone's lines. Why use the third person, anyway? Anyway, let's move on… I'll repeat myself, Enor: no, these four years of separation are not enough to put your friendship in question. Yes, Melkiar's life has changed a lot: he now has many more responsibilities than once. But you remain his friend, Enor. Not to mention the fact that he tied his fate to yours that day. Remember? You're the one who'll tell his story. That's what he says at the end of his speech. At the end of the first chapter of your adventures."
Stopped short, both by the leap and the monologue, Belenor glared at Brandille.
- "Brandille, I hate it when you do that…"
- "When I do what, Enor?"
- "When you read my mind, Brandille."
- "I don't read your mind, I've told you that. I'm not a Kami."
- "Yet you…"
- "You're just a real open book, Enor. And I know you like I wrote you!"
The Fyros sighed, Brandille clowned with her pinched nose, then both followed Xynala and Tisse through the alleys, toward Dyros Avenue. Built in the widest crack of the fissure that hosted Fyre, this busy thoroughfare connected the Imperial Palace directly to the city wall that closed the city to the south. As expected, the avenue was particularly crowded on this market day. Arriving at the top of that avenue, the four comrades were only a ten-minute walk from the Palace, of which they could already contemplate the immense central tower from which the Emperor used to speak to his people. A ten-minute walk from Melkiar and Varran, therefore, whom they would certainly find in front of the Palace, on Hempios Square. And if Xynala, Tisse and Brandille seemed to be in a hurry to get there, Belenor slowed down the pace, progressively, until he stopped completely. Now with his back to his friends, the Fyros looked down the avenue, towards the south, frowning.
- "No need to delay the inevitable Enor." Brandille joked, turning around.
- "No, Brandille, it's not that. The smell you were talking about, I think I smell it."
And as a singular air dawned Brandille's face, the nozzles of kün-trazen, the great belfry at the top of which the warning horn was fixed, resounded throughout Fyre. Instantly, a deadly silence invaded Dyros Avenue. With a lump in her throat and a tight heart, Belenor quickly sought out the eyes of Xynala and Tisse, hoping to find some answers. The annual invasion simulation exercise had taken place only a few months earlier, and both were officers. So surely they must have known why kün-trazen had just started his sinister song. Unfortunately, he found no answer in the eyes of the Fyrossas. Simply a mixture of incomprehension and fear. But the worst sound was yet to come. The same one that rose almost immediately from the Southern Gates, and whose memory would pursue the hominity forever: the ghastly buzzing of decline. Soon, the first cries rang out at the bottom of the avenue, as the buzzing and the acrid smell intensified. And then Belenor saw them in the backlight: the strange winged creatures whose silhouette would be so familiar to them in the future. It took Xynala no less than that to regain her composure and unhook the bullhorn from her belt.
- "General alert! Let the reservists head for the nearest barracks! As for the others, take refuge in the shelters and escape tunnels! Follow the procedure!"
And at the same time, as the first flying beings sped over the main artery, Belenor's lungs burst into flames. An aggressive toxic veil had just poisoned the atmosphere. Like many of the bystanders around him, he fell to his knees. Some even vomited or lost consciousness. With a grimace on his face and squinting eyes, the Fyros watched helplessly as the avenue was swept by a wind of panic. In the distance, one could even make out startings of a fire. But what was going on? Except for the attempts of some tribes, at the dawn of the imperial era, Fyre had never been attacked. And even less invaded. So, what were these strange winged creatures, much larger than the largest birds ever recorded? Undoubtedly the evil creations of the Matis, to whom the Karavan had long ago revealed the secrets of genetic manipulation. After all, although at peace with the Fyros since the Treaty of Karavia, signed in 2436, the Kingdom of Matia remained the ancestral enemy of the Fyros Empire… As if to indicate to Belenor that this was not the time for history lessons, an onlooker accidentally hit him and made him fall on his side.
"Enor, up!" hissed Brandille, helping him to his feet before the mass of crazed citizens trampled him.
For around the little group, panicked Fyros were rushing at full speed toward the Imperial Palace – the most fortified place in the capital – creating dangerous crowd movements as they went. They seemed to be fleeing from the southern part of the avenue, obscured by the thick black smoke produced by the fire-fighting systems, and where for a few seconds already, the distant screams had given way to terrible howls.
- "Don't panic! Stay orderly! Follow the procedure!" shouted Xynala to the terrorized crowd.
- "Tisse, up there!" she suddenly exclaimed, raising one of her clubs.
- "I know, I saw it," the redhead replied calmly.
Left knee placed on the ground, Tisse had already shouldered the impressive rifle that never left his back. Because in the air, to some tens of meters only, one of the mysterious creatures was pricking on them. Raising his head in turn, hoping to finally examine the nature of the threat, Belenor was instantly seized with dread. No, such a monster could not have come out of a Matis laboratory… Concentrated as ever, Tisse did not falter in front of the horrible aspect of the beast. The sniper held her breathing, waited a few long seconds, then fired. The bullet shot towards the kipesta's streamlined body and ricocheted limply on its iridescent carapace.
- "Tisse, the wings!" shouted Belenor, whose spine was tingling.
Methodically, the Fyrossa reloaded her weapon, readjusted the sight and barrel, then fired a second time. The bullet flew again towards the kitin and tore off this time the three right wings. Then, without waiting, Xynala dashed forward and leapt under the squealing, zigzagging monster. And even before it reached the bottom of the rift, she struck from the air a violent clubbing blow on its ovoid skull, thus accentuating the impact of the fall. The flying creature crashed heavily in the dust at the same time that the Fyrossa landed on the ground. And it is without fear that Xynala dashed again towards the foul beast to finish the job. Armed with her two fetish short clubs, she had no trouble to completely crush the head of the kipesta. Trembling, his nose pinched, Belenor cautiously walked over to the sickening corpse, and with his free hand, pointed to the swollen gland and oozing proboscis that lay beneath the monster.
- "That yellowish substance they produce, it's flammable. We have to stop them before the fire suppression systems run out. Otherwise, Fyre is headed for disaster!"
As if to give credence to the Fyros' words, the ground suddenly shook then. Would a new threat soon be added to the list? Unsettled and terrified, Belenor tried to find comfort on the faces of his friends, but to no avail. The Fyros army may have been the most powerful in Atys, but nothing had prepared it to face an air invasion, the first in all of homin history. At this precise moment, Belenor hoped that the great strategists of the Empire were working out an emergency plan. And while some might consider him one of them, his stress-fogged mind prevented him from that claim for the time being. Someone had to step in, and fast. A wise and experienced person. Like the general Euriyaseus Icaron, whose voice suddenly sounded behind him.
- "Xynala, Tisse, go to the nearby barracks and assemble a squadron of reservists each! You are promoted to captains for the day! And if you succeed, you can be sure you'll stay that way! Pass on my instructions to the officers you find there!"
Mounted on a mektoub armored to the trunk, the venerable Fyrossa, the same one who had refereed the famous duel between Melkiar and Xynala during the Academy Games, almost fifteen years earlier, had just arrived at their level. She had donned heavy armor and held a long, sharp pike in her hand. Through her visor, she looked in succession at the two Fyrossas with an enraged air. Thus perched, armed and clothed, nothing but the numerous decorations covering her breastplate could lead one to believe that the warrior was over seventy years old. Once again, her age testified to the great longevity of the homins, far superior to that of the animals that populated the Bark. Placing the head of her mount in the direction of the south, the Fyrossa continued.
- "Shooting weapons will need to be given to each soldier, and the most sophisticated magic amplifiers will go into the hands of the most skilled mages! Once equipped, you will ride the freight elevators to the top of the Backbone! Your goal is to lure these flying monsters out of the city's faults! Is everything clear?"
- "Yes, General!" shouted Xynala and Tisse in chorus.
- "Good my girls. I'm off to the South Gates now! I count on you!"
Without delay, General Icaron gave the mektoub a whiff of her spurs and it sped off into the thick black smoke. Followed by Brandille and Belenor, Xynala and Tisse made their way to the barracks carved into the northwest wall of Dyros Avenue, where many Fyros were already equipping themselves. Obeying orders, they enlisted the officers present there and had the reservists equipped. Brandille and Belenor were given rigid leather armor and a pair of high quality amplifiers. In the end, it took the four hundred Fyros gathered there ten minutes barely to get equipped. Ten long minutes during which the infamous buzzing never stopped. During which the ground shook several times. During which many of their number probably perished under the flames of the flying monsters… Ten endless minutes, then, during which Belenor had tried hard not to let his growing anxiety get the better of him. His friends needed him, he should not lose his means. Not like in front of the Dune Riders. Because the slightest mistake would be fatal. As it had been for Garius six years ago… More determined than ever, the Fyros stormed out of the barracks, accompanied by his three friends and many other soldiers.
And at the same moment, the Dragon's Backbone cracked. The shockwave, of unheard-of violence, threw Belenor and his comrades to the ground. Half lying on Brandille, the Fyros stood up as best he could. What he saw then horrified him: the tremor had cracked the crevasse under the barracks, and with a sinister grind, an entire section of the bark wall was beginning to tip slowly forward. Panicked, the soldiers rushed in the opposite direction, not hesitating to trample those of theirs remaining on the ground. Tisse and Xynala, busy helping the wounded to get up, were certainly relying on the large roots that were still holding the wall. Unfortunately, with a second loud crack, a huge piece of unbound bark suddenly broke away from the main wall. Paralyzed by fear, Belenor did not even feel Brandille, who, with his hand firmly clutched to his shoulder, tried in vain to pull him out of the reach of the death trap.
- "Tisse, Xynala, flee! Quickly!" he succeeded in shouting in spite of everything.
The sky darkened abruptly as the two Fyrossas turned their heads towards him. And if Xynala's face was distressed, Tisse was not: his face showed calm and great determination. For endless seconds, his long red hair waved. Then, everything collapsed.-–—o§O§o—–-
Belenor reopened his eyelids, face against bark, mouth full of soot. Despite the violence of the shock, he seemed well and truly alive. Alive but wounded, in view of the horrible pain that bruised his right leg, now swollen and twisted. Mentally directing the Sap that was irrigating him to his broken limb, the Fyros crawled painfully in the rubble and dust cloud. Between the pieces of bark and the corpses. Terrified, lost, and unable to see more than five meters away, he felt panic assail him. Around him, the evil buzzing of the flying creatures had given way to the silence of desolation… And his hearing, just accustomed to the oppressive sizzling of the wings, had become particularly sensitive to the other sounds around him: the plaintive grinding of the bark, the crackling of the flames, the heart-rending lamentations and the distant cries. It was thus without difficulty that he recognized the tone of Xynala's voice in the howling that resounded not far from there. Knowing now where the two Fyrossas were, Belenor accelerated as best as he could. And if he tried several times to answer his friend, he did not succeed, so much his throat was obstructed by the soot. It is then that, like a Kami, Brandille appeared out of the fog of dust and helped him to stand up. The acrobat did not seem to have suffered any injury. Nor even his outfit any snag.
- "I'm here, Enor. Let me help you."
Firmly leaning on Brandille's shoulder, the Fyros dragged himself towards the place where Xynala's cry had sounded, passing on the way some haggard and wounded soldiers who were wandering in the mist like spirits. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he saw her: Xynala was kneeling in front of a gigantic bark block.
- "Xynala, I'm here," Belenor coughed. "Where... Where is Tisse?"
For all answer, Brandille seized his friend's hand and shook it hard. Belenor swallowed and continued.
This time, the Fyrossa turned her head. And Belenor took a step back. For his blood-covered face was tense with rage. For her bulging eyes were reddened with tears. And because in front of her, the body of Tisse Apoan lay, half crushed under the immense mass of wood.
- "She… She pushed me. I… I couldn't save her," Xynala stammered through clenched teeth.
Gently grabbing her long red hair, she used it to cover the exposed part of her friend's body. Like a shroud.
- "I did not succeed in raising this block of bark. I… I'm not strong enough… I never was… I hate this body! I hate myself!"
Full of fury, Xynala began to hit the block of bark with howls of fury. As for Belenor, he almost collapsed, his legs wobbling and his eyes misty with tears. But Brandille, faithful to his post, prevented him from doing so and helped him to sit down. And then his lips whispered:
- "Enor, that…
- "No, Brandille," cut in Belenor. "Please don't. Don't tell me it will pass. Anything but that…"
- "Okay, Enor, sorry. Get up, we have to go."
Get up? No, he didn't want to. If going somewhere else meant having to witness the end of others close to him, then he would rather stay in this field of ruins.
- "Please, Enor, get up. The smell is getting stronger, more creatures will be here soon."
More monsters? Perfect. Soon he wouldn't have to feel this pain anymore. All he had to do was… Brandille slapped him.
- "Enor! I know that look! Those thoughts! You have no right to abandon me, do you hear me?"
Forgetting his dark thoughts for a few moments, the Fyros shook Brandille's hand and returned his gaze to Xynala. His friend was still pounding the bark tomb of Tisse with his fists. Then abruptly, Brandille pointed to the fog with her free hand. The dust was slowly beginning to settle.
- "Xynala, over there!" hissed the acrobat.
Without missing a beat, the Fyrossa picked up Tisse's rifle and fired a shot by guesswork. The bullet flew and an ignominious squeak sounded in the distance. At the very place where a strange gallop was beginning to be heard. A gigantic herd seemed to be approaching the homins.
- "Brandille, how many of them are there?" continued the Fyrossa, snagging Tisse's rifle on her back and drawing her two short clubs.
- "Too many, Xynala. Much too many. And they are different from the other creatures."
The Fyrossa's face, distorted by hatred just a short time ago, now showed a steely determination. A determination similar to the one Belenor had read on Tisse's face before the bark block crushed her.
- "I'll hold them off. You run to the shelters."
- "Wha… What? What are you telling, Xynala?"
- "You heard me right, Belenor."
- "Do you really think we'll let you sacrifice yourself, like Tisse? You're dreaming Xynala! You're dreaming!"
The Fyros, whose injured leg had regained its vigor, abruptly straightened up and slip on his magic amplifiers. Brandille, still on her knees, stared in the direction of where everyone expected the kitins to appear. Gallops were getting louder.
- "Belenor, that's an order, I'm your leader! Better yet, I've even been promoted to captain by the general!"
- "Don't listen to her, Brandille! Get up and slip on your amplifiers! I'll take care of supporting Xynala with my healing magic. You take care of the monsters. As soon as the first ones appear, you char them!"
And as if the mention of it had summoned it, the first creature sprang from the fog. This thing had, in terms of horror, nothing to envy to the flying monsters that had set the city on fire a short time before. Five feet tall, it resembled a monstrous brown spider, its yellowish abdomen arched under its six legs and whose curved skull was fitted with a pair of serrated hooks. Taken together, the two sections of its body gave the creature the appearance of an enormous jaw. With mad agility, the kincher sprang at the small group. Then five more burst out of the mist. Then ten. Spreading her arms against the rising wave of kitins, Xynala infused Sap into her throat and let out a superhomin roar, hoping to focus the enemy's attention.
- "Belenor, Brandille! Flee!"
- "Never Xynala, never! Rather die! Damn it Brandille, get up!"
Brandille, strangely motionless, contemplated the crazy race of the monstrous insects, which were now converging on Xynala. But this was no time for meditation. Because in a few seconds, the warrior's clubs would meet the sharp legs of the first kinchers. There were dozens of them.
- "You fools, run away!"
Without another word, the Fyrox charged toward the kitins. Fully aware that, one or three fighting, they would not make it, Belenor tried to catch Brandille's gaze. The most important person in his life. His jaw clenched and his eyes moistened, he addressed his friend one last time.
- "Brandille! You have no right to abandon me! Do you hear me? Brandille, if you don't want to fight, get up and take my hand… I want to be with you, all the way…"
And as Xynala leapt to her certain death with her clubs drawn and her legs loaded with Sap, Brandille bent her head skyward and howled. But the high-pitched sound that came from her mouth was nothing like a scream. Nor was it even anything like any other atysian sound. It was a high-pitched, piercing blast of sound that penetrated all levels of Belenor's being, and resonated with every single draconic ash that made him up. A crystalline thunder, whose score was instantly deciphered by all the cells of his body. For this superhomin cry concealed within it some dire vibrations. A terrible omen. A primitive signal: the one that triggers apoptosis, cell death.
The shock wave produced by the scream instantly dissipated the gigantic cloud of dust and propelled Belenor several meters backwards. Crashing heavily into the sawdust, the Fyros howled in turn. Brandille's scream was piercing his skull, from which waves of pain spread throughout his body. Was this what the Zorai felt when the growth of their mask was not supported by the magic of the Kamis, as he had imagined in the story he had once written? Whatever the answer to that question, the Fyros had never suffered such torment. To endure this pain was inconceivable. There was not a chance he would escape. Thus, he who had imagined himself being devoured by one of these creatures, was finally going to be killed by his friend, right here. With his mouth distended, his eyes revolted and his arms spread wide, Brandille did not stop howling. Her body was vibrating unreal, faster and faster, until it was eating away at the bark around her. But Belenor was not the only one to suffer the wrath of his cry. For for several dozen meters around, the kinchers were falling like flies, crushed by Brandille's implacable cry. Reaching the limits of his endurance in handling the Sap, Belenor felt his heart slow down. He was no longer in position to regenerate his self-destructed cells. And as a black veil began to blur his vision, the screaming stopped.
Half unconscious, the Fyros did not know how much time it took him to get up. Feverish, nauseous, drooling and glassy-eyed, he ran a trembling hand over his face. Noticing the red color of it, he understood that blood had flowed in large quantities from his nose, his eyes and his ears. This certainly explained the horrible headache that was pounding his skull. Totally disoriented, he looked around him, taking advantage of the lifting of the fog to find his bearings. The monstrous wave of giant insects had broken from the bottom of Dyros Avenue, crushing everything in its path. Now transformed into a dead sea, it was just agitated by some nervous spasms. A sea in which Xynala had drowned. If he had survived the scream, there was no doubt that she had too. She must have… Staggering in the supposed direction of the Fyrossa, he glanced at the crater dug by Brandille, in which her body had disappeared. If he feared for Xynala's life, he knew Brandille was still alive, though very weak. He could feel it, without understanding how or why.
Then the ground shook. For the umpteenth time. Looking down the avenue, Belenor let himself fall to his knees. The Southern Gates were spewing out a monstrous swarm. A gigantic tidal wave of wings, stings and fangs. This time, there was no Brandille to save them, only a miracle could guard them from the coming cataclysm. Raising her head and closing her eyes, Belenor then dedicated a thought to each of her loved ones. To Varran and Melkiar, whom he would have so much liked to see one last time. To Tisse and Garius, whom he would soon join. To Xynala and Brandille, by his side, until the end. To Penala, of course, whom he hoped would be safe. Even to his father and mother, whom he loved, despite everything. Finally, he devoted his last thought to Messen Dyn, the old Kamist monk whom he had so assiduously spent time with in recent years. So, with his eyes closed and his face fixed on the Day Star, he began to pray to the Kamis, much especially the Black Kami. Then he thought of the Supreme Kami, whoever he had been. After all, who else but him could perform miracles? Several seconds passed, waiting for death and praying. And then, against all odds, Jena answered the Fyros. With a heavenly squeak. Above Fyre, now bathed in darkness, a gigantic Karavan flying machine had just appeared. Upset, Belenor raised his arms to the sky and burst into tears. He had never forgotten what Melkiar had said to him that day while sitting in the tavern.
"I hate the Karavan as much as I hate the Kamis… They think they are our masters… And that will last as long as we continue to name them 'Powers'! For as long as homins chain themselves to them, so long will they remain slaves in their eyes! As for me, I have already made my choice, that day: rather to die free than to live enslaved!"
Deep down inside, despite the deference he showed to the Kamis, Belenor understood Melkiar's position. But what could the homins do, alone, in the face of so much horror? How could they free themselves from the bondage of the Powers, without losing all that they had acquired so far? Whatever the answers to these questions, at that moment, the Fyros had already made his own choice: that of life.
Belenor Nebius, narrator