Lexa gasped, her return to conscious happening just as suddenly as she had lost it, if she had lost it at all.
She was in the cave, clothes damp, a red stone on the ground beside her. Lexa rolled over and picked it up.
The stone looked no more remarkable than before. Like aostone, it glowed, though this stone was red rather than blue. Although, Lexa noted, the glow actually seemed stronger than before. It might have been the water that kept Lexa from noticing before, but if not . . .
Finding a groove in the stone, Lexa pushed against it. The groove responded to the action, moving farther into the stone. With an audible click, it locked into place, and the stone started shaking.
Is this how those structures I saw worked? This somehow . . . gave them energy? It doesn’t seem like much.
The stone flashed, shaking even more intensely. It was pulsing, a light from the inside radiating from the center, then slamming against the exterior. As the shakes picked up, so did the light.
There was an aura to the stone. No heat came from it, but power did. It leaked out, yearning to all burst free at once. The storm within raged on, unrelenting in its assault.
Lexa’s eyes widened at the first cracks in the stone. Her arm whipped forward, hurling the stone to the other end of the cave.
To the entrance.
She had been just in time. The instant the stone touched the ground, it exploded, the following rumbles more intense than any earthquake Lexa had ever experienced. She closed her eyes, both in her attempts to stay upright, and due to the flash of light the explosion caused.
The rumbles didn’t stop. Lexa could move again, but the ground still shook below her. When a chunk of the ceiling crashed next to her, spraying chips of the ground into her face, she realized why. The cave was collapsing.
Lexa leaped to her feet, sprinting toward the entrance. It had collapsed in the explosion, but escaping through it hadn’t been Lexa’s plan.
She leaned sideways, just enough to grab the Aspect. The cracks had been sealed, and the glow was so faint, Lexa might have imagined it.
Pneuma needed the stone. Lexa knew, because the goddess had told her not to worry about Lor, yet to take the Aspect. They would use it to end the war, but they didn’t need it to do so. The Aspect would be worthless after Lexa’s death. But what about after Pneuma’s resurrection?
This better be worth it, Lexa thought. She dived out of the way just in time to avoid a rock falling on her head. Another one collapsed onto the ground by the pond.
The cave was collapsing, and the entrance had been sealed with rocks. Realizing that, Lexa almost laughed. Of course it couldn’t be easy. Life had to throw one last hurdle at her before this could all end.
Next time, I’ll experiment with the incredibly dangerous object made by a divine being in the open.
Lexa sprinted back to the pond, leaping in while simultaneously avoiding another falling rock. She squeezed down on the Aspect, and to her surprise, the glow brightened, letting her see underwater.
Lexa peered further down. At the bottom of the pond, there was a crack in the wall, barely large enough for her to squeeze through. A splash from above made her wince and hug the wall, until the falling rock passed. With that, her strokes became more desperate, each one sending her farther than the last.
I never did like water, she thought. Someone more sensible might have argued she had willingly taken two long voyages across the sea, but in that moment, she would have hit them before responding.
Her heart lifted upon seeing the crack led somewhere. She didn’t bother being gentle at squeezing into it, and both her arms suffered scrapes for it. Lexa didn’t even feel the pain, her need for breath far more pressing. She half shuffled, half swam through the crack, which led out to a much longer, much faster body of water.
A running stream.
Lexa nearly dropped the Aspect in her rush to surface. When she finally reached air, she took a single, large gasp before the stream sucked her under again.
Rather than fight the stream, she let the current carry her away. It was better than staying near the collapsing cave. Speaking of which, the tunnel she was in now had also suffered from the release of the Aspect’s power. A natural earthquake struck, which proved to be the final push the ceiling needed to fall.
Lexa’s eyes widened. She ducked underwater just in time to avoid a rock from slamming against her head. Even then, she had to weave herself forward so it wouldn’t strike her body in the water. If one of those rocks pinned her . . .
Lexa couldn’t let that happen. She was blind to what took place in the cave, beyond rocks falling from every direction. She thrust back, kicked off the stream wall, swam down, spun right, whatever she had to do in order to dodge.
When she surfaced, her breath came out in sharp gasps, both the intense movement and so much time underwater making her lungs ache. That ache traveled through Lexa’s whole chest, begging her to stop.
She kept moving, barely paying attention to her movements. A storm of rocks swirled around her, and all she could do was ride it, dodging every rock that came near. She didn’t stop. If she did, she would die.
Finally, the tunnel opened up into a larger cave, and when she squinted, Lexa could make out a light coming from the end of it. She practically leaped out of the water, landing in a sprint. How the cave hadn’t collapsed altogether yet, she didn’t know. What she did know was that her luck wouldn’t hold out much longer.
There it was. Light. Freedom! It was . . .
A dead end, with a small hole in the cave wall revealing the outside.
Another earthquake struck, causing a loud crash to come from behind Lexa. She whirled around, only to see the cave was smaller. Or rather, the half the stream had led to was now blocked off. If Lexa had been a few feet farther back . . .
So close. The exit was right there. Victory was in Lexa’s grasp. Yet she couldn’t make that final step. She couldn’t make it past that last obstacle.
The feeling that rose in Lexa was hers, but she wasn’t alone in it. Something else, deep in inside her, screamed with rage.
Lexa joined it. A primal, gurgled sound escaped her. She would not die here! She would not fail her people again!
Two earthquakes. Two disasters, made to be fuel for the Aspect. Lexa uncurled her hands to reveal the stone, radiating brighter than it ever had.
Another explosion would get her nowhere. She had to channel its energy properly.
Please, help me out, Lexa thought, closing her eyes. She focused on the power coming out of the stone. It felt as untamed as before. With a shaking finger, Lexa pushed down on the indent again.
The flashes and shakes returned, but Lexa ignored them. She focused on the power. She had compared it to a storm before, but it was more than that. It was a wild creature. It strained against its bonds like any other creature did when trapped. And like trapped animals, it was feral upon breaking free.
But animals could be tamed.
“This power is mine!” Lexa roared, pulling the energy into her. Her body locked up, shaking uncontrollably. Even then, she felt an energy unlike any she had experienced before.
No. I have felt this before! It was the same energy that flowed into me, that came out through my blood before.
This energy . . . it’s Pneuma’s!
No human could handle such raw power on their own. The world Lexa saw, the world where Mokushiro ruled, used machines to harness the raw power, channeling it into their technology. What Lexa was doing now, she had Pneuma to thank for.
What bond did they have? Pneuma said she would be human through Lexa, but what did that mean? Did Pneuma share her thoughts? Was she a prisoner in Lexa’s mind, until the goddess reincarnated as a mortal?
Lexa would never know.
She channeled the power inside her, directing it to her fist. Then, after rearing back, she slammed that fist into the cracked wall.
At first, there was nothing. Her fist remained against the wall, neither yielding. Then, the cracks in the wall spread. It was only a few veins at first, but those veins grew in size. As they did, more veins sprouted from them. They danced among each other, crawling farther along the wall, until they finally stopped.
When they did, the first rumble came. The rocks grinded against one another, some slipping out and falling to the ground. With that, the entire wall lost support, and Lexa had to cover her eyes as it collapsed with a deafening crash.
When the smoke cleared, the wall had opened, revealing the dead field Lexa had come from. Lexa took a step forward with a smile on her face.
The next moment, she was on the ground, her head feeling as though a hammer was pounding against it. She groaned, moving a hand to the spot. She grimaced when it came back bloody.
The rock that had knocked her out rested on the ground beside her. She leaned over to pick up the Aspect that had fallen next to it. Except she couldn’t make it all the way. Her legs buckled as some force kept them pinned.
Vision still blurry, Lexa barely managed to make out the rock crushing her legs. Were they broken? She didn’t feel in pain.
I’m going into shock, she realized. She clasped her clammy hands together, attempting to keep them from trembling. Her efforts did nothing but bring the trembles to her shoulders.
Her heart raced, but she longed to pass out. This wasn’t a situation she would get out of. Even if she got out from under the rock, her body wouldn’t cooperate with her.
With that realization, Lexa stopped struggling. She rested her head on her arm, sighing and closing her eyes.
I’m sorry, Pneuma. Please, take care of my people when you’re reborn.
Goma, I’m sorry I didn’t fight you harder. I should have never sat by and let you start a war. I think I knew of your plan from the start, but I was afraid to take responsibility. In the end, I suppose I’m the most responsible for all that’s happened.
Namari, I’m sorry for giving you such a poor impression of our people. I should have been a better example for you to see, and for them to follow. Even on the boat, I should have told you . . .
Mom, Dad, I love you.
Kara . . . thank you for being with me one more time. I’m sorry I didn’t put you first. If I could, I would go back and never leave your side.
“Lexa!” the voice snapped Lexa’s eyes open, and she nearly gasped at the sight before her. A person made of stone, just like from the painting she had seen on Alijan, ran toward her. A band of turquoise troops scrambled to keep up.
Lexa’s smile was as weak as she felt. “Namari . . .”
Namari, powered by the stone Aspect, rushed to Lexa’s side. He didn’t even speak, instead hooking his arms under the rock keeping Lexa pinned.
He grunted in his effort, even his stone arms shaking from the exertion. The burden must have been heavier than Lexa had realized.
That didn’t stop Namari. Lexa heard a muffled, “Come on,” while the rock creaked as he readjusted it.
With a gasp, Namari lowered it. Even with the stone muting them, Lexa heard how heavy his breaths were from moving the rock just a fraction of an inch.
He barked orders, and the soldiers rushed down to help him. Every one of them heaved with all their might to make the rock move. Not even the blast of thunder distracted them. Wait, had it been raining? How had Lexa not noticed?
Another storm was coming. So soon, too. Mokushiro really was dying.
“Mokushiro’s Aspect will last until your death. Then, the island will sink, and the power will be drained. Take the stone, and use it wisely.”
Pneuma’s words echoed in Lexa’s head. Seeing the soldiers flounder in their attempts to free her, they were all she could think about.
They would die. The storm would hit, and if the roof didn’t collapse, they would still drown. Lexa had opened too much of the cave for it to be a shelter.
It wasn’t just them. Everyone on Mokushiro was destined to die. Everyone Lexa had abandoned, left to be hit by an apocalypse in the form of their homes sinking.
An apocalypse . . . heh. We’ve been living an apocalypse our whole lives. One that should have ended months ago.
Lexa wasn’t a good person. How could she be, after she had blatantly ignored the obvious signs of her mistakes? She could try to excuse it, try to explain what had gone through her mind. But in the end, there was no excusing what she had done. What she had allowed.
She had tried to make up for it, to bring Mokushiro and Alijan together. Looking at the soldiers working side by side to help her, she supposed she had succeeded. Was that enough, or would many still condemn her as evil?
Evil. Such a strange concept. To the Alijanian’s, the Mokushirans had surely seemed evil. Mokushirans, meanwhile, thought they deserved more space than they truly needed, because after so long suffering, they couldn’t be content. They’d had to thrive.
That didn’t change the fact they had suffered, though. Goma didn’t want to rule Alijan. He only wanted to ensure his people would get the best Alijan had to offer. He wanted them to be happy despite their pasts. Did his methods make him evil?
Such a pointless war. It could have ended at any time, but for stubbornness and stupidity. In the end, it was all for nothing. The future would remain the same, with those on the island one day working together, the war nothing but a history lesson for school kids.
Now, it was time for it all to end. Lexa lifted a hand, placing it on Namari’s arm. “Stop,” she whispered.
“Shut up!” came Namari’s hoarse response. “If you want to make a heroic sacrifice, you can save it. I’m not settling for that, got it? I love you, damn it!”
Lexa could only smile. In a different world, Namari could have acted on those feelings, and Lexa on hers. It wasn’t meant to be, because despite Namari’s wishes, Lexa was going to pull the cliche he wanted to avoid.
The downpour had gotten strong enough to flood the landscape before them. Water splashed onto Lexa’s chin. Floating in that water was a red stone.
It flowed closer, letting Lexa snatch it. A storm like this, would it give the Aspect enough power?
“Here. Let me help.”
Men and women cried out when the Aspect shone with the intensity of the sun. Namari was the first to understand, and his shout was that of a dying animal.
“Lexa, no!” he screeched.
Lexa’s response was too quiet for anyone to hear. But with the stone bringing light to the cave, he had no trouble reading her mouth to make out the three words for him.
Energy poured out of Lexa, none of it hers. Pneuma . . . she was reincarnating now, wasn’t she? And with that, she could give up the last of her divine energy to make the Aspect do something it would never do on its own.
Lexa helped. Just like with the blood, light escaped from every part of Lexa, all centered on the stone. With every passing second, the stone grew brighter.
Mokushiro would sink, but its people would not fall. The light fled from the cave, spreading out in all directions until it encompassed Mokushiro. Somehow, through the bond she shared with Pneuma, Lexa could feel it. In that moment, she knew Mokushiro would be a beacon of white light, seen from every corner of the Forbidden Sea thanks to Pneuma. She, like all the gods, controlled the sea. She let the fog carry the light, so all knew what was taking place.
The glow stopped, and with it, the shouting soldiers were gone. Not just them. Every living being on Mokushiro had been transported to safety. To Alijan.
The energy hadn’t been Lexa’s, but it had still come from her body. The exhaustion struck her like a wave, making the stone slip out of her grasp. The moment it touched the ground, it vanished. Pneuma’s doing?
Lexa’s eyes closed for the final time as she felt her soul slip away. As she died, there was a smile on her face.
She sighed a final breath, before fading into nothingness.