Explosions shattered buildings and thundered on the far side of town. The Onori ships burned in the atmosphere. Singed clouds rushed away from the dull metal prows of the invasion craft. Their cannons fired another barrage.
Fire and smoke erupted into the sky, bringing a premature dusk to the small town nestled between the forest and hill country.
Nithwyn ran through the wooden archway into his home. “Airoh!” He called out over the percussive rage in the distance. He pushed his shoulder length black hair behind his pointed ears.
The black, dragon-like Ceeri flew down the stairs on the opposite side of the room and stretched his clawed back feet forward.
Nithwyn spun and kneeled on the trembling floorboards.
Airoh grabbed the leather pads built into the shoulders of Nithwyn’s jacket.
Nithwyn timed his jump to that exact moment and the two took flight like a single being with large bat-like wings.
They swept out of the arch and into the air.
The hydraulic hiss of the troop carriers opening their doors rose over the drone of weapon’s fire a couple streets away.
The Onori threatened to invade several times a year to extort more resources from the Sen. They never actually did it. What changed the odds to make war more profitable than shaking their government down for more concessions?
Nithwyn wasn’t a soldier. His brothers Aashen and Tunari did all the fighting while he managed their household. Someone had to make sure they had a home to fight for…
When they found out he ran, they would call him a coward. He should stand up, fight, and die for their home like their parents had. His death served no purpose other than living up to some ancient code of honor his brothers still maintained.
The skies toward the Tevenai Forest lacked any signs of violence or conflict. If he made it to the trees, he could hide until he made a better plan.
“I thought this was the plan?” Airoh’s voice pressed into his thoughts.
“It’s step one.” Nithwyn thought back. “As long as we aren’t killed or captured, we can figure out what happens next.”
“We need to get offworld.” Airoh thought.
They swooped down below the amber boughs and crimson leaves of the fola trees.
The shadows of the forest muffled the sounds of destruction, but they didn’t go away. The foul stench of burning homes mingled with the warm, rich odor of the leaf litter and flowers.
No animals rustled or moved in the dappled red light. They found their hiding places to wait out the mess the greedy wrought on their world.
Flying lower, Nithwyn stretched out his feet to catch the ground and continued forward in a run.
Somewhere up the hill, there were caves he used to play in with his brothers. They were the closest thing to sanctuary he could imagine.
“Niht, there is a Phersu temple in the valley beyond.” Airoh thought. “Surely, the Onori wouldn’t risk the wrath of the Ifreann Tan by attacking it.”
Niht leaped over a fallen tree and made for a dark void ahead in the stone.
“If we can get to their temple, they might help us escape.” Hope almost tempted Niht into a smile.
Tears burned his eyes.
Once he ran deep enough into the cave, he couldn’t see the sunlight anymore. Niht stopped.
Airoh leaped off his back.
Niht collapsed onto the dirty ground and struggled to catch his breath. He hadn’t even noticed when he started panting.
He gazed off towards the exit and whispered a prayer for his brothers and his people. He didn’t care which god heard him, so long as they survived.
Airoh breathed fire on some leaf litter he gathered into a small pile.
“We should have had a bag packed.” Niht said when he caught his breath. “We don’t have any food, water, or clothes.”
“But we have our lives. We have to be thankful for that.” Airoh said in his gravelly voice. “There are so many who can’t say that.”
Niht nodded. As hard as he tried to close his mind to his people’s screams as they died or were captured, they found their way through. “One day, I won’t be so afraid.”
Airoh shook his serpentine head. “I don’t think we can ever get beyond fear.”
“Then may we learn to rise above it.”
Even in the cave, the sounds and smells of the Onori invasion seeped in. No where was safe from them.
Airoh curled up on Niht’s lap and they listened to war raging in the distance. Pain and loss filled their minds as the waves of anguish rushed over them like the lapping waves of the ocean on the shore.
Somewhere in the chaos, his brothers no doubt fought valiantly to save them from the carnage while he huddled in the darkness of the cave.
At some point, Niht fell asleep. The chill morning air slithered into the cave and cooled his fingers and toes, waking him up.
Airoh slept comfortably in his lap with his wings wrapped around him like a blanket.
The silence of the cave disturbed him.
It wasn’t surprising that his small town fell in a single day of fighting, but he had grown accustomed to the roar of cannon and the percussion of rifle bolts filling the air. In their absence, the thick cloud of unknowing hung over them.
Airoh stretched awake.
Their telepathic abilities were limited, usually only connecting him to his Ceeri, but the absence of the distant psychic wailing isolated him behind the wall of others’ thoughts.
Slowly, they approached the opening to the cave, reaching out with their minds to find any soldiers or predators that might patrol beyond the safety of their planetary womb.
A gray sky filtered through the red leaves. The air didn’t smell of rain. Those weren’t clouds overhead. Plumes from the landing craft and the torrents of smoke from the burning village covered the suns.
Niht nodded, and Airoh hopped onto his shoulders, picked him up, and carried him away from their home toward the village of Goshuth.
As they approached the top of the hill, the pristine spire of the Phersu temple reached defiantly into the sky. The Onori either left the village alone to avoid the wrath of the Ifreann Tan, or they hadn’t reached the smaller villages yet.
Since he was a child, His parents told him the tales of Tiarna Runda, the founder of the Phersu. He sought the face of the divine only to find it hidden from him. Neevh Tiar, as the faithful called him, fought against bandits and warlords to save his people. If they would be safe anywhere, it would be with the Phersu.
The wooden spire rose into the sky like a torch flame. Large sheets of white and goal canvas hung from each level, billowing from the slightest breeze. A white brick wall capped with golden capstones traced out the precinct of holy ground.
There were no signs of Onori troops in the area.
Airoh landed them on the edge of the forest.
A deep hum resonated in the air.
Through the smoke and clouds, a semicircular ship painted black with flashy gold accents descended toward the temple.
“That doesn’t look like an Onori ship.” Airoh thought.
Niht ran toward the gate to the temple courtyard.
Five Phersu priests in their white robes, gloves, and masks, each trimmed with gold, surrounded three Sen around Niht’s age as they marched toward the gate.
One broke away from the others and moved toward him.
Niht folded over and placed his hands on his knees. He panted harder than necessary. When he stood up, he allowed his despair to show on his face.
“Greetings child.” The Phersu said in a solemn tone. “May I help you?”
“I am here for the ship.” Niht said.
The Phersu tilted his head to the side. “They aren’t here for refugees. We can offer you sanctuary, that is all.”
Niht bowed reverently. “I am here for the ship.” He repeated. “Thank the Neevh that I am not too late.”
The Phersu returned the bow. “Neevh Tiar guides us to our fate.”
“And that is all I ask.” Niht said without looking up into the black glass in the mask obscuring the priest’s eyes.
“We negotiated with the Onori.” The Phersu said. “They are allowing us to send our novitiates offworld. I am afraid that doesn’t allow us to send passengers.”
Niht’s legs ached to run toward the ship as it landed. His salvation lay off world. He couldn’t imagine any way to survive if he stayed on Oben. “That is why I am here.”
“We’re what?” Airoh thought.
“I planned to join the temple this fall, when my obligations to my family were over.” Niht hoped they couldn’t see through his lie. “When the invasion entered my town, my Ceeri and I headed straight here so the Onori couldn’t take me from the temple.”
Silence opened up between them.
“I know who you are, Nithwyn Scathaan. I read your fate when you were born, and before you went to the hatching.”
Niht searched his memory. “Fior Credamh, I remember you.”
“And I have not seen you at the temple since your parents’ funeral.”
“I know.” Niht nodded solemnly. “I had to take care of my brothers, and as you may have heard, they are a handful.”
“It is a noble thing for the youngest brother to do.” The Phersu said. “I wish you had come to me sooner. This is not a little thing you are asking. If I let you on that ship, you will be one of us. You cannot turn back.”
“Then let’s stay and take our chances here.” Airoh thought.
“May your fate be filled with joy and not sorrow.” The Phersu said.
The priest rested a hand on his shoulder and led him to the ship with the others.