“I’m old; I’m not deaf,” Ilka shouted into the shroud of darkness. “I’ve waited while mother moon shifted in her course, and still, you stumble and rattle in the dark. I’m too old to stand for so long. Besides, your deafening stealth is irritating me. Show yourselves already.”
A whoosh sounded. A lone torch flared, followed a minute later by the sound of rushing air and a circle of lit torches, Ilka and her fire at the center.
A man, dressed in the uniform of the emperor’s special elite forces stepped forward, holding the first-fired torch. He stood at the base of the rise that flanked Ilka’s hut, one leg thrust forward, his weight resting on his hind leg, impressive and confident.
Reflections from the flickering flames glittered on the numerous medals covering his chest and the heavy metal bands encircling his upper arms. He stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Ilka, last name unknown. You are charged with high treason against the empire, and blasphemy against His Most Exalted Imperial Majesty, Emperor Nyxidor.
In his great mercy, the emperor offers you pardon. But you must accompany us back to the capital, confess, retract your prior heresies, and prostrate yourself before your emperor-god.”
The man’s back stiffened as Ilka’s laugh swept across the scrubby grass and up into the mountains. It felt good to laugh again. Loud. Long. Free. She let it flow from her, living in the moment, accepting the joy of promised release.
“You do not know it yet, but you have not come here to capture me.” Ilka’s voice, still filled with laughter and unexpected strength, echoed off the mountain behind her. “No. You have been brought here to receive a message. Like a hungry fish, you have taken the bait. I’m honored that at my age, I can still entice men to follow me into the wilderness.” She laughed again, threw another handful of powder into her fire. Again, it sparked and roared. Closing her eyes, she drew in peace as she pulled in a deep breath of air. “It is time.”
A mass of clouds obscured the moon, casting deep shadows over the prairie. Out of the deepest dark, radiant light shot across the velvety expanse, sparking, and searing the air. Even with her eyes shut, Ilka saw all. The brilliance flooding the scrubby wilderness laid everything bare.
The soldiers surrounding her cowered, some cast down their torches, turned, and ran. A voice like thunder shattered the stillness, thrumming through the air, loud and commanding. Opening her eyes, Ilka looked up. A man-like creature, beautiful, with wings spanning the sky hovered over the plain.
“I am a herald from the one true God. The words I speak are for the ears of the man who calls himself god. One will be left alive to carry the message. ‘For too long have I allowed you to slaughter my children. Know now, there is a God in this land and you are not him. Judgement is proclaimed. It will not tarry. It will come on swift wings.’”
The messenger vanished. The sky erupted with fire. Men screamed.
Darkness returned. Power sparked through Ilka. Peace enveloped her. It was done; now she could rest. Her body began to rise. Strong arms encircled her as wings beat the air around her. She sighed. “I’m coming Mason.”
\ \ \
The young soldier lifted his face from the sandy soil and stared with his mouth hanging open. Coughing at the ash infiltrating his chest, he forced his quaking muscles to work, stood, and scanned the blackened soil around him. Only the print of his own body remained untouched. The old rebel’s fire still flickered and crackled as if nothing had happened, but as his eyes roamed the ash-strewn ground, he could find no trace of the men he had stood with only moments before. They were gone, not even bodies remained.
A single step at a time, slow and wary, he made his way to the body of the crone. Reaching her, he drew in a shuddering gulp of air. Impossible! He knelt and touched trembling fingers to the beautiful, youthful face, now relaxed in death. It radiated peace and speared his heart with horror. He rose, pulled in a calming breath. Stiffening his back, he turned to the northwest and began walking. He had a message to deliver.