Chapter 8:

the butterfly

Aboard the Winnow

When she’s onboard with the rest of the crew, Auren is immediately onto Avett, his hands working down his back as he guides the two of them to the infirmary. Lili works her hardest to unstrap every weapon and body bag from his body, leaving a trail of blasters and battery packs down the corridor. The moment she finishes easing his body onto the bed, the taller Gallian shoves her back.Bookmark here

“He—” she starts, not really knowing where to begin. “We were hit by a snow storm, I think it was ethereal—”Bookmark here

“I am aware.” His voice isn’t cold, but it isn’t warm either. “Would you be so kind as to leave the room?”Bookmark here

The doors slam shut behind her. She picks up Avett’s gear, piece by piece, until all she’s left with is his larger-than-life crossbow in front of the ship’s entrance. Bookmark here

“Don’t bother picking that up,” Ysh’vanna says from the navigation room. “It’s a bitch to carry.”Bookmark here

“I’ll manage.” Ether rolls through her body as she throws it over her shoulder. It’s still quite heavy. This is Avett’s base strength, she realises. She sends his crossbow careening into the walls of the armory a little too violently at the thought of that. A resounding metallic clang vibrates throughout the entire ship.Bookmark here

“Told you,” Ysh’vanna says when Lili comes back in.Bookmark here

“I just lost focus for a bit, that’s all.”Bookmark here

The view outside the window lowers. Lili feels her stomach lurch as Ysh’vanna takes two of her fingers and slides upwards on a panel. She has a feeling that, like the initial drop of an elevator, she’s never going to get used to this. Bookmark here

Finally, when they’re several metres above the mall, Ysh’vanna turns back towards Lili, her features feral. Itching for an explanation. Lili doesn’t have to be asked twice, if asked at all.Bookmark here

Lili says, “The artifact trapped us inside the mall.” Simple and easy. She slips a hand into her pocket, expecting the globe’s cool kiss.Bookmark here

She feels nothing of the sort. Feeling awkward, she takes out the wooden doll instead and places it on the dining table.Bookmark here

Ysh’vanna’s reaction is incredulous. “This lil’ thing? I can barely smell it.”Bookmark here

The exhaustion she’s feeling right now is incredible. She’d definitely put the globe back into her pocket, but from the way it had escaped her notice earlier, she’s willing to accept anything at this point. “Not really. There were two artifacts. The one that gave us the most trouble… kept vanishing. I swear I put it in my pocket but now it’s gone again.”Bookmark here

Her eyes fall upon the doll. It’s a young girl, and her arms are crossed over her chest. Like she’s been laid to rest. Ysh’vanna shrugs. “No big deal. We got what the IRC wanted, so here’s a formal congratulations from me to you, as your captain. Good work out there.”Bookmark here

Euphoria blooms in Lili’s chest as she watches Ysh’vanna lean against the table to give her the biggest smile anyone’s ever given her. Maybe she’s fit for this job after all. Maybe all of those years she’d spent alone in the wilds have finally given fruition to something worth cultivating.Bookmark here

Something catches in the corner of her eye. At first, she thinks it’s just an artifact in her eye, but as the tell-tale wave of ether washes over her, she knows exactly what it is.Bookmark here

Ysh’vanna catches Lili’s slight change in mood and whirls around. When her body stills, Lili knows that it’s not just a trick of the eye in the harsh sunlight. She throws herself into her captain’s chair and glares at the radar.Bookmark here

Nothing. Not even a blip.Bookmark here

“Ugh, shit!” Ysh’vanna slams a fist into her armrest. “What a time for the radar to crap out on us. There’s no way it hasn’t spotted us yet, I’ll turn arou—”Bookmark here

The ship lurches again. Lili glances towards Ysh’vanna, only to find that same look of shock on her features. She slaps a palm against the navigation panel, and a live feed of the Winnow’s rear slides out and upwards. It’s a shot from the perspective of the thrusters. The flames are guttering out, hardly clinging on to life, and tailing them is a dark, undulating mist—Bookmark here

Not mist. If Lili looks close enough, she can just spot out hundreds of glowy, blue membranes. A swarm. Of tiny, voracious dragons. Bookmark here

Ysh’vanna grits her teeth. Clenches her hands—unclenches them in the same second. Steeling herself. “D3s, but if they’re here then—” She shakes her head and fixes her eyes on the horizon. “I think they’re in our engine, we’re not outrunning this thing like this.”Bookmark here

“I supposed as much.” Auren is behind them in seconds, having felt the ship’s abnormal movements from earlier. “Your commands, captain?”Bookmark here

She narrows her eyes. Kicks at an invisible flap underneath all the panels and buttons and cuts out the power before tugging a lever above her head. The navigation interface briefly flickers in and out of life. “Backup battery array is on. Stuff ‘em out.”Bookmark here

He nods, then as smoothly as he had arrived, he leaves for the engine room.Bookmark here

“Fire?” Lili asks. She’s not as well acquainted with the Winnow as Ysh’vanna is, but thermal warfare in the engine room sounds like a surefire way to quickly render their thrusters useless. Bookmark here

“No, suffocation. You couldn't burn out an entire swarm of these guys even if you wanted to—that's how they got into our thrusters.” Ysh’vanna keeps her eyes glued to the dragon on the horizon. Uncertainty floats in her lime-green eyes for the briefest of seconds. “Auren is extremely proficient in what he does, but if he gets too carried away in there, we’ve got Avett on hand.”Bookmark here

Lili looks at the dot on the horizon. It's getting closer with every second, even with Ysh'vanna putting the ship into a full reverse. "Wait. Carried away?"Bookmark here

Another explosion rocks the ship. Lili hardly manages to grab at the kitchen counter before Auren steps out of the engine room, his hair loosely hanging from his head in limp strands. He's got a gas mask on.Bookmark here

"You get them?" Ysh'vanna asks as she poses to kick the hidden panel next to her foot again. Bookmark here

"Ysh'vanna," he starts. "We seem to have run out of fuel."Bookmark here

The tiny captain pushes away from her seat and storms into the corridor, grabbing a mask from a cabinet as she does. Lili follows, but doesn't enter the engine room, just stands outside as Ysh'vanna rips open one of the metallic boxes and swears. It's a mess of sparks and gnarled wires. The five—supposedly replaceable, Lili isn't sure—fuel tanks have been chewed clean through. Each and every one of them is empty. Bookmark here

"It's fucked. They got into our machinery. Lili, get Avett."Bookmark here

Something pushes Lili aside before she can even respond. Avett stumbles into the room, his tail swerving all over the place as he tries his damndest to fight against his own bodily weakness.Bookmark here

"Auren, we can’t avoid an encounter at this rate. I need you outside." Ysh'vanna ushers him out of the room and motions to Lili to do the same before disappearing around the corner.Bookmark here

She doesn't leave. She keeps watching Avett's hands as he makes his way around the wires like they're a part of him. Every movement is precise, a calculation made minutes in advance before he actually executes them. He isn't just some part-time mechanic who picked up his trade during a year off—he's the ship's only lifeline. Bookmark here

But then he shudders, slams a gloved hand into the side of the box, and groans.Bookmark here

"Stop watching me," he says. His breathing is labored. Bookmark here

He shouldn't be up, Lili realises. Shouldn't even be awake, let alone moving around. But he has to; it is necessary. He's aware of it all too well. Bookmark here

"Good luck," she offers quietly.Bookmark here

She expects a cocky 'don't need it.' Instead, Avett returns a wobbly smile and says, "Thanks."Bookmark here

As soon as she turns the corner to meet with Ysh'vanna in the navigation room, she feels the ship's altitude lower, just for a heartbeat—before returning to normal. She looks outside. She wishes she hadn't. Bookmark here

On the deck, Auren is standing in front of the dragon, his gauzy wards floating around him and the ship in multiple layers. The dragon itself… isn’t a dragon at all, not in the traditional sense. Like the swarm Auren had disposed of earlier, its skin is more membranous than scaled. Instead of two, powerful wings, its body is a flat disk that undulates with the wind, expanding and contracting with ease when it needs to. When it moves to blot out the sun, the light passes right through it, creating strands of ocean-blue beams into the navigation. Occasionally, it lashes out with a tendril formed from its main body. Bookmark here

Then she realises that they aren’t close to it at all. It’s still rapidly approaching, even though she can clearly spot out each of its golden-yellow organs, floating around like sunken treasures at the bottom of the ocean. It has to be at least ten times larger than their ship. They’re ants standing before a mountain god.Bookmark here

“B3.” Ysh’vanna grips the counter. “A Butterfly Matriarch.”Bookmark here

Auren’s efforts to fend it off are a practice in futility. Every projectile he musters, every lick of pure ethereal flame is swallowed up by the Butterfly Matriarch’s fleshy body. That’s when she realises, exactly, where the limits of his abilities are. He doesn’t have the mental power to ward the ship against attacks while simultaneously performing counterattacks with sufficient power.Bookmark here

They aren’t going fast enough. Lili guesses that it has something to do with how the ship is using the backup batteries instead of actual fuel. Avett is in no shape to repair the ship at all, let alone at the rate the situation demands of him. Real panic flutters through her body. She imagines the Matriarch's body, wrapping around the ship, slowly oozing into every crack until— Bookmark here

Lili blots out the image and fixes her eyes on Auren. Calm, dependable Auren—stone-faced until the day he died. She shakes her head. She can't think like that. Even though he’s hardly functioning at his full power, the ship seems to jerk backward with every pin-pricked blast. Of course he’s capable of such a demanding task. He’s a true Gallian caster, leagues and worlds above Lili.Bookmark here

And yet, at the rate things are going, she’s not sure if they’ll even be making it out of here alive.Bookmark here

She storms into the engine room. Keeps that image of Auren fighting on the frontline cemented in her head. If ether can propel the ship, then maybe there's something she can do to help. She doesn't have to be deadweight.Bookmark here

Avett is still hard at work, and when she sees just how much he’s gotten done, her worst fears are confirmed. The wires are still frayed, the remainders of the chewed-up fuel tanks discarded and left to rattle around on the floor. Lili doesn’t have to be a mechanic to know just how fucked they are.Bookmark here

She moves closer to the engine. Stands over his heaving, scrunched over body. “Avett, move,” she says. Not a request. A statement. Bookmark here

“Over my dead body,” he grits out. His hands are shaking like dead twigs in the wind.Bookmark here

And maybe it makes her an asshole, but if it means saving the rest of the ship, then she doesn’t care that pushing Avett aside and onto his ass makes her as mean as him. Bookmark here

He lies there, his breath coming in shallow beats. “What are you doing?” Bookmark here

Lili grips both sides of the fuel tank cabinet. It’s cool to the touch, and not unbearable to work with. She can do this. All she has to do is throw her power out into the ship. Like extending a hand. Like assimilating herself into the iron and supplying—no, becoming the fuel—that the Winnow would run on. Bookmark here

Her eyes squeeze shut. She feels her wings unfurl behind her.Bookmark here

“I have a feeling that I know exactly what you’re trying to do.” She hears the squeak of rubber-soled boots against metal, then a faint bump as he falls to the floor again. “Fuck. Fuck. Please stop. You don’t want to do that.”Bookmark here

Avett’s delirious ramblings are a blur against the sudden rush of emptiness she’s exposed to once she enters the ship’s inner workings. It’s dangerous. It's like if she's not careful, it'll grab her head by the hairful and plunge her underneath the surface of the water. Bookmark here

She inhales sharply and opens her eyes again. The sheer amount of ether she needs in order to power the ship for even a second is enough to strengthen her entire body for at least an hour straight. It's a deep, never-ending well down there. Bookmark here

Another tendril manages to find its way through all of Auren's wards and rocks the ship with a slow swat. None of his wards are going to matter when the dragon ends up engulfing them anyway. She lets a pebble of her ether drip down into the void. Bookmark here

If it hit the bottom at all, it makes no indication of it. Bookmark here

The abyss is staring right at her, and she finds that she can't quite look at it in the eyes. If she takes the plunge, embraces it entirely—there's no telling if she'll ever see the surface again. Bookmark here

She looks back towards Avett. Sees his wide-eyed, pleading face. Silently bargaining with her, exchanging emotions like currency and receiving nothing in return. But why? He shouldn't give a rat's ass what happens to her. He shouldn't be caring at all. Avett hates her because she's everything his seventeen-year-old self was. He can't bear to be around her; that's the narrative that he's painted out for himself.Bookmark here

She asks, "Am I doing something you would have done three years ago?"Bookmark here

He doesn't say anything at first. Then, with a tired voice that could leave wood smouldering, he answers, "Yeah. You are."Bookmark here

"Good." Her hands tighten against the box. "It'll be easier if you still hate me."Bookmark here

Then she dives into the engine and welcomes the chill embrace of the void.Bookmark here

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