The sixth day dawned and they made their way cautiously towards the communications tower. Micah moved silently ahead of her, pausing often to listen. Knife in his hand, he carefully moved aside low branches and slipped around thorny shrubs.
Birds still sang around them, which Camilla took as a comforting sign.
Suddenly, there was a burst of sunlight. Ahead of them spread a vast, cleared meadow of gravel and concrete; waves of heat rose off the white surface. At its center stood the tower, square at its base and easily twice the width of the Aedes Vestae, rising higher and higher into the red-tinged sky. Camilla squinted against the sun, using her hand to shield her eyes as she followed the tower all the way to its top where a single light flashed bright green.
Micah drew her down into a crouch, studying the concrete field and the line of surrounding trees. He whispered, lips beside her ear, “We cross quickly. If I say run, you run. Get inside. Lock or barricade the door if you can. There should be a manual comm station on the third or fourth level. Understood?”
She swallowed hard and nodded. He started to rise, but she stopped him. She laid her palm against his cheek, holding his gaze. Then she tilted his head down and kissed his forehead; he tasted of sweat and dirt and jungle.
“Vesta keep you safe,” she whispered.
With a nod and a soft smile he pulled her to her feet. Another quick glance and he pulled her forward, pushing her ahead of him. They walked quickly, the concrete hot beneath her feet —
A swarm of Imperialist soldiers erupted from the jungle, armor glaringly bright in the sun, the gorgons on their chests sharp-toothed and leering. Their boots crashed across the ground, pistols and rifles lowering to take aim at Camilla and Micah.
“Run!” he yelled.
She ran. Legs pumping, she raced towards the door of the tower, bag bouncing painfully against her hip and back. Behind her, she heard Micah’s pistols whine and flash. Blasts of energy skimmed passed her head, slamming into the ground or the side of the tower.
She squeaked, breath raw in her throat, and dodged to the side.
The door of the tower crashed open and three more soldiers emerged, rifles leveled.
Camilla stumbled to a halt. Frantically, she looked around, hunting for an escape, a way out, anything ….
They were surrounded.
Micah reached her, turning so that they stood back to back. He slipped a pistol into her hand. She had never held one before; its weight was alien, awkward. The fire in her chest flared. She felt the heat slide up her throat, tasted it on her tongue.
The Imperialist soldiers stilled, weapons at the ready.
Somewhere, a bird warbled.
“Very clever.” The voice was a reedy puff of sound. The speaker emerged from the jungle, flanked on either side by another half-dozen soldiers. He was dressed like an Emperor: gold titan-metal armor, the cuirass engraved with a ruby-eyed gorgon; a slitted leather skirt studded with more rubies; a red bodysuit and golden sandals; a swooping red cape; and a laurel leaf crown of gold and carved emeralds.
His face, though ….
“Taras,” she whispered.
His face was a mass of scars. They spread up the left side of his face and across his scalp and disappeared beneath the collar of his bodysuit. He moved slowly, his left leg stiff.
“When we saw no sign of you outside Urania, we knew you would come here. We admire your determination, surviving for so long in the jungle, evading our forces. Unfortunately for you, our chase has come — ”
“You are dead,” Camilla snarled. She did not recognize her own voice.
Taras smiled thinly. “Very nearly. But the Gods watch over me — ”
“Do not speak of the Gods!” Camilla’s hands were curled into fists, her arms shaking. “You turned your back on them, forsook your oath when you turned on the Republic — ”
“You will be silent!”
Micah pressed closer to her.
Taras tilted his head. “We are disappointed. You are not that contemptible Lucia.”
Camilla tucked in her chin, arms still shaking. “Contemptible?” she hissed. “Lucia is the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, chosen by the Goddess her — ”
“She spoke against us!” Taras limped closer. Camilla could see now that the scars ran all the way down his arm and across his hand; he was missing two fingers. “She refuted our claim!Vilified us before the Senate! She will no longer be allowed to speak such lies.”
He motioned with his good arm and a figure in white emerged from the trees. Her head was bare of any covering, her red hair limp with sweat. Her feet shuffled across the concrete and gravel, and she wore an annoyed expression on her face.
The flame in Camilla’s chest suddenly burned so hot that she gasped and stumbled back into Micah. He caught her, looping an arm around her waist, pistol and knife still in hand.
Taras waved his arm again. “Tullia, take the fire from her.”
The Vestal’s expression evolved from annoyed to aggravated. “I already told you, it doesn’t work like that. The flame is an extension of the Goddess herself. It can be carried only by those whom she chooses.”
“Traitor,” Camilla snarled. Heat filled her mouth. “It was you who extinguished the holy flame. Have you any idea of the punishment that awaits you?” Tullia looked away for a moment, bringing her gaze back only as Camilla continued to speak. “Burial. Alive. What could have compelled you to risk such a fate?”
Taras straightened, puffing out his chest. “Loyalty to her Emperor. Now, take the flame.”
“You are no one’s Emperor.” Fire roared out of her chest, speared through her blood. A divine heat filled her down to her marrow. The very fire of creation and destruction. Vesta. The Goddess herself, a searing, righteous rage. And through that anger, she saw the truth of Taras: a soul riddled with greed and pride, hollowed out by lust and envy.
She smiled and the Goddess smiled with her. “I am not afraid of you.”
And she seized his scarred hand. The flesh sizzled and blackened. Through the roar in her ears and the brightness in her eyes, Camilla-who-was-also-Vesta could hear screaming, see soldiers running. The traitor Tullia stumbled backwards, away from the inferno that was Taras; she scuttled backwards, crying, and threw herself into the trees.
The fire spread beneath his armor, heating the metal until it glowed white. His bodysuit and fine cape vaporized into ash. His crown liquified, the emeralds dribbling to the ground. His half-melted armor followed, making dull, squishy thuds.
She dropped her hand and slowly, slowly the flame receded. It left her marrow, left her bones, left her blood, shrinking until it filled only her torso; and then her chest; and finally just her heart. It pulsed there in time with her breaths.
And then the Goddess, too, was gone.
Camilla looked around with human eyes again. A handful of soldiers lay scattered around, felled by pistol and rifle fire. The rest had fled, some abandoning their weapons. And Taras ….
She stared at the puddle of golden armor and glinting emeralds and rubies, half the gorgon’s face still visible.
Taras was gone.
Legs shaking, she pivoted slowly.
She found Micah on his knees, breathing hard, his head down. She called his name, her voice shaking as much as her body.
When he looked up, his eyes were filled with awe and wonder and love.
He clambered to his feet, took three quick steps towards her, bent his head towards hers — and stopped.
She tangled her fingers in his hair, rising up on her toes. Their lips met, desperate and ecstatic at first. Then more slowly, the taste sweet.
When he finally lifted his head, she saw that he was smiling. He chuckled, the sound limned with giddiness. He took a step away and bent to the remains of the bag. Digging through the scorched cloth, he pulled out a tattered blanket.
Which is when Camilla realized that she was naked.
Her knees locked and a furious blush spread across her skin.
Micah looped the blanket under her arms, covering her torso and hips. She clutched the edges of the cloth, reluctantly looking up when he tucked a curl behind her ear. He smiled down at her.
Her lips trembled, curling up into an answering smile. “May we go home now?”
[End Part Eleven. Continue to the conclusion in Part Twelve.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A list of poems and stories can be found there.]