The empress didn’t let up. It wasn’t her style. She kept screaming at Lara that the truly strong must prove themselves every day. They conquered the weak, endlessly, without remorse.
Lara was winding her way along the broken path that encircled the mountaintop. Every single step could’ve been her last. Make no mistake, her armor was no longer in any condition to be able to assist her. Whole chunks of it had already been wrenched clean off. They exposed her flesh below. Her shoulder was charred, a large 10-centimeter part of her left thigh exposed, the skin practically torn off, the muscle beneath weeping with every step.
She didn’t slow down. She locked her gaze forward, and she concentrated. You’d think there’d be nothing she could do. Even if she managed to call on the full power of the crystals, the empress would still win. But Lara Forest never gave in to inevitability.
The empress pulsed with the Light of the Gods. Lara had seen a lot of footage of the Scarax Galaxy, and she’d seen other gods use their Light. But never had she witnessed anything remotely like this. It was as if the empress was finding a never-ending food source for the Light, one that would never be extinguished as long as the empress’s rage burned.
The empress rose even higher, and a slice of blistering energy smashed into the mountainside next to Lara. It struck a boulder head-on. Chunks of it blasted out, and they were large enough and moved fast enough to catch Lara on her back. The rest scattered up high then quickly erupted into fire. Sparks charged around every fragment. Make no mistake, however, they didn’t look like ordinary fire. They pulsed with this unstable black energy almost as if someone had started digging through the very fabric of reality only to find monsters under their feet.
“It’s over, Admiral Forest,” the empress said in a shaking tone. She could transport. But for whatever reason, she chose not to do that much. She’d only ported three or four times since they’d left the settlement. And each time had clearly cost her.
Lara had no clue why. Perhaps the Light of the Gods demanded more food from its host whenever it transported. Or perhaps it was something to do with proximity to the Hendari crystals. The shield was thicker in this area. It was meant to be keeping the Scarax forces out, and by and large, it was working. None of them had pushed out of the settlement beyond the main Coalition defense line there.
None but the most important goddess of all, of course.
The empress appeared right in front of Lara. She did so in a cloud of discharging energy. It looked as if Lara had been stupid enough to wander right into the heart of a growing gas cloud out on the furthest edges of reality. There’d be no one to hear her scream. She wouldn’t get the chance, anyway – she was about to be burnt to a cinder, and her ashes would be torn away by the wind.
This unstoppable gale marched around her, relentless, just as angry as the empress’s burning gaze. It tugged at Lara’s loose hair. Once, it had been tied resolutely behind her no-nonsense bun, but nothing could withstand the pounding she’d been put through. Now blood slicked strands of sweat-caked fringe dashed in front of her eye, slicing up her view but never letting her forget who was right in front of her.
Sure enough, the empress took that exact moment to remind everyone of who she was. Yanking her hands out wide and spreading her fingers with bone-popping cracks, more Light of the Gods encased her. Only her arms and face and feet were visible underneath her partial gold armor, but it was more than enough flesh to note the way the Light feasted upon her form. It didn’t look like ordinary illumination. It moved far too fluidly. Instead, it was like writhing snakes. They charged up over her skin, leaped a few centimeters into the air, twisted, and drove back down into her flesh. But they weren’t phasing through it. Her skin certainly wasn’t unaffected. Lara could actually hear the strange wet slapping sound every single time the light drove back into her body.
It was worse around her eyes. As the empress opened them wide, Lara thought she could hear cracks appearing inside the woman’s own skull. But if the empress knew, she certainly didn’t show it. More energy ripped around her until it looked as if she was the alien equivalent of pure sunshine. Finally she clapped her hands together. That energy rose toward Lara. She’d fought, and she’d run. She’d taken the empress away from the settlement in the hopes it would give her people time to figure out a way to defeat the empress.
Lara had intended to stay the course of this violent war. She’d wanted to be there, right until the final breath of the last Coalition soldier. But that option was taken out of her hands. As was her gun. It was wrenched from her grip. Even Joseph wouldn’t have been able to hold it. You could’ve lassoed it around massive mining vessels, and it would’ve been irrelevant. The empress grabbed hold of it as if she had the right to clutch up anything in reality and move it to wherever she saw fit.
The gun hovered several centimeters in front of Lara, then as a warning of what was to come, it was crushed – disintegrated right into dust. The remains were torn away by the wind. Lara could even momentarily track it as every single mote of ash was ripped off the side of the mountain, never to be collected together again.
Finally the empress shot forward. No more waiting. No more words. She locked a hand around Lara’s throat and pulled her off her feet until they dangled there in the air, a few long lines of blood trickling down from the fresh wound to Lara’s neck. They trailed over her chest piece, down her broken leg unit, and off the tip of her boot. With a wet splash, they struck the fractured stones beneath her.
“Time to die, Admiral Forest,” the empress hissed.
Lara didn’t look away. She didn’t close her eyes. She had always known this time would come. And she intended to face it.
Perhaps death was the ultimate regret. But if you found the courage and chance to stare it right in the eyes, maybe it would give you another way forward.