The empress’s illumination-clad hand collapsed around Lara’s throat, her force unstoppable. Lara’s armor had already essentially failed. There was nothing to protect her fragile flesh from the Queen’s growing grip. And certainly not from the look in her eyes.
Lara had been brought to the edge of death before. She’d always come back. There would be no returning now.
She faced the empress for what she was. Not just a monster, but a fool who’d given in to her greed. She was the equivalent of a child. Someone who had refused to understand the nature of reality and instead had fought it. Lara wasn’t about to claim she was the pinnacle of wisdom. But fighting for the Coalition for all of these years had taught her something. You could never clutch at power and use it to ignore the inevitability of change. To do so would only create the kind of twisted mind that had driven Admiral Ninev to his end.
All you had to do was keep striving every day. You had to recognize what it was to protect others. It didn’t mean to control them. It didn’t mean to keep them down. In essence, it usually meant to control yourself.
Every urge that made you turn away from horror, that made you seek self-protection – you had to subsume it under a greater cause.
So Lara Forest didn’t even bother to protect her neck as she arched her head backward. “Do your worst,” she said, voluntarily letting the fragile skin of her neck brush up against the empress’s greedy grip. Make no mistake, it burned. As energy pulsed through her fingers and rocketed over her palm, it was the equivalent of Lara bringing her throat up to licking flame.
She felt the pain but rode it like a bucking bull. Not once did she drop her gaze.
It finally had an effect on the empress. Her eyes twitched. “Why are you not writhing in agony? Why are you not begging for your life? Why do you not scream, Admiral?”
“There’s nothing to scream about. I said do your worst. But understand this, you haven’t won. The war isn’t over. You can cut me down, but others will rise in my place. That is the nature of this civilization. The Scarax Galaxy may be built on fear and cruelty. We are built on loyalty.”
“Loyalty? And what good is that? As soon as I cut you down, I will cut down your soldiers. I will do so because of this moment – because of the way you face me now,” she said, baring her teeth. The light was now completely covering her body. It was infecting every single cell, chasing and racing through her. It was getting faster, engorging itself on every single scrap of power the empress was offering up to it. It didn’t just crackle over her teeth. It pulsed into her eyes, even pushed into her hair. It sent every single strand whipping up around her cheeks.
They couldn’t reduce the burning passion in her eyes. Nor that tiny little spark of fright.
Lara clutched hold of it. She voluntarily moved her face further in. It was the equivalent of grinding your forehead up against a gun or pulling a sword up against your own heart. “My soldiers will not die for me. They will die for the Coalition. That is something you still do not understand. The Scarax Galaxy was poisoned by the Hendari. You reached for power when all you should’ve reached for was self-definition. You should’ve found a way to link the different parts of your society, not crush them. Understand this, Empress, those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” she said, her voice rattling out on every single word. They couldn’t punch out far, because her throat was already perilously injured. She didn’t need her syllables to bounce off the craters and mountains around her. She didn’t need them to light up her lips like the empress’s words burnt along her own mouth. All she needed them to do was be heard.
“Those who wield the sword will never die,” the empress retorted.
“You are allowing the Light of the Gods to feed on you, Empress, to digest more of you for power. One day, you will become weak. And the very second you do, is the second the people beneath you will rise up to cut you down. That is what I mean. Those who live by the sword, die by it. But those who live by loyalty, justice, and freedom, will always find a chance to rise, even when they die. You can cut me down, but you can’t cut down what I stand for. So do your worst,” Lara Forest said one last time. She still didn’t close her eyes. She never would.
She always taught the soldiers underneath her one thing. Face every single horror that is thrown at you. Witness other people’s pain. Do not turn away from it. Don’t allow the ego to block you off from the realities others endure. Face it with them. And in doing so, know as they do not withstand horror alone, neither will you.
That’s what it means to stand together. You do not do so in the good times – you do so in the worst of times. When war rains down from above, when death rises up from the cracks of hell to meet you. When everyone falls, and when hope finally succumbs. But no matter what, you stand.
Lara couldn’t stand. She was still floating in the air, her weak feet dangling a few meters off the cracked ground below her, trails of blood still sliding down her glimmering armor.
But you don’t need ground to stand on. When it falls from your feet, stand on your resolutions instead.
The empress snarled. She lost it. And Lara realized this would be her last moment. The goddess’s fingers squeezed in. Her light surged. But it was dim somehow. If the empress had been paying attention, she would’ve realized that ever since Lara had started saying her piece, the Light within the empress had been listening. It had flickered, chasing this way and that across her shoulders and stomach, almost like a crowd gathering to listen to some new message.
Lara thought she would die, that this would be her last stand, but she realized something.
The Light of the Gods didn’t belong to the Hendari nor the gods themselves. It was a greater force that’d been gathered up by the Hendari and twisted. If you gave it a better path, however, it would follow you instead.
Lara didn’t have a god’s body. Nor did she have a Hendari body. She wasn’t the Night, she wasn’t Vivian Bond, and she wasn’t Isabel Carter. Did that matter? No. She might only have a simple human form, but the Light of the Gods saw something in her mind that was greater.
You don’t require strong hands to carve yourself out a path forward. You simply require a mind that will not be crushed by circumstance. An imagination that will push through even the greatest moments of defeat to find light after the storm.
Just as the empress tried one last time to squeeze Lara’s life out of her, the Light rose against her. It formed this unholy plume that shot up above the empress, moving as fast as a bullet blast.
The empress had a chance to jerk her head back, had a chance for her lips to practically fall from her face. “What?” she stammered. “Return to me. I am the empress. I am your savior, your wielder, your lord. Return to me, for it is my right to own you,” she screeched. And though her voice arced out with arrogance, fragility carved it up just like water rills charging through once dry sand. They might not be able to crack the ground yet, but they would eventually.
“No,” the empress shrieked one last time, the horrifying cry just managing to shake up out of her throat as it began to crush itself.
She had given her body up to the Light of the Gods, and the Light, knowing no other way, had started to digest her form. But as it left, the empress was forced to survive on the remnants of her already cracking flesh.
Her skin dimmed, the channels of illumination looking like a switch someone had turned off for good. And as the glow retreated permanently, Lara watched in fast forward as the empress’s body aged. Her once luminescent skin became pale and pasty. It started to char around the channels. And the blistering effects grew. Her body began to buck, every muscle protesting like wild horses bolting for freedom.
As for her eyes? They’d once looked so illuminated, they would’ve been able to charge through the greatest darkness, but now they closed. The empress twitched. She screamed. She fell down to her knees. She grabbed her mouth. Blood started to ooze out of it, this strange crystalline white.
As for the Light of the Gods? It continued to rise above her until it shot towards Forest.
She wasn’t ready for it, and she bucked back momentarily, but she overcame her fear. She shoved forward. Her own body was hardly operating at top efficiency. As she’d already said, a section of her leg muscle was visible. As for her neck? She couldn’t go there. It was a miracle she could still breathe.
And yet she pushed through that miracle. She opened her arms wide. She got down on one knee, ready to accept the light and what might come.
It drove into Admiral Forest’s chest, hitting her bloodstream then rippling out like fire through pipes.
Lara was tempted to scream. She didn’t. She was tempted to grab her throat and try to rake the Light out of her. She held on.
As the Light pulsed through her, she offered it another way and it offered her one too. As for the empress?
She was still alive. She rocked back and forth as fear took to her. Her eyes were wider than Lara imagined they’d ever been. They wanted to take over all her face, but her surprise couldn’t change her situation. She stared at her charred, broken body.
Then she reached one hand toward Lara. “Please,” her once haughty voice fractured with fear, “forgive me. Protect me—”
Lara didn’t have a chance to do anything. A transport beam appeared behind the empress. Then another god arrived. He was charged with the Light, too. It arced around his body, pushing high over his face and snarling lips.
The empress jerked her head around. She snapped a hand up to him instead. “My second in command, please. My light has weakened. I just need—”
The guy looked at her, with nothing but coldness devouring his gaze. Then he formed a sword with the Light of the Gods and cut her right down in front of Lara.
It confirmed everything Lara had already known.
Those who lived by the sword, died by it.
But when the second in command – or, more accurately, the new emperor – took his sword, lifted it high, and came at Lara, she didn’t back down.
She called on the Light inhabiting her own body. And she formed a sword, too. Would she live by it? No. But she would do whatever she could to let it protect her and all.