Kaine can't sleep. He stares up at the sky, counting the stars and watching meteors flit by. One sharp slice of a moon hangs in the north. The other two, both full and yellow with dust, are lifting out of the west, casting a jaundiced light across the desert. He listens to the cracking of the embers in the small campfire they built. He listens to the rise and fall of human breathing. And there's something else.
It sounds like the clicking of slick claws, like a crab with castanets. It sounds like something skittering through the sand. It sounds like something looking for a meal.
Kaine keeps still. He wants to get up and find out what it is. The heat of the fire seems to be keeping it away, but he thinks the light might be what's attracting it. He turns his head to look at the glowing coals. Moths and other bugs hover and spin in the firelight. The claws click. Legs skitter. He catches sight of it out of the corner of his eye as its feelers waver closer to his shoulder than he feels entirely comfortable with. He recognizes the creature. He thinks. He's never seen one that big. The wind scorpion trying to taste him is the size of a tiger.
Jynx wakes up with a fit of coughing and sprays feathers out of his mouth. His eyes are wide and panicked, and he draws his gun before he even realizes he's reached for it. "Kaine ..." he says.
Startled by Jynx's sudden movement, the giant wind scorpion skitters back into the shadows with a frightened hiss. Kaine scrambles towards Kumiko as he draws his gun. He shakes her. "Get up," he says as she pushes his hand off her shoulder.
"Just a few more minutes," she mutters.
He shakes her again. Somewhere in the darkness, he can hear the wind scorpion's clicking. They are getting in the way of its late night snack, and it's hungry. "Get up," he says.
Kumiko sits up. "What the hell's your problem?" she asks.
"Hey, remember that," Jynx says. "She's cranky when you wake her up in the middle of the night."
Kumiko rubs her eyes and notices that they both have their guns out. "What's going on?" she asks.
"We have a problem," Kaine says.
"I hope so. Otherwise --"
The wind scorpion races towards the bugs fluttering around the campfire. Kumiko screams. Jynx fires three bullets into it, and it flops down, smothering the fire and plunging them into complete darkness except for the sickly light of the western moons.
"What the hell was that?" Kumiko asks. She doesn't realize she's got a death grip on Kaine's arm until he stands up and pulls her up with him.
"It was a wind scorpion," Jynx says. "Wasn't it?"
Kaine takes a cautious step towards the carcass, keeping his gun trained on it. "It's toast now," he says.
It hisses and twitches, its legs thrashing the air. Kumiko screams and pulls on Kaine's arm. He steps away from it, putting his right arm protectively around her shoulders.
"How the fuck did it get so big?" Jynx asks.
"I don't know," Kaine says. "But I sure as hell hope there aren't more like that." He knows as soon as he says it that there are.
Flames bloom towards the sky in the south.
"Oh my God," Kumiko says.
"The Mirage," the twins say.
"We'll never make it in time," Jynx says as they start running.
Kaine says nothing. They both know they're too late. The damage is done. Their friends are dead. But they have to go. They can feel the star demon.
A wind scorpion rears up in front of them, hissing and thrashing its legs. Its huge jaws snap at the air. This one is the size of a large swordfish. A shotgun shell tears a fist-sized hole in its chest. As soon as it falls, two more, bigger than the last one, appear. They look over their shoulders.
"Shoot the fuckers or get outta the way!" McBride shouts at them.
Jynx and Kaine aren't surprised to see McBride, but they aren't pleased either. Fortunately for McBride, the wind scorpions and the burning caravan require more attention.
They start shooting. For every wind scorpion they kill, it seems like two more show up. The wind scorpions pop up out of the sand as if they had been lying in wait. In the distance, the caravan burns. Another trailer explodes. Screams rend the air. The star demon Fire Scar laughs and wipes blood and maggots from her face.
When the firestorm hits, Iai is half asleep in the warm nest of Ben's arms, day dreaming about Roland. His fingers compare the textures of their hair and skin. His tongue contrasts the tastes of their mouths. The biggest difference isn't in the physical details. It's the way his heart doesn't race for Ben the way it would for Roland and the way that he wasn't afraid to explain certain quirks of his anatomy to Roland. Ben didn't ask why Iai wouldn't consent to intercourse. He had to have noticed that something was ... missing, but Ben had been content with kissing and was probably too afraid to ask questions.
Iai thinks that the difference between Ben and Roland is what humans call love. He finds the names of human emotions inadequate, though, and thus they continue to confound him on some level. Love is probably the hardest one to figure out.
Fear, on the other hand is quite simple, and a low-grade dread begins to stir in him as Ben nuzzles the back of his neck. His muscles tighten. Ben, still drowsy, doesn't notice. His fingers trace the outline of one of the two bruise colored marks on Iai's back. "You have wings," Ben murmurs.
Iai sits up suddenly. He grips Ben's wrist so hard that tears form in the corners of Ben's eyes. "We have to get out of here," he says.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Ben asks.
Iai doesn't answer. He loosens his grip on Ben's wrist but doesn't let go. The awful fear swells in his breast. Heat flares across his face. He yanks Ben off the bed and towards the door, pausing to grab his sword. When they stumble out into the cold desert night, the lead vehicle of the caravan is already on fire.
"Get everyone out of the trailers," Iai says.
They run up and down the line, banging on doors, shouting as loud as they can. The caravan vehicles go up in flames like a string of firecrackers. The gas tank of the lead jeep explodes. There are screams now, just barely audible above the roaring of the flames. The smells of burning rubber, fuel and flesh start to strangle the air.
Iai sees the woman walking towards the caravan with a stilted step. In the glow of the fire, he can see the pentagram branded on her forehead, dripping blood and squirming maggots. His guts clench and churn. She's laughing. Her hands are held out in front of her, palms facing the caravan. She swivels her arms towards one of the guards, and he bursts into flames. She laughs. Iai starts to run towards her, and then he hears Pollie screaming his name. He turns away from the star demon and feels fire crawl up his spine.
"Burn, little feather, burn!" Fire Scar shouts.
Iai drops to the sand and smothers the flames before the damage gets too bad, but his back is badly burned. The next several hours become a haze of pain and anger as he tries to put out burning bodies, pull them from flaming trailers and find everyone. He hates that he can't go after the demon, but the people are more important.
At dawn, Fire Scar is gone. Every vehicle of the caravan is a charred husk. There are burned bodies scattered on the sand. Many others are severely injured. Memphis is on his knees, holding Trevor's limp body in his arms and weeping silently. Christian is attempting to account for his caravan guards, but he keeps breaking down every time he realizes he's lost one. Many of the guards and the passengers are just missing. They tried to run away when the fires started. They'll be found in a few hours, burned to unrecognizable cinders.
Pollie is unharmed. Iai made sure that she was far enough away from the fires and stayed still. It had taken him a while to find Winston. Winston was trying to save Miss Rosie and has terrible burns on his arms and back. He's one of the lucky ones. He should live. Miss Rosie wasn't lucky.
Iai is probably hurt worse than he realizes. His back, his arms, his chest and his face are covered with angry white blisters. The flesh around the blisters is red and swollen. The feathers in his body can do little to ease his pain or cover his wounds, though they try. He almost feels like he's betraying the dead and the wounded by beginning to heal already. He remains standing next to Pollie and her unconscious father. He fears that if he moves, he will simply collapse and never get back up.
Shortly after dawn, Jynx, Kaine and Kumiko arrive. There isn't much they can do at that point. Kumiko helps Nathan tend to the wounded while Jynx and Kaine help Christian build a pyre for the dead. It seems almost cruel to burn them again, but burying them in the desert would do no good. The wind would expose the graves in no time at all.
Iai just watches them for a long time, thinking he ought to help them, but he can't make himself take a step. This is the first time he's actually seen the twins. They're so much more beautiful than he had imagined.
When Nathan and Kumiko finally make their way over to check on Pollie and Winston, Iai thinks he's passed out. He's still standing, but he can't see anything. There's only blackness in front of his eyes, and the voices are light years away. He thinks he hears Pollie tell Kumiko and Nathan that he's not human. He hopes she's told them. That should keep them from touching him. He's not even aware of the blackness after that.
He dreams of Ben. Ben, who is dead, burned to ashes when Fire Scar caught the scent of the feather on his skin. Ben is smiling at Iai. Iai feels so tired he can't make himself smile back. Ben pulls open Iai's shirt and presses his mouth to the wings tattooed on Iai's breastbone. "Wings on the front, wings on the back," he murmurs. "Where are you flying off to with all those wings?"
"I don't know," Iai says to Ben's ghost.
"Yes, you do."
Iai wakes up with a start as something bitterly cold presses down on his forehead. He starts to sit up, and his head spins. Pollie pushes his shoulder back down to the sand. "It's okay," she whispers.
"Are you all right?" Kumiko asks, pulling the cold compress away from Iai's forehead.
Iai doesn't answer. He just stares at her with fever-dried eyes.
"I'll take that as a maybe."
Iai is overjoyed to hear Winston snort and say, "He's too quiet. You could cut all his limbs off, and he wouldn't say a goddamn thing." It isn't quite the derisive tone Iai is used to. He thinks he hears genuine affection in Winston's voice.
"Yes, maybe," Iai says. "I ... I think I'm all right."
"You've still got a fever," Kumiko says. "You just need to take it easy. We're trying to get real doctors out here, but ... well, just rest, and I'll come back and check on you later."
Kumiko fights off tears as she walks back to Jynx and Kaine. She's tired. Her shoulders ache. She's sad. What's worse, she knows something's strange about the blonde haired boy she just left, and she's really not in the mood to try to figure it out. She had learned from Pollie Cash that his name is Iai and that he isn't human, and she couldn't help but notice that his eyes are the same color and shape as the twins'.
She stops between them and feels herself drooping. Kaine puts his arms around her, and she sobs against his chest. Jynx, for once, says nothing.
The last thing Iai wants to see is fire, but he feels one near him. He opens his eyes. He doesn't know where he is, but the desert he finds himself in isn't on Phoenix. He watches the sky. There are four stars above him. He recognizes Shaman, Firefly and Yuusei, but the fourth makes him stop and wonder. It's tiny and further away than the other three. It's a whole universe away. As he watches, white wings unfurl from Samurai, and Iai feels less lonely than he ever has. He turns his head towards the bonfire.
"Thought we'd find you here," Jynx says.
The twins are sitting near Iai's feet, watching him with identical expressions. Iai can't quite read their faces. He sits up. "What is this?" he asks.
"It's a crossroads," Kaine says. "The stars intersect here."
"Then why am I here?"
Kaine shrugs. "You're not a star."
"You're a feather," Jynx says.
"I know that, but ... do I come from this place?" Iai asks.
"You come from Samurai," Kaine says. "You look exactly like him."
"I don't understand."
"We're not sure either," Jynx says. "It's not like we can talk to him. He's ... kinda busy, and it's super long distance. We know you're not Samurai because he's not dead."
"If you can't communicate with him, how would he have known to send me?"
"He probably didn't know," Kaine says. "But you knew."
"I haven't always known what I am, though."
"But you've always known why. You can feel us the way we feel you. And we're drawn together."
"If I do come from Samurai, how did I get here?"
"You came across the Void somehow," Jynx says. "But that's not exactly a practical way to travel. I don't know."
"I'm sorry I didn't find you sooner. Perhaps I should have, but I needed to learn about myself first."
"It's all right."
"This is when we need you," Kaine says. "We'll have more answers before we're done."
Iai looks up at the stars again. "And after we're done?" he asks.
Kaine says nothing.
"There is no after," Jynx says.