|"Frontier's whatever you want it to be."|
- A team bonding trip will test Lux’s leadership and confidence as the group welcomes new stars during the annual meteor shower.
There's this dream I keep having.
It starts pitch black. It's so dark, I'm not sure my eyes are even open. It's like being woken up when the power's gone out. All those familiar bits of light snuffed out, swallowed up. Just me and an empty night. I can't help myself. I reach out, hoping that it is just a blackout, that I can just push away the weight of being alone like too many heavy blankets. But the darkness doesn't move.
I tread midnight like water in a well, all the while the cold drip of loneliness slips down my back. Then I realize that there's no surface to break. My chest tightens. My panic rises and it's hard to breathe. I'm in way over my head. Then someone or something's pulled the plug at the bottom of the darkness and I'm sinking further into the inky black. My mouth opens to yell, to scream, but only silence comes out.
What did I expect when I have a mouth full of nothing? My heart's beating too fast. Just when I'm about to give up, just when I'm about to let go, I feel them.
. . . . I feel their light. It's like warmth and joy and comfort and laughter got balled up together so tightly they had no choice but to catch fire.
My eyes are open. Maybe they were there from the beginning, but this is the first time I can truly see. Their faces are so beautiful, so peaceful. They're sleeping, dreaming maybe, untroubled by the darkness that surrounds us. I stretch my arms out, but they're too far. That's when I realize we’re falling.
The horizon of a world big and blue rushes up to meet us. I can't concentrate on where we’re going, the danger that's fast approaching. At this point I don't care. All I can see are my sisters falling. The atmosphere of the planet below us burns hot, and their lights ignite.
My arms ache to the bone. I try to catch them. I try to hold on, but I can't stop them from falling. I'm not strong enough to keep us together. I'm not enough for them. The tips of my own fingers start to glow and break apart. The last thing I see is their emblems darkening as their light shatters into a rainbow of ragged cinders.
And then I wake up.
I'm in my bed, the blanket in a sweaty tangle. The darkness is gone, replaced by a muted gray. I’ve taken to sleeping with one of the windows open. I walk over to it and watch the street below. The soft glow of the lights outside paints me and my room in shadow. Above all the sleeping quiet is darkness. I can feel it still, stretching on and on. It's hard to see the stars from the city. Just a few pinpoints of light break it up. But I know more are out there. Somewhere.
I crawl back into bed and wait for the dawn. I don't go to sleep. I can't. The dream is the same.
Always the same.
“Are you going to join us?"
Jinx is lying on a plastic lounge chair in the backyard, while Shiro and Kuro are napping in the grass at her feet. It's hard to tell if she's heard me. Abnormally large plastic sunglasses cover her eyes and most of her eyebrows. She's got one earbud tucked in her left ear, but I can see the other dangling over the side of the recliner.
She totally heard me.
“Hey, are you coming inside? We’re going to get started.”
Jinx sticks a wad of fluorescent gum back into her mouth, chews loudly, cracking the bubbles with her teeth, and then slowly begins to blow a big, pink bubble. When she gets the bubble big enough to obscure her sunglasses, she sucks it back in with a loud pop.
“Summer’s not gonna last forever, Lux,” she says without looking over. She folds her arms behind her head. Feathered clouds pass in the reflection in her sunglasses. “Better soak all this up before it’s gone.”
She twirls the end of one long red pigtail around the tip of her finger, challenging me to give her something worth coming inside for.
“You’re right,” I say. She loves it when she thinks she's right. “Summer’s almost over. I just think we should talk about… things. You know, before school starts again.”
Jinx purses her lips and blows a raspberry in the air.
I should not have mentioned school. Definitely lost her there.
“Well,” I say, trying a different tactic, “I guess you don’t want any of the popsicles Poppy brought?”
Jinx sits up, straddling the recliner. Kuro startles awake, yawns, and mischievously starts to tumble the still sleeping Shiro over in the grass. Jinx pushes the enormous sunglasses up to sit on her forehead, making it look like giant plastic stars are shooting out of her pigtails.
“Popsicles?” “Yep,” I say as I step inside the house. “Shaped like rockets.” I shut the sliding glass door behind me and walk towards the kitchen. Five seconds later I hear the door slide open and shut.
Thank the stars. As temperamental as Jinx is, she can be awfully predictable about desserts. And ammunition.
My peace is momentary. As I walk into the kitchen, Poppy is standing on a chair in front of the stove, turning pancakes on the griddle, her determination and focus evident from the bend in her elbows and the iron grip she has on a big metal spatula. There is a trail of batter and sticky syrup linking her to the refrigerator and the counter.
“Uh, Poppy, what’s going on? I was gone for, like, five minutes,” I say as Jinx elbows past me, making a beeline for the freezer.
“Lulu said she was hungry,” Poppy says over her shoulder. She shrugs and turns her concentration back to flipping the thin batter in front of her. “I made pancakes.”
Lulu is sitting at the kitchen table intently drawing with one hand and stabbing a bite full of pancake with the other, unconcerned with the food drama surrounding her. Pix is gnawing on an uncapped green marker. Lulu scratches her familiar's head without looking up from her own work.
“Sounds good, Shortstop.” Jinx claps Poppy on the back and then slides into one of the chairs, all while slurping one of the rocket-shaped popsicles. “Make me one shaped like a star? No, wait, one shaped like a missile? Oooh, I know, how about a star missile? I need rainbow sprinkles!”
“Oh, look who finally decided to join us,” Poppy mutters to the griddle.
Chaos. Utter chaos. There's pancake batter on the ceiling. How are we supposed to save the universe if we can't get it together ourselves? Janna is quietly washing the pile of dishes that Poppy's been creating. She's staring out the window in front of the sink. Zephyr is sitting on the counter next to her attempting to lick the syrup from its paws.
“So,” I start to pace in the little bit of open space in the kitchen. “I think we should talk about the next year. School’s about to start and…”
“Hey, whatcha drawing, Loopy?” Jinx leans over Lulu's shoulder, stealing a bite of her pancake with a spare fork. She doesn't want to think about the future so badly, she'll even feign interest in Lulu to get out of it. I try to keep my deep sigh inaudible.
I start again. “As I was saying, we…”
“It’s the starfall,” Lulu interrupts, completely unconcerned that words were coming out of my mouth. “The new stars are coming.” Without looking up she pushes a paper flyer across the table towards Jinx. A glob of whipped cream and sprinkles drips off Jinx's pancake piece onto the paper as Jinx gives it a once over. She smirks and leaves it on the table. I can see the flyer has more than ten words and only one picture, so of course Jinx has totally lost interest in it.
I stop my pacing behind Lulu, taking a good look at what our little artist has been drawing for the first time. It's a field with some trees around the edge. The five of us are standing in the field looking up at a night sky. Janna being the tall, purple one, Poppy has her hammer, and Jinx's long, red pigtails are easy to pick out. I guess I'm the round pink one. Does my hair really stick out of the sides of my head like that?
“This is you?” I ask, pointing to the green-haired one in the meadow of green and black fireflies. Lulu nods, biting her lip in concentration as she shades in the dark blue of the sky. Among the penciled-in stars there are more colors.
“What about these?” Jinx asks, pointing at the colored bits.
“New stars, of course,” she says, rolling her eyes at Jinx. Lulu looks up at me. “Can we go?”
“There are no more new stars here,” Poppy says as she turns another pancake.
There's a loud clatter from the sink as Janna fumbles a plate. “Sorry,” she stammers as she catches it.
I walk over and stand next to her. Through the kitchen window I can see the wispy clouds are gone; it's just a big, empty summer sky. In the sink, Janna slides the sponge around the plate's outer rim in a slow, wet orbit.
“Nice save,” I say, offering Janna a towel off the counter. “The slippery ones are the hardest to hold onto.”
Janna looks over at me and then down at the plate she's been washing. Her cheeks color pink, betraying her normally cool demeanor. Something's up.
She nods and puts the extra-clean plate in the dish rack. She tucks a lock of lavender hair behind her ear and picks up another syrup-drenched plate from the stack on the counter.
Yup, something's definitely up.
Jinx, oblivious as usual, continues to drown her pile of pancakes in syrup, alternating layers with whipped cream and sprinkles.
“You know how much I hate to agree with our blue-haired door stop,” Jinx says as she crams a full fork in her mouth. “But Loops, it’s just us against all the big bad this part of the galaxy has to offer.”
Lulu puts down her pen and picks up the flyer, handing it to me. I take it and wipe off Jinx's melting clump of whipped cream and sprinkles with a kitchen towel, smearing a wet rainbow trail across the top of the paper.
“'Camp Targon’s Summer Starfall. Watch the summer meteor shower. Get out of the city and get to know some new stars. Games and amusement. Last chance for summer fun',” I read aloud. “It’s hosted by the Astronomy class at the university and open to all the local high school students.”
I look up. No one's listening. Lulu's back to drawing. Poppy and Jinx are stacking more and more pancakes on their plates, determined to see who can eat the most. I can see Janna's face in the reflection of the window. She's lost in the sky again.
The paper crunches in my hand. I ease my grip, embarrassed by how tightly I'm holding on. The deadline to register for the camp is today.
“Last chance,” I breathe the words to myself. I look at the girls; everyone's going in different directions. They are not going to be happy about this. But I'm the captain. This will be good for them. “It will be good for us,” I whisper out loud, talking myself into the decision.
“Pack your bags, ladies,” I say loudly, pasting a bright, shiny smile on my face. The bubbly confidence is as much a show for them as it is for me. Each of them looks up, unsure of what is about to happen.
I pull my phone out of my pocket and start dialing the number on the flyer. “We’re going to welcome some new stars.”
Jinx slips a floppy sunhat on as she ambles down from the bus. She had insisted on wearing her bathing suit on the ride over. The obnoxiously loud colors of her bikini are tempered only by the sheer cover-up billowing behind her in the breeze.
“Alright, nerds,” she sighs. “I’m going to find the pool. Time for some cannonballs.”
“It’s a lake,” Poppy corrects her while carefully watching the bus driver unload our gear onto a patch of grass.
“Whatever, Short Stack.” Jinx grabs a tote bag graffitied with hand-drawn stars and oversized guns from the top of the pile. As she passes Lulu, Jinx tugs on the teal butterfly bow in Lulu's hair. “See ya later, Loops.”
I look at Poppy.
“She didn’t actually bring a cannon, did she?”
Poppy shrugs. “Do you really think she could keep her mouth shut about it if she did?”
I'm about to call after Jinx and insist she stay with the group, when I hear a groan behind me. I watch as the bus driver pulls out the last bag, his arms quivering with the effort.
The blue duffel is nearly as big as Poppy. She watches him carefully, her foot tapping out an impatient rhythm in the dry grass.
He sets the duffel down with a little grunt. “What have you got in there, kid? Rocks?”
“Nope.” Poppy reaches over and snatches up the handles of the duffel, swinging it over her shoulder with ease. She flashes a toothy, satisfied grin at the bus driver. “A hammer.”
Poppy gives me the same smile, I'm sure remembering the challenge I gave everyone before we left, that we’re here to blend in and hang out. Be normal. She grabs the handle of Jinx's forgotten wheeled bag and nudges Lulu gently.
“Come on, Lulu. Our campsite isn't going to set itself up,” she says cheerfully.
Lulu nods, humming a song only she knows the melody to. She flutters from wildflower to pinecone to pebble, marveling at every treasure the camp has to offer while Poppy maintains her dutiful march down the trail.
The bus starts back up again and then pulls onto the road. I watch until it disappears behind an outcropping of rocks and trees.
“No turning back now, huh, Janna?” All I can hear is a breeze blowing through the pines.
I spin around slowly. The last of the other stragglers from the bus are already halfway down the trail to the camp. The bus drop off point is empty. “Janna?”
I finally find Janna standing on the rounded top of a granite boulder that's sunk deep in dirt. She's got her back to me. Her hands are wrapped around her arms and the curls of her lavender hair are bouncing in the invisible breeze.
I drop my backpack on a clump of grass and clamber up to stand next to her. Down in the little valley below us I can see the bustle of other campers and teams setting up. Between the trees there's the glittery sparkle of Lake Lunari. My bet is that Jinx has already launched herself in there. I feel a smile cross my face as I wonder if she realizes that it's fed by snowmelt.
But Janna's not looking at any of that. She's so tall. I shade my eyes from the sun and look up for a few minutes, straining to see what she sees. It's another piercingly blue summer sky, empty save for the craggy face of Mount Targon and a few white clouds.
My elbow brushes her arm as I shift my position.
Janna looks over surprised.
“Oh. Hi,” she says, like I haven't been standing next to her for the last five minutes. She smiles, but I can tell that she's still worried about whatever it is that's been bothering her.
She looks over to where the bus dropped us off.
“Where did everybody go?”
“Wow.” I shake my head. “You really are somewhere else, huh?” I look back at the purplish-gray outline of Mt. Targon framed by a dark fringe of pine. There's still snow on the peak this late in the summer.
Janna rubs her hands over her bare shoulders and sucks in a breath as if she were suddenly chilled. It's not even a little cold. The clear sky and sun overhead make me wish for the first time that I had followed Jinx's advice and just worn a swimsuit and shorts. I fan my face with our camp registration.
“We should get going,” Janna says, her long legs stepping down easily from the boulder as if walking on air. She looks back at me as I fumble down the rock. Her smile fades as she glances back up at the sky. “There’s a storm coming.”
“What?” I try and look back at the sky, but my foot slips on a pocket of loose gravel and the roundness of the rock. As usual, too many things at once. I sit down hard in a puff of dust, the back of my leg scraping on the rock.
“Ow.” I wince at the sting. Just what I need. Lulu, Poppy, and Jinx blown to the corners of the camp. Janna feeling like she's on another planet. And now their intrepid leader is going to be taken out by her own two left feet.
“Fantastic,” I mumble into my hand as I rub my face.
A cool breeze catches the damp hair at the back of my neck. I look up to Janna offering a healing hand.
“Nope,” I say. I manage a smile. “I’m fine. Remember, no powers while we’re here.”
Janna shrugs. “Better be careful then, we’ve only got one leader,” she says. She looks at me and I'm sure she can hear all the doubt rattling around in my head. She turns back to the trail as I stand up.
“Let’s hurry,” she calls over her shoulder. “We’d all be lost without you.”
I let out the breath I’ve been holding. That's what I'm afraid of.
The camp information table is draped in dark purple fabric. Rocks and big pinecones hold down stacks of different photocopied flyers. Sitting behind the table is a girl with long black hair. No, not a girl. She looks too old to be in high school and way too cool for a dusty table at a summer camp. She must be one of the Astronomy class sponsors. I hear Janna's footsteps stop behind me as I walk towards the ‘girl.’ I take this as a not so subtle clue that I'm on my own.
I walk up to the table. The tall pines and late afternoon sun combine at an angle so there is shaft of light stabbing me in the eye no matter where I try to stand. The contrast of light and dark makes it hard to see the person behind the table. She makes no effort to move out of the shadows and instead sounds somewhat amused by my inability to find a good spot to have a conversation.
“Hi,” I say, sticking my hand in the general direction of where I think she is.
Not exactly the friendliest response. Also a step more to the left than I anticipated.
“Lux,” I answer, a bit flustered. “Luxana. My group is the—”
“Hmmm… ‘the Star Sisters,” the girl interrupts. Her voice holds a strong note of mocking disapproval. “That’s such a… cute name. You two are the last to check in. Leaders are usually the first ones to check in.” She lets out an exasperated sigh for emphasis.
Sun and planet align so I'm finally granted a sliver of shade to get a better look at our collegiate judge. On closer inspection, I think I preferred the audio only version. She's pursing her lips as if she had just eaten something gross, but still had manners enough not to spit it out. A lanyard name tag with perfectly put together letters reads:.
“I’m sorry,” I try again, trying to sound more confident. I knew I should have told everyone to stay together. “I stayed to make sure all our bags made it off the bus. The others were really excited about getting to the campsite.”
I feel Janna's fingertips on my arm, supporting me. I look over at Janna. Her normally calm face is grimacing at the girl behind the table. I do a double take between them before returning to the conversation.
“Well, we’re all here now,” Janna says curtly.
“Great,” Syndra says, totally not meaning it. “Space twenty-sixteen. Some of your group is already there. There’s also a loud one down by the lake. I assume she’s one of yours.”
Syndra leans over and picks out some of the colored papers. She stops and looks up when I don't immediately acknowledge Jinx as my responsibility.
“You might want to, you know, deal with that,” she says. “Here’s a map and a schedule. The best viewing for the meteor shower starts after midnight.”
Syndra hands me the stack of papers, her eyes narrowing as she looks me over for a final judgment. I am obviously not living up to expectations. “You understand that leaders are accountable for keeping their groups together when it gets dark, right?”
“Yes,” I squeak. I nod dumbly, feeling like a child. I clear my throat to try and find my voice. “I promise I’ll keep everyone together.”
As if on cue, a group of four wanders in from one of the trails. It's like cool just supernovaed in the middle of camp. A wake of starstruck campers begin to gather in little eddies behind them. I can't blame them; I can't look away either.
“Now there’s a team you can learn something from,” Syndra says pointedly. I watch as her snark melts into a smile. “!” she squeals.
The center star in the approaching constellation looks up. She brushes her perfectly side-swept, peach bangs from her eyes, and smiles. A tall redhead, a quiet girl with mint colored curls, and a kinda cute guy with blonde hair flank their all-too popular leader. Of course the group makes their way over to us, picking up more followers like a magnet. Not only does each member exude individual awesome, they move together effortlessly.
I can't help it. I'm so jealous my teeth hurt.
“Syndra,” Ahri says. “Are you all done? We missed you on the hike this afternoon.”
“I had to wait for the stragglers,” Syndra says looking at me.
“Yeah,” I say. “Sorry about that.” I turn to Ahri and smile, extending a hand. “Hi. I’m Lux. You must be—“
“Cool,” she says, finishing the conversation before it even got a chance to start. She eyes my extended hand floating out in space in front of her for an extra moment, really letting my awkwardness sink in for everyone. Finally her perfectly manicured fingers touch my hand in a halfhearted shake. “Charmed, I’m sure.”
Ahri turns to Syndra, effectively dismissing me from the conversation.
“Okay,” I say a little too loudly. “Nice meeting you, I guess.”
A breeze starts to blow through camp and I turn around abruptly and pick a direction to just start walking in, any direction, as long it's not towards the information table.
Which is exactly when I run smack into Janna. The stack of camp papers goes flying. So much for situational awareness. Once again I'm on my butt in the dusty grass looking up at Janna. Only this time my annoyance is tempered by the expression on Janna's face.
Her earlier grimace has been replaced by a dark scowl. The light breeze around us picks up into a stronger gust.
“I have to take a walk,” Janna says. She's not asking. She doesn't even look down in my direction. This is weird. I’ve never seen Janna so... so angry.
“But Janna,” I say, grabbing at the flying papers and trying to pull my wind whipped hair from my mouth at the same time. “They just told us to stay together.”
It's too late. Janna walks down a shady trail taking the wind with her. Behind me, above the dying wind, I hear Syndra laughing. I hope it's at something clever Ahri must have said. I venture a quick look back, only to catch Syndra looking directly at me. And smiling.
I turn away and concentrate on putting my multi-colored stack of flyers back together, letting the trail of lost paper take me as far away from the cool kids as I can get.
I find the last flyer curled in the hollow of a tree. Instead of bending over to pick it up, I let myself sink down onto a pile of pine needles and lean against the tree. In front of me is the lake, but now that I’ve stopped moving I realize I have no idea where I am.
I push my back against the scratchy bark. This trip is so not going how I wanted it to.
We’re not even together, let alone working more as a team.
My face feels hot. The back of my throat tightens. The light glinting off the lake in front of me blurs a little. I can feel the water well in my eyes.
I start rifling through the stack of papers I’ve collected to distract myself from my sudden pity party.
“And not a single, stupid map.” I let out my frustration out in a groan. “How can I be a leader if I don’t even know where I’m going?”
“Meh. Maps are totally overrated.” A guy's voice breaks the background noise of distant campers. I look up. Great. It's the cute, blonde guy from Ahri's star-studded entourage. I stand quickly and wipe my eyes with the back of my hand.
“But, if you really think you need one, I happen to have this on me.” He hands me a slightly wind-crumpled map of the camp. My group's site is clearly circled and numbered in Syndra's perfect handwriting. His grin is a little lopsided. “I have a knack for finding lost things. I’m. You can call me Ez.”
I nod, trying to control my sniffling. He's still smiling. Is he flirting with me? I look around. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket and hands it to me.
“Thanks,” I murmur awkwardly. Even in the shade of the pine trees, his eyes are really blue.
“Maybe you can help me find my team.” I gesture to the trees around us. This little corner of camp is empty except for the two of us. “Seems everybody’s lost but me and you.”
“Sounds perfect.” He sweeps a lock of blonde hair away from his eyes with his hand and gestures with a gentlemanly bow back to the trail. “It’s Lux, right? Like a light?”
“Yeah,” I nod. If he only knew. “My mom had a thing for desk lamps.” I feel my bubbly confidence returning, the one that Jinx constantly complains is so annoying. I look over and watch his cocky smile falter for a second. He's not sure if I'm teasing him. It's my turn to smile. Am I smiling too much?
“I’m just kidding,” I offer.
“Sure, lamps are cool,” he says a little relieved. “But not exactly my favorite kind of light.”
“You have a favorite kind of light?”
“C’mon, doesn’t everybody?” His cocky grin is back. The small footpath we’ve been following is about to join up with the larger trail that goes from the lake to the main part of the camp.
“Are you going to tell me or do I have to guess?” It's silly, but I'm totally forgetting how sorry I was feeling for myself a few minutes ago. For the first time since getting to the camp, I'm not worrying about anything, not even tripping over my own feet.
Which is exactly when Jinx shows up, a mischievous grin plastered on her face along with wisps of lake-soaked hair. Her smile tightens as Ezreal steps out of the shadows and onto the path.
“Hey there, Lux buddy. Find a new friend?” Jinx's clap on my back startles me back into reality and I nearly choke on my tongue trying to answer her.
“Jinx, this is Ez,” I cough, trying to catch my breath. “Ez, this is Jinx.”
Ezreal extends a hand to Jinx. Jinx accepts the challenge and strong arms him, squeezing his fingers and pumping his hand up and down like some kind of backwards arm-wrestling contest. Much to Jinx's surprise, Ez takes the awkward handshake in stride.
Jinx yanks him closer. “What exactly are your intentions towards our Lux, may I ask?” she says in a threatening whisper that all of us can clearly hear.
I feel my face go pinker than my hair.
“We… We…” Ez stammers. “We were just talking about our favorite kind of light. Did… Did you have one?”
Nice save, Ez. If there's one thing that can distract Jinx, it's talking about herself.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Jinx says. She eases some of the tension in her grip and lets go of Ezreal's hand. Ez opens and closes his fingers, double-checking that they still work.
“Really?” I say, surprised. “You have a favorite kind of light?”
Jinx turns to me. “Well, of course. Doesn’t everybody?”
Ezreal shrugs. His cocky grin is back.
“Ezreal, is everything alright?” a cool voice asks. And now it's a party. The tall redhead, the second star in Ahri's constellation of awesome, approaches from farther up the main camp path. She doesn't look too pleased with any of us. Especially Jinx.
“It’s alright, Sarah,” Ezreal says, attempting to smooth over the redhead's rough contempt.
“Hi. I’m Lux,” I dust my hand off on my shorts and offer it to her in greeting. Her eyes narrow and suddenly it feels like I'm under a dissection microscope. And, of course, when I get nervous, I can't stop talking. The words just start to pour out like someone left the faucet on. “It’s, uh, nice to meet you, Sarah. Your hair’s super cool! I don’t think I could ever pull off red, but on you—wow.”
“,” she interrupts. “Sarah is for friends.” From the look on her face, I do not fall into that category.
“Oh, of course. I’m Lux. Did I say that already? I was just looking to pick up the team snack and got a little lost.” I search one of the flyers in my hands for the details I know I saw a few minutes ago. “Yep, team snack, right here at the mess tent. Looks like it’s chocolate chip cookies and... and… oranges.”
“I hate oranges,” Miss Fortune says coldly. She looks at Ezreal. “Ahri wants us to walk the perimeter before dark.”
Ezreal gives her a mock salute. “Aye, aye, captain.”
Miss Fortune rolls her eyes and begins walking back up to camp. Jinx begins to pull me in the opposite direction.
“I’ll catch you later, Lux,” Ezreal says and starts to jog after her.
I can't help it. I call after him. “You never said what’s your favorite!”
He stops, shakes the hair out of his eyes, and cups his hands together.
“Starlight,” he shouts back. Even from this distance I can see his lopsided grin clearly.
He turns and catches up to Miss Fortune.
“Huh,” Jinx muses thoughtfully. “I totally thought he was gonna say double rainbows.”
It's my turn to roll my eyes. I punch her gently in the arm.
“Come on, let’s go find those cookies.”
It's nearly dark by the time Jinx and I make it back to camp. By the way Poppy is going after a cord of firewood, I can tell she isn't pleased. Jinx loudly crunches through another cookie, announcing our arrival.
“Took you long enough,” Poppy grumbles. She picks up another piece of wood to cut down to size.
“Ooh. There you are!” Lulu jumps off the stumps she's sitting on and rushes me in a hug. At least someone's glad to see us.
“Don’t sweat it, Bam Bam,” Jinx tosses the bag of oranges onto our picnic table. “I brought oranges and cookies.” Jinx looks into the bag again and brings out the last uneaten cookie. “I mean, I brought oranges and one cookie.”
Jinx breaks it in two, giving half to Lulu and keeping the other for herself.
“Here you go munchkin, don’t say I didn’t share,” she says.
Lulu looks up at Jinx and smiles. Poppy groans.
“Alright,” Jinx adds, “But only ‘cuz you’re crazier than me.” She gives Lulu the other half as well. “And because I don’t want Poppy to have any,” she whispers loudly. “Hey, aren’t we supposed to set some stuff on fire?”
“You mean a campfire,” I say.
“Yeah, one of those.” Jinx reaches into her Stars and Ammo tote bag. I can hear Kuro's squeaking and the distinctive click of a trigger.
“Uh-uh.” I shake my head, “No powers.”
“Killjoy.” Jinx rolls her eyes. Poppy laughs between wood chops.
Janna bends over the campfire ring with a lit match and a bundle of dry pine needles.
After a few seconds, the needles catch fire. A thin waft of smoke rises and Janna blows gently, coaxing a bigger stick in the middle to ignite. She tucks the flaming bunch into a teepee of wood in the center of the ring and gives Jinx a satisfied smile.
“And that’s not cheating?” Jinx drops the empty cookie bag on the table with a melodramatic sigh and starts looking around for a stick. “Whatever. Did we bring marshmallows?”
Poppy sets the neatly-chopped logs in a pile next to Janna. “Aren’t marshmallows all you brought?”
“Ooooh yeah,” Jinx snaps loudly, remembering. She finds her discarded tote and pulls out a bag of marshmallows, threading four on long, thin stick. “I brought a towel too, Shorty. I’m responsible.”
I settle onto a stump near Janna. She seems better than before.
“You alright?” I ask her. She nods.
“I think I just needed a bit of fresh air.”
I gesture to all the trees around us and smile. “Well, I guess we came to the right place.”
Janna nods her agreement, but without my enthusiasm. Before I can ask further, Lulu dusts the cookie crumbs off her hands and climbs up next to Janna.
“Tell us a story, Janna,” she says.
“I don’t really know any stories, Lulu.”
“How about a ghost story, Janna,” Jinx adds, “You’re old. You probably know some ghosts, right?”
Janna arches a lavender eyebrow at Jinx.
“Please?” Lulu pleads.
Janna takes a deep breath. It seems no one can deny Lulu tonight.
“Alright,” Janna begins. “Once upon a time, there was a lonely light that stood against darkness.”
“Was it the First Star?” Lulu asks.
“Yes. In the beginning the First Star was all alone. After a while it didn’t want to be alone anymore so it took all of its starlight and spread it across the night.” Janna waved her hand gently across the sky, gesturing to the blanket of stars above us.
“And that’s where we came from,” Lulu says proudly.
“You. Me. The animals and the trees. Even Jinx,” Janna adds with a smile. “Everyone carries a little bit of that light. It’s very powerful stuff and the First Star knew it needed to be protected from the darkness. The first Star Guardians that were chosen were said to be very strong and full of light.” Janna's voice drops slightly. “But, those that burn bright, burn quickly.”
“Isn’t that what we’re here for?” Poppy adds, confused. “It’s our duty to protect all of the First Star’s light.”
“Yes,” Janna agrees. She looks over at me. “But it’s more than duty; it’s our destiny. And it's our destiny to do it together. The First Star knew how hard it was to be responsible for so much and do it all alone.”
“Did anybody ever decide not to go with the flow, you know, against the whole destiny thing?” Jinx pokes her marshmallow stick at one of the burning logs, knocking off a few glowing embers. I'm surprised. I didn't think she was paying attention to anything except burning sugar.
“There was a Star Guardian, once, who decided she’d had enough of the cycle. She didn’t want to return to starlight. She wanted to stay just who she was.”
“You have my attention,” Jinx says, turning to face Janna.
“It’s said that she first came to be in a system full of darkness,” Janna continues.
“Did she find sisters, like us?” Lulu asks.
“Oh, yes,” Janna says. “And because her corner of the galaxy was so dark, they meant everything to her. For a time they were happy. And she was happy with them. Then one day there was a battle. A great evil came, swift and terrible. She lost her sisters in the fight and she became very sad.”
“That would make me sad too,” Lulu sniffs.
“Me too, Lulu.” Janna says, hugging her. “But they say that instead of staying sad, she became angry and turned away from the First Star’s light. They say she followed the evil to where it came from, hoping she could find some way to undo her destiny.”
Lulu shivers and snuggles closer to Janna.
“Is she still alive?” Poppy asks.
“I don’t know.” Janna thinks. “If she is, her light would be pretty old by now.”
“Older than yours, Janna?” Jinx mocks.
“Yes,” Janna says, mocking her right back. “Older than mine.”
Lulu yawns. “Was that a real story?” she asks.
“I’m not sure anymore, Lulu,” Janna says quietly.
It's quiet. All I can hear is the crackle of the fire as the weight of the night settles over us. I decide to break the silence.
“Well, the meteor shower begins in about four hours. Maybe we should get some sleep before then,” I offer.
Janna stands the sleepy Lulu up and marches her slowly towards one of the two tents. I go to follow her. Poppy stops me and points to the other tent, before going in ahead of Janna.
“You’re with Jinx,” Poppy says quietly. “She snores. Good luck.”
“I heard that, Little Bits,” Jinx says, stuffing another handful of marshmallows in her mouth.
“Don’t worry,” Janna says as she navigates Lulu into the tent. “I’ll look after her.”
I smile and grab a bucket of water to douse the campfire. I look up. More stars than I can count cover the sky. So many. Maybe more Star Guardians. Just like us. It would be nice not to feel so isolated. I shake the hope from my head and pour the water onto the fire. It sizzles and steams as the glowing embers are drowned, leaving me alone in the night.
I climb into the dark tent. Jinx is already whistle-snoring and I can hear Poppy smacking her lips in the other tent. Not exactly peace and quiet, but we’re together. There are four holes in the tent roof. Through them I can see the sky. I try and count the stars beyond our world.
I don't even make it to ten before I'm swallowed by sleep.
The darkness is the same, but this time the dream is terrifyingly different.
Instead of just me at the bottom of the lonely well, we’re all there. Lulu, Janna, Jinx, and Poppy. We’re all lost in the darkness. Their calm serenity has been replaced by panic.
Each of their muffled voices lap over each other, pleading with me to get them out. Above us and far, far away I can see a handful of stars. Their light wavers, nearly blinking out. They call to me too, but I can't reach them. I can't move. Glowing ash rains down from above. It glitters as it falls through my fingers. I recognize what it is before the muted light winks out completely.
Star Guardian emblems. Shattered and broken.
An unseen weight hits me full in the chest, knocking the wind out of me, pushing me down further. The starlight above fades even more, moving away from me. The heavy weight bounces up and down, shaking me, but my arms and legs are dead weights. I'm stuck, frozen in the darkness.
The weight stops bouncing. I keep sinking.
“It’s no use,” Poppy's voice is annoyed and resigned at the same time. She sounds closer, but I still can't reach her.
“Here. Let me show you how it’s done, Smalls.”
There's a metal scraping sound and a slosh of liquid. I suck in a huge breath as cold water splashes over me. I'm drowning. I am literally drowning this time. I sputter and blink my eyes open. It was just a dream. Sort of. The weight on my chest is distinctly Poppy-shaped.
Jinx is standing over the both of us with an empty canteen in her hand. “Oh look, our fearless leader is awake now.”
“Was that completely necessary, you two?” I wipe my eyes and try to sop up the water from my sleeping bag with a spare sweatshirt.
“Lulu’s missing,” Poppy says quickly.
I'm on my feet, out of the tent, and pulling on my shoes. I open the flap of Lulu's tent. Her sleeping bag is empty. So is Janna's.
“Janna didn’t even take the cane I made her,” Jinx adds, true concern peeking out in her voice. “What if the old lady falls and can’t get up?”
This is worse than the dream.
“We couldn't go find them without you,” Poppy says insistently. “You said it’s our duty to stick together.”
“I just wanted to dump a canteen of water on you and see what happens,” Jinx says. Her tone says she doesn't care, but her face disagrees.
“Can we leave now?” Poppy pulls at my arm.
Resting on top of Janna's pillow is the picture Lulu made of all of us in the meadow.
We’re all looking up at the sky. New stars, Lulu said. My stomach sinks as I look closer at the picture. The fireflies. Black and green glowing things surround us. I have a totally bad feeling about this.
I look at Poppy and Jinx. I can't remember the last time they shared the same expression. Their worry is clear. Flashlights aren't going to cut it tonight.
“Poppy, get your hammer. Jinx, wake up Shiro and Kuro,” I say. “It’s time to bring out the big guns.”
The light from my staff is infinitely better than a flashlight, but does nothing to calm my pounding heart. I stop my run to get a better look at the map of the camp I’ve clenched in my other hand. Unfortunately, Lulu must have found someplace out of the way. We’re well past the boundaries of the camp.
“There’s a clearing near here,” I say. “A rock slide’s made it off limits to the rest of the camp.”
“Sounds like a great place to welcome the new stars,” Jinx pants, more than a little winded from the growing elevation. “Stupid cookies.”
Poppy tightens her grip on her hammer. “Let’s go.”
The distance between the trees becomes greater, finally opening up to a full meadow. I take a deep breath. Jinx lets out a low whistle.
A low fog has settled like a misty quilt over the area. Moonflowers trail over tiny wild roses. Arcs of little blue flowers poke up and hang over the mist. White granite boulders catch the sliver of moonlight and dot the dark meadow like a stony star field. Above, the meteor shower has just begun.
Sitting in the center of it all on a red and white checkered picnic blanket is our little green-haired Lulu. She even brought the oranges.
“Oh, thank the First Star. She’s here.” A gentle breeze pushes some of the mist away as Janna steps out from behind a tall pine next to us. She must have come up the opposite way from camp. Even she is a little out of breath.
“Lux!” Lulu jumps up. I can't stop myself from running to her. I'm running so hard, the ground shakes. Wait, no... I stop running, but the ground's still shaking. A greenish black glow starts to emanate like sickly veins beneath the mist. A vibration rumbles in time with the now pulsing glow.
“Lulu.” I can barely hear myself over the deep growl of the moving rock beneath us.
“We’re not alone. New stars are coming, Lux.” The innocence in Lulu's eyes has disappeared. She takes my hand. “I’ve seen them in my dreams.”
Even though she's standing right next to me, her voice sounds so far away. Like she's still caught in that dream.
Jinx, Poppy, and Janna circle around the edge of the meadow. The earth heaves beneath my feet.
“Stay back!” I shout.
The warning comes too late. The cracks break into deep fissures. The mist ruptures and a horde of black insects the size of dogs comes crawling out, dripping an eerie green light.
Staff in hand, I reflect a beam of Starlight to the nearest creature. The light hits the creature beneath its winged carapace. It explodes in a disgusting burst of lucent green goo.
“By Starlight,” I whisper. “They have wings.”
I shout to the others. “They have wings! We can’t let them reach the camp!”
“Woo-hoo.” I can hear Jinx whooping over the fray. “Shiro. Kuro. Who’s feeling ferocious?!” Missiles start firing before she even finishes her sentence. “Come on Short Stack, it’s bug squashing time.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice, Rocket Breath,” Poppy shouts back.
I see Janna rise off the ground a few feet. “Hold on, Lulu.” I feel her fingers tighten around mine. Janna's voice echoes in the field.
“For tranquility!” A gust of wind blows the mist from the meadow. Several of the creatures get caught in the whirlwind eddies, smashing into heavy tree trunks. Now that the fog is gone, I see there's way more of the awful little things than I thought. This isn't like the other attacks. We’re in way over our heads.
“Look, the new stars!” Lulu shouts.
Five lights streak across the sky. They're heading straight for us. I follow their arc as they touch down. The lights separate and hit the meadow in a perfect, five point landing. Several of the creatures explode with their impact. When the dust and goo settle, I nearly have to pick my jaw up off the floor.
It's Ahri and her entourage. Miss Fortune, Syndra, Ezreal, even the quiet, mint-haired girl.
“You’re a Star Guardian?” I yell. “You’re all Star Guardians?” No one can hear me over the fray. That, and everyone is listening to Ahri.
“Time to shine, ladies,” she says. Her smile alone could light up the meadow. “You too, Ezreal.”
They move as an efficient, synchronized unit. Miss Fortune raises a gleaming white pistol and fires the first shot. It blows through one creature and right through to the one behind it. It's the first time I’ve seen her smile and I count my lucky stars that I'm not the current object of her attention. Ahri and Ezreal are blurs of light as they dash into and out of the fight. The creatures are definitely not fast enough to keep up. Ahri giggles and blows a kiss towards one of the bigger monsters. Seemingly even more mindless than before, it starts to walk slowly toward her and the glowing orbs she's playing with. Her giggle stops cold as she lobs the orb at the creature, obliterating it in a burst of dark ooze.
Syndra hangs back, but only for a moment, entering the fray with three of her own orbs. The maniacal grins on the balls could give Kuro and Shiro a run for their money. At the center, the girl with mint green hair raises a long staff in the air, channeling Starlight from above. Looking at her, I feel my racing heart start to slow down and my breathing get easier. Ahri's orb catches the last creature effortlessly, exploding it in a shower of black insect exoskeleton and bioluminescent goo. As quickly as the new team had arrived, it's over.
Ahri rubs the tips of her fingers together as she gathers her orbs, obviously not pleased by the creature's residue. Syndra juggles her dark purple familiars while her casual arrogance lifts her up above the mess.
“All in a night’s work, eh?” Ezreal says, giving the quiet girl a wink. “Thanks for the little pick me up.”
Soraka maintains a serene smile while nodding enthusiastically at Ez.
Obviously satisfied with all the excitement, Ez smiles in my direction as his winged familiar tucks itself neatly back into his gauntlet. Miss Fortune blows a trail of smoke from her twin pistols and ignores both of them.
The easy moment is fleeting as the ground rumbles again. Before I can count to two, the earth ruptures, knocking me back. I hit my head hard against a log.
“Ow.” I try and shake off the metallic whine now stuck between my ears. I stop moving when I see the meadow itself is going all wonky, like the fabric of space and time is warping in front of me. The green glow is back and stronger than before.
“Lulu! Jinx!” I search for the girls, but all I can see is the hulking carapace of what looks like a space bug the size of two elephants emerging from the biggest rupture in the ground.
I feel the ground ripple and then there's a streak of light in front of me. A white gauntleted glove reaches out and catches my hand as the earth beneath me starts to give way.
“Told you I’d catch you later.” His voice is drowned out in the chaos. “That inter-dimensional nasty isn’t going to explode itself.” The world is literally going to pieces and he's still smiling. “You ready, Starlight?”
I nod. Ready as I'll ever be. He lifts me up, launching me into the sky above the monster. From this vantage point I can see everyone.
Janna and Soraka contain a new horde of little evils crawling up from the smaller cracks.
Ahri, Miss Fortune, and Syndra begin taking those out as they start to maneuver into a better position against the big one. I land close to Lulu as she avoids the monster's many limbs while Pix zaps at the smaller creatures. Jinx and Poppy look like they're arguing at the edge of the field. I can barely hear them above the fray.
“You want me to what?” Jinx yells.
“The Rocket. Fire me on the Rocket!” Poppy shouts back.
“Poppy!” Jinx's jaw drops in shock. Then a smile slowly blossoms on her face as she leans over and excitedly hugs the short blue haired girl next to her. “I thought you’d never ask.”
A moment later Poppy is riding a missile towards the creature's dripping maw, hammer in hand. The hammer connects with a loud crack. The creature reels back. Its moment is up. I lift my wand and channel Starlight into it. The creature's sharp incisors snap greedily in the air. It sees Lulu at its feet and opens wide.
My beam of light smashes into it, bursting right out of the back of its head. A spray of noxious liquid drenches the field. The creature screeches and starts to topple over.
Its heavy, flailing limbs reach back in its death throes. Right where Lulu is. I look around. There isn't anyone closer. I dive in and push Lulu out of the way. Black monster pieces rain down on top of me.
And then it all goes dark.
The first thing I can hear is canvas flapping gently. And birds chirping. My fingers are resting on a thin blanket. I crack my eyes open. Sunlight stabs me in the eye through the four little holes in the ceiling. I'm in my tent.
“Ugh... What…” The words get caught in my dry mouth. I try to sit up more, but think better of it as the ceiling starts to spin. “…am I?”
“Not dead,” a too-cool voice answers.
The fabric at the foot of my sleeping bag pulls as someone adjusts their position. I try and squint through the dizziness. Ahri tucks her perfectly peach hair behind her ear.
“You took quite a fall last night,” she says.
The events of the night start rushing back in some kind of horribly disjointed movie. Running through the woods. The field. The creatures. Lulu. Then everything crumbling around me. It wasn't just a bad dream.
I bolt up, completely regretting the sudden move a moment later when my brain catches up and slams into the inside of my head.
“Lulu? Is she?” I grimace a little in pain. I rub my forehead to try and shake off the headache.
“Everyone’s fine. I sent them to get breakfast,” she says. “I’ve been told there’s a hammer with my name on it if I don’t tell the stubby, blue one when you’ve woken up.”
Ahri picks up a canteen that's sitting next to her. She hands it to me.
I look at her as I take a sip of the cold water. This close and I can see that we can't actually be that far apart in age. But there's something about her. More experience. More confidence. She's seen more of what the universe can throw at us. She's the leader we’re meant to have. I know it.
“I wanted to tell you, you made the right choice,” she says. “Risking yourself and stepping in like that.”
“It was nothing,” I say, pushing away the compliment. “Any one of us would have done it. It’s what Star Guardians do. We’re sisters.”
She laughs softly, but then a touch of darkness washes over her face. A moment later it's gone, the mask of perfection back in its place.
“We’re not sisters,” she says quietly, her voice tinged with regret. “We’re just strangers with memories.” She stands up.
“We’ve sealed the incursion point. My team will be returning to the city this morning. We’ll take care of anything that comes up from now on. You and your girls can stay here until you’re recovered. Enjoy the summer sun. After that, stay out from underfoot.”
“Wait, you’re not going to lead us?” I ask, confused. My head is pounding. “Like, all of us together? With a team twice as big, we’re twice as strong. We worked great together last night.”
“You almost got yourself killed last night,” she says.
I'm not listening anymore. “Together, there isn’t anything we can’t face.”
“No, Lux,” she says with an air of finality. “Together, there’s so much more to lose.”
And just like that, dismissed again. Ahri turns to leave.
“Star Guardians are a team,” I say. I swallow the tightness in my throat. I'm not going to beg, but I can try to make her see reason. “It’s our destiny.”
Ahri pauses. She looks at me carefully. The tent flap is open; the bright sun divides her face in light and shadow. “Destiny?” she says; a subtle bitterness creeps into her voice.
“That’s such an ugly word.”
The flap of canvas closes behind her. I can feel my face getting hot in frustration. She's a Star Guardian leader. Why won't she lead us? Why is she leaving me alone? I stare up at the top of the tent. The four holes of light dance above me.
Not alone. Jinx and Poppy and Lulu and Janna are out there. They need someone. I can't just let this go if I'm all they've got.
I lurch to my feet and stumble towards the light outside. I don't have time to wait for the world to stop spinning. Jinx was right.
Summer's not going to last forever.
- Related Music