I have too many questions I want to ask her. I sneak a side-glance as we walk. She’s looking straight ahead. I watch her gaze sweep back and forth across the far perimeter of the park, her red hair catching the last scraps of the afternoon light with each step. Does she see something? Is this the way she normally patrols? Is she bored? Why is she here? I can’t believe she wanted to come. Why did she come? I quicken my pace to keep up.
“,” I say, remembering.
She doesn’t look away from the path ahead, so I keep going.
“Thanks for coming. I know this was a kinda last-minute ask. draws weird stuff sometimes. A lot, actually. And the other Star Guardians from your team—”
“ really does have detention, ,” she says.
“Oh,” I stammer. “It’s cool.” I can feel the pink in my cheeks. I tug on the tips of my gloves. She turns to look at me, a smug grin softening her face.
“He wanted to be here,” she says. “ too, but was short staffed. And tonight is astronomy class at the university—”
“—And ?” I blurt out too quickly.
“No worries,” I say, looking for a way to change the subject. In the middle of the park, pushes and a free-loading on a squeaky merry-go-round. Lulu sways idly in a close-by swing set, its metal chains clang softly, like lonely windchimes. There’s no one else in the park besides us. “It’s pretty quiet.”
“Like you said, it’s probably nothing,” she says casually.
I take the folded slip of paper out of my pocket. The frayed edge where I tore it out of Lulu’s notebook flutters in the breeze. The shapes of the playground equipment and power lines surrounding Valoran City’s metro park were clear enough, but it was the dozens of circles in the sky that worried me. Poppy said that it was too warm in physics class, and Lulu was just doodling to stay awake.
Sarah’s smile tightens. “She’s been busy.”
“Look!” Lulu shouts from the swing, snapping me out of my thoughts. She is at the top of the swing’s arc, gesturing excitedly at the horizon. A bright spot has risen just over the silhouette of the skyline. “Twilight star! I saw it first.”
I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. It’s just a star. Stars can’t hurt us.
“The twilight star is not a real star,” Poppy groans. “Technically it’s a planet.”
“Janna said everything has starlight in it,” Lulu argues back.
Janna nods her head in agreement.
“What are you gonna wish for, Loops?” Jinx juggles Shiro and Kuro absently as the merry-go-round spins. Lulu pumps her legs on the swing, pushing it higher.
“More stars!” she shouts. “I want to see more stars.”
“But it’s not dark yet,” Jinx says. “The other stars aren’t out yet.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Lulu pumps her legs harder. “The other stars are always there no matter what. Even if you can’t see them.”
“Rocket-breath is right,” Poppy says, hiding her reluctant agreement with Jinx by examining a non-existent scuff on her hammer. “It needs to get really dark before you can see the stars in the city. It’s not like at the camp.”
I cup my hands together and shout back to them, “You’re all right.” Jinx opens her mouth to argue, but shrugs and takes the win.
I turn back to Sarah.
“Are they always like this?” she asks. I’m sure she’s thinking about us compared to her own team. How this kind of talk would never happen if it was only them. They would just get right down to business. Search the park and be done. I can’t tell if she’s disappointed or annoyed or both.
“You mean are they always this argumentative?” I offer. “No, I mean, well, yes… sometimes—”
“This innocent,” she says, quietly.
“Well, you have Ahri to lead you. Of course you always know what you’re doing. Us, well… All they’ve had is me.”
“Innocent isn’t always a bad thing.” She has that faraway look on her face again, like she’s trying to remember a dream she had a long time ago. She nods her head slowly as if agreeing on the memory. “Yes, that’s who you remind me of.”
“Me? Remind you of Ahri?!” I ask, trying desperately to not sound desperate. Does she really think I’m like Ahri? Which part? Maybe a younger Ahri? I mean, she should know, she’s Ahri’s lieutenant. Did Ahri have multiple lieutenants on her old team? Maybe if our teams join, I can be another one, like Sarah?
“No.” Sarah lets out a sharp laugh. I don’t know if she can read minds, but my hope deflates like an untied balloon.
“Someone else. You remind me of else,” she says, softening. “Someone I lost a long time ago. She had pink hair too.” She looks me over again, and I try not to squirm under the scrutiny. “Come to think of it, you’re also too for your own good… and such a . You’re kinda a mix of all of them,” she says.
Them? The team you lost? Is this a bad thing? Who were they? I add ten more questions I want to ask her to the list running constantly in my head.
How did it happen?
“Lux! Sarah! Look.” Lulu yells happily, interrupting my thoughts before I can get any further. “My wish!”
We look back at the distant playground. I run through a quick check. Lulu. Jinx. Poppy. Janna. Still safe and sound. The twilight has softened all of them, making them seem younger than they really are. The street lamps in the park click on in an unsettling coincidence. Hovering above the team are a swarm of twinkling lights. The team looks like they’re caught in a magical dream.
“Loops, It’s like Short Stop said, it’s not dark enough…” The creaking of the merry-go-round slows to a stop as Janna, Poppy, and Jinx look up as well. It’s getting darker fast. Too fast. I can barely see the trees around the edge of the park. Sarah and I start walking back toward the playground more quickly.
“Those aren’t stars,” Sarah says. I squint to get a better look. The points of light waver, almost glistening. As we get closer I can see what Sarah means. Dozens of thin translucent spheres reflect the light from the street lamps.? They were… bubbles? I stuff Lulu’s drawing into the cuff of my glove.
“I don’t think the twilight star heard you right, Lulu,” Poppy says. “Those are bubbles.”
They aren’t just bubbles. One of them floats down toward Poppy, almost as if it was following the sound of her voice. Poppy steps back, letting it drift toward the metal railing of the merry-go-round.
The hushed silence is interrupted by a snort-laugh from Jinx. “C’mon. They’re harmless—”
A trail of bubbles begins to close in on her. I reach for my wand as I start running. “Jinx!”
I throw the staff out ahead of me. It and ajust graze the top of Jinx’s pigtails before returning to my hand. A sphere of multicolored light covers Jinx and Poppy. A few bubbles bounce off the barrier and pop against the swing set leaving behind a swirl of dark mist, fluttering black shapes—bugs perhaps, or moths?—and a long, high-pitched laugh, like the delighted cackle of a child.
“That can’t be good, right?” Jinx whisper-yells. “Let’s pop these bad boys!”
“My thoughts exactly.” Aof Sarah’s twin pistols fire before she can finish her sentence. A wave of bubbles pop in a shower of black haze and twisted butterflies.
“What’s inside doesn’t look that great either,” Poppy says.
“Don’t let them touch you.” Janna’s eyes glow lavender. A breeze picks up in the park as she begins to rise off the ground. The air current gathers fallen leaves as it begins to draw the bubbles together. Janna corrals them and the darkness they contain into a dense pack. Each of them pushes against each other, almost as if they were annoyed at being restrained. The high-pitched laugh stops short and is quickly replaced by an annoyed groan. The noise echoes around us, setting my teeth on edge. In the center of the pack of toxic bubbles that Janna gathered, a thin circle takes shape. The circle opens into a portal, letting long tendrils snake out from some dark dimension. One unsettling squid eye opens, followed by a second. The gelatinous blob unfolds into some cross between an evil octopus and demonic jellyfish.
“Take it down,” Sarah yells. Shiro and Kuro fire eagerly. Poppy twists around, pulling her hammer back for a long, arcing hit. She growls through the effort as the hammer swings around. In a resounding smack, it connects with the bubble mass, knocking the now angry and disoriented jellyfish out of the center. The malcontent blob drifts for a moment, but collects itself and the scattered bubble pack. They move purposefully toward Sarah.
“Sarah, get down,” I yell. I can feel the heavy power of pure starlight channel through my staff, vibrating the bones in my fingers and arm. The creature darts around, hiding behind bubbles. I fire in a beam of white-hot light. The little jellyfish slips between the bubbles and I miss. I try to get closer, but it feels like time is standing still.
“Loops, no!” Jinx yells.
It’s too late. From out of nowhere, a tiny Lulu pushes Sarah out of the way. Sarah lands hard, but rolls onto her back, both barrels blasting above her.
One bubble escapes the pack above. It floats down, straining to get closer. It breaks against Lulu’s cheek in wet pop. The darkness seeps out, expanding, and in the space of two heartbeats, Lulu’s enveloped by an inky cloud . Her eyes close as she crumples to the ground in a small heap. I dive for Lulu, scooping her up in my arms. More bubbles pop above me as Sarah and Jinx finish off the last of them. A portal opens above the dark jellyfish. The maniacal laughter gets louder and the little beast floats toward the opening, almost as if was buoyed by the sound. As it crosses the portal’s threshold, it disappears, taking the remains of the dark magic with it.
I bring my ear down to Lulu’s face. She’s breathing, slow and even… is she asleep?
“Lulu!” I shake her by the shoulders. Lulu lets out a soft moan and her eyes flutter for a second. I bring my wand up, the brightness is near blinding. Lulu’s closed eyes flinch. “Lulu, by Starlight, wake up!”
“Lost. They were lost.” Lulu’s voice is barely a whisper. Her eyes close tighter against the light, and her lip quivers. It’s as if she’s stuck in a nightmare. “Dark now,” she says.
Lulu sits bolt upright, her blue eyes wide open now. She looks past all of us, like we’re not there, like she’s seeing through us to somewhere else. Like she’s somewhere else.
“She’s on her way,” Lulu says.
“She? Who, Lulu? Who’s on their way?” This is big. One blaring thought shuts out all the others in my brain. Could it be her? Is Ahri on her way? I bite my lip. I look around at Janna, Poppy, Jinx, and finally Sarah.
“Ahri!” I say. “Ahri will know.”
“No,” Sarah says.
“Of course she will.” I push off her muted reply, trying to keep a smile of optimism for the others. “Can you call her, Sarah?”
“I can’t.” Sarah won’t look at me.
“We’re not talking right now,” she says quietly.
“Sarah, I think this is more important than—”
“—The slumber party.” Sarah interrupts looking me straight in the eye. “That night. She was supposed to come. At the last minute, she said there was something she had to take care of. Something she wouldn’t let me help with. I thought she was just being…”
“Ahri,” I finish as she nods her head in confirmation. “You haven’t seen her since?”
Sarah shakes her head no, tightening her grip on the pair of pistols in her lap. Just before Sarah looks away, I see it—a flicker of panic. I can feel my heart thump harder in my chest.
A hundred more questions flood my brain. My stomach tightens.
What could make Sarah panic like this? Where did Ahri go? What’s coming?
Are we strong enough to face it?
Am I strong enough?
I want to ask her, but I can’t.