Burning. Sylkea watched the fire advance, helpless, and the tendrils of flame spoke to her in a that was terror itself.
They cannot outrun the flames. By the time they realize what’s happening, it will all be over.
Fire consumed her, and her soul slipped away into darkness.
Not entirely dark. The glint of a path, a silver path she had to follow.
Not that she ever really woke, her mind submerged in the haze of past, present and future that was Second Sight. But she was awake enough to see stars gleaming through her window, beyond the smog hanging perpetually above the city of Qneru.
She was troubled by a half-recalled dream that flitted away from her memory. It was a shadow, visible but intangible.
Not a shadow. The fire that casts a shadow.
“Relyka Nuram, widow, mother of 9-year-old Sylkea, resident of Qneru,” droned the census-taker. “Correct?”
“Yes,” said Relyka, trying to keep calm. Fear would arouse suspicion.
“Your husband died of a mutant panther attack in the Qneruliuka woods?”
“Yes,” repeated Relyka.
“Your daughter has been diagnosed with the rare disorder Second Sight?”
Relyka suppressed a wave of rage. Seeing the future was a gift, not a disorder. “Yes,” she muttered, teeth clenched.
“Does this disorder endanger those around her?”
The census-taker narrowed his eyes. “Can I examine your daughter?”
“Sylkea,” said Relyka, overly calm, “this is the census-taker. He’s collecting data for the authorities.”
Sylkea said nothing. Visions flashed through her mind. The census-taker, lying on the floor. A stranger who resembled a stick-insect, climbing the steps to the World King’s palace. A helicopter, descending. The Qneruliuka woods, aflame.
Her dream returned, the flames engulfing her.
“Sylkea Nuram. Describe your ‘Second Sight’ disorder,” said the dull voice of the census taker, who was the first link in a chain of destruction.
Sylkea’s Second Sight allowed her not only to see the future, but see into others’ minds. Reaching into the stranger’s brain, she found his fear and hatred of her. He thought she was dangerously insane.
Possessed by a sudden, bitter anger, Sylkea rammed the full force of her rage into the man’s mind.
The stranger cried out, cowering against the vicious mental attack, toppling off his chair onto the dirt floor. Sylkea wormed deeper into his mind. Why did he hate her? Why was he so twisted and terrible?
She stopped, withdrawing her brain from his. She should never do this, this was wrong. It would all go wrong now. The vision came back even worse, flames, death. She’d only wanted peace. The silver path to salvation was farther than ever.
The census-taker opened his eyes, dazed, fearful, and, above all, trembling with wrath.
The office of the man known only as the World King was located at the center of his palace, and was the largest office the Qneru Representative had ever seen. The walls were gilded; servants stood at intervals along the walls, awaiting orders. He clenched twiglike fingers into fists to stop their trembling as a man dressed in gold approached.
The Representative had never seen someone who radiated such authority. Yet the king was casual, almost friendly but for the coldness in his eyes.
“Welcome,” said the King. “I hear there’s been a major disturbance in your city. A deranged girl attacked one of your census-takers, using some psychic power that is an aspect of Second Sight.”
The Representative nodded.
“Why, may I ask, does this warrant my attention?”
“Second Sight is a danger to the people.” said the Representative hurriedly. “I was hoping you’d authorize the confinement of all those diagnosed with Second Sight in an asylum. She’s under house arrest at the moment, and I can easily arrange--”
“I see,” said the King, half-laughing. “This has nothing to do with your reputation? You’re not just concerned about how rumors of this incident will reflect on your leadership?”
“No, your majesty.”
“Very well,” said Earth’s ruler. “I’ll deal with the insane girl myself.”
“Yourself?” stammered the Qneru Representative. “Surely--such a great man cannot be troubled with--I do have a defense force at my disposal, and--”
“I am quite fascinated with Second Sight. I will travel to Qneru and see what the girl has to say.”
Relyka sat in her ancient chair, staring blankly into space.
She tried not to think of the armed guards imprisoning her in her own home. She tried not to think of the inevitable investigation into the census-taker’s attack. She tried not to think of what would become of them.
She tried not to think of anything.
The door flew open. A strangely dressed man entered. Seeing the golden circlet he wore, Relyka realized with a jolt of fear and disbelief that this was the World’s King.
Relyka flinched as the King’s eyes met hers, though they weren’t cruel eyes as she’d expected, but eyes always laughing at the world they surveyed.
Sylkea bowed her head awkwardly. “Your majesty.”
“You’re Relyka Nuram,” said the King. “No need to introduce myself. I’ve come to ask you some questions.”
It was the voice of the flames in her visions. Not a cruel voice, yet cruel things sprang from it.
Sylkea listened, afraid, the words of the present echoing into the future. The trees were aflame, like the fires long ago in the Great Wars. That cataclysmic conflict had eradicated much of life on Earth, leaving only mutant animals and humans, and had scared world leaders into coming together to form a World Kingdom.
The voice roared in her ears like the flames creeping always nearer.
The silver path, her last hope, lay beyond reach.
“Don’t worry,” chuckled the King. “Your daughter has been forgiven. It would be a crime to punish her for something beyond her control, confused as she is.”
Relyka was astonished. Would Sylkea really get away free? But then why would the leader of the World Kingdom travel to Qneru just to tell her that? No. This had to be something else, something worse.
“However,” said the King, “I have a...favor to ask of you.” He gave a maddening half-laugh, amused by the idea of a king asking a poor widow for a favor.
“You see, my Representatives have become frighteningly independent, even rebellious, in recent years. Of course this will not do. Since the Great Wars, we’ve trusted our planet to those who know how to rule it. Why should that change now?” He spoke as though the world were his private jest. “In these troubled times, I have often wished I could know the plots my opponents are concocting to usurp my rule, even see into the future and predict their next moves.”
Relyka stiffened suddenly. She already knew the awful thing the King was about to say.
“As your daughter is unfit for school and employment, perhaps she would be willing, even pleased, to help preserve my Kingdom.”
Relyka was overcome by a powerful desire to be anywhere but this room, with anyone but this crowned, jovial demon. There was nothing she could do to save her daughter.
“So,” said the King, “you’re willing to part with Sylkea for the time being? She’s only a burden to you in this state. She’ll receive much better care than she gets here.” He looked around disdainfully at the small, filthy room.
“She’s...in the cellar. Cleaning the cellar.” Relyka indicated a door in the corner.
Opening the creaking door, the King saw dank, unlit steps descending into darkness. Wrinkling his nose at the prospect of descending into some hole in the earth, he nevertheless began climbing down the uneven stairs, laughing at the irony. The world’s ruler in a peasant’s cellar, enlisting the help of a poor, confused girl.
It would be worth it soon.
Then the lock turned in the door behind him, and the laugh forever in his throat dropped away completely.
Relyka hurried to get Sylkea.
Hopeless rage washed over the King as he realized what had happened.
The girl had been his best hope to fulfill his goal--dispensing with the Representative system and becoming the world’s undisputed dictator. His power was filtering away to his underlings, but if he could understand their plans, foresee their actions, he could gain unlimited power. He needed Sylkea, a living weapon.
Now the woman would vanish with her daughter. He would lose everything to his enemies.
No. He’d escape, catch the girl and end all this.
Groping around in the darkness of the cellar, he found a large jug, which he lifted with some difficulty. He climbed the steps and, mustering his strength, heaved it at the door.
With a splintering sound, the door caved in several inches. The jug fell to the floor, shattering. Foul-smelling liquid from the jug oozed over the King’s shoes, which probably cost more than this entire house. He hardly noticed, rushing to get something else to batter the door with.
Relyka hurried along a back alley, pulling Sylkea behind her. They’d had to use a secret back exit to escape the guards at their door, but now they were free.
The guards heard large crashes coming from the house and hurried inside.
The King hurled a broken chair at the door, which finally burst into pieces, leaving a large hole where it been. Through the hole stared two astonished guards.
Sylkea was barely conscious of being pulled through the streets of Qneru, toward the forest. This way was death. The silver path was fading, half-forgotten.
“No,” said Sylkea. “Not the forest.”
“We have to get to the trees,” said Relyka. “They’ll give us cover. We need to reach the woods before the King escapes.”
The King was wild with anger. “They’ll be heading for the Qneruliuka woods. Hurry, my personal helicopter!”
The guards, confused and not entirely sure who they were chasing, followed the King at a run to the helipad.
The droning sound was soft at first, so that Relyka thought it was an insect. As it increased and grew nearer, however, she realized there was only one thing it could be.
“Sylkea, get down!” she shouted. Even as she said it, she knew it was useless--they’d be clearly visible among the gray, colorless trees. They had arrived at the forest, but it did them little good.
One helicopter, its searchlights bright against the evening sky, swooped towards them.
“Your majesty,” said the pilot breathlessly, “we’ve found--”
Then she was writhing in pain, Sylkea’s grip on her mind, her hands no longer on the controls.
Relyka watched in a mixture of relief and horror as the helicopter smashed through the canopy of twisted branches and slammed into the ground somewhere behind them, bursting into flames.
The King saw the explosion from his own helicopter, and then smoke rose up to obscure the scene. They’d never find their quarries in this haze.
They didn’t need to. This girl was deranged, dangerous, a killer. He could never trust her. He’d have to face his enemies alone.
Even through the smoke, he could see the fire spreading. It leapt from tree to tree, as if pursuing the two fugitives, who were oblivious to the peril. The King smiled grimly. “They cannot outrun the flames. By the time they realize what’s happening, it will all be over.”
Trees collapsed, groaning, splitting, blackening, the sharp needles turning brittle and melting to ash. Soon the fire would reach the child.
Sylkea was awake, fully awake for the first time.
She’d killed a woman. The pilot had only been obeying orders.
Relyka was rushing her along, faster than before, towards the Qneruqala mountains, where they could find cover among the rocks.
“Stop,” said Sylkea.
“We’ll go back,” said Sylkea. “Surrender to them.”
“What are you talking about?” said Relyka. “We’ll be locked up, maybe forever, we can’t--”
“This is the way to the silver path. The way to peace.”
“Your majesty, the girl and her mother have been found to the east, where the fire hasn’t spread yet. They appear to be...waiting for us.”
The King looked incredulously at his pilot. “The flames will reach them within minutes. Are they aware they’re risking their lives to contact us?”
“Unknown, your majesty.”
Relyka trusted Sylkea’s intuition, but this was madness. How would the King respond?
“Take me to them,” said the King.
Sylkea watched calmly as the helicopter settled into the small clearing.
The King stepped out, looking at Sylkea with something close to fear. “What have you got to say for yourself, before you’re imprisoned?”
“Look around you,” said Sylkea.
“She’s utterly mad,” growled the King to the guards, emerging from the helicopter behind him. “Take her aboard.”
“The trees were once green here, before the Great Wars,” said Sylkea, even as the guards advanced. “Not this sickly gray, but green, alive. Then the Great Wars buried everything, turned it to gray, but we can bring it back.”
“Lovely speech,” said the King, his voice a twisted form of the laugh always hovering in his throat. The guards grabbed hold of Sylkea, who did not resist.
“Listen to her,” said Relika suddenly, her voice steely. “That’s where we went wrong before the Great Wars. We never listened, except to ourselves. You’ve never really listened, your majesty. But you’re not the only person in this universe.”
“Both rehearsed this, have you?” said the King scornfully, but he faltered as he spoke.
“You won’t see, won’t listen,” said the girl, her Second Sight lending her strength instead of weakening her as it always had. “We’ve shut out our world, all of us. The planet crumbles away into a wasteland of our own creation. We need only open our hearts, and we can change things.” The words came from the depths of her heart, an understanding of all of time that only those with Second Sight possess.
The King was silent, his laughter extinguished.
Then there were distant flames behind him, the fire inevitably spreading towards them, yet Sylkea, seeing her vision of death come to life, wasn’t afraid. She opened her mind completely, and all was clear.
She saw a past of ruin and failure, a present growing from the ruin like an ugly, wilted flower. The future, however, was different. An open door into the cosmos, that flower’s final, shriveled seed that grew upwards into the heavens. She radiated that future outwards to the world.
The King’s eyes widened. The guards let go of their captive. Relyka saw a light flow from Sylkea, illuminating a small, withered gray wildflower at her feet that drooped with the weight of the universe.
The flower healed and straightened, the unearthly light lingering around its petals, which were returning to a brilliant blue. It was color of the sky beyond the endless smog.
Above, the smoke from the nearing forest fire stretched away across the sky like a path, silver in the light of the emerging moon, a silver path they had to follow.