Doug didn’t come home last night. He’s never done that before. I called him over and over the whole morning. They all went to voicemail.
But it got worse.
Metablade didn’t show up to the castle this morning. He’s never late. I mean, literally never. For the same reason he’s never struck in combat. Something about the edged hand of a clock that can slice through time. He’s never late and he never misses a meeting without telling me first. When he wasn’t already there when I arrived I knew something was very, very wrong.
I located Infinite String through the strand of starlight that connected us. She was in a shop in Burbank. I flew there as quickly as I could, even though it tears the air molecules apart. Metablade was in danger. I had no time to waste.
The shop turned out to be a fitness club. I saw her through the window, standing with a bunch of other women, in her civilian cloths. In the middle of a hot yoga class. I burst through the door and walked up to her.
“Mara,” I said. “We need to talk.” All of the women started at me. It was probably the urgency in my voice. And the fact that I wore sky-blue armor forged of starfire.
“Antara?” she stared at me. “Can it wait? I’m…”
“Metablade is missing.”
She nodded, and followed me outside. I grabbed her by the waist and leapt into the air. I flew back towards the castle. Quickly enough so as not to waste time, but not enough to suffocate her or tear the flesh off her bones.
We arrived, and she hooked into her network of threads and got to work. It was slow work, searching all of reality for a single person. I got antsier and antsier as time went by. Several times I interrupted to ask about progress, but she hushed me. An agonizing hour and a half later, she emerged.
“I can’t locate him,” she said. “He’s not anywhere within the Realms that’s uncloaked or unshielded.”
“So somewhere hidden, then,” I said.
“Sam,” she said. “There’s another possibility. He could be…”
“Somewhere hidden, then,” I repeated.
She sighed. “It’s possible.”
“Can you find him?”
“Of course. But it will take time. A lot of time.”
“We don’t have time. He went to meet Cathari yesterday. Alone.”
“Shit,” she said.
“Yes. So what do I do?”
“You could appeal to the Guardians,” she said. “They could track him.”
I shook my head. “They won’t grant the boon without a Quest, and I don’t have time for that.”
“What about the Raven of the Stream?” asked Infinite String. “Aren’t you friends, or something?”
“I’m friends with Beverly,” I said. “But the Raven can’t have friends. It’s complicated.”
“Well I’ll start looking for him,” she said. “But it could take days.”
“Don’t bother,” I said. “I want you to work up a profile on Cathari. I might have to face him, and I’ll need any advantage I can get.”
“I’m on it.” She looked at me, and narrowed her eyes. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to Merge,” I said.
Her eyes widened. “Sam, are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“I don’t have a choice!” I snapped. “Do you know what happens to this world if there’s no Metablade?”
She stared at me with a grave expression.
“Just get me that profile,” I said. “I’ll be back. Probably.”
I leapt up into the air before she could argue. I flew straight up, into the sky. I accelerated. Hydrogen split from oxygen around me, and burst into tiny pockets of flame. I kept going. Faster, and faster. Up, up, through the atmosphere, and out into space. I kept flying, until the earth was a pale blue dot behind me. Only then did I stop, and turn to face the universe. The universe full of stars.
As I’m sure you know, stars are giant balls of churning gas. Great nuclear reactors, where hydrogen mates with its brethren in a cataclysmic dances that spews atom fire into the cosmos. The fire heats worlds and sears flesh and breathes life and warmth into the cold universe. Sometimes the stars collapse and burst, and the flames they unleash forge heavy metals and incinerate worlds.
Those are the lesser stars. The dead stars. The bastard offspring of the True Stars, who are older than the universe and whose impossible light awakened the predecessors to the universe’s gods, stirred still molecules into life, and split the flat and even universe into the myriad Realms. They are Alive, in a way that makes our lives as candle flames next to supernovae. They watch all things, and keep all secrets. It is their Sidereal Fire that swims through my veins, granting me the power to do what I must do.
And they want me back.
I connected with them twice before. First when I first bonded with them, and I don’t like to think about that moment any more than I need to. The second time was when the Astrapedes, their parasites, burst forth to consume all of creation. The stars gave me the weapons I needed to fight them. But they did not want to let me go. Now here I was, prepared to do it again. Because my mentor was missing, and there was nothing more important in the entire universe than that I get him back.
I floated there, in the void of space, and called to them. I reached out with the fire inside of me and let it spread out into the reaching darkness. I grew cold. And then hot.
YOU HAVE RETURNED TO US, CHILD.
If you can imagine words spoke in the voice like a million hand grenades exploding in your ears, and written in front of you like a billion floodlights pointed straight at your retinas, then you still aren’t even close to the intensity of the utterings of stars.
“I seek knowledge,” I said. I couldn’t hear my voice at all. I could have said anything. “I see a boon.”
AND WHAT WOULD YOU GRANT US IN RETURN.
So I told them.
The world burst apart in front of my eyes. Everything went bright, bright gold.
And then black.