I. The Night of Burning Skies

A cold silence weighed on my hunched shoulders as we blew out two flickering flames to celebrate the now two-year-old twins. With quivering hands, I struck a tightly-gripped matchstick against the stone floor at my side and reignited the stubby candles. I revelled in the joy beaming from my children’s wide, glimmering eyes as I set the lazy lights back into their metal fixtures away from Oscar’s reach. Unnyr grabbed his wandering hands and encouraged a gentle applause and hushed cheering. The smell of candle smoke faded and the insects outside restarted their song, joining our quiet celebration.

Another boom echoed through the night sending vibrations through the floor beneath us. I leaned forward, stroking Unnyr’s damp cheek with my thumb, and kissed her as yet another blast resounded and the world returned to eerie silence.

“It’s bad tonight. Do you think we are safe here?” Her whispered voice wavered out from between smiling lips as she reached out to clap hands with Rosie.

“Where else would we go? Our last home hardly exists anymore.” My mind conjured images of our former house in smouldering ruin, its roof crumbling into ash, our belongings buried and broken. The smell of smoke and sulphur lingered in my head. I shut my eyes tight, desperately trying to erase the recurring memory. Oscar coughed in the distance, shuttling me back into the present, and I opened my eyes to find myself alone on the floor. The house rumbled again.

“They are closer tonight.”

“The elves or those damn immortal bastards?”

“Both, and watch your words,” said Unnyr as she helped Oscar and Rosie climb up onto our bed. She returned to my side and offered a hand to help lift me to my feet, taking one candle for herself and gesturing toward the twins as she handed me the other. “Those ba… baddies created you, did they not? I am more worried about my kind. I heard rumour at the market that someone saw an elf just off the road into town this week. They are probably still nearby.”

“All the more reason not to go wandering out into the night. Not all of us can see in the dark, you know.”

“I know. I just—”

“I just think we’re safer here for now.” Through the window, a faint green glow on the horizon foretold another booming in the distance. I swallowed hard, unable to relieve the lump in my throat or the fluttering in my chest. Rosie’s face grew bright red as she began to cry out against her unwilling wakefulness. Despite my fake smile as I tried to soothe her, she threw her arms around, inviting Oscar to join her tantrum.

“Besides, things are different now with these two. We used to be able to carry them around anywhere. They slept through just about everything. There’s no way we’d be able to leave without calling attention to ourselves now, is there?” My saccharine tone was betrayed by my words but helped diffuse the twins as I slipped nightgowns over their heads. “I don’t think they’re as close as it seems. We’ll be fine. We’ve been through worse.”

My ears rang with silence. With only the dim candlelight illuminating the bed, the twins succumbed to exhaustion. Squinting through the dark room, I tried to find Unnyr without success. I pinched my flame out on moistened fingers. As my eyes adjusted, her form crept into the front doorway, silhouetted by bright moonlight. A long, thin ear poked through her dark hair. Her sharp green eyes seemed to glow in the night. I ran toward the door in panic.

“June, what are you doing? Your you-know-what faded,” I said, careful not to mention magic or use her true name. I reached up and covered one of her ears with my hand, guiding her face to meet mine. Her eyes pierced through me, wide and unflinching.

“Something is not right, Henry.” Her eyes welled up, spilling over her now sharpened features. I felt her breath quicken as she turned to look back outside.

“I know, dear. It’s been going on all night. We’ll be fine, just come back inside.” I tried to lead her in by the arm, but she refused to move.

From behind us, the twins returned to tears, though their cries were somewhat foreign. It seemed I was the only one unable to sense something was wrong. Desperate to distract them, I hoisted Rosie from under her arms, bouncing her across the bed and lifting her above my head. The rising sensation distracted her for only a moment. I peaked upward toward the door where Unnyr still stood, her eyes fixated on the sky above, and hoped a despairing infant would help her refocus her worries.

“Henry?” Her voice was shaky, like a home threatening to fall.

“I’m here, June. I’m coming.” With both toddlers in tow, I dashed back to the doorway and passed a wriggling Oscar to her. Their crying did not abate with Unnyr’s presence. I scanned both ends of the dark street as their echoing cries rang out, but found no relief in the stillness of night.

As I cleared Rosie’s face of her thick and tangling hair, her head turned skyward. For a moment, her wailing stalled. Like a mirror into the past, Rosie copied her mother’s solemn stare; only Unnyr’s stark elven features contrasted against the human traits I had passed down to our children. I counted this among our blessings and tried to calm my racing heart.

“June, what’s going on?” There was no answer. Her eyes did not move to meet mine. I looked up, but found only the familiar brilliant field of stars and shining moon above.

“Do you not see it?” Her voice sounded distant, drawn away from the world I could see. At last she turned to me, placing an icy hand upon my cheek. “There, near the moon. Can you see?”

I darted around the heavens, struggling to discern anything through the full moon’s light. “I don’t see—” My throat closed mid-thought and my mouth slacked open. Only just visible against the light of the moon sat a thin, pitch-black gash. As I tracked across the sky from moon to stars and back again, it seemed to follow with a wary obedience.

“What is that?”

“I do not know.”

“It looks pretty far away. Whatever it is, I don’t think we should worry about it. Let’s go back inside, it’s getting cold.”

“It is not far away.” A chilled wind raced across my face and carried Unnyr’s hair out into the street. “I can feel it. Henry, it is already here.”

“What do you mean? Look at it, I can hardly even see…” I squinted up again and felt my stomach plummet into the ground. The sky’s wound had doubled in size, consuming the light of the stars in its path. The moon deflated as the darkness crept over its edges. As I twisted my neck, the hairs upon it standing up in formation, the line again drifted across my vision, distorting everything it touched. Against a patch of barren sky, I saw a fringe of deep reds along its border, twisting and crawling out of the blackness. With each thudding beat of my heart, the range of burning hues pouring out from the rift grew more vibrant, reaching out like infernal arms.

Rosie had grown still against my tightening chest, but the trance of the colourful display had pushed back any sense of fatigue. Oscar, too, had stopped his protest and draped his arms around Unnyr’s neck. Another gust of air rushed around us, carrying murmurs and whispers from up the street. We were no longer alone. Our sleepy neighbourhood filled with dotted torchlight as everyone awoke to witness the growing inferno above. My eyes flit from house to house and back to Unnyr’s exposed features, but everyone’s attention seemed secured upon the enigmatic blaze. The sky was filled with a million shades of fire pouring out along a thin black line that stretched overhead from one side of the horizon to the other.

Unnyr’s cold hand wrapped around my wrist. She gasped out my name, her eyes a stinging red. Her mouth moved with a fury, but no words came through. I hoisted Rosie up to rest her wet cheek on my shoulder as I moved forward to embrace my love. Unnyr’s entire body shook with sobs as the twins’ piercing screams rang out again. I felt the weight of her body fall upon me, unable to stand on her own any longer.

I kissed her cheek, pushing her dark hair off her face with my free hand. “It’s okay, it’s going to be okay. I’m here. What’s wrong?” She stammered, her eyes wincing against some unknowable pain. I pulled her into an embrace again, our hearts thundering out an impossible beat. My insides constricted like a snake as my head filled with an infinite swarm of disasters.

The world around us turned crimson beneath the storm above and, for just a moment, time stood still. I felt Unnyr’s body melt into my arms, a deep sigh escaping her lips. My heartbeat slowed. The twins settled into a soft weep. I kissed all three on their foreheads, stepping back to look into Unnyr’s eyes with an innocent smile and holding her shaking hand within mine. Maybe, I thought, we really were going to be okay.

All too soon, that moment was ripped from us. The twins cried out with intensity and I lurched forward as my heart skipped a beat. A sudden pain in my chest forced my eyes to shut. When I opened them, the entire world existed in duplicate. I snapped my neck upward and trembled as the dark fissure widened, overtaking its hellish aura and the stars along with it. I blinked with a fury, rubbing away tears with my shaking hand, but my sight grew more distorted. Rosie thrashed against my chest, gripping the back of my shirt as if her life depended on it. As I stroked her soft hair, Unnyr buckled over into us. She dropped to her knees, pulling me down with her, unwilling to let go.

A rending screech from above drowned out the infants’ cries, though I could feel their trembling in my core. Unnyr gasped for breath, trying to speak, but her words were lost amidst the chaos. I wrapped my arm around her waist, pulling her and Oscar into my warmth. The shock of the cool night’s breeze spread over my body, now aching and coated with sweat. I did not dare close my eyes, ignoring the destruction overhead and attempting to focus on Unnyr, but my double vision did not clear. The ground pulsed and quaked. The doorway around us rattled. The smell of sulphur returned to me. Gusts of wind battered our huddled frames. My heart threatened to rip out of my chest. My lungs pleaded for air. The sky roared with fury. Tears filled my vision as I tried in vain to shout out over it—I love you, I’m here, we’ll be okay, I love you, I—

The return of silence that followed did nothing to calm my heart or my head. In my arms, Rosie had passed out, her breath now slowed but her heart still galloping on. I had felt Unnyr’s forehead pressed against my own just a second before, but now the weight upon my unsupported neck was immense. A warm breeze brushed through my hair as her hands once did. The sound of the townsfolk’s tired chatter faded away. I opened my eyes, unsure when they had shut, to find a black and empty street. Only Rosie’s soft breathing filled the space where Unnyr and Oscar once stood. Again I scanned the street, the skies, the room behind me, but found nothing but a calm and darkened night.

With sluggish apathy, I pushed my limp body back inside. Unwilling to turn my gaze from the empty doorway, I tucked Rosie into our bed with tender care. I collapsed to my knees, still able to feel the weight of Unnyr’s body upon me, and buried my face into the linens. I could still feel her arm around me and her hair against my cheek, smell her faint perfume in the bed sheets, hear her soft voice as she struggled to speak. Each beat of my heart felt incomplete without hers in perfect sync. I heard Oscar’s scream and laugh and cry and newfound voice in my ears.

When I awoke, aching and empty, these feelings were gone. Rosie smiled down at me from the bed and, looking to her side where our family should be, called out Oscar’s name. There was no response. The fire that threatened the heavens and the quaking that shook the entire world had left it all unscathed in the end. It claimed just two victims instead.

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