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Heart Of Fire
by Darrell Whitney


Cold.

The purple moon, Dahlia, in truth merely a spacecraft locked in tow by the great seven-domed colony ship Alisa III, always seemed cold to Kara these days. Rationally, she knew that it could be no more than a trick of perception. Every part of the vessel was kept at a carefully controlled temperature by its climate adjustment system, neither cold nor hot.

It might have been the feeling of empty space above in the artificial "sky," an eternal night strewn with stars, or the even more disconcerting effect of seeing those same stars beneath her feet on the mirror-finish plastiglass tiles that alternated with faux stone construction, but she doubted it. Kara had been born and raised on Dahlia. She didn't expect green grass under her feet or blue sky artificially projected on the inside of the atmospheric dome above her head.

But then again, maybe that was the answer. This was her home, and it was a home that for most of her life had been wreathed in the hot flame of vengeance. Kara's father was Lune Kai Eshyr, general of the forces of long-dead Laya, and he had taken it upon himself to finish the war against the followers of Orakio that had been suspended when he had been plunged into cryogenic stasis a millennium ago.

That was the world Kara had lived in. Hate the Orakians! Drown them in their own blood! She'd begun her weapons training almost as soon as she could walk. Her apprentice years had been spent on the field of battle, casting blades or mystic techniques against the Orakian war machines, ordering packs of bioengineered monsters to rend the flesh of Orakian knights and soldiers. She was a warrior, one of Dahlia's best, and the death-flame had burned high and hot and bright in her soul.

Until less than a year ago, that had been Kara's world. Then, everything had changed, been turned on its head. New, more powerful monsters swarmed the Alisa III--monsters not bred by Lune or any of the Layan peoples. Simultaneously, new robots began to prowl, but they were clearly not controlled by Lune's enemies of Divisia and Landen. Rather, the monsters and cyborgs attacked Layans and Orakians indiscriminately, sometimes even joining together in doing so. This had never happened before; it shook the very foundations of what it meant to be Layan or Orakian. Lune's war ended--how could it go on when all sides were besieged by this unknown foe?

Then, something which was perhaps less unthinkable but even more shocking occurred. Ship-to-ship laser fire erupted from the seventh dome of the Alisa III and struck the blue moon, Dahlia's twin craft Azura. After only a few minutes of this assault, the moon exploded, producing a brilliant flash in the silent vacuum of space. A terrible blow had been struck, and yet no one knew why or by whom.

It had shaken Lune to his core. Kara's father had had the knowledge that the Orakians were not his enemies driven home to him in a ruthlessly direct fashion, and it had crushed him. The dynamic leader had become the shell of his old self, morose, brooding, and hopeless.

And Kara had no more battles.

For the Princess of Dahlia, it was intensely frustrating. She was a machine that raced without any resistance, any purpose. All she could do was stand, the stars above and below, and wait for what would come.

Destruction seemed inevitable. It might come from satellite-crushing lasers, or from swarms of creatures and robots, but in the end it must come, and no one was trying to do anything about it. Their flames had gone out, their fire was spent. It was as if her father and all the people of Dahlia were already dead, and merely waiting for their bodies to recognize the fact.

In her heart, fury burned, hatred at the ones who had started this, at Azura's destroyers, at the creators of monsters and robots, at her father for wasting his life--and hers!--on a useless war, on the people of Dahlia for passively accepting their fate, at herself, even, for being caught in the middle of it all.

Perhaps she raged because she didn't know how to do anything else. Or perhaps it was because without the anger Kara would surely succumb to the numbing, soul-killing despair that seemed to have claimed the rest of her home.

I have to do something! Kara all but screamed in her mind. I can't just stay here. I don't want to be broken like Father!

When the servant entered the room, part of Kara registered his presence and had calculated the best way to incapacitate him before fully recognizing him and his non-threat status, but another part took no notice of him at all.

"Too weak," she murmured. "They're all too weak to fight, but what can I do alone?"

"Your Highness?" the servant asked. "Were you talking to me? I'm sorry, but I didn't quite hear you."

Her head snapped up, her attention belatedly captured.

"What was that, Viro?"

"I...I just didn't know what you said, your Highness."

"That's all right; I was just thinking out loud. Why are you here? I didn't summon you."

Her voice struck like a lash and the young man flinched. Kara scowled, not at him but at herself, for making him the target of her temper.

"N-no, your Highness, his Majesty Lune sent me."

"Father did?"

"He wants you to come to the audience hall, your Highness. A shuttle has arrived from the Alisa III, bringing visitors. They say...they say the leader calls himself Prince Sean of Azura!"

"Azura?" Kara was out of her chair in an instant.

"T-that's what the rumor is, your Highness."

"Azura..." she repeated thoughtfully. A destroyed land. Was he here fleeing that fate? Or was it something else? Vengeance against the slayers of his people?

For the barest moment, a spark of hope flickered deep in Kara's soul.

And in that moment, her world felt just a bit warmer.

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