There’s a distinct scent to the air right before a Firestorm breaks: acrid and sulfuric, with a touch of sweet smoke. It manifests moments before the pale lavender sky floods with clouds black as coal.
By that time, if you’re not prepared, it is already too late.
Raina was finishing her street patrol when the pungent whiff of a storm hit her, followed by goosebumps along her skin. The residents of this small town knew the signs as well and rushed to the nearest open building.
It was tourists that Enforcers like Raina had to look out for. A pair of green-skinned Druidians stood shuffling near the center of the cobbled street, frantically searching the distant tree line. Probably hoping to catch a glimpse of an exotic animal they’d heard about or some such nonsense.
With a low growl, Raina wrangled the couple inside the nearby pub, Hound and Husk, as the sky above choked out the harsh red sun. She had no patience for visitors that didn’t adhere to the tourism advisories; it turned her into a glorified babysitter and her post was already dull. Firestorm season was not tourist-friendly, but many alien species thought themselves above the warning, just as they thought themselves above her people.
“Take a seat and wait it out,” Raina said as evenly as she could, escorting them to a low-lit table in the corner of the pub.
The Druidians muttered half-hearted thanks and the man swam through the crowd to order drinks at the bar. The woman remained behind, looking far more apprehensive than she should over a simple storm. If these aliens didn’t have stout hearts, why bother visiting Syraine at all?
Raina’s gaze swept over the sea of churning heads bobbing below dark wooden rafters. Restless patrons rubbed shoulders with each other, sweat brining the beer-scented air. A group of brawny warriors roared with laughter nearby, leaning around one roughhewn table as if challenging each other to be the first to sit.
The patter of hail pecked against the metallic roof, causing the two aliens to flinch. Their reactions felt off, but maybe she was just used to it. Raina had always found the rhythmic cadence soothing.
All the same, she edged closer to listen in.
“It has to let up soon,” the Druidian man said, sap green hands clutching a carved wooden mug filled with dark ale. Tiny green leaves and thorns grew out of his dreadlocked hair at odd angles, giving him a disheveled appearance.
“How much longer do you think?” the woman asked, eyes flicking towards the door of metallic grey wood.
“Go ask someone,” her companion said, clearly uninterested in following his own suggestion.
“Go over and talk to one of those meaty brutes?” she scoffed. “You do it.”
The man glanced away, face falling. “He’s dead by now, anyway.”
Raina tensed. Dead?
“Don’t say that,” the female said. “He probably found shelter somewhere else.”
“Who’s dead?” Raina snapped. Syraine couldn’t afford another off-worlder death on its hands.
The Druidians froze as they realized their conversation wasn’t private. The male raised his chin, giving Raina a condescending look even as his voice trembled. “Grant. He was supposed to meet up with us this afternoon, but the storm hit as we entered town.”
“Why would you split up?” Raina asked. “It’s dangerous.”
“Grant insisted on a nature walk.”
Raina raised her eyes to the ceiling, unable to hide her annoyance. Nature looked the same all over Syraine. Why go on a solitary journey during Firestorm season?
“Where did he take his walk?” she asked, trying to keep her voice steady. By the way the Druidians leaned back in their chairs, she wasn’t too successful.
“By the copse of Tower trees to the west of the village,” the female said.
Too far from decent shelter.
Raina shoved off the wooden chairback she hadn’t realized she was gripping, aiming for the front door. She summoned her life energy to solidify, forming an invisible shield around her body like a second skin. It wasn’t impenetrable but law Enforcement training prepared her for things like this.
Syraine wasn’t known for being merciful; it favored the strong. Careless visitors easily turned into dead visitors. It was her duty to protect her planet and its people, even when that meant rescuing thoughtless outsiders.
She didn’t understand tourism—too much of a liability. Her father said it helped improve Syraine’s image to allow aliens to see a different side to the gruff Syrainian race. This push for visitors was supposed to ease tensions, foster trade relations.
But she could read the Druidian’s looks of disdain the moment she spoke. To them, Syrainians were just hotheads who enjoyed punching things far too much.
Tourism made no difference, aside from causing trouble.
Raina threw herself into the storm.
The wind hit her like a wall, forcing her mane of dark curls to fan out around her as heat wafted in pulses. The burning hail pelted her body like flaming bullets, clattering to the baked ground. Holes burned through her crisp new uniform of black and red, singeing her dark skin.
Well, she had wanted to break it in; the uniform certainly wouldn’t feel stiff after this. Still, Lieutenant Brasta would rip her a new one for ruining her uniform within her first month on active duty. Raina cringed against the pain and aimed for the tree line just past the tiny village.
She should be grateful that her uniform was seeing action at last, that she was doing something more meaningful than breaking up tavern brawls or chasing youths out of crop fields. But this kind of excitement came at a cost.
Her feet left the hardened cobblestone and sprung against a viridian blanket of moss. She scanned for indications of distress between thick trunks that appeared more like metal columns than living things. No sign of life. Hopefully, Grant had found shelter within. The Druidians were far too physically feeble to survive this tempest.
Raina battled heat boiling in her chest while she fought the raging storm, racing into the small forest. If the tourist was found dead, the fact that it was his own fault wouldn’t reach the circles of higher influence. Only that yet another poor soul lost their life while visiting her unforgiving planet. Yet another mark against Syraine.
Steely grey bark plinked as burning hail bounced off tree trunks which pierced the clouds, hiding branches bejeweled with copper leaves. The miniature forest obstructed the stream of hail, aiding Raina as she started combing the small grove.
Raina discovered Grant sheltering in a den of feral Firehounds. She froze at the mouth of the shelter, shocked she wasn’t staring at a mangled corpse. While many of the canines found homes with Syrainians, they were by no means gentle if they lived out in the wild.
Yet three furry black figures curled up happily, snoozing around a frail Druidian with ocher coloring and dreadlocks of deep jade. His toes barely reached the mouth of the small hovel where hail battered the opening just beyond.
The Druidian’s eyes found hers, shifting from her bronze face to her uniform, and sticking on the stitched insignia over the breast pocket: Flame and Fist of Syraine.
Grant’s tense posture relaxed. “I didn’t know Enforcers could survive out in the storm.”
“Syrainians are products of this planet,” Raina said, strengthening her shield and trying to act like it wasn’t taking every ounce of her energy to maintain. “But it takes dedication to become strong enough. And we only go out when necessary.” She ended with a stern look.
The Druidian winced. “I take it my companions sent you?”
Not really, but that felt cruel to say out loud, so Raina nodded. Her shield wavered, a burning pellet cutting through to singe a new hole in her jacket. “Do you mind scooting over? I can survive out here, but it isn’t pleasant.” Her energy would eventually give out and she didn’t want to fall unconscious in the middle of a storm.
“Of course,” Grant said, rearranging his position.
Raina still hesitated, having treated quite a few bites from feral hounds over the years. “What did you give them to make them sleep?”
Grant’s bushy eyebrows rose. “I didn’t give them anything. They’re worn out. Been following me around all afternoon.”
“Stalking you?” She searched for wounds, but he had none.
The anxious lines on Grant’s face faded as he chuckled and patted the tiny spot next to him. “They’re fine. Come sit.”
The den was shallow, but Raina managed to squeeze in, shoulder pressing against Grant, back pressing against the warm body of a dreaming canine. The mane of flames that ran along the back of the creature’s neck crackled softly and licked against her arm with harmless heat. She sat as still as she could, worried about waking them.
“How did you manage to convince this pack to let you share their shelter?” Raina asked softly. She knew Druidians were gifted with the natural aspects of a planet, but she hadn’t thought that extended past plants.
Grant gave her a gentle smile. “I found them to be rather kind creatures. I befriended one during my walk and I accumulated more while I took small samples.” He gestured to a small pouch at his waist before hastily adding, “I have clearance. Healer’s Association.”
Druidian Healers. So they weren’t simple tourists.
They sat in silence for a moment and Raina tried to think of something else to say. She noticed the dreaming beasts were carefully curled to not singe their foreign guest with their manes. Whatever Grant said, Firehounds were territorial and, while loyal, often distrustful of strangers. What had they found of value in this visitor?
“Find anything useful on your walk?” she asked.
Grant’s eyes lit up and he started babbling about the medicinal properties his group was researching regarding plants flourishing on harsh worlds. The reason the Druidians were here during Firestorm season. “Syraine is a treasure,” he said, gesturing outside. “The storm that would reduce me to charred flesh can’t tamper with your natural world at all. Your flowers retreat under the moss-cover, hail bouncing off any exposed surface harmlessly.”
He put a hand to the reddened soil of the den. “Even though the ground grows warm, it absorbs an astounding amount of heat. Truly remarkable. The advances we could make…” Grant faded off at the look on her face. “Sorry. I’m rambling.”
Raina hunched a little farther into herself, his kind words stinging.
“Thank you for finding me,” Grant said. “I know it was foolish to wander so far from the village.”
Raina shrugged. “You didn’t need me; you found a way to survive.”
His face darkened and he glanced down. “I just got lucky.”
“No. You didn’t.” She meant it too, glancing at the fierce hounds at her back purring like kittens. “Syraine favors the strong. Your strength just lies in a different place. If you were not strong, the storm would have claimed you.”
Grant fingered the pouch on his belt again. “Kind of you to say. I expected to be scolded if I was found; instead you offered companionship.”
Even though his words were grateful, there was a somber edge to his voice. Raina frowned. “What is it?”
He didn’t answer right away, staring at the fire raining from the heavens. “I…expected something very different when I came here,” he said carefully, glancing from the Firehounds to Raina. “And I’m embarrassed it took being trapped with a Syrainian in a Firestorm to give me clarity.”
It was Raina’s turn to smile, watching the tempest raging just beyond their feet.
Clarity. What an apt word.
“My father says it’s only in crisis that we truly see. Our deepest desires laid bare, our purposes made plain when nothing else matters.”
“Wise words,” he whispered, a tone of mild surprise in his voice.
But Raina wasn’t insulted this time. Grant might be surprised, but he also accepted that he was wrong. And if he could accept that, others could too.
“I don’t always agree with him,” Raina said. “I think we’re too alike. Dive in first, think later.” She frowned, realizing she just reinforced the Syrainian stereotype she hated.
“I think there’s merit in knowing that about yourself,” Grant said. “And honestly, I’m the same way.”
She almost laughed at the absurdity, but stopped. He had gone on that nature walk alone, befriending strange feral animals and not paying attention to the weather. He wasn’t wrong.
She studied Grant as he fearlessly stroked the glossy coat of a Firehound nuzzling onto his lap, avoiding the flames. This galaxy had more to offer Syraine aside from scorn.
Perhaps she had more to offer in return.
Erin Swann is a lifelong lover of fantasy and space adventures. She holds an MFA in Education and works as an art teacher, feeding the imaginations of others while fueling her own creativity. When she’s not teaching or writing, Erin enjoys cooking, working on her own art, and playing video games. She lives in Columbia, Maryland with her husband and family. Her first published short story, ‘A Necessary Sacrifice,’ is featured in the ‘Summer of Speculation: Villains’ anthology by Cloaked Press. You can learn more about her at www.swannscribbles.com