The tallest of the Burners in Beth’s living room stood from where he was seated. For a moment she couldn’t believe he fit in her living room. He seemed tall enough to dwarf the sky, but when she focused her gaze into his eyes he seemed to shrink, returning to his actual human scale rather than the colossal form her fears projected onto him.
“We can not let another destabilizing influence run loose,” the Burner said. He was glowering down at her, but Beth saw the sweat starting to bead at his temples.
She choked back a laugh and couldn’t understand where it had come from. She was outnumbered. The Burners were each bigger and stronger than she was and since they were in the real world, she didn’t have any of the invulnerability or influence that she did in the Unread.
So why was the Burner so worked up about stopping her?
And why wasn’t her heart filled to the brim with fear?
She wasn’t calm, far from it, but in a little corner of her heart there was a growly little tiger that wasn’t willing to back down or look away despite the ocean of worry that she was swimming in.
“You will stay here,” the youngest Burner said, rising to join the first.
“We will deal with you once we have dealt with the renegade who threatens this world,” the last of the three Burners said, rising as well.
“Or else what?” Beth asked, without taking her eyes off the first one.
“You will stay here,” the tallest Burner said.
“I don’t think so,” Beth said. “I think you all are going to back off. I think if you could stop ‘the renegade’, you’d be busy doing that. But you’re not. You’re waiting here for me. Because you can’t think of anything else that gives you any control.”
“Do not trifle with us,” the tallest Burner said. “We can end your story.”
“Maybe,” Beth said. “But you can’t stop Biers. I can. So you’re going to kindly step back, and stay out of my way, while I go and fix this.”
“We will not let the fate of the world rest on the shoulders of a child,” the tallest Burner said.
“You are not up to the task,” the youngest Burner said.
“We cannot rely on you,” the last Burner said.
“That’s a shame then,” Beth said. “Because sadly for you, this isn’t a battle you can fight with the army you want, or even the one you need, just the one you’ve got. And that’s me.”
“We can fight this battle without you,” the tallest Burner said.
Beth tried to imagine how that would go. Kevin Biers was better at manipulating the Unread than she was, and she’d outplayed them repeatedly in Starshine’s world. They had to know that.
And, of course they did. Her father hadn’t warned her about the Burners because they were better at shaping the Unread than he was. He’d warned her about them because they could destroy it.
So what would it take to destroy someone like Biers who could exist in any world where there was armed conflict?
They’d have to burn nearly everything. Not just books either. People too. Or at least their imaginations. There wouldn’t be much of a world left if the only people living there couldn’t imagine stories with conflict in them.
“You don’t want to though,” Beth said. It was as much a guess as a statement but as the words left her mouth the shape of them was too correct to be wrong.
“You cannot stop the renegade,” the tallest Burner said. “Your kind don’t have the power to destroy each other.”
“I don’t need to destroy him,” Beth said. “All I need to do is make sure he can’t ever harm anyone else again.”
“That’s not possible,” the tallest Burner said.
“Oh, I imagine it is,” Beth said, offering a smile to the man who should have terrified her. “If you see my parents, tell them that I’ll be ok.”
She walked past the three Burners, to one of the bookshelves that lined the room’s walls. War of the Worlds was easy to find where her father had shelved it with the care of a fastidious librarian. It was the copy that she’d read several years before. She hoped she still remembered it well enough to form a bond with the story and meet Biers inside it.
“We cannot know that,” the tallest Burner said.
“I can’t either,” Beth said. “Tell them anyways though.”
She crossed the room to the computer desk and the ramshackle stack of books that stood like a tower beside it. Where her father’s copy of War of the Worlds was an old historic tome, the book she selected for herself was much more recent. It met the criteria Biers had put forth in that it would lead them to a Fairy Queen. Of a sort. Technically.
The novel Beth drew from the pile was bedraggled from multiple readings, but she could remember each word as she touched the cover.
If she could find Biers, this would work.
“Have you ever thought of working with us?” Beth asked, turning to the Burners before she left.
“What do you mean?” the tallest Burner asked.
“Why would we work with you?” the youngest asked.
“You threaten all that there is,” the last said.
“This is my world too,” Beth said. “You chased me out to another one and could have sent me down the same road that Kevin Biers walked down. If I was a jerk like him. That’s a terrible idea if you’re trying to protect the world.”
“We do what we must,” the tallest Burner said.
“Talk to my Dad then,” Beth said, pulling the folds of the War of the Worlds out from the book in her right hand. As last ditch safety nets went, it was pretty terrible, and she knew it was one that wouldn’t be able to save her when things went wrong. Maybe when she left her world behind though, she could leave it a bit better off? “It’s worth a shot isn’t it?”