Calcifer floated in a state of weightlessness. It was a sensation not at all unfamiliar. In fact, he'd spent most of his existence in this state. Only briefly had he been confined to Ingary's gravity well while bound to the wizard Howl Pendragon...well, Howl Jenkins actually, but that was irrelevant as far as Calcifer was concerned. Flying up from its surface had been far more difficult than falling to it.
The sights around him were new, for he had not spent much time near Ingary, even before he'd fallen. The broad curve defining Ingary lay below him, the blue haze of its atmosphere marking the boundary between that world and the black of space. Above that hung the planet's rings. They flickered now and then with a pearly incandescence as they responded to the stellar winds.
Beyond that, off to his right, the red blobby star the Ingarians called Krakanen pulsed in the distance, its own vast atmosphere ebbing and flowing around the four other star systems that orbited it. To Calcifer's right shone Ingary's sun Lirosh, furthest from Krakanen, but still within its influence. That was his destination.
An hour later, Calcifer found himself fighting his way up the powerful wind pouring off of Lirosh. He was barely within the star's corona. It was already quite hot, even for a fire demon. He could feel the radiation hammering at him and he was beginning to wonder if there'd be anything of him left by the time he reached the upper chromosphere. Most of his kind who'd tried this had been far stronger than he and had legitimately survived the un-birthing.
Without warning, a flare leaped off the photosphere, reaching out toward Calcifer with astonishing speed. It wrapped around him and pulled him inward. He did not struggle. Rather, he relaxed. If death was to take him, then so be it, for he knew that by all rights, he should have died many years ago.
His downward motion stopped after a while. He was surrounded by the seething lower atmosphere of the star. He could see nothing but bright light and he was glad his kind didn't see with eyes the way Ingarians and humans did.
Abruptly, a voice boomed at him from within the star. “Who are you and what do you want?!”
If Calcifer could swallow, he would have done so. Instead, he summoned his courage, then answered. “I am Calcifer, recently of Ingary. I have come as one who has survived the un-birthing.”
“Have you, now? You are not as strong as the others. What makes you think you are worthy to be joined to me as my avatar?”
Calcifer didn't have an answer. Instead, he could feel himself being scrutinized from the inside out. The energy being that powered Lirosh seemed to be quite thorough.
“You have been joined to another once before,” said the voice with a note of curiosity. “To...a human of Earth.”
“It is as you say.” Lying to a sun was always a bad idea, especially when one wished to become its avatar. “I carried his heart for several of Ingary's orbital periods they call years.”
There was silence for a few moments.
“Your arrival is fortuitous, as is your familiarity with the organic inhabitants of Ingary. I have need of one such as yourself. I will therefore join with you as my avatar. You will be my eyes in the places my light does not go. You will see the interiors of their buildings. You will be watchful on the planet's periodic dark side. You will go where I send you throughout the greater Krakanen system. Most of all, you will learn what you can about the state of affairs in the Sol system, as it has been some time since any of us has heard much from there. In return, I will refrain from subsuming your identity beneath my own as is customary.
“Now come. I will bolster your strength. While I do this, we have much to discuss.”
Howl's castle was in a state of chaos. It often was these days. Howl had a ferocious backlog of spells to deliver and precious little time in which to perform them. Sophie was furiously pouring over several books on genetics Howl had smuggled back from Earth. It had consumed her every waking moment, and even some of her dreams. Consequently, she'd had to turn over every aspect of the flower shop to Markl and Lettie.
Markl had to abandon many of his duties as Howl's apprentice to help Lettie. Lettie still wound up doing more than half the work. The strain killed their relationship, for which Sophie might have been thankful had she been paying attention to anything other than amino acids, nucleotides, peptide chains, catalases and the like.
Calcifer hurtled down the chimney and into the cacophony, just in time to hear Sophie's screeching plea for silence. She was, apparently, in a mood.
Howl glanced up. “Calcifer! I was wondering where'd you gone. What kept you?”
Calcifer was about to speak when he noticed Howl's raised eyebrow. That always meant something, especially when he did it like that.
“Calcifer!” said Howl. “You did it...didn't you?”
“Yes,” replied Calcifer. “But we have some problems.”
“Would you two...” began Sophie irritably. Her tone changed when she noticed Calcifer. “Calcifer!” she said cheerily. “I've missed you! Did you do it? Oh...of course you did. Now, would you two please quiet down so I can study? This is a matter of life and death!”
“So is this, I'm afraid,” said Calcifer.
“What is?” said Howl.
“Krakanen is dying,” said Calcifer.
“Well, yes,” said Howl, “I knew that.”
“Of course you did,” said Sophie sarcastically.
Howl looked at his fiancee. “Really, dear, I did. Earth's astronomers have known for quite some time. We have two names for that star...Betelgeuse and Alpha-Orionis. It's what we call a red supergiant and we estimate it should go supernova in about a million years.”
“Try two hundred years,” corrected Calcifer.
“Wait,” said Howl, “You're saying Krakanen is going to explode in just two centuries?”
“I don't understand.”
“The Witch of the Waste's fire demon was Krakanen's avatar. When we killed it, we killed the energy being that powers the star. It's on its death bed, as it were.”
A pregnant silence ensued. Markl poked his head into the room.
“What's with all the silence?” he asked. “Oh, hello, Calcifer.” He nodded to the fire demon.
“Markl,” said Sophie gravely, “it looks like you, me, my sisters and Howl will all live to see the second sun explode.”
“Honey,” said Howl, “I love you very much, but I regret to say I won't live past a hundred.”
Sophie cocked an eyebrow at him. “You will when I'm done with you.”
Howl's eyebrows went up.
“I'll explain it some more later. In the meantime, I have a spell to study so we don't both drop dead during our wedding and you...” She poked Howl in the chest. “...now have a world to save.” She whirled around, picked up her book and tromped out the door leading to the garden.
“What was all that?” said Markl.
“She's writing a spell,” explained Howl, “that's supposed to re-write our DNA. She's calling it the Nidularion procedure. She has to learn to read both the human and Ingarian genomes and then write a program...er...spell to change it.”
Markl looked at him blankly. “What's DNA?”
“Never mind,” said Howl. “The point is, she has a very difficult task ahead of her and a frighteningly small amount of time in which to do it. If she fails, the two of us will die horrible deaths during our wedding. Remember that couple who died during their wedding last year?”
“What most people don't know is that the bride was Ingarian and the groom was human. She's trying to prevent that. If it happens again, there are people in your own government who will want to attack Earth. So, yes, if the procedure doesn't work, Sophie's and my wedding could trigger an interstellar war.”
“Don't worry, Markl. She can do it. She's very intelligent and very powerful. She's also right...I have a world to prepare for a supernova.” Howl rolled his eyes. “I left home to escape my responsibilities. Now the fate of an entire world is in my hands.” He turned to Calcifer. “My friends, we have a lot of work to do!”