We're not done 'til we say it's over.
We won't fade away.
- Tomorrow Never Dies, 5 Seconds of Summer
The jets were screaming across the lilac sky, trailing smoke as they fired missiles at each other, trying to knock enemy fighters out of the clouds and into the carnage below.
The roar of artillery fire was deafening to the soldiers fighting down on the Boneflats, sending them flinching instinctively for cover as the last surviving Claritan regiment scrabbled to reform under the heavy fire they were sustaining.
Ashton could barely breathe past the choking smoke as he scraped himself out of the dirt. The deep grazes on his palms were stinging from where he'd thrown himself down to avoid a blast of lightning cast by one of the enemy soldiers and the adrenaline felt like it was boiling his blood in his veins as his magic begged for release.
The soldiers from Tenebris definitely had the upper hand and Ashton’s heart clenched unpleasantly in his chest as he watched one of his comrades crumple beside him, water overflowing from his orifices as he drowned on dry land, eyes bulging and lips parted in panic as he was murdered by one more faceless Tenebran soldier.
Ashton wanted to help him but there was nothing he could do now. He was no medic and his fire magic was ill-suited to healing. The man's limp form was jerking on the parched grass, nothing but the whites of his eyes visible as the water leaked like poison from the corner of his mouth.
Ashton hated water magic more than any other ability, mostly because it was so painfully effective at reducing his own powers to little more than coiling steam.
It was absolutely brutal... but Ashton should have been used to brutal by now. He'd been fighting in this war for well over a year and the carnage was something he saw every day, no matter the mission or the battle.
There was no reason why the death of this one soldier should shake him up so much now, especially when he took into account all of the enemies he had been forced to kill himself.
The man had stopped twitching now and, as he finally stilled, Ashton realised with a jolt that perhaps his best friend Laura would have been able to help save him. She was the best healer he knew but she'd been swallowed up by the battle some time ago and he could only pray that she was safe, wherever she had ended up.
One of the generals nearby was shouting for the troops to pull back, his voice tight and strained as the words sent the panic flaring to life in Ashton’s chest.
The chaos seemed to unfold before his dazed hazel eyes as he stared in horror at the Tenebran fighters making one last desperate push, forcing the Claritans back towards the cliffs where escape would be impossible as their bullets slammed into hastily cast forcefields.
As he watched the grim realisation settling on the faces of the strangers fighting beside him, Ashton knew this was their last stand. The end was near and it didn't matter how desperately they had fought for their lives; for their loved ones; for their great country.
They would still be killed. They would still become just a little more dust covering the hungry ground of the Boneflats.
The war would be lost today and the nation of Claritas would fall... unless Ashton could put his terror and anger to good use, and buy them time for reinforcements to get here. The idea frightened him beyond belief but he was the Crown Prince and his parents had sent him here to set a good example to his people; to save as many souls as possible and turn the tide of the war.
This was Ashton’s duty and his heart-stopping panic didn’t come into the equation now. There was no time for something as human as fear.
His trembling palms left blood streaked on his dirty cheeks as he rubbed his face, trying to calm himself with little success.
The enemy soldiers were pressing closer now, crackling with confidence and power. The air was alive with their abilities: lethal sparks of electricity coiled around knuckles; flames licked menacingly at clawed fingers; choking vines erupted from the baked ground to force the weakened regiment back against the rocks.
The Tenebrans were toying with them now that they were sure victory was a certainty and Ashton’s rage filled him as he burst from the safety of his ranks, his eyes alight with his desperate need to do the right thing as one of the Claritan jets crashed to the ground, streaming fire and twisted metal.
Ashton reached for the flames instinctively, coaxing them over to coil around his outstretched hand as the fireball burnt brighter and hotter. He kept feeding it with his terror and anger, uncaring of how exhausted he was now as he drained himself of energy.
It was the only way to hold the Tenebrans back. No matter how painful, he had to stop them. There was no other option.
“Ash!” a painfully familiar voice shouted warningly and it sounded like Laura, faint enough that she must have been far back in the crowd but had still seen his reckless display of power. “Ash, no!”
Ashton couldn’t afford to listen to her now; not when he might finally have found a way to cow the Tenebrans into submission. The fireball was roaring in the air above him, the heat blistering as the Claritan soldiers pushed themselves further back against the cliffs to escape the burn of it.
Only the Crown Prince remained unscathed as he held it aloft, safe in the knowledge that it was impossible for him to harm himself with his own ability; only draining himself of energy and power could hurt him now.
Ashton took a step forwards but, before he could send the ball of flame hurtling down to scatter the Tenebrans, a bullet slammed into the ground near his feet. It kicked up a cloud of dust and that distraction was his downfall. His concentration broke and the weight of the immense fireball was suddenly crushing as his knees weakened under him, his eyes widening in alarm.
The colour drained from his face when he realised he’d gone too far and he swayed suddenly, barely strong enough to hold himself upright as the hungry flames seemed to contract above him, tightening into something unquestionably lethal.
He’d fed it so much of his power that it had grown dangerously volatile and there was no way on all of Cerasus that Ashton could regain control of the fireball now.
There was nowhere for it to go.
His knees hit the ground as the magic in his veins reached boiling point and he felt like he was floating away as the soldiers on both sides seemed to hold their breath, the sudden silence jarring after the constant barrage of machine gun fire and the whine of jet engines.
“I’m sorry,” Ashton breathed as his hands fell to hang limply by his sides, his heart jerking horribly in his chest as the fireball surrounded him for a moment, completely encasing him in flame.
It exploded like a bomb, a wave of fire and pure magic rolling out with the force of a pyroclastic flow. It tore the armies apart and Ashton barely had time to feel the dread rocketing through him at the realisation of what he’d done when he heard a low rumble as the cliffs crumbled apart behind him.
The few survivors were screaming as the boulders crashed down onto the Boneflats, crushing and deadly. Anyone still able was running now, desperate to escape from the rockslide Ashton had caused as he slumped there helplessly on the scorched ground. He didn’t even have the strength to look up as his death approached.
Above the rising booms of the boulders falling around him, he thought he heard Laura calling his name.
After that, Ashton’s awareness became limited to agony and terror, and the burn of his flames licking at the brittle grass around him as his bones snapped like twigs beneath the weight of the rocks.
An indiscernible amount of time passed, broken only by pain and blood, and terrible numbness. The sizzle of forcefields shattered the ringing silence, accompanied by the grunts of soldiers whose abilities gifted them superhuman strength as they hauled the rocks from the broken body of their Crown Prince.
The last thing Ashton remembered beneath the blinding pain was Laura’s frightened face looking down at him, her tear-streaked cheeks smeared with blood and ash, and then -
Everything was gone.