Julia tried to shy away towards the back of the crowd as best as she could. She was starting to feel sick inside. She hadn't wanted any of this to happen. It had all gone wrong.
For all of her fourteen years of life Julia had lived in the same place on the same world, named New Heathsfall. It had a few cities and towns that were islands of humanity in a sea of endless plains and fields. Every once and a while a ship would show up in orbit and shuttles and landers would ferry goods between it and the surface all day, and every so often another ship would show up and an enormous number of the world's men would be hauled onto it (and sometimes a few of it's women too). Almost all of them were never seen again, and the few that did never talked about what happened to them after they left. Julia dreaded that ship, because she knew one day it would come for all the boys she knew. She wouldn't mind if some of the mean or irritating ones left and never came back, but there were also ones she was friends with and others she admired, and she'd like them to stay for as long as possible. Julia knew that the world was ruled by a planetary governor, and she knew from her school classes that the world was on the distant edge of the galaxy, and a long, long way from Terra, the home of mankind.
But Julia cared little for that. She was young, a teenager, and her days were still carefree, filled with friends and laughter and parties, in between studying when she had to. She paid homage to the Emperor of humanity just as everyone else did. But her main concerns in life at the moment were good grades, finding a date to the annual dance social, and what her friend Madeline was doing.
Madeline. For almost as long as Julia could remember she had been inseparable from her. Thick as thieves when they were children, best friends when they grew older. They liked the same songs, the same style of clothing, the same books. Whenever one was upset or hurt, the other would be rushing to her side to comfort her. They were like sisters, and Julia had thought she was perfect in every way.
But things had changed in recent times. More and more Julia had started to gain a creeping, growing feeling of neglect. It felt like the spotlight was constantly on Madeline, with her and her actions being constantly praised. Julia had studied just as hard, and earned top marks in her exams, but Madeline had received the academic award that year, amongst others. When Julia had proposed an idea for a class project, she was ignored, but when Madeline proposed an identical one it was chosen. The final straw had been when Julia's crush had asked Madeline to a date, and the two had been in a relationship that seemed to grow ever closer and more romantic ever since.
Julia had started to grow desperate. She knew she was just as deserving of credit and praise and fortune as Madeline was, but no-one seemed to notice her. In her frantic search for something that would shift some of the limelight away from Madeline and back onto her, she had recalled the stories and tales told to her as a child. Tales that were told to every child that she knew, and indeed every child on the world. Strange, frightening tales of evil witches who would gather in the dead of night to spread terror and death, slaughtering beasts and razing fields, and conjuring up horrible monsters to slay and torment townspeople. Julia was certain that they were just simple fables meant to frighten children into obedience, but she also knew that the people of her world were very superstitious. So she did something, something malicious and cruel, but something she did not intend to seriously harm anyone with.
She had said that Madeline was a witch.
She had spread it in secret as a rumour. She had pointed out how people were drawn to her, and said that it was not in fact because of her merits, but because she had cast spells on them. She had even planted some evidence, just a few odd-looking trinkets and an occult book or two, in and around her room and school cabinet. And the word spread like wildfire. Soon all the students in her school were whispering about it, and cold looks were given at Madeline when she went past.
But then things began to spiral out of control. She did not know how, but the story had managed to reach the ears of the planetary governor. And then a few months after Julia had started the slander, a new ship had arrived in the sky. This one carried a tall, brooding man. He wore a long coat and a wide-brimmed hat, and was adorned in seals and I-like emblems. He frightened Julia. He had come with a large number of black and grey armoured soldiers, who carried large weapons that some of the more militarily-interested boys called hellguns (while some others insisted they were lasguns, and others still said they were hotshot lasguns). They had set up a perimeter around an apartment building, cleared out it's tenants, and kept Madeline there for weeks.
Julia's plan had worked. She started getting noticed more. She started getting more praise. In a few days she became the most popular girl in school for exposing the wicked creature in their midst, though they didn't know she had made all that up. Madeline's boyfriend, Julia's crush, had even asked her out. It was everything she had wanted to get, but now she no longer wanted any of it. Especially when she managed to catch a glimpse into Madeline's new prison and saw what was being done to her...
And now it had come to this. Julia was in the middle of a gigantic crowd, gathered in the town square, jeering and shouting and snarling out at what was before it. The object of their attention was a vast stage that had been erected, and on it was dear, innocent Madeline, Julia's best friend, lashed to an enormous black monolith, emblazoned with skulls and other icons of death, and the same I-like insignia the man in the hat and coat wore. It was late afternoon, and the sun was setting and painting the sky a great, agonising, resplendent triptych of reds, pinks, oranges and yellows. At the fringes of the sunset the sky was turning to deep mournful midnight blues, and New Heathfall's two moons were just starting to show in the haze. An icy, bitter wind was scourging through the square, and it pierced straight through Julia. Amber and ochre leaves chased each other on the breeze. A black cat slinked around the fringes of the square. And Madeline waited, her comely, elegant features gripped in a heart-skewering look of confusion and sorrow, her great sapphire-blue eyes brimming with tears as she tried desperately to search for a reason why all this had happened to her, why she was about to die and her family were cheering for it, and why her friend hadn't tried to help. Her long golden tresses feebly reached out in the winds, and struck out like torchlight against the cold grim obsidian black of the device she was tied to.
The man in the hat and coat was on the stage, with a book in his hand, and he was preaching to the crowd about how the righteous must be ever-vigilant in these dark and terrible times for the unclean and the wicked, and that the people had done a great service to humanity for exposing this heretical fiend. He condemned Madeline for consorting with vile powers and acting out against mankind, and said she was now sentenced to death.
Then a great and terrible whirring whine began to radiate out of the black monolith.
Julia looked down and saw herself in a puddle, her raven coloured hair flanking her face and grape green eyes like curtain drapes. She shut her eyes quickly. She couldn't bear to look at herself. Her head was filled with thoughts of guilt and regret. A small voice whispered out amidst the despair, a strange serpentine purr that she did not recognise, and tried to ignore. A voice that said she had done the right thing.
A burning lump was catching in Julia's throat, and her insides churned. Her veins were on fire. She wanted to go far, far, far away from this place, and curl up in a cave somewhere and never come out. She never wanted this to happen. She never wanted her friend dead. She just wanted a bit more attention.
But what Julia didn't know, what she couldn't know, was that those stories told to her and the other children of their world weren't just tales. There really were witches and monsters out there.
And the people like the planetary governor and the man in the hat and coat had very good reason to do what they were doing.
Upon the stage, Madeline gave a sigh, and made one final look upwards into the heavens, calmly resigned to her demise. The whining reached a crescendo, and at once burst into a brilliant flash of light and fire, and a wave of heat roared over the crowd. In the centre of the firestorm, Madeline was turned to silhouette, then bones, then ashes that were swept upwards into the wind.
And as the sparks and embers swirled upwards with them, a shooting star streaked across the midnight painted sky.