Chapter 3 - The Silver Pen
THE SILVER PEN
NIKOLAI FLUME HAD NO INTENTIONS of being the hero who saves the day. He would rather watch the world burn, in all honesty.
Yet there he was, protecting a girl he just met.
"Stop burning my books, you dimwit!" the girl shrieked and lunged at him. Nikolai swung his arm back with full force to stop her from stupidly charging into the fire.
"Your books or your life, woman?!" he threatened.
"My books are my life!"
Nikolai grunted and jerked his head back to direct his attention to Artemis' room, trying to figure out the emerging shapes from the fire. Luca suspended Artemis by the shoulders to prevent her from diving at Nikolai or at the burning room again. The tenants nearby started screaming and packing their bags to escape. Nikolai thought, for a second, that they'd be back at Sect. 3. Again.
"Luca," Nikolai demanded. "Take that girl away from here."
"WHY?!" Artemis screeched. "Who are those people? Who's Nine? What is happening?!"
Two shadows appeared from the fire. They seemed to be protected from it by some sort of writing. Nikolai squinted his eyes--was there a writer with these guys?
"Get the Reader," Nikolai heard the shorter guy order the taller one. Nikolai knew, at once, that these two were after Artemis, whom he suspected to be a Reader herself.
He cleared his throat and wrote:
LET THE CEILING BETWEEN US FALL AND CRUMBLE.
Nikolai took steps back and grabbed Artemis' and Luca's hand. "Escape! To the lift!"
The three ran off to the lift which was a hallway away, with Artemis the only one looking back behind. Luca kept up pace with her, since he was on his phone. Nikolai did his best not to ram the two of them on a wall. Luca, Nikolai knew, was phoning the LIT for back-up.
"It's the Axis," Nikolai said and struck the buttons of the lift with his fist. He glanced behind, and saw silhouettes from the fire. One tall and one short. It's them.
"Why would Axis attack a flat in Sect. 4?" Luca asked, his phone at his ear.
"Probably because I pissed them off?" Nikolai lied, avoiding Artemis' glare.
Luca gasped. "Nikolai Flume! You need to avoid pissing people who can throw you off into another Sect in just a snap!"
A bell rang and the lift's doors opened wide. It spewed out black clouds of smoke when it did, and the three stepped back. Nikolai ran forward and wrote:
WITH MY COMMAND, THIS LIFT SHALL BE SAFE TO USE, AND MAY ALL WHO ESCAPE THROUGH THIS FACE NO ABUSE.
With a loud whoosh, the smoke spun, gathered into a ball, and dwindled into a tiny puff. Luca wasted no time, he pulled the wide-eyed Artemis and dragged her into the lift, whilst Nikolai stayed behind.
"Nikolai this building will turn into ashes if you didn't do anything," Luca chided, which appeared rather to be begging than scolding.
"Mr. Flume I will personally kick your ass if my entire room disappeared!" Artemis added.
"Nik, look, I trust you but if this turned into another war, Connor will be really disappointed and-"
Nikolai rolled his eyes and hit the lift's buttons to send the two out of the building. Luca didn't get to finish his recital when the doors closed. Nikolai then shifted his view and paid attention to the Axis members in the fire. When his eyes got used to the blaze, he saw another figure trailing behind the men.
It looked like the woman from Sect. 8, the one who pretended to be a fortune teller.
The taller dude asked her, "You said there was a Reader in this place?"
The woman replied, "Yes. She personally told me, and I followed her to her work, then to this place."
The smaller dude interrupted, "She was not in her room. What is her name?"
"Her name was Artemis Thrace. She works at Sect. 7."
Nikolai knitted his eyebrows and tightened his grasp at his silver pen. He raised his hand up to write, but a voice puffed up behind him.
"Are they from Axis?" Artemis queried, peeping through Nikolai's shoulder.
"Why didn't you escape with Luca?" Nikolai immediately protected Artemis with a quick scribble:
EVEN WHEN I AM NOT AROUND, MAY ARTEMIS THRACE BE SAFE AND SOUND.
"Those men are the Axis that you're talking about, that people are talking about," Artemis replied, oblivious of the protection Nikolai had given her since her eyes were on the flaming mess in front of them. "I want to read their side of the story."
"You can't just read stuff, woman," Nikolai said in an exasperated tone. "They kill people like ants, you need to escape."
"I grew up in Sect. 9, I can handle myself!"
"I heard her voice! That's her!"
Nikolai and Artemis quickly turned to the voice of the fraud fortune teller. Nikolai wanted to duct tape Artemis' mouth for being the reason of them being discovered, but instead said, "Were you smuggling books? Never mind, run!"
"There's nowhere to run to!" Artemis answered, fanning the smoke from her face to see clearly.
"Then we fight," Nikolai raised his pen again, waiting for the perfect timing to write.
"I see three Books," Artemis whispered to herself, unaware that it was audible enough for Nikolai to hear. "I could borrow one perhaps-"
"THAT'S HER!" A tall muscular man came into view, his eyes immediately landing on Artemis.
"Oh bugger," Nikolai groaned and started writing. Artemis could see the luminous letters, but could not read Nikolai's handwriting, which started to appear illegible. She ignored the words and picked up a piece of wood that fell from the wall.
Oddly, she felt, the wood was warm enough to touch.
She launched it at the taller man and hit his face, earning her and Nikolai enough time to head to the stairways. Artemis ran faster, as Nikolai was busy thinking of what to write. Artemis thought she should assist him with thinking.
"Can't you just write something like stopping time?" she asked.
Nikolai looked up at her with a confused look at his face. "What?"
"You're writing shining stuff," Artemis started slowing down for Nikolai to keep up. "And then it comes true. Like the one in the lift, don't deny it."
"I'm not denying it," Nikolai replied, jumping down two steps at a time to avoid getting left behind. He smirked but suppressed it: he just confirmed Artemis being a Reader. Nobody can see anything he writes. Nobody can read it.
"Then stop time so we can escape!"
"I can't stop time,"
"You can simply write it!"
"Woman, you need to write real things. You can't Harry Potter shit everything to your favour. If I stopped time, we'll combust and die because of the suspended molecules in the air! We won't even be able to see because the photons will stop bouncing through things, now tell me how's that gonna help us escape."
"You're using Harry Potter as a reference, that was a thousand years ago! Think of something else!"
"I could shut you up."
"Or I can throw you down to the ground floor, weak writer, how's that?"
Nikolai made a sound as if he was 100% done with everything. Artemis didn't bother to look at his expression, she assumed it was just the same annoying face with a matching sound effect.
"Stop!" Nikolai snapped, halting at a safe distance from the fire above them. Artemis stopped running and waited for Nikolai's next moves. He's turned his back on her, but as long as she knew he's writing their safety, she didn't much care about where Nikolai's facing.
But she had a glimpse of a few of the radiant words: forget, Reader, world, Axis.
Her eyebrows arched at the words. She tried to make out sense from them, but failed, especially after the words whirled once again, then vanished into the thin air.
"What did you write?" Artemis asked, waiting for the Axis to appear and attack them.
Nikolai hissed and winced, then grabbed her hand and lead her down the stairs. "A love letter to Death, apparently. Let's go."
A second after, the floors above exploded.
"Was that your love letter to Death?!" Artemis shrieked.
Nikolai, eyes wide and mouth curved into a frown, replied, "I wasn't expecting his reply to be so fast--no wonder everyone loves him."
Is the girl with you?
A voice resonated inside Nikolai's mind, making him lurch forward instead of jumping down the stairs. Artemis caught him by the collar of his coat. Nikolai glanced at Artemis and winked a small 'thanks', then he asked, "Connor?"
The voice replied, Luca told me what happened. Fraein was the back-up.
Aware that a suspicious Artemis is watching him talk to himself, Nikolai said, "Mate I'm glad you found us, but we're trapped in a staircase like a bloody cliche Korean drama couple."
"Who are you talking to?" Artemis asked.
"Shush, you," Nikolai faced the other way, avoiding Artemis to concentrate on talking to Connor.
Another floor exploded. Nikolai flinched. Artemis gasped and grabbed Nikolai's coat, heaving him down.
"I lost contact with Connor again," Nikolai groaned.
"Continue running or you'll lose contact with everything," Artemis said.
"This way!" Nikolai rammed a door open and sent the two of them into another hallway. Except it's not burning.
A strong gush of wind stopped the two from running to the exit. They shielded their eyes with their arms, and took refuge behind a counter.
"Was that the Axis too?" Artemis asked.
"Strong winds," Nikolai noted, watching the smoke and the fire from the floors above them create a flux of a black firenado and glide through the hallways like a queue of kindergarteners going home. Then the flux turned into a rapid vwoosh of blaze, before fading completely.
Then a queer voice echoed, replacing the cackle of the burning building, "FRAEIN IS HERE, HAVE NO FEAR!"
Nikolai grinned and stood up, looking for the owner of the voice. "We're safe!" he told Artemis.
Artemis was not entirely convinced.
"Artemis, let's go!" Nikolai took her hand, for the umpteenth time, and dragged her to where the queer voice came from. "It's Fraein, it's-"
"Another LITRature bastard?" Artemis finished.
Nikolai glared at her.
"Look at where you're running, idiot, and don't bump into things!"
Nikolai bumped into things.
One of them was a porcelain vase (safely placed beside a doorway, totally out of the way) that sent Nikolai diving into the cold floor and skidding until he hit a person. Artemis caught up and helped Nikolai up back to his feet.
"I told you not to bump into things!" she scolded.
Nikolai restrained himself from showing how infuriated he was. His face was rather regal when he said, "I didn't bump, I stumbled-"
"Nikolai!" Luca, who appeared to be the person whom Nikolai has bumped into, exclaimed and smiled in relief. He shook Nikolai's shoulders and Artemis felt the relief contagious. She relaxed a bit.
"Whoa, Luca. Where's Fraein?" Nikolai asked, grinning and glancing at Artemis like See? These are my teammates. You must be so amazed now.
There was another wild gush of cold wind, and when it stopped, Artemis saw a man standing so dignified, so confident, that he had a semblance to the kings and heroes Artemis had read from her books. This man who wore a white suit under a royal violet cloak seemed to be the owner of the queer voice who called himself Fraein. Artemis mustered all her will to believe that in front of her is the Fraein who just saved them.
He seemed to be a man of conviction, and he ought to be respected.
Until he spoke.
"Oh, Flume, what did Connor tell you?" he purred at Nikolai's shoulder. He looked to be more or less 35 years old. "We don't burn our enemies alive. Bury them alive, yes, but burn is a no."
"They were fireproof," Nikolai replied. "And they started the fight this time. Artemis' room exploded because of them."
"H-How did you know my name?" Artemis realised. Nikolai had already called her by her name twice, and she just noticed it now.
"Your name was on your door, stargazer," Nikolai lied, tugging his coat down.
Fraein touched Artemis' face, studying it. "You look like a main character," he smiled. "Don't get yourself killed, sweetheart. A face like yours looks prettier in a veil than in a coffin."
Fraein snapped his hand and waved his cloak like a queen doing a groovy exit after a character development song. Luca followed Fraein towards the lift after telling Nikolai, "We're going back to Sect. 2. Please don't cause trouble."
"I'll try," Nikolai waved goodbye.
Artemis watched them for a while, before realising that her room exploded. She gasped upon remembering, getting Nikolai's attention.
"What's wrong?" Nikolai asked.
"You burned my room!" Artemis recalled. "And my books!"
'I saved your life, woman. I suppose that is a thank you, eh?"
"Why is Axis after Der Nordenheim?"
"I don't know, maybe I won the cake and they followed me here?"
"You need to stop picking fights with powerful organisations."
"I know," Nikolai sighed from exhaustion and started walking towards the stairs. "You know, we had a literal blast up there so let's just call it a day."
Artemis grimaced sourly and lowered her head. "You burned my home."
"I know," he replied darkly, walking closer to her. "Look, if you have nowhere to go to, you can join LITRature."
Artemis punched him in the gut. "You expect me to join your stupid organisation after you bastards burned my flat?"
Nikolai ignored the punch (he tried his best to, honestly) and put his hands on Artemis' shoulders. Slowly, and almost beguiling, Nikolai said, "LITRature needs a girl like you."
Confused, yet still trying to think rationally amidst the deafening beat of her heart, Artemis stammered whilst staring directly at Nikolai's golden eyes, "A girl like me doesn't need LITRature."
"You have nowhere to go, no home, no friends perhaps? Axis is out there, and it's not impossible that they will attack again. LITRature is the only place who will accept you for whoever and whatever you are." Nikolai groped into his pockets for a silver bracelet and smiled--a genuine one, unlike the smirk that never left his face. "And Silfr will be glad to have you."
"Silfr?" Artemis sceptically took the silver bracelet, and processed everything Nikolai has said.
Nikolai chuckled, answering, "In LITRature, we have four divisions: Gull, Silfr, Kvistr, and the Canaries. You need to join us, Artemis Thrace!" Nikolai beamed, shaking Artemis' hands vigorously. "And I will introduce you to Connor!"
"Whoa, young man," Artemis gently, but firmly, shoved Nikolai away from her. "You don't need to be overexcited."
"You can stay in for the night, since Axis burned down your flat."
"I can stay in Bistro Apertrille, thank you."
"We have a library. And you can read books for free."
Artemis held her breath.