35. The Girl Who Burned
The old bastard lied.
Either that, or ghosts really did exist.
All I knew was that my heart was beating too quickly for my brain to comprehend, as if every emotion was pouring into me all at once. My chest felt both empty and full, and I could sense my thoughts going quiet, stilling for a moment.
Even Gabriel had stood beside me, grey eyes not lifting from the face of the man everyone had presumed to be dead.
Grandpa`s steps were uncoordinated, and I knew he was halfway into being completely drunk before he teleported here. How on Ignolia did he manage to find me, I had no clue. But it might have something to do with the bracelet on my wrist which`s glow was fading.
But all these questions resided at the back of my head, and instead my body was quickly rising up with one emotion that overawed everything; anger.
He was alive…
He was never dead!
The funeral, the letter—all of it, it was all a lie!
Despite the darkness of the night, I could see the slight softening in those bright green eyes when he approached me carefully. “Lydia…” he started to say, his voice heavy from drinking. He blinked twice at me, to shake away the bleariness. “I know what you`re feeling—“
A cry ripped out of me, one so loud that both him and Gabriel flinched and jumped back. But I had flown at him, with all the anger inside me, all the simmering rage.
My throbbing hand blazed into flames, the bloodied flesh mending to close off the bleeding, and I had directed it at him with nothing but frustration and temper in my body.
“You bastard!” I shouted, bringing down my fist, but he had used an energy shield to block it. I screamed again. “You lied to me,” I set the other one on fire, and tried to repeatedly land a punch, “you lied to me!”
He was calmly dodging every hit, and I wasn`t even able to see him properly anymore. My tears had made it impossible to spot anything but hazy shapes.
But I had kept going.
With every attempted punch, with every strength I put to it, the guilt and rage had seeped out of me.
I had mourned for him, felt guilt gnawing at me with every memory of him for not having the chance to say goodbye, for having my last words to him be those of stupid hate.
And yet, and yet…
“How could you!?” I spat, my throat hurting from the constant screams.
“Lydia, please…” I hated how quiet he was, as if my outrage didn`t faze him at all. “Let me explain—“
“I don`t need anything from you,” I growled, my breath getting caught in my chest. It felt so hard to breathe. Hurt flashed in his eyes, but it only fueled my anger. “There`s absolutely no reason for me to even listen to you. You lied to me, you always have!”
“I know,” he lifted a hand, as if to calm me, but I glared at it. “But I only did it because I wanted to protect you.”
I almost wanted to laugh. Almost.
“And you thought that faking your own death would help with doing that!?”
I shook my head at him, at the sheer disbelief at what he was capable of. He had me tricked, he had all of us tricked. And for what?
“How were you even able to do that?” it was Gabriel who asked, stepping forward. He trailed his eyes up and down Lucius` form, as if to make sure he was real.
“It doesn’t matter,” I cut in before he could explain, realizing he probably had some help from someone with a high rank. Gerard`s face came to mind, and my glower further deepened. “He most likely sought the help of a dear old friend for it.”
Lucius` silence only confirmed that it was indeed Gerard who helped him fabricate his own death.
If I ever see him again, I`ll send a fireball his way.
“Lydia, you have to believe me,” he went to touch my arm, but I quickly snapped it away. His gloved fingers only caught the air instead. “Everything I did, it was for your own benefit.”
“I don`t see how pretending to be dead was for her benefit,” Gabriel raised an eyebrow, and I nearly wanted to kiss him at the accusatory tone. “It brought nothing but pain for her.”
Lucius fell into a step before the king, blood-shed eyes regarding him. “Your Majesty, if you were in my place, you would have done the same. I have many enemies still, and most of them are out for my life and would stop at nothing. Many among them are wizard hunters.”
“And yet here they are,” I said, gesturing at the lifeless bodies across the floor.
He was about to say something, but Gabriel interrupted him. “We`ll discuss the matter of your sudden revival later, Lucius. For now, we need to scout the rest of the hunters, and join the survivors.”
“There`s nothing to discuss,” I told them, “I`ll be leaving now.”
When I turned to walk away, Lucius had called after me. “Where are you going, Lydia!? We need to stick together.”
“I`m not going anywhere with you!” I whirled to point a finger at him, aware of the snarl itched on my face. “And I`m going to find Luxus.”
Each minute that Luxus wasn`t with me, I was growing more agitated. I had no idea of his whereabouts, or if even something had happened to him.
Dread filled my heart at the thought of him being injured –or worse.
I need to find him fast!
“Oh,” I remembered the damn piece of jewelry on my wrist, so I latched it off and threw it at his feet. “I don’t know what the hell kind of charm you put in there, but take it. I don`t want that thing on me ever again!”
And with one final glare, I left the two men and pursued to find Luxus.
I was fuming, muttering to myself of how much of an incompetent bastard Lucius was.
And I was using whichever wizard hunter was stupid enough to come my way to unleash my fire on. My joints sang with the pain of exhaustion, and I knew if I kept using my magic I would have nothing left. It was swiftly draining out of me with each ember I conjured.
But my blind rage only allowed for the flames to sweep freely.
Around me, everything was going slow and fast at the same time. Elsie was a grey-silver swish in the skies, plunging down to suffocate the throats of hunters with nothing but a flick of her fingers. Exhaustion didn`t seem to even cross her, but instead she soared higher and higher.
I had moved to help Redmond with a couple of hunters that managed to climb over the great wall of branches separating the survivors from the bloodshed. Flames left the tips of my fingers, swallowing the two men whole.
At the center of the upper stairway leading to the palace, Evine stood barking orders to her men while avoiding king Morrison`s bolts, and I had slithered between corners and shadows so she wouldn`t spot me.
The last thing I needed was her at my back. I just wanted to find Luxus and move him to a safe place.
Perhaps he managed to make it out with the rest through the forest.
Nearly half the tables were turned upside down, plates and silverware with bits of food broken and scattered everywhere I stepped on. In the corner of my trained eyes, I could see some of the gremlins hiding between the untouched bushes, too afraid to cause any mischief tonight.
In this part of the garden, only silence and dead bodies filled the place.
The rest of the battle raged either inside the palace or at the edges of the forest, the hunters attempting to break through Redmond and Ayana`s barriers. And anyone who managed to halfway get in, Elsie would drop down from above and take care of them.
I should join my fellow Slifers in guarding the survivors, but I needed to make sure Luxus was safe first.
“Lydia,” Aramis called from behind me, and I turned to see that half his face was covered with blood. And from the way he walked soundly, I knew it wasn`t his.
“Aramis, what the hell happened to you?” I couldn`t mask the look of shock at the bloodied dagger and the ripped clothes.
I knew messengers didn`t have magic, but apparently they were good in combat.
“You fought off all those wizard hunters with that,” I said, my wide eyes on the small blade in his grip.
He cocked a smile. “Don`t sound so surprised, Mistress,” he wiped some of the blood from his chin. “Anyway, why are you here? Shouldn`t you be with the rest of the Slifers?”
“I can`t find Luxus anywhere,” I said, squaring my shoulders. “And I won`t leave him.”
He nodded, looking around. “Let`s find him, then.”
It was hard to search for a cat in a place crammed with shattered things and dead bodies. I was careful to not step on anyone, my eyes frantically going to places he could possibly hide in. Aramis had crouched down under the still intact tables, but shook his head when he found nothing.
“When was the last time you saw him?” he asked.
“The food table,” I answered as my sight landed on it, trays and plates and pots and whatever delicious food they contained all spilled across the white sheets.
If Luxus saw the attack there, he probably wouldn`t leave his place.
I hurried towards us, jumping over the piles of bodies toppled over one another.
“Luxus!” I yelled, reaching the table and dropping on my knees to peak under it. When I saw a small black fur-ball nestled into itself and trembling, relief washed over every aching limb.
His ears were tucked over his eyes, and when I said his name again, they perked open. Those big frightened red orbs lit when they saw my face. “Lydia!”
My lips stretched in a smile as he sprinted to my welcoming arms. I cradled his quivering form, stroking his fur lightly and whispering, “Shh, you`re okay, now. I`ll take you somewhere safe.”
He must have been so afraid. Every nerve in his body was practically shaking.
I felt the impact before I saw it, that knocking sensation that slammed into my ribs. And before I knew it, I was flying in mid-air, a strangled scream piercing my ears, sensing the weight of Luxus slipping from my fingers.
When my back collided hard against a tree, blood sprout out from my mouth.
Aramis and Luxus` shouts were barely audible, and instead only the striking pain was acknowledged. Black spots buzzed in my vision, and for a moment all I could see were only unmade shapes and movements.
I could taste the blood on my lips, and feel its coppery tang inside my throat. My sides felt like they were squeezed together, pushed against one side.
I tried to blink as much as possible, to get an image of my attacker. And my eyes caught the form of a hunter that looked like a beast. His face was humane, but he was thrice my size and length. His chest was bared with a coat of unnatural brown fur. And instead of hands, he had furred claws that started from his elbows.
Another form of Recreation Magic –but this one probably allowed for animal transformation.
I heard a cry coming from Aramis as he readied his dagger and shot towards the hunter. He slashed at his feet, leaving cuts all across his skin. But the hunter only grinned down at him, and I saw the too-big set of canines flashing at Aramis` determined self.
A stifled scream wheezed out of my lips when the hunter used his foot to kick Aramis off, landing a blow on his stomach and sending him flying backwards.
He fell on top of two bodies, coughing out blood and attempting to get up again.
But he couldn`t –not when his injury prevented him from doing so.
I tried to crawl towards him, pressing an arm against my side. I had definitely broken a rip, but that didn`t matter now. I needed to get Aramis and Luxus out of here.
Luxus rushed to Aramis` side, using his little head to try to support Aramis` arm and pushing him up. The hunter looked at the two as if he would happily devour them, and it seemed to be that way when he moved towards them.
I have to distract him.
Even summoning fire to my hand knocked the air out of me, but I didn`t hesitate in throwing it at him. He stumbled back, the fur around his shoulders caught in flame as he patted it down with that giant claw.
It only managed to burn a little, but I did get him to pay attention to me.
Though that wasn`t inherently good.
He roared at the assault, and his thundering steps as he marched at me made my heart skip endless beats. I didn`t even have time to blink before he grabbed me by the head and flung me aside, the ground underneath me scraping my skin off.
I tried to put as much distance between us as I sent a blow after a blow, but each time my fire left my hand they would get thinner and thinner. They only managed to burn small patches of his body, and by the time they were barely solid he would use his claw to brush them away.
Building a shield was impossible, it would never hold. So I crossed my arms over my face when those black-tipped talons struck, hissing at the bright red slashes they left on my forearms.
The blood had stripped down my skin and dripped to the floor, and I could feel the stinging of the flesh as if it was dipped in salt.
Across from us, Aramis was limping towards me, that dagger dangling from his hand. But he was too slow, and his legs would cave in every few steps.
The hunter; however, seemed to enjoy toying with my flesh. He continued with kicking my middle so hard I rolled back to the other side, hurling blood and the only food I had today out of my stomach.
“Lydia, no!” Luxus` call was a soft echo in my ears.
Leave, you two!
I tried to shout it, to even mouth the words, but nothing in my body functioned. Everything felt so still, so empty and loud and painful all together.
I just wanted everything to end.
He kicked me again, this time on the chest, and I felt the bones cracking as I was tossed over. The breath heaved out of my lungs, and for a moment I thought my heart would stop for beating too quickly.
I lifted a shaky hand, burrowing for any hint of magic. But there was none left.
The hunter gripped my hair, his sharp nails yanking back my head till I could feel them dig into my skull. He made me face him as he sent one punch in my gut after the other, each one tugging into a piece of life with it.
I tried to search for my magic, to dwell down the deepest part –but nothing. I was empty. My fire had burned out, every last flicker.
I could only feel pain and nothing more. But it was strange. No sound came out of me, no cry or scream of the torture taking residence in every nerve. Only a slight whimper, as if I had just broken a nail or scraped an elbow.
Aramis` injury had made him doormat on the ground, unable to do anything but lift his head and watch the man-beast tear the life away from me.
But it was Luxus who sprinted our way, with a look I have never seen before imprinted on his face –one of bravery and farewell.
Everything before me happened too fast, and too slow.
He leapt on the hunter`s shoulder, tiny claws and teeth drawn to scratch and bite whatever he could. The latter was distracted with his small attacker and made a sound that might have been words, but they came out as a deep growl, that mouth of his snarled back to reveal those terrible canines.
There was no way Luxus was doing any damage. He was too small, literally the size of his hand.
My numb body was quickly filling up with something else, something that made my stomach coil and turn cold. My heart was drumming against my chest like it was dying to come out.
No, no, no, no…
The hunter clutched Luxus with both hands, and he almost was swallowed by it. His black form squirmed in his hold, still sinking his teeth wherever he could manage to get them. The man-beast`s eyes were gold slits, and they poured down at Luxus as if he was a mere fly.
I had felt it before I heard it. The soft sound of a snap, like when crushing twigs underneath your feet. But it wasn`t a twig that those massive claws snapped.
Luxus stilled completely, and when the hunter dropped him on the ground, he didn`t move at all.
Not a twitch from his tail, or a slight raise from his chest.
He was dead…broken.
And I was broken too.
It was like a glass shattering into million pieces, that feeling from deep inside me that boiled up to my very core. As if it was coming from the earth, rumbling and raging within me, about to erupt into the sky.
And when it did, the fire had come undone.
The ground beneath us shook with a power that fogged the air, demanding to be seen and heard. And when a scream shot through the skies, overlapping everything around us, the world trembled again.
“What the hell is that!?” Lucius was finished with three hunters when he edged beside me.
My chest squeezed, as if I had swallowed something bitter and felt it go down my throat. Every nerve in my body tingled, urging me to follow the scream and the magnificent, terrible magic that accompanied it.
To say that I had a bad feeling was an understatement.
I didn`t answer Lucius, but went after that strange bond that tugged me along. I felt him follow behind, but did not look back. Instead, I was focused on what awaited ahead of me –what I feared would be there.
We had come to where the attack had initially started, to the place where the dead bodies appeared like a second flooring.
And when my eyes took to the scene, my legs threatened to fall from under me.
A live flame burned, its glow brighter than anything I had ever seen. It resembled the shape of a woman –of Lydia. Her hair had turned into complete flickers of fire, swaying and rocking in the empty space. Her body was molded into that of molten fire, and those flame-colored eyes were two radiant embers.
I could feel my mouth parting, and my heart slowing down.
She had done it…
She had become a full Slifer!
But when seeing what it took, my shock was dulled down.
“No,” Lucius whispered, realizing the same.
Luxus` body was draped across the grass, and he wasn`t moving, nor did he show any sign that he was breathing.
The hunter who had evidently killed him was sprawled on the ground, barely recognizable as anything but a blackened and melted body of flesh and bones.
And Aramis was heaving greatly not too far, clearly injured but his eyes were trained at his mistress.
A trigger…she had said.
Something to finally unleash the fire.
But it had come at a cost –a terrible one.
She didn`t seem to pay any mind to us, but started to prowl back towards the palace. Anywhere she stepped on, fire had spilled from her feet, making a burning trail. She had managed to burn through the protective charms in the garden.
Aramis lumbered towards us. “We need to follow her, make sure she doesn`t burn everyone and everything.”
“I thought you said she wouldn`t be able to do that.”
He shrugged, spitting a lump of blood on the ground. “Maybe. But we can`t take any chances. She`s barely there anymore.”
“Lucius,” I turned to the old wizard, who watched his adoptive daughter and the body of her cat with a sorrowful expression. “I need you to secure the barriers Redmond and Ayana made, make sure she wouldn`t burn through them if she came back here.”
“Who?” he clearly didn`t know who I was talking about.
I was growing a tad impatient. “They`re the water and earth Slifers. You`ll know them when you see them. Now, go!”
“But I can`t leave Lydia—“
“That`s a command,” I gripped his shoulder firmly. “She`s mad at you. I don`t think you want to be in her line of vison right now.”
I wasn`t sure if that applied to me as well.
He seemed to see the reason in that. “I`ll leave her to you then.”
With a last nod at us, he ran back to the other direction.
“Aramis,” I said to the small man, “are you sure you`re going to be alright?”
He was clutching at his stomach, blood all over his face and matted in his hair. I didn`t want Lydia to lose another person she cared about.
I almost did. And the horror of that will always haunt me.
He gave me a lopsided smile, as if even doing that hurt. “Don`t worry about me, Your Majesty. Let`s get her back.”
Aramis and I had followed after her, witnessing the things she did to the hunters who had the balls to move directly at a fire Slifer. She had melted flesh, and the smell of it hung to the air. The shouts and the cries of pure agony were worse –and I did not have it in myself to feel remorse for the people who stole Lis` magic and killed half my people.
I was inclined to let her burn all of them. But seeing that she was burning everything in her way, I wasn`t sure if that rested only on wizard hunters.
“Lydia!” I shouted, though clearly she couldn`t hear me –or chose not to.
I released my shadows, ordering them to block her path, and they flew ahead of us. They circled her, and she lifted her head to notice them. But she didn`t pay any heed, not even when they came right in front of her. She had simply walked through them, as if there were nothing but ordinary curtains.
And when they returned again, she had merely looked at one and all had burst into flames with a shrike.
I couldn`t believe what I was seeing. With every step she took, her powers only grew and grew until the air seemed to suffocate with it. Her magic rippled through my body, like flames expanding and eating everything within their reach.
The hunters were now backing away, trying to escape the fiery death targeting them.
But she didn`t allow one to slither by.
It was as if she was catching gremlins like she did in the garden, hunting them one by one until they all blazed out underneath her touch.
Only the hunters were much larger, and their shrikes was like a new song being played.
The braver ones had taken to attacking her with either their staffs or the magic they had taken, but she would brush them away like she was swapping a fly before their attacks had even reached her.
“No!” a bellow echoed above us, and I angled my head to see Evine standing at the top stairway, watching her men fall down like birds from the sky. She lifted her staff to signal. “Retreat! Everyone, retreat!”
So she had taken the coward`s way.
Lydia`s attention appeared to land on her, and I could see the way her flames convulsed as if in anger. Evine did not fail to notice that, and quickly darted back inside to the palace.
She made to follow her, and I kicked off my speed.
I cannot let her enter the palace. She will burn the whole place down.
My magic riled from within, and my body reformed into mist as I shot towards her. When I landed in front of her flame-enveloped body, I was skin and flesh again.
She abruptly stopped.
“Lydia,” I said, looking into the red and gold shades of her eyes. They appeared blank, like her sole focus was that of moving forward. But they did blink at my interference. “You cannot do this. There are people inside, and you will destroy everything. Leave her.”
If Lydia wasn`t in this state, I would probably go after Evine myself and pin her head to my wall.
She didn`t say anything, didn`t even act like she heard a word I said.
“Lydia…” I whispered her name again, told it to her as if to remind her who she was.
Her only response was that she made to move pass me, but I quickly inserted myself between her and Evine. She didn`t like that, those flames of her rumbling in protest.
“Lydia, listen to me,” I repeated, my voice urgent, pleading. “You need to wake up, or you`ll burn everything and everyone around you!”
Nothing. No reaction.
I damned it all, and reached out for her. When my hands went to rest on each side of her face, I dismissed the blaring pain that stung my flesh. That seemed to earn something from her, for those ethereal eyes widened, and the fire pouring out of her stilled.
“Gods damn it, I will not let you fall to the darkness,” I shook her, gritting out a breath when the pain spread all through me. “I`ve been there too long to allow you to surrender to it!”
The only clear sign that she heard me was a blink, and a slight parting of her mouth. But her fire still raged on, she was still enclosed to it.
But I refused to let her go. Even if I could feel the skin of my hands melting.
“That`s enough now, child,” Aramis appeared at her side, kind jade-colored eyes gazing at her, and slid his fingers between hers. Whether it hurt him like it did me, he didn`t let on. She snapped her head down, her shoulders soothing. “Enough…”
For a long moment, nothing happened, and everything around us was quite.
But her fire was reducing, curling back into her bit by bit. The force of her powerful magic was lessening, as if finally releasing the air. The scorching heat around my hands was starting to feel like a cool breeze, as her skin once again replaced the sparks that were igniting from her every pore seconds earlier.
The beautiful dress Lysa made for her was burnt to a crisp, and she stood bare to her very feet. I slid my cloak from my shoulders, and draped it across her body.
The blank expression on her face had melted just like her fire, and instead her knees fell from under her as she broke into a cry.
I was fast to hold her, but she had turned to Aramis, her face twisted in grief as the tears streamed freely. She tugged on the hem of his sleeves. “Take it back,” she begged, and I stiffened at what she meant.
Sadness clouded Aramis` features, and he could do nothing but stand there and watch her weep.
“Please,” she pleaded, her voice weak and eyes glistened, “take it back. Tell them to take it back. I don`t want it anymore.”
I rubbed her back, trying to sooth her. But her body only shook harder as she kept sobbing into my chest, begging the gods to take back the power inside her and return her friend.
She begged and begged, but no one had answered.