The Half Light

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[4.1] - Books and Herbs

The first thing that Aryial noticed was the smell, the smell of smoke and herbs and ash, of burning wood and dry air.

The second thing she noticed was the noise, the raging of flames and fire and storekeepers, of screaming men and frightened onlookers.

Her mouth was dry as she forced her body, half asleep, out of bed and to the window. Warmth flushed the dark night, the horizon covered in a mist of orange light.

The city burned.

Everywhere, flames bloomed and danced, oblivious to the desperate cries that rose from the crowd already gathered on the street.

Aryial had to squint, her eyes not yet adjusted to the brightness, scanning the damage and making calculations in her head. There were too many fires at once, separated, which meant they couldn’t have spread from one source.

Even through her sleep-ridden thoughts, one thing stood out, one conclusion that made her feel ill.

They weren’t accidents.

The whole city must’ve been awake now because of the noise, ringing in the background as Aryial hastily pulled her clothes on.

Not caring if she looked presentable enough, she ducked out the window and scaled down the walls, her body naturally adjusting to the familiar rhythm of lowering herself and digging her toes between the cracks in the stone.

Climbing out her window wasn’t the most traditional way to leave a house, but was faster than running through the giant estate. It wasn’t as if anyone would pay attention to her through all the commotion anyway.

Aryial let out a string of curses. Her dagger was still in her room! She debated the worth of going back for it but decided to continue on without it.

She headed towards the closest fire, weaving through people on the streets and past the bends on the roads before finally reaching it.

The flames were humongous. They lorded over the building, eating away at everything inside, painfully slowly. No matter how much water the nymphs were heaping into the flaming mass of heat, the fire never wavered.

“Oh blithering, blasting funderhorns!” A figure nearby swore into the flames, gesturing crudely.

“Can I help you, sir?” Aryial asked as she approached, wary of the sharp tool hanging on his belt.

The figure hopped off the crate he was standing on, marching up to Aryial with a rage that only a dwarf could summon. “Help? Help? Fine. If you think you can find a way to save this, then by all means! Help!”

Aryial took a step back at the sight of the furious dwarf, nevertheless, she quickly gathered herself and rushed to help.

Though she couldn’t handle the cold as well as most faeries, she could handle heat. It prickled against her skin as she walked towards the flames, ignoring the cries of the shopkeeper lamenting the destruction of his precious herbs.

Aryial knew that the herbs were most likely already gone, there was nothing anybody could do about that.

She couldn’t shake off the feeling that this was all still planned. But, what could one possibly gain from burning down a herb store?

Aryial walked closer yet again, this time, ignoring warnings from onlookers. The heat still prickled her skin but did not increase. She furrowed her eyebrows in confusion, her fingers fiddling with the frayed edges of her shirt in agitation.

So close. So close. Her mind poked the edges of the truth, waiting for it to reveal itself.

Aryial was now almost entirely hidden from onlookers as she stood between fallen wooden beams and the still-raging fire. The flames almost touched her face, flickering before her like a teasing lover.

The truth snapped. Her mind latched onto the writhing creature. The flames were artificial. They never passed a certain point, always recoiling as if there was a border between them and the outside world.

Aryial hastily looked around, following the border further into the debris, careful to avoid the falling beams.

“What’s making the border? Where is it?” She whispered to herself. In front of her, the building groaned, leaning precariously. Aryial pushed down her frustration.

The constant heat was becoming more than just uncomfortable now as Aryial continued to search.

The flames taunted and danced. Her shirt was damp as she became more frantic. The building creaked.

Above her, an entire section of the building toppled, unable to support itself as it fell towards the ground like a falling angel, charred and broken, the flames disappearing the second it came outside, hurtling straight for Aryial.

She threw herself to the side, manoeuvring herself in the narrow space. Her arm went into the flames and she hissed as she drew it back, holding it to her chest.

A fallen beam caught her foot and she stumbled backwards, curling into a ball to avoid touching the flames again, silently cursing herself for getting into this mess.

Before she could get herself up, more boards fell from above. Aryial threw her hands up, bracing herself and grimacing.

Her ears rang as she lifted her head, eyes tearing up from the ash. The boards had caught onto some debris on either side of her, stopping inches above her face, entrapping her.

Aryial rolled onto her front, wincing as the dirt and ash rubbed against the burn on her arm. She pushed herself upright, trying to dislodge the debris above her but to no avail.

The floor felt cool as she lowered herself back down, laying on the dirt with her hands cupping her mouth to avoid inhaling ash and dust. Her eyes burned.

Amongst the bright light of the fire, a line of white chalk caught her eye as she squinted in front of her. It stretched across the building and what seemed like further around as Aryial craned her neck to see.

She stilled. Her hand reached for her dagger, only to find it absent. Once again, she cursed her stupidity, she’d just have to use her hand.

Aryial dragged herself forward. The flames taunted her as she reached out, preparing for the burn of the fire and desperately hoping it would work.

She tried her best to ignore the flames that flickered over her knuckles, focusing her attention into scrubbing away the chalk mark. The burning of her hand was almost unbearable as she scratched at the floor, talking to herself at an attempt to distract from the pain.

All at once, the fire snuffed out. All of it. The entire building was clear, and fresh air washed over Aryial, making her burns feel like they were still on fire.

She crawled out of the small space, shoving away the still-hot bits of charred wood and hold her hand to her chest, gritting her teeth from the pain.

The building had not been saved, all of it was black and charred and burnt. Aryial only had time to let out one final curse before she passed out.

“At least I didn’t die.”

“Well done. Do you want a gold star?”

Aryial frowned. Ivan couldn’t lie, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be sarcastic.

“What did you expect me to do, sit around and watch?” Aryial asked.

Ivan looked up from the vials and ointments scattered on the table. “Yes, that’s exactly what I would’ve wanted you to do.” He dabbed some cream over her hand and gave her a scathing look.

Aryial tried not to wince, forcing her hand to stay still. The whole room smelt of herbal medicine, and it took all her willpower not to gag.

“So careful with your wording,” she muttered.

Ivan pinned her down with another glare. “Of course you did what I expected you to do, it’s not like I was surprised. But it’s as if you wanted Death’s head on a mop stick!”

Regardless of his harsh tone and annoyance that Aryial could feel seeping from him, Ivan was still careful and gentle as he bandaged her burns.

Aryial leant forward. “There was something weird though, that white line around the building that I told you about.”

It was obvious that the conspiracy wasn’t what was a priority in Ivan’s mind. A toll ago, she had stumbled in blabbering about white lines and setups, trying to drag Ivan out to investigate.

He didn’t listen to a word as he forced her to sit down and incredulously pointed out that she was injured. Aryial cringed at the memory of the rage on his features.

He had calmed down now—sort of.

Aryial poked Ivan with her uninjured arm. “I’m serious! The fire was planned, and that’s terrifying!”

Ivan muttered something bitterly under his breath.

“What?” Aryial asked.

Ivan shook his head. “Nothing, just that the fire you saw wasn’t the only one.”

Aryial rolled her eyes as if to show that he was simply stating the obvious.

Ivan made to playfully slap her arm but decided to poke her instead. “I was busy until you came in here with all this mess.” He turned to put the ointments and vials away.

“Then go, oh Mighty One,” Aryial said. “But be back for dinner, at least.”

Ivan gave her a smile that reminded her of a fox. “Of course, m’ lady.” He stood up and dusted the healing powder from his hands before reaching over to ruffle Aryial’s hair.

“Okay, okay, bye!” Aryial said as she shoved him towards the door. Ivan laughed and left, the wooden door swinging open to show a man waiting outside, though it wasn’t even dawn yet.

The two exchanged greetings, the man snuck a look at Aryial, and she gave a polite nod in return. She found that it wasn’t uncommon here for individuals to wonder why the lordling had such a mundane by his side. Not that she particularly cared anymore.

Tentatively, as if worried that the gauze would fall off, Aryial examined her injuries, turning her arm over and gently prodding it before she was satisfied.

“Time to catch up on some sleep,” she muttered, standing to leave. The hallway was empty as she made her way to her own quarters. The duvet was sprawled messily upon the bed and the window was still open.

Ignoring the smell of smoke on her clothes, Aryial flopped onto the bed, thoroughly preparing to sleep.

If only her brain would shut up.

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