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Time had not appeared to have changed Nikolas Marlian's daughter. She should have been almost sixteen now, but she still had the face of a child. Light flimsy hair fell over wide eyes and chubby cheeks. She could almost be the same girl that Marlian had lost three years ago. Almost.
She wore soft-treading boots and a light garb. A sword was strapped to her back, a knife belted to her hip. An assassin, Marlian thought. Although if she had meant to kill him, she would already be dead.
“Well isn't this a pleasant surprise.” He smiled broadly. “You should have told me you were coming. You know how I feel about unexpected visitors.”
“The door was unlocked.” She spoke with a definite courage that Marlian admired, though her reliance on mortal weaponry was a slight disappointment. “I expected you to have better protection.”
Her eyes passed over Marlian's treasure throve. The space was vast but cluttered with royal artifacts. The furniture was hand-carved from Ingistian oak, vibrant white and gold cushions spun from spider silk. Larger than life portraits painted by famous artists that Marlian had never heard of covered the walls. Just this one room was worth a dragon's weight in gold. His entire estate was worth a large village.
“My door is always open to you, Kyra,” he said.“I always knew you would come home.” He had hoped, in any case. He pushed away the years of anger and worry. He would not risk driving her away a second time.
Kyra blinked, confused by his clemency. Then her eyes narrowed. “This isn't a touching reunion.” She pushed back the sleeve of her right arm, exposing a mess of jagged scars extending as far as her elbow. Up close, the marks were almost beautiful. Less like angry scratches and more like delicate tendrils, spiraling around her fingertips and rising up her arm.
Marlian grinned, sudden pride and relief rushing over him. “You really have grown up, child. I was always afraid your jia would never develop.” Without thinking, he stepped forward, reaching for her wrist.
She stepped back. Her fingers gripped the hilt of her knife.
His smile faltered. “Do you honestly think I would hurt my own daughter?”
She did not relax her grip. “I've seen what you can do to people who make you angry.”
“I have always had your best interests at heart.”
She glared at him, disbelievingly. Then her eyes drifted to a dark smudge on the floor. “Tell that to the scorch mark.”
Her words hit harder than Marlian had expected. For a moment, he could almost hear the dying screams that had scarred his little girl. He remembered her pale, terrified face. His heart twinged with invalid guilt. Sacrifices were tragic, yes, but necessary. He always put his daughter's safety first. But she had been too young, too frightened to understand this. She had fled the protection of her home, less afraid of the unknown than her own father.
“I know what this is.” Kyra's voice brought him back to the present. After a moment's confusion, Marlian realized she was referring to her blessing. “And I want you to take it back.”
His heart sank, years of unspoken fear confirmed. Her time away from home exposed her to the minds of the weak. “Listen to me, Kyra. You don't understand the significance of your power because you have never known the limits of human ability. Your strength alone surpasses that of any man. But it is not enough. You must accept the blessing if you are to survive the—”
“I said I don't want your damn curse!”
“I cannot protect you forever Kyra!” Fire ignited in Marlian's eyes. Why couldn't she just listen to him? “A war is coming. The entire world will be its battlefield. The dark master will rise and engulf the earth in flames. The weak will burn to ashes. Is that what you . . .”
Kyra's knife was drawn. Marlian realized he'd been yelling. He closed his eyes. It was hopeless. She didn't understand the severity of what was to come. She would not be able to save herself.
He had no choice. “I'm sorry about this, Kyra.”
She raised her knife. “What are you—”
Flame erupted from the walls around them, igniting the silk couches, oil tapestries, feasting on an endless supply of fuel.
“What are you doing!” In the thrashing shadows, she looked like a helpless animal. It almost broke Marlian's heart.
“Parenting,” he said, before firing two blinding pillars of flame from his palms.
Kyra dived across the floor, agilely weaving through the maze of pointless treasure. She jumped lightly to her feet inches from the wall of flame. Her sword and knife were drawn, but what use would they serve her now?
“Interesting, isn't it?” Marlian yelled over the raging blaze. “Power over fire without immunity to its pain? Seems unfair. But of course, such power must be earned.”
Whoosh! A glint of silver sliced through the air with deadly speed, but Marlian was ready. The knife passed over his head, into the starving flames behind him. “Mortal weapons won't save you, Kyra. It's time to make a choice.” He raised his arms, commanding his hellfire to rise higher, faster, hotter. “Will you save your soul or your life?”
There was nowhere to run. The walls crumbled in the inferno. The ceiling shook, ready to collapse. The scorching barriers slowly closed in around Kyra, forcing her closer to her father. Smoke stung her eyes and seared her throat. She couldn't see, couldn't breathe. But in a play of foolish determination, she leaped at her father.
Even in her severe condition, Kyra moved with surprising speed, but she didn't stand a chance against Marlian. He caught her like a ragdoll and tossed her limp body to the floor.
“I expected more of a fight from you.” He sighed, towering over his frightened child. The pitiful remains of his heart were breaking. “I'm sorry, Kyra.”
And in that moment, Kyra Marlian knew one thing with absolute certainty: she did not want to die.
“Hon? masut?!” The words came to her in blind desperation. Their raw power coursed through her body—wave after wave of unbridled energy in her possession. She did not control fire—she was fire. The mass of destruction around her responded to the slightest twitch—the slightest thought.
Her arms glowed angrily—a fusion of blinding white, blue, red and gold. The spindle-like spirals weaved fervently around her arms, her torso, curling her waist and down to her toes. She didn't notice herself rise to her feet. She didn't feel the flames brushing her fingertips. She didn't see the wildly gleeful expression on Marlian's face. She raised her arms and willed the inferno to swallow her father.
Marlian's skin was screaming, his bones trembling and splintering like sticks in a bonfire. With every passing second, his power—his immunity to flame—drained from his body, replaced by waves of intense agnoy.
He suffered gladly. His essence would fuel his daughter's power. In the coming battle, his sacrifice would ensure her survival.