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For All Those Who Have Fallen
Fire spun around her, faster and faster, filling her world with flames at a dizzying speed as it felt as though her soul was being wrenched from her body. There wasn’t a part of her that didn’t ache, but she couldn’t stop, not for a moment. Not if she wanted to live. She was exhausted, swaying where she stood, her arms outstretched to channel her magic, but every crevice of her had been poured full of tension. At the edge of her ring of fire, shadows beckoned.
The dark figures seemed nothing more than outlines, their features hazy and obscured, but she knew if she drew closer, she’d be able to make out their wicked talons, gleaming teeth and the deep, dark pits where their eyes should have been. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been fighting them, it could have been hours or days. The only thing stopping her from being devoured was the flimsy barrier of flame she’d built around herself. Every time the figures drew close enough to touch it, they hissed, their bodies fading into smoke and snatches of shadow in the light.
Already, though, there were flickering embers where she’d once held a wildfire when the figures first attacked. She could not stop, could not rest, not when letting the wall of flames finally collapse would spell instant death. Without the fire, she’d be left in the darkness that followed the figures wherever they went, nothing to defend herself with as they consumed her. And yet, each moment she kept the fire burning, she felt emptier and emptier, as though the fire had run out of fuel and begun to consume her very lifeforce to maintain itself. Outside the fiery ring, where the light only barely graced the first line of the shadowy figures, she could hear cackling as the figures watched her struggle, watched the sweat of her exertion glisten on her brow and slide down her back like ice.
Then, there was movement among them, a path appearing in front of her. Some deep-rooted instinct, far beyond conscious thought, screamed for her to run as far and as fast as she could, as a figure, darker than the rest, steadily approached her. It stalked silently towards the ring of fire, an elegant grace to its movements, moving with the fluidity of a panther. As the figure approached, she gulped, her mouth dry. Soon, it was close, closer than the other figures, close enough for the firelight to reflect off its glistening wet skin, scaled and smoky like nothing she’d ever seen.
“Raice,” the figure said, her voice rich and smooth. The human-like nature of the voice was far more terrifying than any monstrous sound could have been.
At the sound of her name, Raice stilled, her meticulous upkeeping of the fire momentarily forgotten until the wall sputtered and she returned her attention to it.
The figured laughed, low and melodious. She dipped a scythe-like talon into the flame, then drew back, suppressing a hiss as it began to dissolve into smoke. “How quaint.”
Raice was swaying from the effort of maintaining the fire.
“Little girl,” the figure crooned, baring her onyx fangs in a grin as the deep pits of her eyes bored into Raice. “Playing at being a hero. You think you can beat me?” The figure laughed, as though the very thought was amusing. “I am the queen of shadows, conqueror of a thousand worlds. And you? You are pathetic. Princess of nothing, daughter of no one. You are as desolate as the desert, as weak as the wren, as lonely as the loon. You are nothing but a pathetic child, playing with forces she cannot understand.”
At some point, Raice had sunken to her knees. Around her, the flames barely glowed, and the sword on her back seemed to be dragging her to the ground. Still, as the leering, shadowy figures crowded closer and closer around her, she kept her fire burning. The magic seemed to drain her very essence, and each beat of Raice’s heart felt slower than the last.
“Stupid, stupid child,” the shadowy queen shook her head, her voice heavy with dark humor. “Why do you keep fighting? You are alone, your people have left you. Your world is dead, your kingdom destroyed.” As the queen leaned towards the flames, peering down at Raice, the firelight glinted off her long, curving horns, sharp as knives. “There is nothing left for you, child.”
“No,” Raice gasped out, shaking her head weakly. Each breath was more difficult than the last.
“Yes,” the queen’s leering grin was close enough that Raice could make out the blood still lingering on her fangs. “My dear child,” the queen spun a talon, as though tracing Raice’s cheek, “You struggle so. Look at where you are. Dying alone on the ground, slowly, painfully, and for what? Would it not be easier to let me end you? It would be quick. Merciful.”
Raice shook her head from where she lay curled on the ground. She fought for the very air in her lungs, her flames mere embers in the dirt. Still, she forced the words out, “No. Can’t you see? The embers still grow, the spark still remains, and the fire will grow. I am not alone. My people? They are out there fighting. They are with me, in everything I do. When I die, they will remember me, and they will carry me on. But you? You are nothing. Empires fall every day, but my people do not. They will survive, they will rebuild, and you will be nothing. Dead and forgotten.”
The queen snarled, but Raice paid her no heed. She pressed a hand to her heart, burning away from her magic, and prayed to her gods one last time. She prayed for her brother, for her kingdom and for her world. She pulled in her last breath, then exhaled. With that last breath of air escaping her lungs, Raice gave herself over to her magic and she melted into flame. She dissolved in a flash, her flesh vaporized, her bones melted to glass as the energy of her lifeforce burned like fire through the ranks of shadowy figures. Thousands upon thousands of them melted into puddles of ink, until Raice’s bones were gleaming on a small island in the center of a lake of ink. The shockwave of her magic pulsed like a heart, travelling further and further across the continent and across the seas, until every last one of the monstrous beings was destroyed.
When the fiery pulse finally dissipated, all that remained was a glittering glass skeleton, shining like a jewel in the center of the lake of ink. Without the shadowy figures to absorb it, light began to creep back into the city, and with it came people. They crawled out of sewers and houses, bloody and pale and covered in ink, gleaming weapons at the ready. Bodies lay scattered in the streets, most of them mutilated beyond recognition. The remains of the beautiful city were a sight to behold, the cobblestone streets upturned and covered in ink, the buildings torn to pieces and entire districts of the city destroyed beyond repair. People stood on the steps of their homes, on terraces from apartments, on the walls of the castle. People climbed on rooftops and street stalls and anything they could find. They gazed into the darkness of the ink flooding the city, surprised to find that it wasn’t gazing back.
“Raice?” a young voice called. It echoed through the broken, deathly quiet streets of the city, no one to answer his call.
“Raice?” the boy called again, timider this time, the sound heavy with the truth he already knew. A fog of mourning settled over the city.
The boy was two or three years younger than Raice, and the shock of dark hair crawling over his head was a sharp contrast to her fiery golden mane, but they had the same strong build, the same regal features, the same fiery blue eyes. His armor was torn and broken around him, and somewhere he’d lost his sword, leaving him with the hunting knives he clasped in each hand. He walked through the streets with his head bowed, wading to the center of the lake of ink.
He squinted when he saw the bones, his eyes burning from the unfamiliarity of the sunlight.
A girl approached him, “Rihl…”
Rihl motioned for her to stay back as he approached the bones. He stared at them, then grabbed the sword lying beside them. His sister’s sword.
“My sister…,” his voice was hollow, “She’s really…”
The silence of the city answered him.
He knelt on the small circle of cobble she’d protected with her flames, bowed his head towards the strange glass remains. His voice was hoarse when he spoke, “Raice. Thank you. I will not forget you. We will not forget you.”
Rihl stood, turning his back on his sister and sheathing her sword in his scabbard. He faced the ruined city and the broken castle and the mess that had been left behind. He would rebuild their kingdom. He would claim his sister’s throne. And, most importantly, he would not forget her. Rihl stepped towards his city, stepped towards his people and for a moment, just a single glorious, delusional moment, he thought he heard his sister’s whispered thanks, carried on the wind.