Chapter XXVI: Unexpected Visitors

“Are you sure you don’t want to go back?” Vaan asked a few days later as he watched Lucy carefully stretch out.  A month earlier she could barely reach her toes.  Now, her body easily folded over itself as her fingers effortlessly skimmed the ground.

Lucy looked up at him and smirked.  “I’m certain.”

For what Vaan didn’t realize was that while Lucy slept last night, a visitor slipped into her dreams.

 

From what she could remember, she was wandering down a path of leaves and sooty snow.  She knew there was a destination but she couldn’t remember why or where.  All she could recall was that she was going towards it, when a small flame floated like a leaf in the wind, landing softly before her.

“You are troubled, my Lady,” a voice called from the wind.  “You still do not understand.”

Lucy recognized the voice as she tried the look to find the source.  But her head turned like molasses.  Could it be the voice from earlier? The voice that had whispered on the wind, unlocking the power beneath her fingertips?  No, this was different, it held a deeper melodic edge, like viola rumbling low.  When she finally arrived, her eyes widened at the sight of a brilliant phoenix, preening itself in a low-hanging branch of an invisible tree.

“You. . .you are from before,” she pointed out.

“I am, who I am,” the phoenix nodded.  “That does not change why I am here, my blood.”

“Why are you here?” she asked.  Lucy knew she should be afraid.  That would be rational.  And yet, she felt nothing of the sort.  In fact, she felt at peace – protected.

The fire around the phoenix was turning over itself, transforming from a brilliant red to an ivory white.  After a moment it would turn back again, like waves along the shore.

“I am here for you,” the bird remarked. “We are worried about you, and I am one of the few that is able to find the window in your soul.”

“You look different,” Lucy told her, careful not to ruffle any feathers.

The large creature only laughed, her voice jingling off the walls and spaces that didn’t exist. “Of course, my dear.  There is no need for us to be warriors, tonight.  Just simply in ourselves, in our natural form.  But enough about me,” she flew down landing her blush red claws down onto the earth.  “Let us talk about you.”

“What part?  The fact that I am a failure as a Top Hat?” she scoffed, looking at her useless hands.

“Rather, you are a powerful Lady of Dawn.  Honestly, why do you get down on yourself so quickly and so hardly?  It is a bit ridiculous.  And rather childish.”

Lucy sighed.  “I’m sorry, but I’m not powerful.  Not to what you think,” she looked up to find the lovely creature studying her.

“Hold out your hands,” she told her.

Lucy gave the bird a puzzled look. “Why?” she asked, doing as she was told.

“Show me what you have learned,” the phoenix commanded.  “No more questions.  Just do it.”

Lucy sighed and in reluctance closed her eyes.  She was still new at turning the power on and off.  Gradually, a pulse drew from inside her and a warmth gathered in her hands.  Fire danced around her fingertips and circled her wrists as her eyes opened.

“Do you see, now?” the phoenix nodded at her hands.

“No,” Lucy admitted.

That is your weapon,” she pressed. “That fire is your sword, your shield, your arrows, your lance.”

“But. . .I don’t understand,” she turned her hands over and over, the flames rippling between the flips like ribbons in water.

“Have you ever seen a Top Hat use fire like that?”

“Not exactly-”

“Precisely.  There is an order.  A balance.  And you are a Lady – not just any but the Lady of Dawn.  You were given a gift.  No weapon can match it – can be its companion.”

Lucy’s eyes widened.  “I’m not meant to have a weapon.  I am. . .”

“There we go,” the phoenix smiled cleverly.  “I knew you just needed a gentle push in the right direction.”

 

“Lucy?” Vaan called her from the memory of last night. “What’s on your mind?”

Lucy flipped up to look at her teacher.

 

“Wait, if all Top Hats have a weapon of sorts, why does Vaan use his magic most of the time?”she asked the phoenix.

“Vaan is different.”

 

“Nothing,” she smiled at him. “What are we working on today?”

 

“What do you mean?”

“One day . . .you will know, and you will understand.”

 

Vaan raised an eyebrow. “You are acting odd.”

Lucy rolled her eyes and stretched her hands above her. “Well, that’s nothing new.”

“Why don’t we work on your fire-play again.  This time, I want you to hold your arms behind you.  Summon it without using your fingers.”

Lucy furrowed her eyebrows, putting her hands on her waist.  She had seen other Top Hats summon fire without their hands, but she had no clue how they managed it.

“You’ve been working on summoning your fire for several days.  Now it’s time to learn to control it.  Come here,” he beckoned her forward.

Lucy crossed the large training arena, her hands brushing off the soot on her blouse and trousers from yesterday’s practice.  Vaan meanwhile produced a thick rope and began to prepare the bindings.

“Hands behind your back,” he motioned for her to turn.

Lucy groaned.  “I feel like I’ve been arrested.”

“Relax,” he said as he tightened one knot against the other.  Just as he finished, the double doors flew open.

“James, what are you doing here?” Vaan asked curiously as the Top Hat strode into the room.

“Zachariah has returned from Ireland. Winston has called an emergency meeting,” he said, his usually calm demeanor was gone.

Vaan’s glasses flashed in warning. “What is it?”

James’s grey eyes looked to the girl who watched the men in wary curiosity. He remained silent but gave Vaan a serious look.

Without so much as another word, Vaan pressed a hand to the ground and a circle of fire, white as snow appeared flicking as it grew.

“Are you serious?!” Lucy hissed, heart racing.

“This a matter of urgency,” he told her quickly, his tone leaving no room for debate.

“I know what that circle is.  You are leaving me to fight with a dragon!”

“Exactly,” he motioned to James and the two briskly left the arena, leaving Lucy trapped as the wires snapped and turned.  From the circle emerged a familiar dragon decorated in gold, eyes brazing and wings thrown open.

“Good morn, Milady,” it twisted its head in a sort of bow, his scales playing against the light.

Lucy awkward motioned back with something crossed between a bow and a curtsey.  It was far from graceful.

The dragon, with his crown of horns, flexed his wings as each step he took shook the room. “Let us fight!”

“Woah! Wait! Wait! I don’t even know how-” she didn’t get a chance to finish as a roar of fire came tumbling after her.

Lucy rolled out of the way as the hairs on her back practically singed themselves. “Are you mad?!  I don’t even know what I’m doing!” she yelled.

“Good!” Gwain grinned. “That is the best way to learn.”

And with that the dragon flapped its mighty wings, sending a gust of wind barreling into the struggling apprentice, toppling Lucy over like straw in a tornado.

Lucy did her best to fight against the storm but to little avail.

“Come, Mi’Lady!  Surely, you can do better than this!  It’s in your blood,” roared the humored dragon.

“I’m sorry, but I’m a bit tied up!” she yelled back as the wind began to howl.

Finally, Lucy managed to tumble herself backward and out of the wild winds.

Gwaine laughed loudly, before launching himself and the struggling apprentice.  His wings began to swipe at the girl, who could do little but run away. “Do not take the coward’s way out.  Tis not a way to live.”

Lucy shrieked as fire was tossed over her head as if it were nothing but a simple snowball.

She found herself skidding to a stop as the flames burst, forming an impossibly high wall of heated pain.

“You cannot live in fear,” Gwaine told her as his fire spread into a perfect circle around them.  “You cannot fear your flame.”

“I don’t fear mine,” she told him as she dodged another assault from him. “I fear yours.”

The great dragon shook the room with his laughter, “Oh, Mi’Lady, you have nothing to fear when it comes to fire.  At least now that you’ve sparked your own.  You just need to learn how to use it.”

“That doesn’t even make sense!” she cried as she felt one of Gwaine’s fireballs miss her by inches.  She could practically feel the tips of her hair curl even tighter to shy from the attack.  How on earth was his fire not going to hurt her?!

“Light the flame,” Gwaine commanded. “It is your only way.”

Lucy concentrated and focused on the place where her fire had first begun.  A heat flowed from her core, tickling its way up to her hands.

“There it is,” Gwaine nodded as red and copper flickered to life around her wrists.  “Now, move it,” he grinned before opening his wings wide as his chest began to glow white hot.

“What does that even mean?!” she yelled back.

“Best to figure it out.  And fast,” the dragon grinned as colour shot up his throat. The fire burst forth with a loud cracking as his wings encouraged the molten fright to spread across the floor.  Bit by bit, the ground around Lucy was vanishing into thick flames and liquid lava.  How the room – even the Clock Tower wasn’t burning to the ground, baffled the young girl.  But, she didn’t have time to worry about anything of that sort right now.

“I don’t know how!” she cried as it all grew closer and closer.

“Yes you do!” Gwaine shouted back at the stubborn girl. “You are putting far too much thought into it.  Breathe, Lucy.  Stop filling your head with nonsense and concentrate on your own fire.”

Lucy realized she was holding on tightly to her last breathe, her muscles clenched in anxiety.  Finally, she let it go slowly and let her heart settle into a stable beat.

“There you are,” the dragon grinned.  “Now, release it.”

Lucy’s chest warmed as she let go of the chaos around her.  She felt the fire at her wrists flow down like waves along a beach until the rested in the soles of her feet, flickering new bands of colour around her ankles.  When she opened her eyes, she was standing upon the dragon’s flames but felt nothing as her own fire circled her toes and looped ribbons up her calves like ballet shoes.  Lucy grinned in delight. “I’m doing it Gwaine! I’m doing it!”

“Excellent, Mi’Lady.  Now, lesson two,” the dragon grinned before letting out a earthshaking roar and fire from all about her leapt up to attack her.

Lucy jumped back, kicking away part of the assault as flames of blue clashed against her red.  She focused on the power at her feet and stretched the fire up her body as if it were nothing more than a tight muscle in need of little extra warm up.  Finally she had them wrapped at her waist.

“There we are! Now I have a real challenge on my hands,” he said.

Lucy could feel her energy shaking as she fought to keep her power together as her strength gradually began to drain away.

“I don’t know how long I can keep this up,” she told Gwaine honestly as she tried to work at the bonds.  Whatever Vaan had sealed it with was no ordinary magic.

“Let us test it,” the dragon’s eyes flickered in excitement as he ran at the girl.

For his extraordinary size, Gwaine was incredibly fast.  His wings expanded to their full width as he launched another set of fireballs within inches of the girl.  Luckily, Lucy was ready this time, managing to throw the flames at her hips up as a shield before rolling back and away. Adrenaline rushed as she yanked harder against the ropes but still found no give.  If this was to be a duel without her arms, so be it.  She would just need to adapt.  And quickly.

Her eyes found the dragon’s tail and she round kicked her leg out, sending a wave of copper flames crashing towards him.  “That’s new,” she gapped.

Gwaine swung his tail up to avoid the attack before slamming it down, making the room shake once more.  Not only had they set the room on fire but somehow they had also remained on the same floor without crashing through any others.   All she could care about now was keeping her balance in check.

From the heated floor now spun spirals of flaming tunnels, moving like snakes in the wind.  As each prepared to strike, Lucy defended using her power as quickly as she could. Licks of flames stung the girl, but Lucy managered to fight of most of the spinning fire.  As she moved, she could feel her control grew growing, she no longer hand to concentrate and decided to kick against the pillars of swerving flames.  If she was going to fight, she refused to back down.  Sweat and soot dirtied her face but still she kept going until she felt the beating of her heart slowly fall into step with another drumming coming from beyond her body.

“There it is,” Gwaine’s eyes glittered in joy.  “You have it, Mi’Lady.”

Lucy felt her fire grow stronger as it curled about her bonds, eating away at the restraining magic.  As she broke the final seal, her arms whipped around and the door opened abruptly.  Her heart lost the rhythm from inside her and returned to its own drum beat.

“Thank you, Gwaine,” Vaan called out to the flaming arena.  “I can take it from here.”

Gwaine grinned to the Top Hat before bowing.  As his head lowered, the flames did as well until they had turned to ash.  “Goodnight, Mi’Lord.”

The dragon wrapped his long tail about him, closing his eyes.  The same green flames and black scales shivered to life around the creature, becoming a shell. The Clock Tower bell from above tolled once and the scales shattered to the ground becoming cinders – Gwaine vanished.

Lucy took a deep breath as her own fire dwindled and diminished.

“Excellent, you’ve done well,” Vaan commented, wiping bits of ash that were streaked across her forehead.

“I don’t understand how we didn’t burn the whole Clock Tower down,” Lucy admitted.

“You will,” he said. “But not today.  We have more important matters.”

“What’s that?” she asked, continuing to breathe in as much air as she could.

“We have a mission to prepare for.”

Lucy stopped panting and looked to her teacher. “Did you say. . . what I think you just said?”

“A mission,” he repeated.  “We still have more preparations to make but we will need to go double speed.  I need you to clean yourself up, study, and prepare yourself for the ceremony this evening. Seven o’ clock, sharp.”

“Prepare myself?”

“You thought you’d never get coursework?” Vaan chuckled.   “You have an entire library to read.  James will be very helpful.”

“I mean for the ceremony,” she pointed out.

“Ah,” Vaan nodded as Lucy made out a grin from within his scarf.  “You will be official take on the responsibilities of a Top Hat.”

“So. . .what does that entail exactly?”

Vaan pressed a finger to her heart. “This will not be the only thing beating after tonight.”

Lucy’s jaw fell as her eyes dilated. “D-do you mean I’ll have another heart?!  Inside of me?!”

“Well, not exactly a human heart, not the muscle anyways.”

“Then what?”

The glare released from his glasses as his yellow eyes flashed.  Vaan leaned forward quickly within inches of her as his lips whispered against Lucy’s ear. “My soul.”

Her breath left her completely as Vaan flicked back up and walked away as if nothing more had occur than a simple conversation between teacher and student.  But Lucy’s head was only just starting to spin and spark.

©2017 E. M. Vick

Chapter XXV: A Struggle of Weapons

“Why do you look like you just jumped from a moving horse. . .and liked it so much you plan to do it again?” Boy asked after the prayer had ended.

“I stood upside down for the entirety of my morning lesson and I still don’t have sensation in half of my foot,” she told him matter-of-factly, grabbing another slice of ham.

“Wait a second,” Brandon narrowed his eyes.  “I recognize that look anywhere.”

Marley grinned. “You are going to go see Kivan today, aren’t you?”

Lucy couldn’t keep her smile to herself much longer and began to beam in excitement.

“I knew it! I knew it!  It is the exact same look Sebastian had on his face when Lewis took him.”

“I didn’t look exactly like that,” Sebastian pouted.

“Well it’s pretty exciting isn’t it?” Lucy said, ignoring her brother. “You guys sit here and talk about your weapons loads of the time.  I can finally relate!  I absolutely can’t wait.  This is a big deal, right?  I remember being told stories in the bakery about the weapons people would see on the street.  I think someone even told me one of the Top Hats carries a lantern.”

“That would be Thornton,” Brandon said, waving his fork as he spoke.

“So then what do you all have,” Lucy asked the group.

“I have a scythe,” Marley shrugged indifferently, as if having a long stick with a curved blade was the most natural thing in the world.

“Why does that not surprise me?”Lucy said, giving him a look before laughing.

“I’m sword wielding, as to be expected,” Sebastian admitted.

His sister nodded in agreement.  Even when they were young and being taught by their brother, Sebastian had an unnatural talent with a blade.

Brandon scoffed into his drink. “That’s an understatement.”

“What do you mean?” Lucy asked, a puzzled look on her face.

“It’s huge! At least the half of the height of you.  It’s a wonder Kivan even let it go, to be honest.  Sort of an antique,” Boy pointed out.  “But then again, it’s not up to him.”

“It’s up to the weapon,” they all chimed in, imitating the Scots man.

“I got lucky.  I have the same weapon as Thornton.  Makes training way easier for me than these blokes,” Brandon thumbed around the table at his friends.

“Why do people talk about the lantern so much? I’ve heard rumors that it has a great power, but what does it actually do?” Lucy questioned.

“It may not look like it can do much in battle, but you’ll need to see it in action some time.  May the next Duel Games.  I believe it should be a weapons battle.  Either way, that thing has quite a nasty bite to it when used right,” Boy explained. “There is a very good reason why people associate Top Hat’s with that lantern.”

Lucy eyed Brandon. “So the Duel Games change?  Does that mean I might get to see it next time around?”

Brandon grinned. “You do more than see it.  If I’m in the games, you’ll get to see it in action.  Absolutely brilliant.”

“We shall need to see about that!  If I’m in the duel, better watch out for whatever I bring to the table,” she turned eagerly to Boy. “What about you?”

Boy couldn’t help but blush bashfully, “I have a sword as well,” he tried to brush off.

“Oh come now,” Sebastian said. “Now don’t be modest.  He has a sword from one of the warriors of old.”

“Really? Another antique?”

“It’s not that amazing.  It’s just from the East,” Boy replied.

“The realm of mystery!” Marley waved his hands through the air.

Boy rolled his eyes. “He likes to tease.  It’s an old sword Kivan inherited from his Master.”

Lucy’s eyes widened further.  She never thought about where the Top Hats had come from – that they too were once apprentices with masters.  Even more shocking was the fact that these teachers could come from across the sea.

“Do you mean. . .your Master had a teacher from the East?  A completely different country entirely?”

Boy nodded nonchalantly as he began to push his dishes together to make it easier for the lunch crew to pick up.  “I mean, there are plenty of demons in the world, so there are hundreds of Tops Hats scattered about.  I think we even have a few taking care of the colonies.  Anyways, according to Kivan, his teacher felt drawn to this place, as if he was meant to be here.  Still, he only tells me bits and pieces about the man from the East.  But he seemed to have an impossible focus and perfect strike.  Unfortunately, it’s also one of the reasons Kivan holds me to such high standards.”

The bells of the Clock Tower rang out as the lunch hour came to an end.

“I’ll see you lot at dinner,” Boy waved. “Got a load of coursework from the teacher, himself.”

The rest left in a similar fashion as Lucy held back and waited for Vaan, just as she had been instructed.  Sure enough, as the hall began to close for the hour, Vaan arrived with Kivan at his side.

“Hullo again,” the Scots man smiled though his sharp eyes began to grasp her every advantage and weakness. “Not much of a poker player, is she?”

“She’s learning,” Vaan admitted. “Give her some time.”

“No, she is one you can always read.  A blessing and a curse if you ask me.”

Lucy blushed in embarrassment before muttering, “Hullo sir.” She bowed stiffly, not quite certain if his comment was a compliment or an insult.

“Shall we?” he said, looking to her teacher.

Lucy took the moment his gaze left her to take in the intriguing man before her.

Kivan had a humor to him but his movements composed and committed with complete and utter care.  There was no hesitation, only powerful certainty.  Every feature, from the clean cut of his beard to the fall of his coat tails was a display of his precision to detail.  Before she could further inspect the built man, his gripping gray eyes returned.

“Are you ready, lass?” he asked, a doubtful eyebrow raised.

“Yes, sir,” she nodded.

Down the hall and around looping corridors they went.  Part of the way, Lucy recognized the familiar arenas and study halls.  Other rooms were quite eerie and strangers to her as though they were simply a bounty of false rooms and trap doors.  By the end of it all, Lucy didn’t know which way was up.  For all she knew, they could be heading towards the roof or deep into the recesses of the basement.  She was properly lost.

“Where are we?” she whispered to Vaan.

“In a part of the Clock Tower that need not bother yeh,” Kivan cut off.

That quickly shut the apprentice up.   She felt the familiar burn of red against her cheeks.  Nothing would get by this Top Hat.

Finally, they arrived at a set of double bolted entries, the only ones in this long dead-end tunnel.  At some point in the journey the wooden walls had become brick once more – just as they had in the basement during Lucy’s first daring adventure.  At least now, she was not quite so lost in the sea of hallways.

Kivan pushed the doors back with ease and a mechanism that had been holding them shut, cranked open.  That is, until Lucy passed through them.  At that point, they promptly shut behind her.

“Woah,” Lucy barely mustered the words, her heart beating wildly as her breath caught in her throat.

My darlings, could you imagine it?  A room open and echoing with the sounds of their footfalls.  But walls, oh the walls!  All were lined with weapons of all sorts in various designs and details.  Long swords, short swords, bows and arrows, axes, lances, boes, and so much more.  Along the floor space were scatterings of various glass shelves and displays with daggers, knives, a few crossbows, and all sorts of stealthy weapons.

Lucy’s eyes darted first to the swords, taking in the care each blade had received.  Eacg appeared quite sharpen, even the ones of old.  And the bows!  Each must have been restrung hundreds of times and yet they each looked worthy of battle.  Even the daggers whispered their deadly aura that made her skin prickle.  But that was one she noticed, they were lacking a particular weapon many men were fond of.

“Where are the guns?” she asked Kivan.

“Absolutely not,” he told her as he repositioned two crossbows on a nearby stand.  “Guns are violent, finicky things.  They can easily kill a human but when magic is involved?  Hah!  You learn quick that holding a pistol full of dry gunpowder and throwing fire don’t mix.  Besides, what do you think could kill a demon faster?”

“A gun?” Lucy replied in honest ignorance.

“Kivan gave Vaan an exasperated look. “Someone hasn’t been doing her coursework.”

“Forgive her.  She only just started to show her true potential a few days ago,” Vaan apologized.

“I understand.  Ye have a lot to learn yet, lass,” he motioned for the girl to come closer. “So, my dear, what do you think yer weapon shall be?”

And that was the moment Lucy realized, she had no idea.  She had never taken the time to seriously consider what sort of weapon would fit her best.  And now, as she stood in this vast cavern of swords and bows, she still felt clueless.

“I-I,” she looked about her once more. “I don’t know.”

Kivan and Vaan looked at her in surprise before the first gave the latter a knowing look.

Finally he asked Lucy, “What do you mean, ‘You don’t know’?  Every Top Hat knows.  Every Top Hat has a feeling, a connection with something.  Even Adrian found his weapon within a few days of being at the Clock Tower.”

Lucy began to feel panic working up inside her.  “I just don’t know! I’ve never thought about it.”

“Calm down,” Vaan told her and put his gloved hands upon her shoulder.  He bent himself so they were at the same eye level. “Just think about, Lucy.” The glare from his glasses lifted so they could look between one another.

His apprentice stared back into his yellow eyes as her body gradually relaxed. Her mind, however, continued to flutter from weapon to weapon, but found no safe place to land.  She was stuck in midair without a single lead to where she was to go.

“There’s nothing Vaan,” she finally told him. “Nothing.”

Vaan turned to look at Kivan, his eyes still shining through.  “Perhaps we can let her try some of the weapons.”

Kivan raised a sketpical eyebrow. “You do remember what has happened in the past?”

“She’ll be careful.  Just. . .let her try.”

“Your responsibility, your funeral,” the Top Hat warned before going to fetch a few items from the wall.

“We’ll give it an attempt,” Vaan explained to his student. “We can see what sticks with you.”

Lucy nodded as she watched the glare gradually return until his eyes were gone, vanishing under the icy glass.

Kivan returned, holding two spears and a quarterstaff. “Where do you want to start?”

“Let’s give her something without a point,” Vaan said.

“Good plan,” Lucy admitted as she stepped up to the quarterstaff.

The wood broke in half within minutes, the spears went flying into the ceiling rafters.  When they tried swords, Kivan practically leapt from his spot to avoid getting beheaded.  Vaan was a little more lucky and only suffered from needing to catch daggers mid-air –  a feat he seemed entirely too comfortable doing.  It was after an axe came raining down inches from the girl’s feet and the bow string snapped at her finger when trying to knock an arrow that Lucy gave in.

“Done!  Done!  I’m just done!” she threw down her weapon in frustration.

“Woah! Gentle! I will not take disrespect towards these weapons,” Kivan warned.

“Sorry,” Lucy lowered her head as she cradled her wrist. “It hurt.”

“Well, clearly they didn’t like you,” Kivan pointed out as he collected the fallen arrow from the ground and snapped up the bow.

“What does it matter?” Lucy looked at him in bafflement.

“It is the only thing that matters,” Kivan growled lowly.  As Kivan went to put it away, and before Lucy could protest anymore, Vaan pulled her back.

“Don’t,” he whispered. “What he says is valid.”

“What on Earth do you mean?” she said from under her breath.

You do not choose the weapon.  It chooses you,” he explained.

“I still don’t understand.  Are you saying all of those weapons Marley and Sebastian and even Boy -”

“Yes,” Kivan cut in, his arms folded, a straight frown on his face.

Lucy fell colour flood to her cheeks once more.

“Sit, little bird,” he told her.  There was no argument that could be made with that tone.

Lucy dropped to sit on her knees and Vaan casually followed suite.  The hall around them quieted and the world practically dimmed.

“We,” he gestured between the small group. “are different from normal humans.”

Vaan nodded in recognition as his hands fell to his knees.  Lucy couldn’t help but quickly do the same as she leaned forward to listen more closely.

“Humans, pick weapons.  Ordinary men pick guns, swords, with only one objective in mind – power for themselves.  We are different, girl.  We work with weapons for the betterment of ourselves: all of mankind, all Top Hats.  So no, we cannot simply “choose” a weapon that satisfies our fancy.  The weapon chooses us the moment we are born.  It lies in waiting, resting in the back of our minds.  Think about it.  Think about your brothers – how did they play?  What did they choose in childhood?”

Lucy rested her fingertips on her forehead as her memories turned in her head.

 

“Lucy! Look!” Sebastian pulled out the biggest stick he could find from the wooden area.

“That’s huge! Put it back,” she waved a hand at him as she continued to search the woods for small sticks to play with.

“No! It’s my sword,” he said stubbornly before grinning and swinging it around wildly.

Lucy furrowed her eyebrows as her big eyes narrowed. “How is that a sword?”

“It just is,” he huffed, irritated that his twin could not see the same picture as he did.

“Fine,” Lucy stuck out her tongue. “Have your dumb sword.  I’ll find my own. . .thing.”

 

She never did find it.

 

“I’m tired,” Lucy complained to Andrew.  She remembered how raw her arms had felt from practicing with him.

“Come on, Lulu,” he told her. “It’s good for you!”

She stared at her and her brother’s thin cheap sparing blade.  He had received them at Camden Market for a fair price. “Why are you and Sebastian so obsessed with swords?”

“It’s not an obsession!” Andrew fired back. “We just enjoy the feeling of a good blade in our hands, that’s all.  It’s hard to describe.”

Lucy pouted and crossed her arms. “It’s stupid.”

Andrew furrowed. “Fine.  What do YOU want to use, little princess?” he snipped.

 

Lucy never did have an answer.  Not even with Adrian.

 

“What are you doing?” Lucy asked one day when she had come home from the market.  “Are those books?”

Adrian wrinkled his now. “Of course they are.   I read sometimwa!”

“On rare occasions,” laughed Lucy. “What are you poking your nose into this time?”

Adrian held up a book full of pictures of bows and arrows.  Each was a different size and every pose was held differently.  It as was if each weapon contained its own personality.

Lucy raised an eyebrow. “What exactly are you planning, Mr. Mischievous?”

Adrian coloured and yanked the book back in front of him. “If you are just going to sit there and make fun of me-“

“Oh hush, I was only joking,” she sat down next to him. “I’m sorry.  Really, what is it you are doing?”

“I want to learn,” he admitted after a moment of huffing. “I really do,” his fingers grazed the delicate pages.

Lucy looked to her brother’s face, and she knew he was entirely serious. “Alright,” she sighed. “I’ll see what I can do. MAYBE we can get you some classes,”

“Really?! Do you think so?!” Adrian’s face lit up.

Lucy couldn’t help but smile back. “We, of course, need to talk to Mum.  But maybe we can arrange something.”

 

Kivan was right.  Her brothers always had something ticking the back of their minds – something they were missing.   Except for Lucy, there was nothing.  Sure, Andrew taught her how to wield a blade, but she was never drawn to it like Sebastian.

Lucy hugged her shoulders as her mind tried desperately to grasp at something. Anything.

Stop.

The girl froze and looked to Vaan and Kivan.  They were both looking at each other in disappointment when the familiar wispy voice spoke again.

They do not understand.  You do not understand.  You have no weapon.

“Why?” Lucy whispered as the Top Hats turned to give her a puzzled look.

“Are you alright, Lucy?” Vaan asked.

She looked to her teacher with desperate eyes.

You are the Lady of Dawn.  You were never meant, nor ever shall, have a weapon. 

“That’s rubbish,” she snapped back.

One day, you will understand.

Only after a moment did she realize she was most certainly not alone.  Her eyes traveled over to Kivan and then back to Vaan.  Her cheeks flushed.

“S-sorry,” she stuttered. “Perhaps we should just forget about it.”

“Are you sure?” Vaan asked carefully.

“Yes.  I don’t think I was meant for these,” she admitted, her voice distant.

Vaan frowned. “We will discuss this later,” he turned to Kivan. “Can I talk to you?”

“Of course,” he nodded before clearing his voice.”Boy!” he bellowed.

From the double doors came the eavesdropping apprentice.  He turned his eyes to the ground. “Sorry, sir. I-”

“Take the girl out,” he waved a hand carelessly.

Boy didn’t miss the opportunity and ran forward to grab a hold of his friend and quickly drag her from the room.

Vaan put a hand to his forehead, sighing deeply. “Thank you for giving us a chance to test things out.  I know it took time away from your studies.”

Kivan laughed loudly. “Boy needed to do some readings anyway.  It was a good time for him to think on his dragon.”

“Which one did he end up with?” Vaan asked curiously.

“Galahad,” Kivan slyly grinned. “And you know that dragons choose their masters just as weapons do.”

He looked to the door. “Yes.  That child has a great destiny ahead of him.  He just doesn’t know it yet.”

“Well, thank you once more,” Vaan bowed.  Just before he left Kivan called to him.  Vaan turned his head, fearing that the weapon’s master would say precisely what was spinning through his own head.

“She is more like the Ladies than we expected,” Kivan remarked, “Just be careful.  She might not-”

“That is yet to be decided,” Vaan snapped back. “I, too, rarely use my weapon.  Perhaps she will be the same.  We’d all do well to remember that.”

Kivan sighed as the door closed. “But nonetheless, a weapon you have.”

©2017 E. M. Vick

 

Chapter XXIV: Girflet

“Are you serious?!” Lucy whined as she held herself in a handstand quite similar to that of Sebastian’s headstand from the day earlier.  Only hers was quite a bit more shaky.

“I am entirely serious,” Vaan grinned through his scarf. “I carried your unconscious body down a string of corridors.  This after you deliberately broke the rules.”

“Well, I’d say I did it for the right reasons,” Lucy replied.

Smack.  A sting flashed against to back of her legs.

Lucy yelped in pain as her balance shifted off kilter.

“Best to stretch the legs a bit higher,” Vaan told her as he eased her ankle back into its proper place.

Lucy took a deep breath and centered herself once more, still shaky as ever.

“Good, now for the interesting part,” Vaan laid a gloved palm to the ground and a circle burned into the ground.  An all too familiar pattern of wired lines grew to life in the center of it.

“Please tell me that’s not-”

“His name is Girflet.  I believe you’ve met before,” Vaan replied as the wired began to bend and snap.  “Keep straight.  I’d hate to see you burned.”

I’ll watch you and your kingdom. . .burn.

Lucy instantly straightened as she buried the memory deep into the back of her mind.

From the ground came the beautiful and familiar sunset dragon.  Its yellow eyes locked onto Lucy as it pulled itself free from the rest its molten bindings.

“Ah,” it grinned, turning its neck to eye his summoner. “Is this the girl?”

“She can hear you, Girflet,” Vaan told him, lazily throwing a hand towards Lucy.

Even upside down, Lucy couldn’t hold back her awe and trembling.  A dragon. No less frightening as it had been on their first meeting.  Its wings shimmered against the just-peaking morning light cascading from the area windows.  Truthfully, the girl didn’t know if she should cry in amazement or fright.

Girflet cranked his neck back and around to stare at Lucy. “Good morn, my Lady,” he turned right-side up.  “Is there a reason she is as she is?”

“Punishment, in short, Vaan explained.

“Do-do I need to worry?” Lucy asked as more blood rushed from her toes.

Vaan told her as he strolled to the door.  “Girflet is going to be teaching you your morning lessons.  Fall over and you will suffer multiple 2nd degree burns.” He turned back just before leaving. “Next time, follow the rules we set for you. Oh, and remember: Don’t sway too much.”

And with that the doors closed.

“I can’t feel my legs,” Lucy told Girflet honestly, though she immediately regretted the stupidly obvious statement.

“Perhaps that is a good thing,” the dragon replied, drawing himself closer to her.  Lucy had forgotten just how big these creatures truly were.  “Don’t move, my Lady.”

Before she could do anything, the dragon wrapped itself around her and pressed its forehead into hers.  Lucy gasped as a heat passed between them.  It was as if she were sharing a fire in the dead of winter.  Two surviving souls in a world of silence.  And as soon as it had happened, it was gone.  Girflet pulled away and eyed the girl carefully.

“Quite a trial you’ve been through,” he remarked as the girl almost lost her balance once more.  A warm heat from the dragon’s scales kindly reminded her of the consequences of such.

“What was that?” she asked, still baffled over what she had felt seconds prior.

“So you did a bit of shopping, was it?” Girflet said. “Rather daring to break the rules for some scarves, a pocket-watch and a visit to an old friend.”

“How do you know that? Vaan doesn’t even know about the pocket watch.  It was still in my coat when he carried me up the stairs.”

“I am Girflet, my Lady.  The knight of witnessing.  Or the Witness Knight. Whichever you prefer.”

“Can I just call you Girflet?”

“I’d prefer that,” he chuckled as the girl struggled to keep herself from growing dizzy.

“Come now,” he roared in greater laughter. “How long did your brother hold himself in that headstand for? Surely, you can do better with your hands.”

“He’s had more time at this than I have,” she said.

“Excuses, my Lady. Excuses.”

“Can you. . .can you see all of my memories?”  Lucy turned pale.

“Every one of them,” Girflet replied. “But not to worry, all your secret are safe with me.”

Lucy sighed deeply, feeling her arms relax a bit. “Please, just don’t tell Vaan.”

“Like I said,” Girflet blew a few smoke ring at her toes. “Safe.  Come now.  Surely, you must know that I’ve seen hundreds, if not, thousands of Top Hat memories.  I’ve seen Vaan’s a million times over.”

“Vaan’s?”  Lucy asked curiously.

“Fair is fair,” he explained.

Lucy sighed. “Can I at least hop out of this handstand? I’m going to pass out soon.”

“Isn’t that the point?” he tilted his head. “It’s your punishment.  And it doesn’t hurt your training.”

“It’s torture!”

“That’s life, my Lady,” he pointed out, his tail snipping the back of her knees to straighten her back out.

“Listen.  I’ll take your burns.  I’ll take the hurt,” she said as her arms began to wobble.

“No,” Girflet grew more serious. “If you don’t keep trying, how do you think you’ll go anywhere? Punishment may be painful, it may be torture, but it teaches you to hold your own.  How do you think you’ll match up to a demon?”

“But I can’t,” Lucy cried as more pain came bearing down on her.

Girflet bend down to look her dead in the eyes. “And what will you do when the demons come for you?”

Lucy couldn’t answer.  She didn’t know what to say.

“When they hit you, when they stab you, when they reach inside your very body and try to rip out the thing most precious to you.   What then, dear Lucy?”

Lucy almost toppled over but a new found sense of determination kept her legs in the air.

“If you learn anything from this, learn to take the pain,” Girflet explained. “And learn that if you break the rules, consequences will follow.  Rules are there to protect you, my Lady.”

Lucy looked back, her head nodding in understanding. “I know you are right.  I. . .I am I think I might just even know what I need to do.” She closed her eyes slowly against the formulated idea and began to sink into her breathes more deeply.

“There you are,” the dragon said, pleased.  “That is how the true Lady should act.”

“Girflet?” Lucy asked cautiously after their long moments of silence.

“Hmm?” replied the dragon from beside her.

“Will he forgive me?”

The dragon only laughed deeply.

“I’m being serious!” Lucy said as a sort of chill filled the room.  The heated pulse was gone along with the warm breathes.

“Girflet?” she asked, opening her eyes.

Standing before her was none other than Vaan himself, his arms crossed and a smirk pressing against his dark scarf.  Lucy was utterly speechless.  All she could manage to do was open and close her mouth as more colour rushed to her cheeks.

“I’ll forgive you,” he chuckled as she wobbled and tumbled to the floor.

The world around Lucy wavered a bit as her arms yelled at her and her legs prickled with the return of feeling.

Vaan walked over and bent at the waist to look down at her.  “Are we to spend the rest of our day on the floor?”

Lucy continued to struggle with words until Vaan helped her back to her feet.

“Careful now,” he warned. “It’s going to feel a bit like walking on daggers for a while.”

“How long have you been there?” she finally managed to sputter before wincing at the discomfort in her limbs.

“Long enough.  Here, lean on me for a bit,” he assisted her, looping his arm around hers.

“Where are we going?”

“We are going to have lunch, and then we have an appointment with Kivan,” he told her as a matter of fact.

“Kivan? Why Kivan?” she asked curiously as they walked together from the hall.

“He just happens to be the Weapons’ Master,” Van said in amusement.

“You mean-!”

“We are going to see just which weapon is right for you, Miss. O’Rourke,” Vaan grinned from under his scarf of grey as they went off to lunch, limps and all.

©2017 E. M. Vick

Chapter XXIII: Stubborn Girls Against Stubborn Rules

“I honestly don’t even know what to do with myself,” she told Brandon, while falling back onto her brother’s mess of a bed.  “I mean, I admit I’m quite drained but my mind is just wired.”

“Why don’t you stop by one of the study rooms and do some research?” Brandon suggested as he began to fold his laundry.

“Or maybe actually go and rest,” Sebastian pointed out, his arms shaking as he struggled to maintain his handstand. “Trust me, it only gets harder from here.”

“What on earth are you even doing, Sebastian?” she asked, ignoring her twin’s advice.

“Practicing.  Some of us have a full day of lessons,” he emphasized.

“Give her a break, mate.  This is her first time trying to control the fire.  Remember when you passed out for a day and a half?”

“I suppose.  But that’s why I think she should be sleeping.  Most of us can’t even move the next day.”

“Except the Weasel.  Seemingly he bounced right back, “Brandon said.

“Plus, she already had her first encounter with fire-play long before today. Mind you, it was more like an accident than anything else.” Boy said as he dried his hair off with a towel. “Or perhaps you don’t remember her being passed out for three days?”

“This is true,” Sebastian said, falling out of his headstand.

“You know, I could have left the room while you showered.  You didn’t have to try and get ready in the loo,” Lucy told Boy.

“It’s alright.  I don’t mind.”

“Not like you haven’t lived with a bunch of boys before,” her twin teased.

“I’m still a lady!”

“When did that happen?”

Before Lucy could jump at him, the bell tolled for the student’s morning lesson.  The boys were out the door faster than her mind could count the notes.

“See you!”

“See you, Lucy!”

“Love yah, Lulu.  Cheers!”

And the door slammed leaving her in a mess of boys’ dirty clothes and burnt pages.  Well, except Brandon’s side of the room.  He was always quite clean.

Lucy stood up and exited the dorm, looking up and down the hall.  What was she to do?  Then the idea struck her and she went off to fetch her coat and mittens.

It didn’t take the girl long to weasel her way past the nosy man at the front desk.  A few simple half-truths, and she was skipping down the steps of the Clock Tower.

The cold December breeze picked at Lucy’s curls as she walked the embankment, but she didn’t seem to mind as her eyes took in the changing river.  It had been a long enough time since she had been outside on her own.  Close to a month in fact.  When she turned onto Oxmore Street, her eyes lit at the familiar holiday smells and decor.  It was both bittersweet and warm nostalgia.

“Excuse me, miss, you look like you could use a lovely bouquet of snowdrops,” a small girl offered, gesturing towards her cart of winter flowers.

Lucy smiled sweetly to the hopeful saleswoman. “Thanks, but I think I will pass today.  Here,” she pressed a 50 pence into the girl’s palm. “You bring one home for yourself.”

“Thank you, Miss!” she gave a toothy grin before skipping back to her mother’s cart.

Lucy began to look at the wide variety of stores up and down the street.  Clothing, furniture, toys, and candy shops with brilliant signs of colour.  Even the bakery had gotten a new coding of paint.   But that would be a last stop.  A surprise just for Mel.

The first shop she entered was Mr. O’Connor’s Irish Knitwear.

“Hullo, I’ll be right there!” he shouted from the backroom as Lucy took in the familiar smell of musk and wool.

The comfortable shop had man mannequins modeling the latest fashion of scarfs, hats, and waistcoats.  The colours were all of dark hues to match the winter weather.

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” he chimed as the stout man waddled to the front of his shop. “How can I help you-”

He stopped as Lucy turned and smiled at the startled man. “Hullo, Mr. O’Connor.”

“Bless my stars.  Is that really you?  Is that really my dear Lucy?”

“They must be blessed because it most certainly is,” she laughed as the old man strode towards her as fast as his figure would allow.

“Oh, my dear, tis so good to see you.  Tis so good!  It’s been a while.  Has Adrian already burnt through those gloves of his?”

“Not quite yet, but I was thinking of getting him a proper scarf to match.  Perhaps, you can help me pick out quite a few things.”

“Most certainly, my dear.  Tis a shame I do not get to see you at Mel’s anymore,” he admitted as he began to pull off various pieces from the models.

“I miss it too.  But I’m in a good place right now.”

“Yes, yes.  Mel says you’ve earned yourself an excellent working place in the Clock Tower.  Very impressive.  Very impressive,” he nodded, as he held the two pieces up to his heavily bearded face. “Which do you think he’d prefer?”

Both were of impeccable quality, the only difference being the color.  Where one was deep green while the other was a mustard yellow. “I think it will be the emerald colour, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Not at all, love,” he grinned and placed the scarf on his counter. “Will one do?”

“Actually, I’d love to be able to get four of them.”

“Four of them?! My, my, what is the occasion?” he asked placing the first on the counter while reaching underneath one of the drawers and pulling out two more.

“A family reunion of sorts,” she smiled.

“Ah,” the clever shop owner smiled. “I do remember seeing your mother’s obituary in the paper – survived by her sons, my word! But, I just knew your brother couldn’t have been dead and gone!  Much too tough, like your father.”

The memory of her mother’s funeral stung her to the point that she felt dizzy with loss. “Ah. . .how could I forgot.”

“Are you alright, my dear?  You look a bit pale,” the concerned Mr. O’Connor asked. “Perhaps you should sit down.”

“Oh no,” she waved her hand and laughed as best as she could. “I’m fine.  Just a bit tired is all.”

“Is there anything else I can help you with today, my dear?”

Lucy smiled, shoving the thoughts of bitter things back and away. “If I remember correctly, the last time we chatted you were dabbling in the art of leather gloves.”

O’Connor grinned from ear to ear. “Right this way!”

Lucy wrapped up the last of her shopping and left the store, bags in hand and her purse half as light.  There were only two more stops and then she could feel satisfied enough to go home.

She stopped by the clockmaker’s shop and when she left, had in one of her secret pockets, a well-polished box and less than three pounds left in her purse.

Then came her final stop.  As Lucy’s heart pounded she stared at the bakery she had left only a month or so ago.  And yet, it felt like ages.

The bell chimed at the front of the store and there came a shout from the register as the lunch hour customers moved about.

“Be a fifteen minute wait, miss!” one of Mel’s son’s shouted.

“I can wait,” Lucy called back, grinning from ear to ear as the boy practically jumped from his spot in surprise.

“Lucy?!” the brown curly top bounced, looking over the crowd of people.

Lucy winked.  “Tell Mel I’m here when you can.  I’m happy to wait.”

Sure enough, only five minutes later the crowd had eased and Mel had rushed from the kitchen.

“Lucy!” she cried. “Lucy, my darlin’!”

“Hullo!” she laughed, throwing her arms around her previous employer.

“Oh heavens, how I miss ye,” Mel hugged just a squeeze tighter before she finally let go.  “Well, let’s have a look at ye,” she smiled and twirled the girl in her traveling skirt.

“Mel, really,” Lucy blushed in embarrassment yet still amused her dear friend anyways.

“Come, do ye have any time tah sit?”

“I,” Lucy looked to the small clock on the wall. “I honestly don’t know.  Not much, really.”

“Oh, come now.  Just a wee afternoon tea.  Johnny’s already got the kettle hot.”

“One cup,” Lucy insisted, following her friend to the back of the shop as it merged into her kitchen.

One cup of tea quickly turned to two and then to three, but by the time the last was finished, Mel was caught up on Lucy and her family’s affairs.  Of course, minus the small fact that Lucy was actually being trained as a Top Hat.

“What strict employers,” Mel clucked, holding her cup. “Are ye sure you are happy there?”

“I’ve honestly never been happier,” Lucy admitted.

Mel leaned back and looked over her former worker.  A smile played on her lips. “Ye look happ’r.  I worried after you, with your mother passin’ and all, but seeing yeh helps.  Ye look so much better.”

“Really?” Lucy laughed, crossing her legs.

“Absolutely,” Mel told her seriously. “Darlin’, yeh have a confidence, a sense of purpose.  I’m not rightly sure I can put me finger on it.”

Lucy blushed in disbelief.  She certainly didn’t feel any different.  At least, she didn’t think so.

“Well, my dear I should let you go,” Mel nodded, as she put away the tea.

“Thank you for having me,” Lucy smiled, starting to stand.  “I’ll come back as so-” And suddenly, a dizzy spell spread over her and Lucy found herself collapsing back into her chair.

“Lucy!” Mel rushed to her side. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she muttered, holding her head in her hand. “I-I just think I stood too fast.”

“Well, take your time.  The boys will clean up the rest, so don’t you worry.”

“Thanks, Mel,” she smiled as the woman crossed to put some of the dishes in the sink before returning to the bakery.

Lucy sighed and ran a hand through her curls as her vision flickered in and out.  After a few deep breathes she managed to gather herself and her bags together, quickly putting her bonnet back upon her head.

“Goodbye!” she called to Mel’s son as she left.  She had to get to the Clock Tower. Fast.

Lucy felt her body slowly shutting down on her.  Yet somehow she kept it all together.  If her vision began to fail, her hands would find the railings along the walkways.  If her balance shuttered, she swept herself from foot to foot.  Past the embankment, across the street, and up the steps until she finally made it past the doorway.  Only instead of weaseling her way back up the dorm steps, she was met with a quite cross teacher.

“Vaan,” she gasped, pulling her parcels closer to her chest, as if that would defend her.

“Hello, Lucy,” he coldly replied. “Where have you been today?”

“I-I,” she stuttered as the world tunneled for a moment.  She kept her knees pressed together, using the last of her strength to keep her upright.

“You are supposed to be in your room.  Resting,” he growled in annoyance.

“I had the day off,” she protested, but her head was screaming back.  She just needed to get through the scolding, make it down the corridor, and collapse.

“You are not allowed from the Clock Tower without permission from your Master!”

“Got it,” she nodded, sweat beading on the small of her back.

“We have rules.  We have always had rules.  You know better,” his voice grew lower and more irritated.  “There is a reason we have them.”

“Rules, yes.  I’m sorry,” she passed as she dared to make her way to the dorms.

“Don’t you walk away from me!” he boomed, snapping at her wrist.

Lucy froze as vertigo began to spin her about. Don’t tip, don’t tip, don’t move.

“Are you even listening to me?!” he said, twisting her about.

It was just enough to pull her over the edge.

“Lucy?”

The young girl’s eyes turned glassy before rolling up into her head.  Her body shuttered, going limp as the colour in her cheeks vanished into a sea of white.

“Lucy!” He shouted once more, grabbing her shoulder awkwardly as she fell ungracefully down onto his side.

Vaan sighed in annoyance and yielded his verbal reprimands.  He looked to the Top Hat behind the desk, who quickly raised his hands in refusal.  “That’s all yours, mate.”

Vaan rolled his eyes, easing the girl into his arms and placed her parcels on top of her.  At least she was light enough.  Even smelt of soft vanilla.  He would just have to finish his lesson tomorrow.  For now – sleep was the best thing for the girl.

©2017 E. M. Vick

Chapter XXII: Fire-play

“Duck, duck, DUCK,” Vaan shouted to Lucy as he sent metallic disks her way.

She barely missed the first two but got nicked by the last.  She cringed in pain and looked down at her arm.

“You don’t have time for that!” Vaan pointed out.

Lucy shrieked as she rolled away from the boomerang effect the scales had.

“Never forget that certain attacks will rebound,” Vaan sighed as he caught each flying scale.

“Got it,” Lucy nodded, pulling herself to her feet.

Her teacher stepped back in shock.  This was the first time his apprentice hadn’t give him a snappish lip.  “Excuse me?”

“I got it.  Let me try again,” she requested, positioning herself more carefully, letting her new scratch alone.

Vaan grinned from under his scarf.  He could finally teach. “I think I want to move onto something else.”

Lucy tilted her head and relaxed her pose.  “I thought you said today was training with dragon scales.”

“And I thought so too.  But you are improving.  And I think you are ready for a new sort of trick.  Let’s give you something truly worth writing about to your brother.”

Lucy’s heart skipped a beat.  Was it really time?  Was he really giving her a chance to prove herself?

“It won’t be easy,” he quickly warned.

“I promise.  I’ll give you everything I have.”

“Good, I want nothing less,” he grinned once more before snapping his fingers.   A flash of red fire hissed to life.  “First we need to draw the fire out of you,” he said as the flame spread down each digit. “Starting now.”

Without warning, he whipped the heated attack at her. Lucy barely had time to breath as she dodged the wicked assault.

Lucy rolled as he sent another wave at her.  But she wasn’t watching his left hand and was hit by an exploding fireball.

“Oi!” she hissed, nursing her wounded shoulder.

“What did I say before!” her teacher scolded before sending an earthshaking wave of sound vibrating to the floor. “You don’t have time for that!”

“I don’t know what to do!” Lucy yelled back as her balance was lost to her.

“Yes you do,” he insisted sternly before summoning a handful of icicles.

“That’s new,” Lucy pointed out before he javelined them at her feet.

“Clearly, you haven’t been doing your homework,” he told her as he threw another handful of exploding fireballs at her head.  “You will never battle someone with the same powers twice.”

“I’m always battling you,” she snipped back, catching one of the balls of fire to send back only to proceed to burn her own hand.

“You know, you can’t hold those if you don’t activate your own powers,” Vaan said.

“I’m trying!” she shouted, exacerbated by her wound as she continued to dance around the arena.

“Our powers our always evolving,” Vaan was suddenly rushing at her with a frozen fist raised.  “Never forget that!”

Lucy grabbed his other arm and spun herself away from the attack.  He simply clenched his fist and the ice shattered into a danger explosion of thin icy needles, cutting at her cheeks and defending arms.

“Stop!’ she cried.

“MAKE ME,” he challenged.

That’s when she felt it.  A pulsing.  A fire of determination turning in her core.

Lucy let out a slow breath and tensed her fists at her side.  Her eyes closed as she focused inward, concentrating on drawing the feeling out.  When she felt Vaan inches from her, Lucy opened her eyes and slammed her hands forward.

The teacher barely had time to catch her open palms when she twisted her wrist to reveal dancing white hot flames.  She shouted as energy shot away from her to push Vaan back.  Only this time, instead of the flames vanishing in a instant, they remained, hovering defensively around her wrists.

“You see, I told you,” Vaan chuckled as he put his hands up to show his white flag.

“I did it,” Lucy laughed as she examined her own creation, a smile spreading on her face.  “It’s so hard to keep it alive.”

“True, but now it will only get easier.”

“How?”

“Practice,” Vaan looked at her flames.  “Plus now we know what makes you tick.”

“What’s that?” Lucy asked.

Vaan’s yellow eyes shone brightly through the thick lens.  They met Lucy’s amber as he leaned close to her, placing a finger at her heart.  “You have a spark – aflame that is all your own.  And you’ll fight like hell before anyone will take it away.”

Lucy’s lips pursed with her cheeks stained red as her fire flickered out.

©2017 E. M. Vick

Chapter XXI: The Dueling Games

The next day was not quite what Lucy was expecting.  When Vaan told her that they would be watching the boys spar, she had expected to witness what she had seen the night she snuck into the Clock Tower.  She didn’t realize he meant all-out combat.

There were three teams, each made up of four apprentices with their team colour painted across their forehead.  Even Adrian was participating on the Blue Team.  Sebastian, on the other hand was captain of the Red.  Brandon and Boy were split apart with Boy as the Blue captain and Brandon captain of the Green Team.  Marley was the only one from the bunch who was paired with his best friend.

“Are you prepared?” Vaan asked Lucy as he folded his lengthy leg across his knee.

“Can my answer be ‘no’?” she proposed. “I’m not exactly thrilled with the prospect of my two siblings dueling against each other.”

“They need to learn to fight on a team without relying on the other.”

“Plus, who doesn’t enjoy a good battle between brothers,” the Weasel chuckled as he took a seat next to Vaan.

“The sister,” Lucy replied coldly, folding her arms across her.

“Quite the live wire you have there,” the Weasel commented, though Lucy ignored him.

She looked out at the outdoor arena that was placed along the roof of the Hero’s Hall.  It looked like a field split three ways, round large circle overlapping one another.  While the lines upon the insider were white ash, the outside perimeter was burning a continuous red fire.

A small collection of bleachers were pushed along one end where the Tops Hats and their apprentices could watch.  Admittedly, Lucy was quite nervous about the set up as the field slopped with the ceiling beneath them.

“Remind me again why we aren’t inside?” Lucy asked, wrapping her scarf tighter around her neck.

“It switches every month.  Remember, Top Hats must-”

Always be prepared for the worst.  Even the weather,” Lucy finished and smiled. “And you thought I didn’t listen.”

“Do you ever give that girl a break from her studies?” James asked Vaan, sitting down next to Lucy.  “Just because you are a strict perfectionist, doesn’t mean she needs to be.  I’m James, by the way.”

“Hullo, nice to meet you.  I’m Lucy O’Rourke,” the embarrassed teen bowed her head.

“Oh trust me, we all know who you are,” the Top Hat laughed.

“At least Vaan’s apprentice has a bit of manners on her,” a grey-haired gentleman sat down. “How is your Jackson boy doing with that? Hmm?”

It was James’s turn to flush. “Trust me, I like it no more than you do.  But we can’t all have a winning charisma like your apprentice, can we, Alex?”

More and more Top Hats began to show as debated ran about which apprentices were better fits for the job than others.

Lucy quickly avoided the bickering and leaned over to Vaan to whisper, “Who is on each team?”

Vaan leaned closer as well and began to point out each member as they prepared.

“You know Sebastian and Marley, of course.  Those other two boys on the Red team are Jacob – he’s the lanky brunette – and Lars, the quite built one over there.

“Green is Brandon and the tall young man is Mark.  One of the finest apprentices, though his heart can get ahead of his head sometimes.  Next to him is his cousin Jon.  Smart fellow.  Watch him if you want to learn something about defending yourself properly.  And of course, there is the clumsy boy, Trevor next to him.  He could have done with a bit more work before being entered into this.

“On the Blue team you have Boy, your brother, Adrian, and their group’s wall of muscle is Jackson.  Next to him is Bryan.”

Lucy was still trying to get over the sheer size of Jackson that clearly overtook the others.  “He’s built like a tank!  He’s going to crush my brother!”

Vaan smirked as Lucy caught a glimmer of amusement against his eyes before the light glared off his glasses.  “You still have a lot to learn.”

Before she could say anymore, the crowd grew quiet.  From the corner of each field walked a Top Hat.

Thornton, Kivan, and Lewis met in the middle of the arena.  They looked to one another before holding out two fingers and snapping in unison.  They disappeared in a fit of smoke as the fire around them turn a vivid green.  Only seconds later, they appeared in the reserved seats at the front of the bleachers.  And so the game began.

Sebastian was the first to move.  Fire spun from his wrist and went flying towards Boy, who dodged the blow and slammed his own hands into the ground – sending pillars of smoke to surround the Green Team.  Chaos ensued.

“Do we cheer?” Lucy asked Vaan as she frantically tried to keep track of her brothers.

“And who would you cheer for, little bird?” Weasel smirked as he leaned back, enjoying the scene.

Lucy frowned and pursed her lips.  He had her there.  Who on Earth could she cheer for?!

Brandon emerged shot out from the shadowed area, shouting orders to his team.  Mark grinned before taking off to collide with Marley, fire and steel clashing.  Jon, meanwhile, fell back, using the smoky cover to his advantage.

Lucy could hardly keep up with the massive mess of a ‘game.’  She turned to watch the murmuring Top Hats.  Her teacher sat quietly with his arms folded, his gaze was completely focused.  She leaned over and whispered to him, “Where do I look?”

“Everywhere,” he replied.

“How?” she asked in exasperation.  She could barely keep an eye out if her brothers were tangling in battle with each other.

“You’ll learn,” James smiled. “Just like everything else.”

As the battle raged on, a few boys – Bryan, Trevor and Jacob – got tossed from the ring by fire and brute force.  Lucy couldn’t help but clap in quiet pride when Adrian used some sort of sound-wave to send the latest of them out past the fire.   As soon as they stepped out of place, a drum thundered.  The boys, meanwhile, would mope or kick the dirt in disgust.  One even blasted a hole deep into the outer bounds.

Lucy gasped in horror as a blade of flames came within inches of Sebastian’s face before he was locked arm in arm with Brandon.  She could see pain knitted heavy on each of their brows.

“Do you understand what your brother did wrong?” Vaan questioned her quietly.

“His attention was on Adrian,” she whispered back. “He didn’t even see Brandon had broken from Marley’s bindings.”

“Exactly.  All of you must learn that no matter the fight, you must trust your team and trust the others around you are doing the same,” Vaan turned to catch Lucy in the eye, his yellow iris completely visible. “Trust your brothers and your fellow Top Hats.  You must never get caught up in worry.  It could be your last thought before your soul is ripped from you, while your heart is still beating.” The icy severity of his eyes sunk deep into Lucy’s bones.  And then the glare from his glasses returned and she was left to suffer the lesson alone.

“Boy was surprisingly quick and practically lethal on the field.  Lucy watched in astonishment as he crept silently along –  startling each of his opponents with an assault to their backs.  Mark was the first daring enough to take him on.

Gradually, more got thrown out -Jason, Lars, and eventually Adrian as well.  It was astonishing to most how long the new boy had lasted.  That only made the Weasel smirk even wider as he chuckled to himself.

With the Blue team quickly outnumbered, it was only a matter of time until both Mark and Jon teamed up on the silent assailant.  Yet as the sparring drew closer to the edges of the field, Lucy quickly realized Boy’s plan.

“Is he. . .”she asked Vaan hesitantly as the apprentice inched himself just a pinch closer.

“You are getting quicker,” he grinned to himself as they watched the trap unfold.

Boy took one look at the ensuing battles and looked back to his teacher, Kivan, before twisting his wrist tightly within Jon’s collar and pulling him over the flaming line with him.  Caught in surprise, the fighter grabbed onto Mark, who was in just as much shock.

Sure enough all three tumbled out of bounds.

“Why, well done!” shouted the older gentleman in charge of Mark.  “Clever trick, Kivan,” he laughed as the Scotsman tossed the elder a prideful grin.

“Now it should be clear, little bird, who should win this particular duel,” the Weasel laughed to himself.

Lucy placed a finger softly at her temple as she looked at the predicament.  Marley and Sebastian had managed to throw off Brandon’s attacks and stood prepared for the next move.

Finally, she spoke just as Marley went to charge.

“It will be Brandon, won’t it?” she posed to the Weasel.

The other Top Hats around her looked astonished.  Vaan simply eyed his apprentice curiously before catching sight of Marley being tossed aside like a child’s rag doll.

Sebastian followed closely behind after his own punch backfired against him.

Brandon smiled in elation as he slammed his palms to the ground and the earth popped away like a line of firecrackers. Sebastian managed to roll away just in time but Marley was not so lucky.  He was jettisoned into the air and out of bounds within seconds.  He punched the ground in anger, as he watched Brandon jump on Sebastian.

Sebastian barely had time to block the falling heel before Brandon slammed a fist into his ribs.  Lucy’s brother groaned before sending an array of popping sparks into Brandon’s vision.  Yet before Sebastian could crawl away, his ankle was snatched and he was thrown, tumbling over the field lines.  Cheers and applauds followed as the winning apprentice collapsed to sit and catch his breath.

“Clever, little bird,” the Weasel complimented, grabbing the girl’s wrist quicker than Vaan could stop him.  “Perhaps you shall be just like the Lady before you,” he kissed her hand before rising up and leaving.

“What is he talking about Vaan?” Lucy asked, her back creeping with goose pricks.

“Just as there were Top Hats before us, there was a Lady of Dawn before you,” her teacher explained, glaring at his departing fellow. “It’s a bit more complicated than just simply that.  I was planning on discussing it with you at a more convenient time.”

“Wait, when was the last Lady of Dawn-” she started.

“The last time the 2nd face of the Clock Tower moved,” Vaan finished, as the bells chimed at precisely that moment.

Lucy’s mouth became dry.  That was over one hundred years ago.

©2017 E. M. Vick

Chapter XX: New Nightmares and Goodbyes

Lucy had once more returned to the same woods she had thought she’d never dream again.  It started with the voice of Sebastian calling her just as it had before.  Only this time, Andrew and Adrian’s voices joined in a flutter of shouts.

“Where are you?!” she cried out to them as she began to run through the crowded forest of trees.

This time when the world shook, she didn’t feel fear but relief as the Top Hat appeared.  He pointed down the lane and more of the demon hunters appeared in the trees, their faces shadowed as they watched the girl rushing past them until she reached an old mansion that had long since been abandoned.

The Top Hat with the grinning mask appeared near the door and presented the threshold to her.

The house was painted dark grey, bricks collecting at its walls.   Lucy guessed must have once been a lovely shade of blue.  The shutters, themselves, had been ripped of their hinges and the windows stared down at her as silent beacons of warning.  Yet she dared to draw closer, raising her fists at the ready as her eyes drew up to see a sole light glimmering in hope at the top of the attic.

The gentleman with the mask of white twisted the knob and opened the crying door.  Lucy cautiously went up the groaning doorsteps until she was past the threshold and thrown into a house of darkness.  Strange, for even the windows shut out the light from the forest.  Without warning, the house was engulfed in roaring red flames.  She turned to scream for help, but the Top Hat was nowhere to be seen.  Only flames.

A frightful shape appeared before Lucy.  Sinister laughter filled the air as if the world were mocking her frail form.  She braced herself and shielded her face from whatever was coming at her.

A black hand dripping in tar snapped forward and yanked her wrist towards it.

“Stay back!” she shrieked, trying desperately to tear her hand away.

The voice was thick and sounded as if it were drown with water.  She couldn’t hear him but felt a shaking pain, as if her wrist would snap at anytime.

It wasn’t until the creature’s eyes became visible.  The colour of green terror.  The colour of deathly venom – of burning chaos.

And then she heard him.  If only for a second.  But she heard him.

” The day will come…and I’ll burn you…and all of your kingdom…to the ground.”

Lucy shot up about to scream when a warm hand clamped quickly over her mouth.   Fright tightened in her stomach as her eyes darted wildly around the room until they found the person the fingers belonged.

Andrew stood in full travel attire, his top hat resting on the edge of her bed.  “Easy, Lulu. Easy,” he told her, carefully releasing his hold on her.

“Wha-what are you doing here?” she asked, running a hand over her forehead.

“I thought the nightmares had stopped,” her brother sighed, ignoring her question.  “I thought they would stop as you grew older.”

“The nightmares never stopped.  They only got worse with age,” she replied.

The day will come. . .

“What was it about?” Andrew asked as he sat on her quant bed.

“Nothing,” she smiled.  “I can hardly remember them when I wake up.”

And I’ll burn you. . .

He looked at her once more.  He had forgotten one of the most important lessons his Master had taught him: one must never forget to look a person in the eye.

“If you say so,” he said, looking to his hands.  “I came to tell you that they have reassigned me.”

“What?” Lucy’s heart dropped. “What do you mean?”

“I already told the boys-”

“Why am I always the last the find out?!” she huffed and threw her arms around her knees.

“Because you are the most important,” Andrew chuckled to himself.

Lucy eyed him this time. “What do you mean?”

“You are our sister.  Our only sister.  And that means we want to look after you just as you want to look after us.  So it’s important to us to be able to tell you these things alone.  Quite selfish, actually.  But nonetheless true.”

Lucy picked at the raven quilt before muttering, “I don’t want you to go.”

“Funny, Adrian told me the same thing.  But just you lot wait.    Sebastian is already going on missions with Lewis and you won’t be far behind.”

His sister continued to pout and pick until she looked over at him.  “You’ll come back, won’t you?”

“Of course I will.  I always come back-“

Before Andrew could say much else, he was nearly tackled by his petite sister with tears stinging her eyes.

“Please don’t leave,” she whispered.  Her once hard heart was finally admitting defeat.  And now, she wasn’t ready to lose her brother once more.

“Like I said, I’ll come back, Lucy,” he told her as he gave her a squeeze. “This isn’t like last time.”  He held her a moment more before pulling her away.  “There are demons stirring in Scotland.  I’ll be there for just a few months or so.”

“A few months?!” she groaned.

“Trust me, you’ll be so busy with your training it will seem like absolutely no time.  I’ll write as often as I can.”

“Good.  You’d better.  Else I won’t be able to write back,” she said.

“Be good while I’m gone,” Andrew tried to say as stern as he could muster.

“I’ll try,” she smiled, a sad giggle bubbling to the surface.

And so as soon as Lucy’s wall against her brother had come crumbling down, he was shipped away.  As is the life of a Top Hat.

Lucy gave him one last hug before he went to the door.

And all of your kingdom. . .

“Andrew,” she called out one last time.

“Yes?” he replied, turning to look back at his sister once more.

She wanted to tell him about the nightmares.  She wanted to tell him how frightened she had been.  She wanted to ask him about the strange and terrifying creature lurking in the back of her mind.

“Will you be home for Christmas?” she blurted out.

“No.  I’m sorry, Lulu,” he sighed leaning against the door. “I haven’t seen a Christmas for ages now.  Even with Sebastian here, they are always sending me away around this time.”

“Then we’ll bring Christmas to you,” she told him.

“You can’t, silly girl,” he laughed. “There are rules.  And you can’t leave without permission from your master.”

“Doesn’t mean, I won’t mail you a few things,” she grinned proudly.

“Oh you selfless little thing!” Andrew grinned wildly and ran to give his sister one last hug. “What am I going to do with you?”

Lucy couldn’t help but saver the warm feeling of home as her sibling kissed her forehead once more before bidding her farewell.  It made her think back to Boy.  He was absolutely right.  She was pretty lucky to have such a loving family of brothers.

Yet the door had shut and she had laid her head back down, the voice returned to whisper in her ear.

 . . .to the ground.

She yanked the covers over her head, tucking the nightmare as far from her conscious as she could.

©2016 E. M. Vick