“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
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