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

Chapter XIX: Skinned Knees and Bruised Confidence

“Again!” Vaan shouted as Lucy collapsed on the ground, her mind foggy with hundreds of new rules floating above her head.

She drew herself up, groaning as she put her arms out to defend herself.  Vaan folded his arms together and waited.  Blood pounded in her ears as Lucy’s anxiety reached a peak of despair.  Then he attacked.

Left, right, left, right, right.  Shins!

The Top Hat’s left boot slammed into his apprentice’s shins in a sweeping motion, sending the girl into a face plant.

“Again,” he demanded.

“I have a bloody nose!” complained the girl as she cradled her face. “I’m not going again!”

Vaan simply rolled his eyes, lifting the girl up by the collar. “Let me see.”

She tentatively drew her hands away, and he drew a handkerchief to catch the mess and pinch the nose.

“Now hold that,” he told her.

“Thanks,” she muffled, waiting for the bleeding to stop. After a few minutes, it finally subsided.

“How is it?” asked her teacher.

“Stopped, I think,” she murmured examining the cloth to make certain.

“Good,” Vaan said before grabbing the girl and twisting her over his shoulder and onto the ground.

Lucy cried out in pain as she gripped her bruised shoulder.

“Demons don’t wait for nosebleeds to stop.  If you are bleeding, you are bleeding.  Unless you are trying to hide from them, do not stop to take care of it.  Just keep going.”

“God, save me,” Lucy yelped as she rolled to sit up.

“We are done for today.  Go get cleaned up and ready for dinner.  Tomorrow, we are visiting the dueling arena.”  Vaan said, before turning on his heels.  “Don’t forget, you have your dinner duty as well.”

“Don’t worry,” Lucy muttered as soon as her teacher had left. “You never fail to remind me.”

Groaning, the girl climbed to her feet.  It had only been a week since she had started training, but her body ached with bruises and cuts that renewed daily.  She limped towards the door, feeling her stretched calf she had given herself the day before.  They hadn’t even gotten to any of the fire work and she was already struggling to keep up.

“We must prepare your body before we even think of concentrating your fire,” Vaan had told her on her first day. That’s when she had skinned her right knee.  It only took a few more hours before she had a left to match.

“Looks like you had a bit of a rough day,” Sebastian winced when he saw his sister coming from out of smaller training room.

“Just a bit,” Lucy replied, looking over her brother.  “I take it you had quite a successful day?”

“Oh, it was just brilliant!  I managed to catch Lewis’s tailcoats on fire and even got praised for my form,”  her twin beamed.

“Fantastic,” the girl nodded.  She couldn’t help but feel a stab to her confidence.  She knew Sebastian had been doing this for much longer but it was hard to hear about his success.  Especially, when she spent every lesson on the floor, looking up.

“Listen, I’ll see you back at the hall for dinner.  The boys and I need to go do our Yard duties.” Sebastian explained.

Lucy waved her arm nonchalantly.  “No worries, I’ll see you at dinner.”  She waited until her brother had walked down the hall to join his mates before she slumped forward, leaning on the wall for support.  It took several moments before Lucy centered herself and limped her way towards her dorm.

Each step, her muscles groaned against her bones until she arrived in the dormitory corridor.  There were a few students moving here or there but for the most part, it was abandoned.

Lucy pushed herself down the hall, forcing her body to move.

“Lulu!” a voice chimed brightly.

“Adrian,” Lucy strained a smile as she turned to see her younger brother bound up to her.

“Oi, you are in a bit of a shape,” the curly haired boy winced when he looked over his sister.  “I just wanted to tell you that I made my first flame today,” a grin spread across his face.

“That’s great, Adrian,” she praised.  “When can I see it?”

“Oh tomorrow! Please!  Ask Vaan if he can let you have just a few minutes before practice to see it.  It’s amazing, Lulu.  Brightest gold you’ve ever seen.”

“I’d expect nothing less from an O’Rourke,” she leaned forward and gave him a soft squeeze.  Her arms couldn’t afford much more than that.

“What have you been working on?” Adrian asked, concerning looking over his sister.

“Oh, you know. Combat things. Listen, I need to go clean up,” Lucy quickly darted past the subject.  What she was going through was more of a beating rather than combat.

“Sounds good. I’ll see you before lights out?”

“Of course.  So long as you aren’t too embarrassed to be seen with your sister.”

“Never,” Adrian grinned before running towards his dorm.

Lucy sighed and made her way back to her own room.  She had hardly closed the door before she stumbled and collapsed onto her small bed.  When the rest of her body quieted down, she gently pressed the top of her wrist to her nose.  Crusted blood appeared as she pulled back to look.

A shower.  That is what she needed.  Groaning, she pulled herself to her feet and began to pull out the pins in her hair.  She peeled away the wrinkled black button up blouse, kicking off her small leather boots.  Her dark pants and, now well torn up tights followed suit as she waddled into the small bathroom.  There was one plus to being a Top Hat that she absolutely loved.  An unlimited supply of hot water she could use for however long she needed.  When she finally stepped into the small bath, her muscles relaxed in ecstasy.  The blood and dirt came off as she scrubbed away but the bruises remained just as visible as before.  It was as if they were reminding her of all the work she still had yet to achieve.  All the more mistakes she had made that day.

Lucy found herself sitting at the bottom of the tub as the water rained down around her.  Was she really cut out for this kind of business?  Could she really save someone? Or was she simply going to screw it up as soon as she even tried?  Her curls relaxed as the steam eased away her burden.

Lucy sighed, staring at the water collecting on the cream tile walls.  Her mother’s words tickled her mind.

…never give up and always keep fighting…

She pulled herself up carefully and turned off the water.  It was going to be dinner time soon and she couldn’t be late.

“Always remember that you represent us as the Top Hat Society,” Lucy mocked as she wrapped her towel around her and walked out to go dig through her dresser drawers.  “You must dress as if you were to meet the Queen of bloody England.”

Lucy pulled out a dark navy blouse along with a matching walking skirt.  She carefully buttoned up a tan vest to go on top of the entire look.  Carefully, she began to strap on the back of her hoop skirt.  “Well the Queen would be most disappointed to find I was in pants during all my training sessions.  Don’t see why I have to wear a skirt all the time for dinner.  I’m just going to be cleaning muck off the dishes anyways.”

As she finished pinning her bangs away, the Clock Tower chimed fifteen minutes to the hour.  It was time.

Lucy cracked her back once more before making her way down the hall.  At least her muscles were responding a little better this time.  Other boys popped out from their dorms in crisp button up shirts, fresh vests and well-fitted trousers.  Some were still playing with their cravats and neckties, others were joking with their friends.

“May I join you?” Brandon grinned as he came out of his dormitory room.

“But of course,” Lucy smiled back.  She was establishing a handful of friendships much quicker than she had imagined.  Of course, many of the boys were still wary of her.  Some even scorned her presence.  “How did training go today?”

“Oh, it went,” laughed the lanky boy. “I mean, it really wasn’t that bad.  But Thornton can be quite a stickler on how I start my flames.  He has his particular method and rarely goes around it.”

“I know what you mean,” she replied. “I am constantly memorizing ‘Vaan’s List of Demon Hunting Rules’.  It’s awful.”

“Just keep your head up.  So many apprentices would kill to have your master.  He’s a genius and extraordinarily good at what he does,” Brandon explained as they bounced down the steps. “It’ll be well worth it in the end.”

“Trust me, they would not be envious of me if they knew how many times I ended up slammed into a floor or wall.”

“We all start with our feet swept out from under us.  Seriously, just keep calm and carry on.  You’ll get there,” Brandon smiled handing Lucy a handkerchief.  “Your nose again.”

Lucy groaned in frustration and took the cloth, dabbing carefully at her sore nose. “I’ll try, but I’m not promising anything.”

“Good,” Brandon opened the door for the well-worn girl.

Apprentices were still shuffling around with sleeves rolled up to their elbows.  Sebastian and Adrian were two of those in charge of setting the tables.  The youngest arranged the silverware while the other set up the various glasses.  It was quite impressive to see, actually.  Some of the apprentices were arranging various candle and lights while others carried loads of hot stew to the tables.  It took a few more moments, but soon all were ready to be seated.

Lucy took her place next to Sebastian once more.  She had quickly learned there was an assignment to their seating though she had yet to completely understand it.  The room grew silent and her thoughts vanished.  The Top Hats entered from a side room door and took their places at the long table in the front.

“So there I was,” Sebastian grinned throwing his arms out. “Fighting off Lewis’s blows and I saw the opening-”

“Did you go for it?” Marley jumped in.

“I did,” Sebastian replied, sashaying his shoulders proudly.

“And let me guess,” Brandon smirked. “It was a trap.”

“Correct,” he said, pricking his broccoli with his fork, his smile still not vanishing.

“But?” Lucy asked, carefully sipping on some warm cider.

“But, I knew it was a trap.  That makes all the difference,” Sebastian plucked up the vegetable and started twirling it. “I knew it and countered it with Dragon’s Fire.”

“Ooh!  That’s a tricky one,” Boy added.  Lucy had not a clue what he was talking about but assumed it could only mean some kind of flaming magic.

“I managed to dodge the attack, putting him on the defense and clipped the edge of his coat tails!”

“Nice!” Marley high fived his friend while the rest of them broke out into a loud chatter.

Lucy smiled and nodded along with the conversation though her thoughts were elsewhere.  Her eyes wandered over to the Top Hat table.  Even they all appeared to be in a jolly mood.

Lewis was smacking Thornton on the back as the Weasel teased at James.  Vaan was in a deep conversation with Kivan, and Winston was explaining news about the latest demon hunting to Andrew.  When she turned to look down at the apprentice table end, Adrian was even enjoying himself.  So why was it that Lucy just couldn’t be happy?

Dinner ended and Lucy quickly stood and began to collect the various plates while Boy shuffled together the cups.

“I’ll see you and Adrian after dinner?” Sebastian asked as he stood.

“In the lounge?” Lucy asked, though she very well knew the answer.

“Bingo,” her brother winked before walking off to catch up with his friends.

Lucy felt her smile fall as she sighed and continued building her pile of dishes, carting them towards the large kitchen.

Other apprentices rushed around putting away various leftovers and preparing for the morning.  Lucy yanked down her apron from above the industrial washer and began her job of placing the plates, glasses and silverware into trays to push through the large machine.  Boy wasn’t too far behind and stood beside her to start his job of pulling out the clean loads and drying them off.

“You alright, Lucy?” he asked as she shut the weighty door and the steam hissed around it.

“I don’t know,” she admitted to him, waiting for the five minute cycle to finish as she prepared the new tray of dirty dishes. “I. . .I don’t think I can do this.”

Boy laughed heartily. “You have got to be kidding me!  Seriously?”

The young girl scowled at her bright-eyed friend.

“Oh, come on, Lulu.  I was only teasing.”

“Well, I’m not in the mood for teasing,” she bit back, lifting the door while Boy pulled out the burning hot tray.  She huffed and eyed Boy’s hands.”Doesn’t that hurt?”

“It used to, but I’ve had practice,” he shrugged. “That’s why I think this is all quite funny.  You are putting too much pressure on yourself.  It took me months to even begin to conjure up my first flame.  It took  you only a moment to find that passion.”

Lucy blushed in embarrassment.  He was right, after all, and Vaan had pointed that out the first day they had sparred together.

“That, Lucy, is just a hint of your potential . . .”

“I mean, that right there is pure talent,” he explained.

“Hah, not quite.  That was just the love of an angry older sister,” Lucy couldn’t help but joke.

“And your brothers are very lucky to have that,” Boy pointed out. “A sister to fight for them?  That’s amazing.”

“Clearly you’ve never had a brother,” she sighed, thinking about the bullheadedness of her brothers.

“Clearly,” Boy laughed stitch colder than he wanted to let on.

Lucy quickly caught herself and apologized. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean-”

“It’s okay,” Boy said, pulling the next rack of cups through. “Mum and Dad kept trying after I was born but. . .it just wasn’t meant to be.”

“Do you still go to see your Mum?” Lucy asked quietly. “Or did they make you. . .”

“I came from a very prestigious family of Top Hats,” Boy bitterly smiled. “So when Mum was told I would one day be just like Dad, she was thrilled.  They threw me a party and everything when I was getting ready to leave.”

“But surely you must miss her,” she pressed.

“Of course I miss her.  But there are rules, Lucy.” Boy sighed. “And when did this become about me?  Pass me the last few plates. I can take care of it.”

“Are you sure?”

“I did this all by myself before you came,” he reminded her.

Lucy hung her apron up and turned back to Boy.  Her hand traveled to touch the small pocket containing the last words her mother ever wrote.  “I’m sure she misses you too,” she told him.

Boy didn’t say anything, and Lucy left before he could.  But her words still resonated within him like the final ripples in a tuning fork.

©2016 E. M. Vick

Chapter XVIII: Respect

“Ow, ow, ow!” Lucy yelped as Vaan shoved her into a large wooden area.

“You will not disrespect me before your peers as well as mine,” he growled to her.

“Well, if you don’t respect me, why on Earth should I respect you?!” Lucy snapped back, rubbing her sore shoulder.   She glanced about the room, carefully taking in the emptiness of it all with its high windows and echoing floor.  Afternoon sunlight streamed in to give the area a golden hue against the red walls.  “Where are we?”

Vaan did not answer but simply slammed the door shut behind him, locking it.  The young girl grew pressingly nervous.  That didn’t sound like a simple metal mechanism.  More like a heavy impossibility.

Lucy’s heart skipped as her nerves crept up her back.  This was not a man to be taken lightly.  He could fight off phoenixes, he could talk to dragons, and he was far better than she in speed and attack.

But it was much too late for that now.  Lucy had sparked a storm.

“What are you doing?” the nervous redhead asked as the cloaked man crossed the room to a nearby gate, the light glaring off his glasses.

“Teaching,” he simply stated, putting a gloved hand on the wall.  A green flare jumped to life from his fingertips, igniting a web of subtly carved vines about the wall.

“What exactly is the lesson?” she asked, struggling to keep her voice leveled.  Her eyes darted to watch the flames settle – watching but also waiting.

“Respect,” hissed the Top Hat as he slammed his other hand onto the iron gate.  It groaned before creaking open.

Lucy’s stomach dropped as she searched the dark cove behind the metal opening.

“Your smell. . .” a voice crackled, “You smell so delicious…so delicious,” the guttural groan repeated as a drenched claw stepped into the light.

Vaan rested a finger against his cheek.  “I should warn you,” he clicked. “She bites.”

And without hesitation, a hideous demoness lurched forward, her crocodile grin snapping out as her jagged body crack to life.

Lucy shrieked as she leap to the side just in time.  What the hell was a demon doing in the Clock Tower?!

“Your soul,” it crackled. “Give it to me!” The female demon’s skin melted and harden like constantly changing clay, never quite keeping form.

Lucy quickly scanned the room for a weapon of any kind.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

“Give it to me!”the demoness shrieked, jumping at the girl once more.

Lucy stumbled back trying to conjure up her magic, she knew resided in her.  Yet, all she could feel was the icy worry of becoming the demon’s next meal.

So she did the only thing she could think of: she ran.

The demoness threw it’s body into the air and landed directly in front of Lucy.  “Do you think me aft, girl?!”

“Gah!” Lucy screamed, falling back.  She raised her arms to find a weak spiral of blue fire popping to life around her wrists.

“A Lady?” the creature spun it’s head like a curious owl. “Even better.”

“Please, stop.” she cried, trying to find her courage in the mess of her emotions. “I’m not afraid to fight.”

“You are practically quivering, my Lady.  Do not fear, you shall do quite nicely. . .in the pit of my stomach!” the demoness threw a claw out.

Lucy closed her eyes, awaiting the worse.  But then, the voice returned.

Do not fear them, Lucy.

Lucy felt her breath slow as she opened her eyes, split seconds passing like minutes.

Always look them in the eye, for what they truly are.

Her gaze darted up as her lips parted.  The fire inside her burned, but it moved much too slow.  It was too new, too fragile and chaotic.  And she knew it.  She understood now.

Never fear them.  

Before the nails could sink into her, a black fire sliced the entire claw off.  The demoness howled in anger as it turned it’s gaze to the Top Hat, as if it had noticed it only for the first time.

“You,” it growled. “Do not interfere Top Hat.”

Vaan didn’t reply but simply threw his arms wide. Lucy blinked incredulously as a steel disc, larger than a man’s head, materialized into Vaan’s hand.  Just as quickly as it appeared, Vaan spun twice around before launching the large disc with terrifying speed.  It slammed deep into the creature with a sickening crunch, sending the demoness sprawling back.   Before it could launch any sort of retaliation, Vaan was plucking at invisible strings, lighting molting red fires at the demon’s feet.

“Your heart is mine!” the once woman yowled as she ran, opening her mouth to reveal layer after layer of jutting teeth.

With the demoness only inches away, Vaan opened his jacket and slammed his unsheathed dagger straight into the creature’s heart.  Lucy watched as the glare from his glasses faded for a small moment to reveal a solemn yellow eye staring straight into the eyes of the demoness.  Only when the creature convulsed and began to fall apart into pieces of moor, did the bright reflection return to complete his mask behind his glasses, scarf, and hat.

There was a stillness between the two, while Vaan carefully wiped away the marsh on his dagger.  He bent down look at what remained of the female demon, finding a small sac made of what looked to be leather.  He carefully carved it open, releasing a weak pulsing light into the air.  It hovered for a moment, before fluttering into one of the beams of light and then vanishing.

Lucy didn’t have to ask.  She knew it could only be a soul.  A soul set free.  And Vaan had given it its freedom without even breaking a sweat.

“Teach me,” she whispered, breaking the silence.

Vaan turned to look at the renewed girl.

“Please,” she asked, her voice gaining strength. “Teach me.”

 

2016 E. M. Vick