The Fire Within

The Fire Within

As I mentioned last week, it’s been awhile since I checked in with several of my characters. Zita is another one that doesn’t get near enough love. So here’s another little tidbit from her past, involving the awakening of her powers.
. . .

“You know what it is don’t you?”

The statement snapped Zita away from her reverie. Without realizing, she had gotten lost in the glittering sheen of the gem she held. Its edges were smooth and round, though its points were still sharp enough to hurt if jabbed hard enough against the skin. Its sheen was silver-blue, almost white when the light shone directly on it, and bright as one of Earth’s oceans in other places. It was perfectly star-shaped, thick in the center and delicate where it thinned to all five of its points. It was small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. She could easily conceal it by closing her fist.

Humans would have called it moonstone, but the Imatria referred to this particular type of stone as cosmic tears. They weren’t particularly rare, but no two pieces ever looked exactly the same, no matter how carefully a craftsman worked them. This was one of the purest pieces Zita had ever seen, pure enough to be used as a mage focus.

“Of course I know what it is,” she snapped, glaring at the man who had asked the question. “And I also know I’m not supposed to have one.”

For all the anger swirling in her gut, Zita thanked the stars Zaren was such a patient man. He didn’t roar at her in response. Nor did he shake his head and click his tongue as if he were correcting a petulant child. Instead, his lips formed a thin, weary smile. There might even have been a hint of guilt in his eyes.

“I’m well aware of the council’s decision. My brother and I only started training two decades ago and at great protest. But things are changing, Z, faster than anyone anticipated. We can’t afford to wait on the council anymore.”

“I know the war isn’t going particularly well.” Zita chose these words with great care. It was an understatement, really. She wasn’t supposed to know that, but the empress had so few advisors left that more and more often, the job crafting orders fell to her and her sister. The empire was failing, crumbling from the outside in, its borders shrinking every day. And the Imatria, their final buffer against the foul summoners withered with shocking speed. Those who didn’t fall in battle seemed to embrace the taint of the foul forces plaguing their fellows, swelling the enemy ranks.

Zita couldn’t fathom what would cause her brothers and sisters to abandon their sacred duties in favor of greed and bloodlust, but she would rather not have to face the decision herself. She was content with the duties she served, even if they grew greater by the day. It may have been naive, possibly even foolish, but she was determined to ignore the unpleasantness of the war until it showed up on her doorstep.

Because it couldn’t possibly get that far. Zaren and the other generals would turn the tide before it reached the core systems. She simply couldn’t fathom a timeline in which the empire failed.

“But that’s no excuse to ignore our history, our culture, our very purpose for existing! That’s what got us into this mess in the first place!” She was yelling by the end, but she didn’t care. This was madness. She couldn’t possibly participate in it.

Zaren caught her hand across the table, closed her fist around the star-shaped gem and gently squeezed her wrist. “I can’t pretend to know how this war is going to end, Z. And right now, I don’t care. Our history and culture is as important to me as it is to you, and I want to preserve it. But more than that, I want to make sure you survive, no matter what happens. If this war has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t trust the future. We have to act quickly to protect the things we care about most.”

“What are you implying?” Zita demanded, jerking her hand free of Zaren’s grip. “You’re starting to sound like a deserter.”

“I will see my task through to the end,” Zaren replied, his voice hard and cold. “The only thing I ask in return for my dedication is to save the woman I love.”

Zita’s heart fluttered in her chest. She was caught somewhere between admiration for the bravest, most determined man she knew and desperation to avoid the topic he had thrown into her lap. She couldn’t do this. Not now. Not when there was so much at stake. Because listening to him would mean accepting that her world was crumbling around her and that the chances of restoring it to its previous stability had almost run out.

“We’re not even supposed to meet like this,” she pouted, a last ditch effort to escape the uncomfortable truth.

“Please, Z!” Zaren swept to his feet, stepped around the table in three swift steps and grabbed both of her shoulders. “Just let me make sure you know how to do it. If you never have to use the power again, all to the better. But I won’t be able to live with myself if I leave you defenseless.”

Zita’s heart thundered so loudly in her ears, it almost drowned out the last of his words. He was right. She had known from the start that he was. And there was some comfort in the idea of being able to defend herself if the wolves really did come calling.

She drew several deep breaths, staving off the panic that threatened to consume her, and set her free hand against his chest, pushing him backward. Silently, she moved to the center of the room, so that she wouldn’t risk knocking anything over. It wasn’t as if they had time to clean up if she flubbed her first transformation and knocked everything in the hut free of its shelves. Though some small part of her feared there were few people who left to take notice.

She extended her arms in front of her and opened her palm to reveal the glimmering moonstone. She set her free hand beneath it, as if she needed the extra support to hold up its weight, and locked eyes with its silvery gleam.

“Do you know how it’s done?” Zaren’s voice startled her, drawing a soft curse from her lips.

“Of course I do, dumbass. Neffi has been sneaking out of the house to practice for months.” And she had pretended not to notice, uninterested in yet another indication that her world had come undone right beneath her nose. “Now shut up so I can concentrate.”

Everyone with even a hint of magical talent learned how a mage focus worked, whether or not they had been granted one. It was important to understand the principals. Power would overwhelm the unsuspecting sooner or later. Most of her education had centered around grounding, around diverting the flow of energy and resisting it, since she wasn’t meant to use it. She was a historian and scholar, not a soldier or a guardian.

But it seemed in order to fulfill her first role, she would have to adopt another.

It was a simple matter of releasing her shields, of unbinding the channels that diverted energy away from her and allowing it to move through her instead. But you didn’t want pure, unfocused mage energy to flow through your body. That was dangerous.

Hence the mage focus. It purified the energy, solidified it, made it easier to manage. It formed a barrier between the burning heart of the universe and the mage attempting to tap it. That way, if something went wrong, the mage focus took the brunt of it. Better a shattered focus than a dead mage, or so the elders always said.

Despite numerous lectures about the breath-stealing, heady nature of touching purified power, Zita was still unprepared for how powerful the rush would prove. For a moment, her heart ceased to beat and her lungs ceased to draw breath as the raw force of the universe swept her away.

Energy blazed around her, through her, within her. A tingling sensation swept up her arms, across her chest and down her back. It moved through her legs and over her face. Her hair blew in a wind that seemed to have no source. And she was certain it was growing, flowing along the lines of energy as they formed armor around her. She had been told that the form a mage focus chose for its user was directly related to their inner perception. Perhaps that was why she looked more like her sister when all was said and done.

In the wake of it, she blinked, dazzled by how simple the process had proven, but under no delusions the next step would be easy. She shifted, glancing at the clothing the mage focus had formed for her, the flowing skirt, the long coat, the braided hair that nearly brushed the floor. Could this really be her? Or was she dreaming? Dreaming of a future she sincerely hoped would never exist.

“That was… fantastic,” Zaren breathed, obviously impressed. “I’ve never seen anyone transform on the first try. At least, not without knocking themselves from the center of the flow at some point in the middle. It’s disorienting as all hell, isn’t it?”

“I’m not entirely sure how I kept my head above the stream, to be honest. But it’s nice to know I can take the form whenever I need to.”

“Unfortunately, that’s just the easy part. Now you have to learn to control your power. And without proper lessons, it’s going to be a nightmare. I’m going to bet that’s why Nefazia keeps slipping off to practice. She’ll want to be noteworthy during her first altercation, if it comes to that.”

Zita shivered. “I don’t really want to fight, Zaren. It’s not who I am. I don’t think… I don’t think I can kill anyone, even if it means saving myself.”

He was in front of her again, his hands on her wrists, squeezing gently, his voice soft and smoothing. “I’m not asking you to kill anyone. All you need is one defensive spell, something that will protect you and give you a chance to run away. Look for that, deep in your soul, and let it flow out through the focus.”

He waited until she nodded to step back. Once again, she drew several breaths, trying to steady her arms and legs, trying to tame the wild flutter of her heart. She didn’t want to do this. But she had to. There was power inside her. The Imatria were born from the energy that bound the universe together and, thus, some piece of it followed them no matter where they went. It was what made the summoners so formidable.

All she needed was a shield. A good, strong, solid shield. Something to deflect the magic thrown at her by her former siblings while she slipped away. She already knew how to teleport; it was the one spell all of them were granted access to at an early age. How else were they to serve as diplomats for the thousands of planets that made up the empire? And how else would she have slipped through the night to meet her beloved and returned to her bed before the morning guard could note her absence?

Zita took one final, steadying breath, and reached through the mage focus. Like the transformation, she was familiar with the activation of the mage focus. She knew how to reach and how to pull. She knew how spells were formed. She knew she was supposed to let it come to her, let it take whatever shape it would. That she had to accept her element, whatever it proved to be, and work with however it chose to answer her.

But she was unprepared for the force that answered her call. This was no shield, no protective barrier. It was no wind either, nor a river. It was no stone, no wall, no tangible form.

It was fire. Consuming fire. Purifying fire. The fire of outrage, frustration and desire. Fire that would sweep the land clear, erase all the mistakes that lay upon its surface, and allow creation to start anew. It came from the heart of the universe, the brightest, most blinding force. The source of all life. The spark of all destruction.

Once it took root in her heart, she lost control. It poured from her in waves, circling outward. She expected the flames to consume her. She could feel them licking at her ankles, caressing her thighs and reaching for her shoulders. But she felt no heat. She did not burn, not physically, though her mind cried with horror and sorrow that so strong a force could ever occupy her soul.

Smoke filled the air, acrid and choking. So much for not making a mess; the entire hut was on fire, flames surging up its walls and across its shelves. The books had already turned to ash. The first tongues of flames had already begun to skitter across the roof, reaching for each other, trying to close their bright fist.

“Zita!”

At first, the name sounded alien.

“Zita, stop!”

How could she? The fire was set. And once it set, it was beyond her control. It would burn until there was nothing left to consume. That was how fire worked!

“Zita listen to me!”

Hands grasped her arms, shook her. A face appeared in front of her wide, wild eyes. Zaren’s face. His eyes were as wide as hers, full of panic, but his voice was calm. “You can control it, do you understand? How have to control it. You have to banish it, or it will keep burning forever.”

“I don’t know how.” Her voice was small, almost lost among the crackle of the flames.

“Stop fearing it.” Zaren’s voice was loud in her ears, though his tone was soft, reassuring. “The fire is part of you. It’s like your hands or feet. It’s like me. An extension. It will come when you call and it will leave when you ask.”

But how could she ask it to leave? How could she banish something that was such an integral part of her? How could she ask the fire to stop burning when there were still so many things wrong, so many mistakes to be corrected, so many frustrations she couldn’t tame? That would be like holding her breath for the rest of eternity.

“You can’t stop the fire from burning.” She didn’t know if she had spoken out loud, or if Zaren had merely continued to deliver instructions. “But you can control its spread.”

In a flash, she understood. She couldn’t stop the fire from burning because it was part of her. She was born with it. And so long as her heart beat, it would follow her. But she didn’t have to project it outward, didn’t have to let it consume her surroundings or the people she cared about. She could return it to the depths of her heart and, there, she could contain it.

A small eternity seemed to pass. Then she was kneeling on cool ground, gasping to catch her breath. Her face was wet with tears. The strange armor and long hair were gone. In the distance, wood crackled as it disintegrated into splinters and from there to hot coals and ash. Strong arms held her and she lifted her head to regard their owner.

“Don’t make me do that again,” she gasped, thrusting the mage focus into Zaren’s chest. “Please, dear gods, don’t even make me think it!”

With a soft sigh, Zaren peeled her hand from his chest and pressed the star-shaped gem back into her palm. “It’s yours now, for better or for worse, so you might as well keep it. I pray you never need to use it.”

He glanced over his shoulder at the smoking remains of their secret meeting place, and Zita got the impression he wasn’t the least bit upset by this turn of events. In fact, he seemed relieved, almost happy. “At least I know you’ll be able to defend yourself,” he murmured as he closed her back in his embrace.

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