Fire blossoms. I used to collect them by the basket as a little girl, wandering deep into the thickets that surrounded our little college. Deep red petals that faded into a sunset orange towards the stigma, I fashioned them with twine into pretty little bracelets and necklaces. I would braid them into my hair and manipulate them into decorations for the small table we gathered around for dinner most nights.
My mother appreciated my enthusiasm and complimented my craftsmanship, but she wasn’t keen on my venturing so far away from the home. We lived in a quiet village not known for its roving bands of brigands or intrusive predatory animals, but she insisted it was dangerous all the same.
“Brittania,” she said one night, sitting at the foot of my bed. “One day, you will have a Name Day and your gift will be something extraordinary. Something unlike the world has ever seen. You’ll have the ability to keep yourself from harm’s way and you will have no need of me or my worry. But until then, you are my little girl and your safety is the most important thing to me. Please listen to your Mama in these things.”
And I did listen to her. Sort of. I no longer wandered out during the day. I didn’t show off any more trinkets. Instead, I snuck out in the middle of the night and returned before dawn. Finding the flowers in the dark was a challenge I thrived on. I kept them in a box I hid beneath the floorboards under my bed. It was my guilty pleasure. My secret adventure.
I spent many hours out there just listening to the sounds of the night. The songs of the lunar swallows and the snapping of click toads. The rustle of wind through pine needles. The crunch of dried twigs under my feet.
And all the while, I wanted to know what this present was. Where was my mother hiding it? When would I get it?
She never told me. No matter how much I begged. No matter how old I got. She didn’t tell me when she got sick. She didn’t tell me when the armies from the East began pushing into the True Territories. Not even when I announced that I was leaving to try and do something with my life.
That was three years ago. I hadn’t done much of anything, as it turned out. I spent one Name Day in the arms of some scruffy grifter I had picked up a couple months before. He had spent the whole day trying to convince me he was the present I would come across that would empower me and protect me. I once saw the man swindle the last few coins out of a traveling family because he wanted a new pair of snakeskin boots.
Yeah, safe to say I packed up my things and left the next morning before that idiot slept off the drunk he had worked up.
Things didn’t get much better from there. I bought a map off a poor forger and spent the next several months getting lost and traveling in the wrong directions. I ended up in the path of the Eastern armies and, in attempting to get away from the stories I had heard, found myself lost in the deepest parts of the Ghostwhisper Valley.
It was a nonsense name, of course. Not that I don’t believe in ghosts, but I spent a couple months living off the land in there and the scariest thing I came across was the savaged body of some kind of wild pig. That wasn’t the work of ghosts. It was a mangled link in the food chain.
Still, there were worse things than ghosts. I was finding that out tonight. The Eastern armies had moved into the valley as well, probably to try and circle around the next city they wanted to take. I had been foolish and kept my fire burning. The same flames that got me to thinking about fire blossoms had attracted the attention of some unsavory company.
I could see them in the shadows, their twisted, ugly armor standing out in what moonlight broke through the canopy. There were rumors that the army was not comprised fully of human warriors. Fanged monsters and green-skinned animals that walked on two legs were supposedly responsible for razing entire villages and plundering whatever supplies they could.
Surrounded as I was, I don’t suppose it mattered much if they were man or beast. I was looking to be in a predicament I couldn’t get myself out of. I was disappointed as they circled closer, as chuckles rolled through the darkness that crawled like spiders across my skin. Disappointed that I would never know-
And that was when the flames of my firelight exploded upwards in a sudden burst of energy. The forms around me shrank back, a few even yelping in surprise. Just as quickly, it extinguished itself. The forest was plunged almost entirely into blackness.
Sparks spiraled downwards, like little red eyes glinting at me. They filtered their way down, past my head, my shoulders. They fell to where my hands fidgeted anxiously by the knives at my belt.
It was there that their descent grew lazy. Their glow grew brighter and they swirled faster. Around my hands, closer and closer to the skin no matter how much I tried to shake them away. The air around them glimmered and in a flash everything up to my elbow was engulfed in flame.
Strangely, it didn’t burn. In fact, I felt no heat at all though I knew, somehow, that the temperature would be unbearable for anyone else.
I looked up slowly, back to the figures around me. They had stopped completely. Though I couldn’t make out their features, I could see that some had lowered their weapons, stupefied.
Was it my Name Day again already?
“Huh,” I said.
—Happy Birthday, Britt.