by A. G. Laroy
We don't need violence to harm others; we don't need evil intentions to act like villains.
V - Storm.
Once Hollowston lay a safe distance away, Lyra let go of the sob that had been building in her chest.
She was just so utterly useless. Truly, what did she achieve today? Disappointed Falco (twice), got caught trying to sneak into town hall, and wasted everyone's time. They might've been able to learn more about the Conflict if she just hadn't been so clumsy. What a wasted opportunity!
And how frequently she had been treated like a child! Everyone had looked to Falco for guidance, even though they were the same age!
Falco's voice echoed in her head. Little one.
She stood on the meadow somewhere near this morning's landing site. How promising everything had seemed back then, how exciting. And then to be treated like dirt by everyone they met. Jeff's hostility during their first encounter, how he had regarded her with such clear disdain. She knew she shouldn't care about what people she didn't know thought of her. She really shouldn't. There were a lot of things she shouldn't have done that day.
Lyra screamed into the wind, and the wind screamed back. Standing on that hill, overlooking the village, she felt like a giant. Ferocious gusts of winter winds caressed her, greeting her like a long-lost friend. Here, where houses and streets couldn't force it into artificial patterns, the air was free and wild, succumbing to her every whim. Her curls whipped around her head, blowing her worries away. The gemstone glowed around her neck, dimming gradually.
The world spluttered to a halt around her, the rushing in her ears stopped. She stood in the eye of the storm. Icy breezes nibbled at her rage, the cool air helped clear her mind. An eerie stillness settled into Lyra.
After twenty minutes of standing like this, letting her temper cool off, worry for her friends started creeping into her consciousness. Looking back, she might have overreacted, storming off like she did and leaving Falco and Gabe to finish the job they'd been sent to do together. They were about to confront someone they knew to be dangerous and willing to harm others. She ought to be there with them.
A bird of prey flew over her head, possibly a hawk or a falcon. It circled her a few times, then flew off in the direction where the Benson's farm stood. Her friends would surely be there, waiting to intercept Jeff. She set off in that direction, her emotions now more contained.
Lyra had been walking for five minutes before she sensed a single presence up ahead. A moment later, she caught sight of John. He waved at her; too late to hide. She let him approach, furiously thinking of an excuse to get him to leave.
"Are you all alone?"
Lyra nodded, fighting to keep her annoyance at bay. Him being here was less than optimal.
"Thought I'd enjoy a stroll around the area. Trying to clear my head."
"Your friends somewhere close by?" Something had changed about him. There was a bit of a hunted expression in his eyes. His gaze kept flickering away from her face, like he wasn't listening to her.
"I'm not sure where they are. I kind of lost them." Her gaze briefly swept the surrounding meadows, hoping to spot two familiar shapes, before turning back to John.
John's eyes flitted downwards again, as they had the morning they had met, and it took Lyra a split second too long to sense his intentions, a split second too long register what he was actually looking at.
He lunged at her, an outstretched hand aimed at the crystal shard resting against her collar bone. Two things happened simultaneously: Lyra angled her body sideways, trying to dodge John's jump; and she instinctively threw up her hands, kicking the air behind her into action, blowing a sharp slap of wind into John's face. Her reaction had been too slow. What hit his face was more like a puff before his fingers caught part of the chain. A terrible tug, a stinging sensation as thread dug into flesh, and then her necklace snapped, sending the pale shard into the snow.
Panic filled Lyra as she put the pieces together, her thoughts racing. It felt like time slowed down.
Her crystal flew in a shallow arc, glistening in the late afternoon sun. John must have noticed her crystal during their first meeting. The quartz sank into the snowy blanket, thankfully not shattering on impact. John had realised they were looking for him, that morning when she had asked him about the fires. She just had to keep the tiny hole in the snow in sight and she could get her crystal back. John had waited for her, tried to get her alone.
Lyra reached for her crystal as heat seared the air around her, a wall of flames missing her fingertips by inches. The side of her face burned as if she'd been slapped. Wide-eyed, she turned to face John. Without her crystal, she felt slow and blind. She should have felt the air molecules move the moment John had heated them up, way before the fire reached her. This was wrong.
John was a foot away, standing amidst steaming grass, the snow evaporated by the heat of his fire. He held a lighter in his left hand, his right palm outstretched in her direction. Something in his pocket glowed a bright orange.
"I knew it," he whispered. His face had gone slack with awe. He hungrily stared at the patch of snow where her crystal had landed. "I knew it the moment I saw you. Flying!"
Lyra cursed herself. Just her luck that the one person who shouldn't have seen crystal powers in action had seen her. John took a step forward, eyes still trained on the spot where her crystal would be. A deep indentation in the snow gave it away.
Lyra acted on instinct, despite her better judgement. Every cell in her body screamed at her to get to safety, to appease this mad arsonist, to do everything except anger him. So she did the opposite. She kicked a generous load of snow and dirt over the spot, then dove in the opposite direction as a fireball landed where she had stood moments before. The grass burst into flames, snow melting and instantly evaporating.
John forgot about his prize, turning slowly in her direction. Rage burned behind what she had once considered kind eyes, had once reminded her of herself. Lyra knew, whatever happened, she had to stop him from reaching her shard. His reckless way of wielding the crystal, his disregard for collateral damage, already made him a dangerous opponent. If she lost her crystal to him, she had little hope of getting it back.
She yelled into the aether, praying either of them were close enough to hear her. This was no time for precisely honing her friends' location. John ignited his lighter, gathering the flames in his free palm before aiming it at her. It was like a high-stakes game of dodgeball, except she wasn't allowed to even catch the ball or she would lose. She had to stand her ground until the last moment before diving to a side. She hoped John wouldn't figure out he could control his fire balls even after they left his palm, that he could simply keep them trained on her if he wanted to. But even then, he was bound to see through her trick eventually.
John fired at her without warning. She dodged, throwing herself to the ground, then scuttled forwards as the meadow behind her caught fire. Rising heat prickled at her back. How much longer could she keep up with this dance before she collapsed? Her muscles were already aching from constant tension, tiny hairs on her face singed from standing too close to the flames. The scent of burning shrubbery began filling the air, its soft crackle growing stronger.
A tiny voice inside her head sobbed quietly, but adrenaline kept her moving, kept her alive. To his next attack she reacted a split second too late. Her left shoulder caught fire. She hastily shrugged off her coat before diving for cover from the next fireball. The stench of burning hair filled her nostrils.
Lyra kept moving in a circle, keeping a distance of about ten feet from John. Burning grass around them indicated her struggle for life. If she kept leaping to the same side, she knew she would soon be trapped by his fires. But it was one thing to know what she should be doing; another thing entirely to convince her body to move according to logic, not according to get-me-out-of-here-I-don't-want-to-die. She needed a miracle.
As if hearing her plea, the nearest flames sizzled and died as a splash of water landed next to her. Lyra and John were both taken aback, standing frozen in place. An angry rumble ran through the ground, then John was knocked off his feet. A strong hand grabbed her arm and Lyra felt like she might cry from relief.
"Please don't say 'I told you so'," said Lyra as Falco pulled her close to his chest. She left sooty prints on his jacket when he let go of her. Her friends' stunt had bought them time, but John was coming to his senses again. The flames around the meadow began burning brighter than before. Even though yesterday's snow was sprinkled throughout the pasture, many patches had melted throughout the day, leaving behind bare plants the flames licked at hungrily.
Standing here with Falco and Gabe at her sides, she felt braver, like this challenge was much more manageable. Yet John still posed a danger to everyone, including himself. It took weeks of training to even begin controlling a crystal's powers, to not succumb to its temptations. One wrong thought, one sloppy movement, and he was likely to blow himself up. The wildfire had spread to the outskirts of town, John's lack of control already allowing it to grow untameable. Clouds of smoke were rising around them. They had to act quickly.
Gabe stepped in front of Falco and Lyra, one hand resting on his now open waterskin. With a fluid motion, he withdrew a slim trickle of water, allowing it to hover next to him. "Try me."
Narrowing his eyes, John aimed a fireball at Gabe's face. Water shot forwards, snaking through the air, hitting the fireball right in its heart. Gabe had had a lifetime to perfect his skills. With trembling hands, he let water to rise all around the melting meadow. In quick succession, he shot well-aimed droplets towards John's lighter, hoping to quench the source. But John caught on and ducked out of the way. Gabe took the time to let some of his water rain down on the patches burning closest to Hollowston.
While John was preoccupied, Falco raised earth walls around the village, erecting protective barriers from the strongest flames, but they were sloppy, wettened by melting snow. Lyra sensed how hard he had to concentrate to keep them standing, remembering how Falco said moving damp earth was difficult for him. She tugged at his sleeve. There was a way he could help her more effectively.
"I've lost my crystal."
"How did you - "
"Just help me find it, please!"
"Duck!" yelled Gabe. John shot a well-aimed fireball in their direction, and Gabe threw his hands forwards, a stream of water meeting the flames. As ember shot over their heads, Lyra realised Gabriel was bluffing. His water was running out, and the fire was turning the puddles around them into steam. John grew bolder, his flames burning hotter. If he had enough imagination, he would have already used the burning meadow to end this. Only his inexperience had kept them alive so far.
"I can feel it... There!" Falco made a pulling motion with his right hand, and the ground obeyed, a patch of earth snaking towards them like a raindrop running down glass. With a flick of his hand, her crystal shot towards her. Lyra caught it, clenching it in her hand so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Courage flowed through her, her ears popped. She felt her power return.
And not a second too late. A cascade of air molecules suddenly shot skywards. Gabriel yelled a warning the same instant Lyra threw her free hand up, creating a protective barrier of sheer wind in front of Gabe, Falco, and herself. The massive fireball exploded as if hitting solid rock, scattering fire in every direction. Smoke filled the air as the grass around them caught fire. The roar was deafening.
Both of her friends had been knocked over when she'd shielded them. Gabe got to his feet, groggy and unsteady, blinking sluggishly, but otherwise unscathed. Falco lay next to her, unmoving. His skin was ashen, his blond curls matted. His eyes were closed.
Terror spread her chest, a cold hand clutching her heart. Filled with dread, she probed outwards with her kanoth. A sign of relief escaped her when she found Falco still alive, though unconscious. Gently turning his head to the side, she discovered a tiny trickle of blood running down his temple. He must have hit his head on impact. Cold rage settled into her. This would have to end now.
She rose, keeping her eyes trained on Falco's unconscious face. Blood roared in her ears. The air was growing painful to breathe. She was starting to sweat, even though she was only wearing a shirt at this point. Through the fog that clouded her senses, she heard Gabe yell, heard water steam as he protected her from another fireball. His eyes were glassy and unfocused. Lyra could tell he tried to control some of the puddles forming around them, but they were too far away, and too small. His waterskin was empty. Time was up.
She looked up at John and found all fear gone. Deadly certainty had settled into her eyes. John stood ten feet away in a ring of fire, dancing flames keeping them separated. He raised his hand and Lyra mirrored him.
You have no reason to move.
His muscles locked up, his left hand spasming and dropping the lighter. Where there had been rage and euphoria a second before, he now looked at her with pleading eyes, dread etched into his face. She felt him wriggle, trying to resist her grip on him, but her resolve was like iron. She dove deeper into his mind, breaking rules that she had been told to uphold during the past six months.
She saw his childhood, saw his home, all his possessions go up in flame; saw him clutch his brother as they huddled under a blanket, a firefighter talking to them in a low voice; she saw an older John go through chests of everything that had been recovered from their home, coated with an inch thick layer of dust; she saw him reach down as if compelled, grabbing the russet coloured crystal; saw him unleash his feelings on an unlucky tree, all that pent up anger at the injustice of it all; saw his relief, how much stronger the crystal made him feel. She saw all these familiar images, saw those familiar emotions, and she felt no compassion for him. Him, who had tricked her, tried to steal from her, who had hurt her friends. This was the only way.
This ends now.
Her intent was clear, cutting through his resolve like a hot knife through butter. Give up the crystal shard. Move away with your brother. Start anew.
Her suggestion took hold, falling onto rich soil and blooming brightly, shadowing John's own plans and wishes. When he went limp, Lyra relinquished her hold on him, like a cat letting go off a slain mouse.
John's eyes glazed over. He reached into his pocket and drew forth the crystal, letting it sit on his outstretched palm. The meadow was still very much aflame, but most of it died down, allowing Lyra to step through the circle around him. She let a light breeze whisk most of the smoke away, simultaneously stoking the surrounding fires.
As soon as she grabbed the shard, John turned around and stalked away with an unnatural gait. She felt no satisfaction.
Without a second thought, Lyra reached outwards, searching through Hollowston for any on-duty firefighters. This was the fastest way. She found five men on their lunch break, subtly implanting their minds with the idea that they might need to check the surrounding areas. They would be here soon enough.
Gabe stood with his mouth open, stunned. She could sense the gears in his head turning, could sense him figuring out what had happened. A strange expression crossed his face. She furrowed her eyebrows trying to decipher it, but then a groan caught both of their attention.
Within a second, both Gabe and Lyra were at Falco's side. He sat up slowly, rubbing his forehead, a glassy expression in his eyes. "What happened? Did we win?"
Lyra dropped her prize into his lap. All this trouble for such a tiny thing.
"Wha - how?"
"I convinced him to give up," said Lyra, shrugging. "Guess I'm powerful enough after all."
Falco looked up at her in alarm. "Lyra, tell me you didn't. We've been through this. You need to control yourself, you can't just - "
"What do you know?" Lyra cut him off. She was getting tired of hearing the same monologue over and over again. She found his approval no longer held the same meaning to her as it once had. "You were knocked out, and Gabe here was all out of water. We would have died if it wasn't for me. I had to do it!"
"Not like this." Gabe's voice was barely louder than a whisper. He shook his head, staring at her with wide eyes. His lower lip quivered like he was about to cry.
"Guys, we won!" She looked back and forth between them. Both had the same expression on their faces, and now she recognized it. It was the same Neiro had worn when she had lost control, that morning that felt like a lifetime ago. The one that Falco and Gabe had shared after the incident with the firefighter. They were terrified. Of her.
But this time, she found it didn't faze her. She had saved the day, and wasn't that all that mattered? A quick shake of her head scattered nagging doubts. No, this was good. It had felt good. What kind of person did her actions make her? Someone who protected her friends. Maybe the end did justify the means.
She stalked past Gabriel and Falco. "I need some time alone," she said without so much as a look back. Her knees bent, she pressed her palms against the warm earth and pushed up, shooting skywards. Storm clouds were gathering on the horizon, and soon they would be called to her like children to their mother. Her gemstone shone brightly in the darkening sky.