Disclaimer: I don't own Pokémon, but I'm grateful for such a beautiful world to play in.
Written for Pokéwrite's Summer Fanfic Contest - "Heat"
My first memory is of burning alive.
I was seven, and though I know the years before then existed, I can never seem to look past that red night in the haze of my recollections. Terror and pain engulf my mind in red-hot panic every time I try. As if I am still burning, ten years later.
The pain is the strongest memory, but little flashes of sensation stuck with me beyond that. I remember the color of molten flames, the smell of my burning arm, and the winged shadow with his terrible roar. Drakul. In the old language, it means demonic. A fitting name for the man-eater Charizard who terrorized our holy land. My brother, a strong man even then, drove the creature away, destroying one of his eyes with an arrow. I don't remember that part, but the story has been told so many times I can almost picture it.
No one knew if I would survive the burns. When I lived, they called it a miracle. They told me I was lucky to have my arm. After weeks of fever dreams, hallucinations, and constant agony, the thought of being 'lucky' was a bitter one.
In many ways, my life began in those flames. Because the girl I once was died, and a stranger took her place. I was forged in pain, scarred both inside and out. The sheer terror of being burned alive never left me, and in my desperation to survive, I fought to be better in every other aspect of my life. To prove I deserved to exist, despite my weak heart that dared to feel fear.
The pain made me stronger. I had to believe that.
Drakul was never caught. After a while, his rampage died down. Sometimes the faint echo of his roar would wake me with a jolt of terror.
I could never tell if it was real, or just another nightmare.
Kailua told me I didn't need to come into work today, but to be honest I needed to follow my normal routine. Pretending everything was fine got me out of bed this morning.
The crisp scent of herbs didn't quite mask the stench of my patient's scorched hand. I dabbed on the shockingly yellow poultice despite his hiss of pain. "Ginger root's antibacterial properties fight infection, while occa-berry paste numbs pain," I recited calmly. "The turmeric powder minimizes scarring."
A grunt was all I got from my patient, a burly man who looked decidedly green. "Change the wrappings twice daily, reapplying this poultice." No response. I gave up, tying white bandaging around the wound with quick whirls. "Aurelia, can you—?"
Ice blossomed over the gel pad before I finished, and I smiled. My patient snatched the pad with a relieved groan. I couldn't blame him. Burns were the worst type of injury on earth.
I played with my Ninetales' swirled white fur absently, chilling the scarred fingers beneath my gloved sleeve. She always sat on my right side, a white shadow never far from my reach. As a Vulpix, her breath soothed my terrible burns. When I got older, and the flashes of agony persisted in memory, her chill helped me come back to earth. Away from the nightmare of—
I broke off the thought, shuddering in familiar terror. Aurelia hummed, pushing her elegant nose against my hand until my breathing steadied. Her icy-blue eyes stared at me with eternal calm.
My heart twisted, knowing I'd have to leave her behind today.
"I don't need to leave yet," I responded automatically, brushing my dark bangs aside. "There's some herbs I could grind, and the floors need sweeping…"
"You swept already," Kailua reminded me, the soft wrinkles at the corners of her eyes tightening. The healer's many skirts and scarves whispered like dry grass as she moved aside. "Your parents are here."
My throat tightened. "Oh," I managed. After a heavy pause, Kailua sighed.
"I'll give you three a minute."
Before the door shut, I had my bag over my shoulder, pushing past my parents to get outside.
But I didn't want to hear it. I hurried down the steps, wincing in the harsh noon light. Heat shimmered from the red sandstone streets, but that was no surprise. It was always hot in Sunfire Village.
Battle cries and gouts of flame seared from the training fields, but I knew not to look that direction. Little groups of Torchic scouted the dry gutters for bits of yellow corn, scattering as I stalked past. A lazy Monferno on a rooftop stared at me, roasting a berry held in his tail.
Without missing a beat my father caught up to my furious pace. "No time for your old dad?" he joked, trying to crack my stony expression. "We just came by to wish you luck."
I snorted at that. For weeks they'd been trying to talk me out of this. Telling me to wait another year, or reconsider entirely. Legally, I was a child for four more years. Unless I passed the Trial. "It's the truth," he insisted. "Well. Mostly." He backpedaled at my stormy glare, holding up his hands in surrender. "We're just not sure you're prepared."
I didn't answer right away, grimacing. Physically I'd do fine, but we both knew he wasn't talking about that. "I can pass by myself. I won't need help."
"Surviving the Emberlands isn't easy without a partner. And to climb the mountain, you need to bond with a fire Pokémon."
"Maybe I don't. No one has ever tried not to," I replied halfheartedly. We'd had this conversation before. "Besides," I said, changing the subject, "you always say the Trial is the best thing that ever happened to you."
He smiled distantly, and my mother blushed, finally caught up despite her shorter legs. "True," he allowed. "Without it, you kids wouldn't have been born!" I knew the story by heart: my mother disappeared during her trial, and my father found her on Hariheti during his, weeks later. A miracle, they fondly called it.
The winged shadow of a Charizard passed over us, and my limbs froze. After several agonizing seconds, I remembered my breathing techniques, and the attack subsided.
Just a normal Charizard. Not him.
I whirled, facing my parents. "I can't stay here, okay? I can't." I clenched the fabric that always covered my burned right arm. "I love you…but Sunfire is the one place I don't belong. We're fire masters! It's like this place was designed as my own personal hell!"
"And as fire masters, no one understands burns better than we do. You've gotten so much better, Indra. Time was you couldn't even light candles, and now you can build a campfire. One day you'll be able to tolerate, and even battle with fire. Who better to help than experts?"
I wavered. He had a point. My parents had always supported my healing—even trading a valuable Magmortar to get a rare Alolan Vulpix for my therapy.
"You're not the only one who's been badly burned, Indra," my mother added in, mildly reproving. "The attack was ten years ago. It's time to let go, move on with your life."
Even mild words stung, stabbing at old wounds. Pain flashed through my grey eyes. "I plan to!"
At sunset, it was time.
Rich incense burned in the candlelit room, heady and strange. The village elder expertly traced patterns on my dark-skinned arms in bright-red henna. My sleeve lay on the ground, exposing my burns to the flickering firelight. I felt naked without it, exposed, despite the tunic draped over my slim shoulders. She traced slower over the ridged scar tissue, each movement precise and perfect.
"Within the holy Emberlands, no poké balls are permitted," she intoned, painting the cold henna paste up my ruined shoulder. It dried instantly, crackling into dust and leaving vivid scarlet lines behind. "Tributes must travel to five shrines, symbolizing heat, warmth, destruction, burning, and ashes." She indicated five symbols adorning my left arm as she spoke.
"Drink the ash-water at each shrine to summon a keeper, who will assign a task. The themes are constant, but each trial is unique. We cannot tell precisely what you'll face."
I knelt in the center of the ritual circle. My parents sat behind me, next to my older brother, Deo. The elder continued her mantra. "At each trial, you'll experience visions, hallucinations, and a greater connection to fire Pokémon. Befriending Pokémon to aid your journey is encouraged. One may ascend Hariheti with you, and bond with your mind forever. The master of Hariheti will grant a request to those who pass, and a title…according to its own judgement."
Her gnarled fingers brushed my spiky bangs aside, towards the long locks framing the soft curve of my jaw, painting an ancient symbol on my forehead in ash. Power tingled from the mark, shivering through my bones like cold lightning
I opened my grey eyes, looking at Agni's sorrowful features. She pressed a cold ceramic bowl into my hands. Black water swirled within, like liquid night.
"Your Trial by Fire begins now, Indra Kerrigan."
No time for regrets. I lifted the bowl and drank deep. The ash-water tasted of sulphur and pine. A wave of vertigo rocked through me. The bowl clattered, slipping from my numb fingers. My face rested against the floor, though I couldn't remember falling…
Voices floated through the haze, filtering and overlapping like a dream.
"—just want what's best for her."
"Such a shame she's doing this alone. Ilaria should have taken the trial with her."
"Quiet! She might hear…hasn't she been through enough? Perhaps it's a blessing she doesn't—"
Darkness slammed over me then, and I knew nothing.
I awoke alone in the volcanic desert beneath a star-dusted sky.
My lethargy faded slowly. I lay in the center of a stone pavilion, the ceiling bared to the heavens. I sat despite my pounding head, hissing with discomfort. I panicked, but my black sleeve covered my disfigured arm, same as always. The one exception to the normal rules I'd been granted. The thought of seeing my arm every moment was a nauseating one.
I ran my good fingers over the soft, grey fabric of the tribute's tunic, with long slits from my hips to the hem at my legging-clad knees. Laced brown boots hugged my calves, and a flexible belt encircled my waist, with a simple pouch. I checked inside—an empty canteen. Great.
I tested the edge of the single obsidian knife that would see me through the entire trial, and switched the sheath to my right side. I wasn't left handed, but my right fingers couldn't grip well. I'd adapted, with time.
And finally, I bowed my head and let myself be afraid.
The Trial by Fire was more than a ticket to adulthood, and permission to leave. Part of me had wanted…no, needed to prove I could do it. Taking on this challenge was my final goodbye to Sunfire.
If I could do this, I could do anything.
I found the path stretching towards the faint horizon, and set off into the wilds.
The vast volcanic Emberlands was strictly off limits to the outside world. My mother told me every species of fire Pokémon known to mankind was found within, as if drawn from every corner of the planet to the strange energy humming through the fiery landscape. No one outside Sunfire could explore the outskirts, and only tributes were permitted to travel through the heartlands, aside from those who'd earned a title from Hariheti. During a Trial, it was empty.
It was strange to think how alone I was. I remembered my mother's long disappearance, and shuddered. Teleportation brought me in, and the only way out besides a two-week trek meant forfeiting the challenge at any shrine. And I refused to do that, at any cost. Whatever dangers there were, I needed to overcome them.
Night obscured the terrain to subtle impressions as I loped along the barren trail, trying to be both fast and invisible. The ash-water was already affecting me. I knew without looking when denizens of the scorched land regarded me with shining eyes, and the general direction of the Shrine of Heat. The mark on my forehead was warm despite the cool air.
With no one but the land and children of flames to hear me, I opened my mouth and sang. Quiet, at first, my voice picking up volume as my confidence rose, until the night rang with each sweet note, carried high to the cold white stars above. A holy song, in a language long dead, its familiar words made haunting by the very lands that had inspired each lilting croon.
Immediately, I felt my stress begin to melt away. Singing was my one true escape, the only thing which allowed me to understand things like relaxation and serenity—it was both a wonder and a stabbing wound, to realize other people could feel like this all the time. My song continued, though I kept a close sense of the fire Pokémon around me, never completely off guard.
As such, I had a few moments of warning when the stronger ones came.
A terrible howl cut through the dying notes of my song. I hid behind a stone outcropping as a Houndoom pack tore across the desert, chasing a fleet-footed Scorbunny who left flaming prints across the sand.
It was close—the largest Houndoom's slavering jaws caught a tuft of fur from the Scorbunny's tail. I watched with morbid fascination, my heart in my throat, but their prey was fast!
A familiar roar boomed over the desert, and my heart stopped. My blood was frozen, my limbs paralyzed, and though time stopped for me, the world continued onwards without my permission!
The Houndoom scattered with yips of terror, their prey escaping between the stones, and I crashed against the ground. I clutched my head, curled into a ball of terror, sickening waves of sensations washing over me in a burning tide.
No, no, no! It wasn't possible!
But it was. Even as my mind screamed it couldn't be, I knew. It was him. Drakul was here!
A Houndoom's yelp broke off with a strangled gurgle, and I choked back a sobbing whimper.
Wingbeats thudded over the desert, but long after they disappeared I stayed hidden, straining my senses for any whispering sound.
I thought I was too shaken to move, but the moment I stood I ran. Heedless of danger, I ran, putting as much distance between me and the wet stain on the sands as possible.
Drakul hibernated until summer. He'd never hunted the Emberlands before May, not in the eleven years he'd roamed this region.
Unless something had changed. Unless he'd seen me, or sensed me, and was coming back to finish the job! My arm screamed in phantom agony, and I choked back helpless tears—
And stopped, the beat of my footsteps fading to a rest.
Breathing helped. Four in, four out, as slowly as I could.
Drakul didn't know me. I was a child then, just one of many victims.
Several full-grown Charizard hunted here. But only Drakul was dormant in the spring, for reasons unknown.
It couldn't have been him. My terror was driving me mad.
My pounding heart refused to slow, but I forced myself to step off the path. Focus. I needed to focus! The indigo sky betrayed the coming dawn. Soon the deadly sun would rise, and I needed water.
A streambed cut through the brush, dry as bone. I smiled.
Half hour later, I returned to the path with a belly full of hot water, and a sloshing canteen. A large hole gaped in the streambed, the bottom shimmering and steaming. Most of the water here was naturally sterile, thanks to the volcanic source. The sulphur taste was off-putting, but bearable.
Shelter was my next priority. I was determined to sleep the sunlight away in the shrine. I brushed my silky bangs aside, and set off towards the faint mental beacon calling me towards the horizon.
I told myself the far-off roars were my imagination, but jogged the path anyways. There was more water before long. Sunlight cut across the desert, sending shafts of rainbows through hissing steam vents, and milky streams bubbled and spat between thickets of cactus. I harvested prickly pears, carefully carving away the tough spines.
The first leg of the Trial was easiest, but I still floated on air by the time I reached the hidden shrine just four hours after my journey began. Sweat dripped down my neck, but I grinned. I could do this alone.
The Shrine of Heat was a simple pavilion carved out of midnight stone, with a single pedestal beneath the domed ceiling. When I stepped inside, the etched carvings shone, matching the glow of my hennaed arms. My forehead burned as I knelt before the pedestal, whispering the ritual prayer. Ash-water welled up from the pedestal, cascading into the bowl at its base.
From here, I had no idea what to expect.
The black water tingled as I drank. Vertigo rocked through me, but this time I didn't fall, accustomed to the effects.
I shrank backwards as a shining Pyroar appeared, crafted of translucent blue light. His slanted eyes glittered as I stared with open astonishment. His voice echoed directly into my mind.
"My name is Koda, Keeper of the Shrine of Heat. Your trial is simple." Suddenly I stood on a mountain, the moon above too big and blue to be reality. The Pyroar stepped aside, revealing a flaming pyre with a stake thrust into the center.
"Burn, Indra. Hold yourself onto the stake, and don't let go. Endure 'heat', and only then will you pass with my blessing."
Giving up was intolerable, but working up my nerve was a slow process.
"It won't hurt like real fire," Koda assured me, for the third time. He gnawed on a spectral bone, lounging on the star-washed plateau. "Not that most people could tell the difference. You have experience. Better prepared than most, if you ask me."
I hadn't. I glared halfheartedly at the lazing Pyroar.
Apparently drinking the ash-water allowed the Shrine Keepers to know everything about the tributes, something I wished I'd known before. The trials were personalized, each one unique. The Shrine of Heat had the least variation, although the situation to experience 'heat' changed depending on Koda's mood.
"You have until the moon sets," he reminded me again—I hadn't known Shrine Keepers would be so talkative! "You won't physically burn either. No more scars. I haven't seen so much scar tissue in decades! Drakul never hurt a child before that day, or after for that matter. But then it was a…special case. Why, when I was alive—"
Something snapped when he mentioned Drakul. I stalked towards the pyre, strode onto the bed of simmering coals without thinking, and grabbed the stake. Warmth seeped through my soles, not quite burning. "Good," Koda approved. "Don't let go. Try again when you fail the first time—until the moon sets, that is."
His lazy lack of confidence irked me. Flames curled from the embers, hungrily snapping at my legs. I gritted my teeth so hard they creaked, my fingers tightening convulsively on the stake. Heat passed through my bones and scorched away at the surface of my skin.
It began to hurt. I bowed my head in silent pain as the flames leapt higher. Koda was right—it wasn't the same, nowhere close, but still it burned! But I wouldn't scream, wouldn't give him the satisfaction of failing—!
I should have known it would trigger my memories, but I never expected them to be so strong.
Agony seared all rational thoughts from my mind, and I was seven again, burning alive under Drakul's clawed foot. The illusionary flames danced, but I screamed with a different pain until my throat was raw, burning and mindless in agony—!
The stake crumbled to ashes beneath my scarred fingers, and I collapsed sobbing to cool stone. Koda waited until I lay silent, ashamed to my core. He licked his chops, yawning wide.
The blue moon vanished and I jolted awake. I was back within the Shrine of Heat, kneeling before the basin. The first symbol on my left arm shone gold. I rubbed my tears away with a shaking arm, standing.
A heavy object slammed against my temple, and I fell hard.
I didn't pass out, not completely.
Until the needle pierced my neck, and I knew something was very wrong, before—
When I woke, ropes bound my arms and legs. Filtered voices reached me through my stupor. I lay in some kind of large tent, the edges not quite touching the ground. I cracked my eyelids, keeping my breathing steady. What was going on?
I couldn't make out the low conversation until the topic changed, and became heated.
A freckled girl with wild red hair faced off against a heavyset man. "I'm telling you, she's a tribute from Sunfire! We need her!" Her impatient tone implied this wasn't the first time she'd said those words, and knew it wouldn't be the last.
"We got what we came for. Cut her loose, and let's go." A deep voice, dismissive and biting.
I turned my attention away from my attackers. Piles of shaking poké balls lay in the corners. Stones and fossils ripped from the land were strewn across tables, by broken plants and sacred berries. Trinkets and treasures sat primly by a row of ATVs, categorized with little numbers.
Dawning anger swirled through me like a sickness, and it was a struggle to keep my breathing still. Robbers. Outlanders. Here, of all places! I tested my bonds, and found them solid.
But they hadn't taken off my gloved sleeve. I wiggled carefully, letting my burned hand slip between the fabric and the ropes. Ever so slowly…
"She's our ticket up the crystal volcano!"
"It's too dangerous. That monster is still after us. I've heard him flying, though he hasn't seen through our camouflage—yet! The sooner we leave the better." The man stroked a tan backpack reverently. "You sure this is the statue, Fiona?"
My hand slipped free. I pulled at the ropes binding my other wrist to my ankles, but my right fingers weren't strong. I could sense the trapped Pokémon's fear, and grimaced.
"Stole it right from the one-eyed Charizard's den," she confirmed proudly, and my blood froze. "Same bag as the report. Boss insists we wait for him to open it. Its aura could be dangerous. Rumor claims its light can burn flesh to the bone. Hey, be careful, will you? There's some kind of padding inside, but it's still fragile! Do you have any idea what that's worth?"
"Millions, I'd wager. This little treasure got that Charizard's trainer killed, but no one ever found it. Until now. I hear it's carved from black gemstone, and shines with veins of immortal fire. It's called—"
"Blaze," Fiona finished impatiently, snatching back the bag. "And that beast is not happy I stole it…hey, what was that?"
I froze, my heart pounding. My ash-mark burned, and I fought back a whimper. Energy hummed from the bag, strange and alive. Similar to sensing fire Pokémon, but not as powerful. But fear grew in my heart.
I knew each shrine would increase my sensitivity to fire energy, letting me sense emotions and power. I didn't know I could call them from a distance, even subconsciously. From the moment Fiona mentioned him, my mind echoed with a name. He'd already been close. Searching.
A whining pitch grew louder every second. My eyes snapped open with horrified realization, and I dropped my sleeping act to yell, "GET DOWN!" The outlanders whirled, and the camouflaged tent burst into hungry crimson flames. Drakul's roar nearly drowned out their screams, as he ripped and tore at the canvas, a demonic beast silhouetted against the twilit sky.
My knife hacked away at the ropes. Chaos reigned as outlanders attacked Drakul from outside, bellows and attacks booming through the smoke-stained air. Fiona grabbed the bag, making a dash for the exit. I saw flames shooting towards the ATVs, and rolled underneath the tent's edge the instant the ropes broke, sprinting for a few steps before the shockwave of the explosion knocked me over.
My ears rang. I dragged myself to my knees an eternity later, tasting dry dirt. My hand came away from my temple slicked with red.
I raised my head, and saw hell.
Drakul battled the outlanders, if it could be called 'battle'. People and Pokémon littered the ground between the flames. I stared at Drakul as he burned, and felt his hatred and pain in my bones. He rose into the heavens, dragging a helpless Mightyena in his claws, and for a moment, I imagined myself being carried away instead.
I bit my tongue, snapping myself out of my trance, and ran towards the destruction.
"Hey!" I shouted, my voice hoarse from the smoke. Fiona groaned, shrapnel piercing straight through her arm. She'd been thrown to the middle of the camp during the explosion, in the midst of destruction and death. "Wake up!" Nothing. I slapped her hard, and light returned to her glazed brown eyes. "Get the others out of here," I howled. "I'll help. GO!"
She nodded numbly, scrambling to her feet. The Mightyena's corpse hit the ground smoking. Drakul's bloodthirsty roar thundered off the cliffs. Others began to stir, and to her credit, Fiona took charge. "This way! Get into the caves, follow me!" I stayed behind, rousing anyone who would wake. The heavy man from the tent barreled past, two of his companions under his arms.
They fled as Drakul rounded for another pass, and I was hot on their heels.
I sensed it, then. The power thrumming from the bag called to me. Blaze.
I faltered and fell, still unused to the increased power of the ash-mark, losing track of where my power ended and "Indra" began.
I saw the man turn, realizing something was wrong, and sensed Drakul diving towards my back with murderous intent. I rolled away, my grasping fingers snagging the abandoned backpack. I shielded myself with the priceless statue, whirling to face him. "NO!"
Hot air gusted over my face as Drakul back-winged to a stop in front of me. Fire broiled in the back of his throat as he hovered in place. Cinders and blood streaked his rough scales, interspersed with slashing scars. The monster glared at me with a single eye, but I didn't back down.
Drakul snarled ominously. "Go ahead!" I shouted wildly, flinching at his movement. "Kill me! But I'll crush this as I die, count on it!"
Drakul landed. He roared at me, gnashing his teeth while his fiery tail whipped through the smoke, but didn't approach.
I knew I had him, then.
Lightning shot through my thundering heart, and I clutched the bag for dear life. His hate rolled over me, but we both knew he wouldn't strike to kill!
I stole supplies from the wreckage, and released the captive fire Pokémon back into the Emberlands. They were long gone, not that I could blame them.
Drakul watched me from the cliffs like a demon in the night.
Sleep was impossible. I turned towards the Shrine of Warmth, led by the ash-mark, and tried to pretend he wasn't following me.
What was I going to do? I couldn't let go of the bag, but keeping it ensured he'd follow. Waiting for his chance to strike.
I could give up the Trial. But I knew I would never be able to attempt it again. Not after this. I'd be trapped in Sunfire…and in my own fears. Forever.
The lump in my throat made it hard to breathe. My whole body shook as the adrenaline faded. I walked anyways, locked in torment. Every so often, wingbeats sounded behind me.
Drakul's presence kept the other dangers away, at least.
Blaze warmed my back even through the backpack, but I despite my curiosity, I dared not open it, lest the rumors of its flesh-melting aura be true.
Because it did have power. I could sense it, if faintly. Fiona had stolen something precious, indeed.
I hiked to the Shrine of Warmth shortly before dawn, exhausted and emotionally savaged.
My goal was right in front of me, on top of a cliff.
I stared with hollow eyes. Drakul landed a distance behind me, rumbling savagely. For a terrible moment I despaired. But I knew I couldn't stall long, or my exhausted body would refuse to move.
After plotting out the safest course, I tried to climb. My muscles shook, and I fell more times than I could count. After half hour without getting a foot off the ground, I crumpled.
My right arm couldn't hold me up. It was impossible. Grief overtook me, and I almost didn't notice the scuffling behind my back.
I whirled, and Drakul was right behind me. He snarled with frustration when I caught his stealthy advance, back-winging as I slashed with my pitiful obsidian knife. "Stay away!" I shrieked, my voice cracking. He roared in response, little stones clattering from the cliff to fall around my feet. I threw a rock towards him in a fit of anger.
Hate burned in my chest and I gritted my teeth.
I refused to die here!
I looped my belt around my right wrist and the hilt of the knife, pulling it tight with my teeth. I slammed the blade into a crack, lifting myself. The belt yanked at my wrist, but it worked. I reached high with my left, never letting myself rest on the right for long. Before long my arm screamed, but it was too late to back down or falter—a single mistake would send me plummeting to my death.
By the time I pulled myself over the top, I was shaking with fatigue and soaked in cold sweat. Drakul circled high above, watching—no doubt wishing I'd died.
The shade within the Shrine of Warmth was welcome, and the entrance too small for Drakul. I was safe, for now. I knelt gratefully, whispered the prayer, and lifted the basin to my cracked lips. Sulphur and pine flowed through me, and an ethereal Flareon took shape.
"Welcome," she greeted sonorously. "I am Nairi, Keeper of the Shrine of Warmth."
Misty clouds of gold whirled as reality shifted. Nairi sat, reminding me faintly of things I could not name. Like an old friend, long lost. "Warmth is not purely physical. It resonates through our hearts. We are better for it. Your trial is this, Indra. Appreciate the good in something you hate."
Blood roared through my ears. "What?" I deadpanned, cold anger dripping off the word.
"Hatred hurts, doesn't it?" Nairi mused, hopping to a golden cloud. "But there is good in all, for pure evil does not exist."
I forced myself to focus, despite disagreeing. Appreciating Drakul was impossible! "Fire," I whispered. "I hate fire. But it's…useful. For heating water, or cooking."
"Reciting what you think might be true won't work," she scolded. "Your heart does not feel your words. You must believe, and feel warmth."
"I do believe it!" I retorted, exhaustion shortening my temper. "Fire is…" Useless. "Valuable!" Electricity could heat water and cook better. Fire was destruction and pain, eternal hunger just waiting to burn anyone who got near—!
"Liar," Nairi chided, my true thoughts staining the clouds black. "Hate fills your heart. Scars are no excuse for the poison in your soul."
I opened my eyes to the empty shrine as Nairi's final words echoed over me.
Nairi wouldn't reappear, no matter how I begged. Eventually I slept, until evening dulled the terrible heat of day. It was hard to get up. I wanted to melt into the stone.
It couldn't be over. Nairi couldn't do this!
I set off towards the next shrine, despite the red glow of the second henna symbol. The Trial wasn't over, even if I'd failed one measly task! Everything would be fine. It had to work out!
Drakul followed from a distance, always watching…
With the second shrine, my sensitivity to the land grew stronger. I could see heat rising as faint colors, creating eddies in the dry winds. I knew without looking where magma coiled beneath the barren land, and when water was too hot to drink. I knew Drakul hated me, and all humans. I didn't care enough to wonder why.
The third shrine was the most dangerous of all.
My grey eyes closed, and I clutched my sleeve tight. The Shrine of Destruction lay in the center of the Firewhirl Ravine.
I stood above the terrible fissure carved from gleaming obsidian. Magma rivers glowed below, and great spires of black glass pierced towards the sky. Geysers of flammable gas ignited in the magma, and fire screamed in whirling tornadoes in the erratic winds through the bladed canyon.
I'd find no water within. Only the strongest fire Pokémon dwelt in the black canyon. But there was no time to waste. I climbed down the thin path, inching my way along the cliff wall as the red sun sank down the endless burning horizon. Ignoring my pounding heart.
Drakul roared his protest, and my flinch nearly ruined me. Worried about his statue, no doubt! I gritted my teeth when he dove into the ravine, clinging to an obsidian spire to glare at me with his single flinty eye. A fiery whirlwind seared through the ravine, heat blossoming on my skin, and my first panic attack nearly bowled me over the brink.
The edges of the cliff were viciously sharp. My hands bled from inching along the narrow trail, a yawning drop towards lava always on my left. Drakul soared between spires, growling constant complaints as I progressed. Threatening.
Under so much stress, it was no wonder I slipped.
One wrong step was all it took and I fell screaming through the scorching air of the ravine. One thought made its way through the mindless horror—I'd failed! My family's faces winked past one by one, the last image blurred, dark, and unfamiliar, and then—
Drakul's claws nearly tore my arm from its socket, and I shrieked with a different kind of terror while we arrowed through the ravine. I snatched at the backpack, yanking it away from Drakul's grasping talons, clutching it to my chest. A flaming whirlwind erupted between the spires, interrupting our struggle, but Drakul pivoted neatly past the howling inferno. My stomach dropped when he dove straight for the lava below.
He deposited me unceremoniously at the dark pavilion without slowing. I tumbled end over end, protecting the warm backpack unconsciously with my own body. I rose as soon as my shaking legs would respond, whirling just in time to see Drakul vanish over the high edge of the ravine.
Only then did my heart slow, though it still threatened to beat its way out of my chest.
I stumbled shakily into the Shrine of Destruction, collapsing just inside. Drakul couldn't follow here.
But he'd saved me.
No. No! He'd saved his trainer's statue. Blaze. Why did a Charizard have such a thing anyways? Maybe he thought it'd grant him power. My stomach turned with disgust. Creatures like him were all the same…
Once my gasping faded, I managed to choke out the prayer and drink.
"Welcome, Indra, to the Shrine of Destruction," the Houndoom guardian greeted me. "My name is Nava. I see you failed Nairi. You may continue, but you cannot pass without the Shrine of Warmth. Do you understand?"
Weight slammed against my heart as my last hope died. "I do," I whispered, swallowing back terrible tears.
Nava nodded. A fiery whirlpool erupted from the stone. The Houndoom spirit paced the edges. "Fire starves and consumes. To pass this trial, burn something you love."
My stomach curled, and I clutched my arm.
Tributes had nothing of value. Except ourselves.
"A limb would be an acceptable sacrifice," Nava confirmed, reading the direction of my thoughts. But her wording gave me pause. "Ah, yes," Nava laughed. "There are many answers. No, I'm afraid your hair won't do. You don't care about it."
I paced, letting my sleek ponytail drop from my fingers. Others had passed this trial without deformity. Maybe…
"No," Nava answered, scolding. "Some pass by sacrificing a wild Pokémon, but you have no love of fire breathers. What can you offer the flames?"
I knew, then. I just didn't like the answer.
It took more time than I cared to admit to work myself up to it. I didn't know who I was without my crutch, my protection…
But the thought of failing here too, of returning to Sunfire like this…terrified, battered, and in shock…that, I couldn't live with.
I slipped the dark sleeve from my arm, exposing the melted burns and ridges of my deformed skin. The hidden scars on my torso tingled with memory. I felt exposed, like my soul's protection had been ripped away. Nava laughed as I threw the fabric onto the flames, sealing my decision in destruction.
"There is no turning back now, Indra!"
I escaped the Firewhirl Ravine alone; Drakul was waiting for me. My arm burned, ugly and deformed in the light, but I was done with tears. "Let's go," I snarled, stalking along the trail. The next shrine was faint, further away than any before.
Our truce was tenuous. Drakul sniffed at my scars, and I nearly stabbed his eye out with my knife. And when I tried to open the bag to see Blaze, my curiosity getting the better of me despite the rumors, he nearly bit off my head. I didn't try to peek again, though warm emotion still emanated from the statue, almost alive. It seemed stronger—or maybe, my empathy had merely grown.
Fire Pokémon approached often, drawn to the shining henna and the telepathic field I emanated. Their thoughts whispered through my mind like the wind, but every time one came too close, Drakul frightened them away. I didn't mind. I had no intention of bonding with a fire breather.
The desert shifted with colors and heat after the third symbol shone gold. I could taste the shape of the land on the wind, and hear the creak of the earth. Faint visions of people and Pokémon long dead flickered over the ashen sands. It was beautiful, and humbling. I would miss this when the Trial was over.
I'd nearly forgotten about the trespassers, until instinct warned me of their presence. I hid in the mouth of a dormant cinder cone to wait. Drakul was hunting nearby, out of sight. After a time, they came to me.
Fiona was there, her arm bandaged tight. The wind played through her wild red hair. I knew the man by her side was the 'boss', before she spoke, barely within range of my hearing. "The tribute will be headed to the next shrine…but I don't know where it is. If we find it, we find her."
"Unless she gave up." Their leader was tall, with sharp green eyes and skin so deeply tanned it nearly matched my own. Fiona laughed at that.
"Not her. You should've seen her, Vorg. Saved my life, and a half dozen others. She has the eyes of a warrior queen and the power of a tribute. She's still here; I'd bet my life on it."
"Curb your admiration. She has Blaze, and we aren't leaving without it. Leave the monster to me." Vorg rested his hand fearlessly on a dusk ball. I couldn't sense the Pokémon within. Not a fire type, then.
I felt bad for Fiona, her trespassing aside. They'd never get the drop on me now that I had three shrines under my belt.
Drakul's impatience grew as two days passed. I survived off the land, eating cactus fruit and wild berries. Nights were cold, but the ash-mark kept me warm. I slept in small caves during the scorching noon, where Drakul couldn't reach me.
I knew he wanted to fly me to the next shrine, and end this mocking truce all the sooner. Being near him was hard enough—I refused to touch him! We were stuck together for now, but we would do this my way.
At night, during our breaks, I sang. My voice was my one true beauty; music, the love of my life. The world fell away when I sang, until nothing existed but each lilting note ringing through the night.
Strangely, it calmed Drakul's terrible rage. When I sang, his bloodlust vanished, and he simply listened. It was a powerful feeling, conquering the beast, but underneath was a terrible sadness I could not explain.
Sometimes, he even hummed, a throaty murmur that complimented my song well, in a strange duet. But when the music ended, we were enemies again.
The exposed red rock and sulphuric springs dominated the landscape as we traveled. The earth rumbled fitfully, and geysers reached for the stars in violent bursts of power. Talonflame played on the hot air currents, poisonous Salandit scurried around hissing, toxic vents, and dull-eyed Numel ate cactuses whole, spines and all. Darting Fennekin stared frozen as we passed, and vanished like magic.
It felt like a lifetime since my normal life, and I saw the desert with new eyes…
I prayed at the Shrine of Burning four days after the last, kneeling reverently before the cool black pedestal.
"Indra," the keeper greeted, a ghostly blue Torracat with an echoing voice. "My name is Amir. You've come a long way. But most give up at my shrine."
I snorted. "I already failed. Still here. Try me."
The runes in the pavilion shone bright, opening the walls wider still. "Behave, demon," Amir instructed, and Drakul lumbered inside, glaring hatefully.
"I can't be under an illusion while he's here!" I protested hotly, clutching the bag to my chest. The hard curve of Blaze pressed against my ribs through the padded fabric, and I had to remind myself not to cling too hard.
Amir leapt from the pedestal to the ground. "Worry not. This trial affects you both. Normally my power connects individuals across the world. Conveniently, the one you hate is here with you today. At the Shrine of Burning, you must experience the worst pain of your greatest enemy. And they will likewise see your soul. Will you take on my trial, Indra?"
"No, I—!" I broke off, breathing hard as my muscles went rigid. Spasms shook my scorched right arm, and I held it tight, my head bowed. Why should I? I'd already failed once. What was one more failure? I couldn't pass anyways!
"I do so hope you continue," Amir drawled, kneading his claws into the stone. "Drakul has never thought about his victims before. He deserves it."
My head snapped up, my lips tight with sudden resolve. "Do it."
And at once I was falling, with no time to second guess my rash decision!
Agony washed over me, alien and familiar all at once. I saw Drakul's trainer in life, a man who loved to sing, and then his mangled corpse! Killed by humans, by greed, but that wasn't all. Drakul's fiery mate, murdered in the sands that same spring day, her eggs crushed to splinters! He'd never liked people, except for him, and now he hated them. I saw hunters burning, especially the cruel and greedy, hunted and sacrificed in the name of his murdered heart.
And then I saw myself, and my heart rebelled.
I fought against the illusion, but could not break free. I watched in anguish, and understood against my will!
The glass spirals burned into the sand were a memorial, a grave for the loved ones he'd lost. I was so small, my silky brown hair a bob around my curious face. Building sand castles on a grave I hadn't known existed. I saw his terrible rage and heard my childish screams. The arrow drove him away in a flash of hot pain.
But I was not the only one playing in the sand that day!
A shadow was by my side, a figure I couldn't see! Before I burned, the shadow died beneath his claws, protecting me, and I couldn't remember them.
"You pass," Amir stated as the illusion broke, but my shout stopped him from fading. Drakul fled in a leathery rush of wings, faster than I could have imagined, but I didn't care!
"WAIT!" I begged, reaching out. "Who was that? Why can't I see, even with the power of the shrine? Answer me!"
"Your mind bears terrible wounds, Daughter of Ashes," the Torracat said thoughtfully. "Continue on to the final shrine. Perhaps you will find answers…or perhaps, those memories are better kept in shadow."
He vanished, leaving me torn apart and questioning my sanity.
Drakul didn't come back.
I'd grown used to his presence without realizing, but his sudden absence brought no peace. I was jumpy, expecting him to appear from every shadow.
I refused to think of Drakul's memories, locking them away. I didn't want to know him. I didn't want to identify the damage in his soul as the twin of my own! He was everything I hated, and I couldn't bear to recognize myself in his shadow.
I tried hard to forget…
With four shrines, fire Pokémon obeyed my wishes. I knew their hearts, but my scarred soul kept me distant. Stronger ones resisted, and I knew Drakul would not obey like the others.
The hallucinations I'd been warned of began in earnest. I saw trees and old civilizations like ghostly images over the desert and flickering hints of the future. The statue on my back exuded heat, and the bag shifted and groaned like the earth beneath my feet. I was afraid to look at it, fearing the terrible hold it had over me. I almost wished Fiona hadn't saved it from the explosion.
Instinct drove me to the edge of a grand prismatic pool. The bright yellow shore faded to red and green near the edges of the turquoise waters. Energy hummed within, resonating with my ash mark. I dipped my cut hands beneath the cooler waters on the edge, and my wounds steamed and vanished. I left blisters, bruises, and cuts behind, refreshed and strengthened.
As I trekked towards the final shrine, the volcanic plains changed. Ashes coated the land, mixing with the sand and billowing like snow in the faint breeze. My skin glowed, emanating from the shining henna.
But the Shrine of Ashes was destroyed.
I walked through the rubble gingerly. A note was pinned to the shattered pedestal. I flicked it open.
"We have the ash-water. Come to Hariheti."
I knew who it was from. My fist crumpled the paper.
Vorg wouldn't control me. I stretched my tribute's power to its limits and asked for help.
Rebuilding the shrine took hours, even with the fiery denizens of the Emberlands. Infernape and Darumaka stacked black stone, while Slugma created molten mortar. Dozens of species helped, following my instructions. I banished them when the work was done, but the pedestal couldn't be repaired so easily.
I repeated my prayers in a whispered mantra, stilling my mind of every sensation but the cold-burn of my ash-mark and the lines of henna on my arms. A tiny pool of water rewarded my efforts. But was it enough?
I drank carefully, hoping for a miracle.
A wispy Torkoal materialized. His slow voice creaked with age. "—name is Rud. Through fire new…can be built. Ashes become earth…becomes life. Through destruction…is born."
I opened my hands to see a scattering of tiny stones. "Bury these in the ash lands. See for…"
I wasn't under an illusion. I stood, unsure, but obeyed. My heart was bleak as I walked into the desolate ash lands, ravaged by some volcanic upheaval.
Fire consumed all.
I planted the first stone, and light bloomed. For a moment I saw the majestic candlebark tree that would one day grow, and was stunned to stillness.
I sang while I searched for prime spots to plant. My voice caught in the winds, haunting and alone. Drakul was near, but out of sight. Listening.
The final note of my song faded across the ash, and I knew something had changed between us since the Shrine of Burning. The beast's bloodlust raged no longer, replaced by strange emptiness, like the charcoal remains of the scorched land. He was almost…
I strangled my senses, slamming the door shut on my abilities as far as I could.
Some things could never be true! Better not to give myself hope, or believe! I shut out Drakul's mind as I planted the final seeds.
The mark of ashes shone gold as the last candlebark vision faded away. I sensed Rud's slow nod of approval.
Drakul's wings sent a flurry of ash spiraling upwards as he landed at my side. I couldn't block his emotions entirely.
Remnants of hatred still burned within, but he wouldn't look at me. And when the wind picked up, he shielded me from the sand with his vast wings. I huddled beneath, my teeth gritted against painful memories.
Four golden marks shone on my arm, and one red. There was only one place left to go.
I stood on the small hill bordering the Shatterglass Plains, phantom fire gleaming around my skin like aura. The ash-mark on my forehead glowed behind my windswept bangs. Hariheti gleamed in the distance, a vast crystal volcano with streams of magma visible within. Lights danced under the prismatic surface, said to be the souls of our dead ancestors. I wondered if my light would shine inside, someday.
My boot crunched on the chunks of clear glass surrounding the volcano. Crystal ridges and boulders hid the base from view, shining brilliantly in the morning sun.
Rainbows scattered across my dusky skin and melted scars, and I ran to my final trial, Drakul roaring a challenge above my head.
My crunching steps were loud, but it was no wonder they didn't hear!
Thunder cracks boomed across the glass plains, too regular to be natural. I crept closer on the curved crystal basin surrounding Hariheti's entrance, observing my foes from above.
There were thirty or so outlanders, standing back while their boss tried to break into the sacred volcano. Though the path was open, his mighty Haxorus slashed against an invisible shield. Vorg waited with crossed arms. Impatient.
Drakul anguished as I stuffed the canvas bag deep into a small cave. His teeth gnashed, keening from his spot above the ridge. I closed my eyes, telepathically promising him again he would get the bag once I ascended Hariheti, if he helped.
I'd been worried about surviving the exchange. Now I wondered if Drakul would attack me at all…
Quashing such thoughts, I reached for the power of the volcanic earth. The henna on my arms flared to brilliant life.
I'd had enough of these trespassers. Defiling our sacred land was bad enough, but breaking into Hariheti was a sin so grave my blood boiled. It was my duty as tribute to crush their ambitions!
I sent out the call, linking me to the fire walkers of the Emberlands, and they agreed with my righteous fury!
The volcano rumbled with ominous agreement when the fastest arrived, soaring over the basin on fiery wings, and stampeding through the ravines on diamond-hard hooves. The outlanders scattered, taken off guard by the surprise attack. Shouts of shock and anger melded with the mechanical hiss of poké balls, and battle clashed in the basin.
I stood on the ridge above, shining with fire-light and cold anger. Vorg saw me as Drakul rose at my back, shooting flames up towards the sky, and knew I hadn't come to make a deal.
Haxorus turned, but two snarling Arcanine blocked his path. Fire exploded from a hundred different throats, and I squeezed my eyes closed, shuddering.
The power a tribute could wield was terrible indeed.
A Talonflame caught my raised hand, soaring me into the basin. Drakul covered us, blocking friendly fire and enemies alike, snarling viciously. I hit the ground running, aiming to get into Hariheti in the confusion.
Vorg spotted me, shouting orders—
And my hands hit the invisible barrier.
The ash-mark on my forehead burned. I couldn't pass without claiming a partner, the one Pokémon I'd maintain a mental link with forever.
I cast my senses out, desperately. Anyone would do! The Haxorus slashed through the fray, barreling towards me.
Drakul dove, landing powerfully before me.
And I could no longer ignore his mind! Shame and sorrow rocked over me, and terrible regret. Drakul bared his throat in supplication, begging for my forgiveness in an act so humble it shocked us both.
Time seemed to stand still.
Agony rocked through my arm, fire flashed through my memories for the thousandth time, and I couldn't do it! "I don't forgive you!" I shouted, stepping back while hot tears pricked at my stormy eyes. "You took everything from me!" My emotions hit Drakul like a meteor, and he recoiled from my pain! I hurled my words like stones, my voice raw, screaming at the demon who'd haunted my entire life! "I HATE YOU!"
It was the truth. We both knew it. Tears ran down my cheeks, and I stared at him in terrible realization.
Vorg's shout broke the moment. "If I can't use a tribute, maybe her blood will open the gate!" Fiona grabbed his arm, but was slapped aside to fall against the earth. Vorg mounted Haxorus to pierce through the crowd.
Drakul whirled to meet him, his fiery tail whipping through the blistering air. Flames burst from his jaws, away from his opponent, shooting directly into the cave above hiding his trainer's priceless treasure.
I stared, wondering at the strange move.
But the one-eyed Charizard soared high, fire flaring around his scarred hide. His light rivaled the noon sun. He dove from the heavens, his terrible Flare Blitz striking Haxorus like a falling star.
An explosion of fire, light, and sound rocked the basin, and silence fell as everyone stared at the aftermath.
Fiona covered her mouth, choking back a sob when we saw Vorg was dead, along with his draconic partner.
I stared numbly at Drakul's still body, not knowing what I felt as I waited for a breath…and saw none.
A hard, tense knot inside me relaxed at once, leaving me shocked and free.
My clear voice finally broke the silence. "Get out."
Fiona flinched, her cheeks flushed scarlet with grief. "Don't you know what's up that volcano?" she demanded wildly, begging me to listen. "This is more important than…than tradition, or religion! The good that power could be used for…the lives it could save!"
Firelight gleamed over my skin and shone molten from my eyes. I stood strong as the fire Pokémon surrounded the beaten outlanders. "Leave this place," I demanded wearily, the full power of a tribute cascading through me.
She bowed her head and shook with grief.
Fire Pokémon escorted them to the border. A few stayed near Hariheti. Their curiosity nagged at me, but I walked away and climbed the basin's trail.
It was midnight before the heat from Drakul's sudden attack faded from the crystal, and I could finally enter the cave where I'd hidden Blaze.
The bag was gone, burnt to nothing.
Instead of the statue I'd expected, a crimson egg rocked in the ashes, unharmed by the flames.
I hated what I'd become, even as I considered breaking the egg and the demon spawn inside.
My arms clenched tight around my knees. I sat against the cliff wall and stared at the ground.
Drakul had abandoned his hate, something I still couldn't do. Even now fire breathers revolted me, as if engrained in my bones. In the storm of my emotions, I hated them all.
The Trial by Fire had burned away my self-delusions, forcing me to see my flaws in perfect detail, and I was ashamed. Nairi was right. I couldn't see good in flames. Here I was, a broken girl who wanted to destroy an egg just because I'd been burned as a child!
I didn't deserve to pass the Trial. I wasn't sure I deserved to live. I was too broken. Inside and out. Just like Drakul had been.
I wondered if the statue had ever existed, or if it was destroyed long ago. Drakul had lost so much—it was no wonder he protected his new child so fiercely, wrapped in the last remnant of his trainer's memory.
Fiona had never found Blaze after all. But she'd stolen something equally precious, in Drakul's eyes.
Maybe he'd only forgiven me so I'd take care of his egg. Drakul was old, and the Emberlands harsh. Securing his child's safety may have been his goal all along…
I was so locked in my thoughts, I almost missed the shattering shell. Fire bloomed as the little Charmander fell to the stone in a huff, the tiny flame on her tail flickering to life. She yawned, exposing tiny fangs, peering up at me with wide-eyed curiosity.
A happy trill escaped her throat.
Emotion shuddered over me. I stifled sobs with my hand, tears dripping over my burned fingers.
She was an innocent. A baby, who had never known pain or fear!
It reminded me of a little girl building sandcastles…
And this time, I was the grieving monster, with the choice to inflict pain on another.
At once, I knew I couldn't let her end up like me.
My hate vanished, because I could not hate her, any more than I could despise the child I'd once been. I picked up the little Charmander, to her writhing delight, and painted the ash symbol on her forehead to match my own.
"Together then," I murmured, the warmth in my chest unexpected and kind.
I made it to the crystal peak of Hariheti as sunset burned across the Emberlands. A final shrine rested in the shallow glass crater, exposed to the heavens. Blaze lit the ceremonial pyre with a burp of golden flames.
"Welcome, Indra," a Flareon greeted, his voice echoing and wise. He shifted into a Ninetales, then a Quilava, his translucent body changing with a thought. The master of Hariheti regarded me with interest. "Your journey has been long. Now we'll learn if the flames have purified your weaknesses."
Five circles shone in the crystal. The Shrine Keepers materialized one by one. Koda spoke first. "She withstood heat."
"And sacrificed to destruction," Nava added.
Amir licked his paw. "She learned empathy through burning."
"And created life from ashes," the Torkoal, Rud, finished.
Nairi stared, and I bowed my head in greeting. "Tell me, child, what do you desire now that your journey is through?"
I'd thought about that exact question the entire time I climbed the glass tunnels to the peak of Hariheti. My words were sure. "I want to be able to forgive Drakul."
"He is dead," Nairi murmured, but I shook my head.
"Not for his sake. For mine. Hate makes me cruel. I want…to be better. Forgiving him will let me be happier. I think I understand that now."
Nairi nodded. "She appreciates warmth."
The red symbol flickered to gold, and wild hope bloomed in my heart.
The Shrine Keepers vanished and the master of Hariheti sat before me as a Charizard. "Then by my strength, I grant you one wish. Choose wisely."
I'd forgotten the wish when I failed Nairi's shrine, but I didn't hesitate. "Take away the scars in my heart and mind!" I begged, for never had I desired something more! "Let me be free of this pain!"
"That is beyond my power," he confessed sadly. "Time will heal the wounds in your heart. But scars in the flesh are a different matter. Hold out your arm, Indra."
My lips parted when I realized what he meant. The burned ridges of my arm seemed uglier surrounded by glittering crystal.
With so much going on, I'd barely thought of my scars since leaving Nava, something that would have been unthinkable back in Sunfire. To hear now that they could just…go away. Be gone, forever—!
"Just because something has been a part of you for so long does not mean it defines who you are. Or that you will be diminished without it."
His gentle words struck my heart, but I shook my head.
I'd hated my scars for as long as I could remember, but somehow I didn't anymore. "I don't want to forget," I confessed, holding Blaze close. "They're a reminder. Of the consequences of misdirected hate."
The trial god nodded his acceptance, a Delphox this time.
"Then your final trial is this. Do not open your eyes. If you do, everything you've fought for will be lost to your memory forever!"
I closed my eyes. Hot wind burst against my skin, blowing back my bangs, and power hummed through my veins like a song. Wings beat above Hariheti, and a mournful bell rang low and deep across the Emberlands. I clutched Blaze close, fighting not to look! A strange cry echoed above the ringing bell, resonating with the crystal volcano itself.
The strange presence vanished. "Look, child."
A little creature slept in the pyre, waking as if from a long dream, and I knew her.
The shadow I couldn't remember. The face in my memories who'd been gone so long. A piece of myself, a remnant of who I'd been, before the flames took everything else.
Tears choked my voice. "Ilaria?"
Memories washed over me from before the attack, of a little girl and her slender Flareon. I used to sneak into the Emberlands to play with her, taming her wild spirit with my singing.
My parents couldn't stop me, so they at least sent Deo to supervise. Ilaria was my best friend, and I the only person she would approach. She died protecting me from Drakul's flames, and it was too terrible for my mind. Worse even than the pain.
Ilaria peered up at me hesitantly, her lithe form straining forward as she caught my scent.
She dove into my arms next to Blaze, and my heart was full.
A rainbow shone brilliant in the air above Hariheti, a remnant of the vanished trial god. His voice echoed around me.
"Indra Kerrigan, I name you Firesinger. Your Trial is complete."
"Do you still need to leave?" my mother fretted. "Why not stay, and train your team?"
I scratched Blaze's belly with my scarred hand, to her delight. Our mental connection was faint compared to the tribute's power, but her happiness calmed my heart. Ilaria napped in the shade beneath my chair. "I do," I apologized, dipping my head. "I want…to see the world, and learn new things. I'm not satisfied with who I am, and changing my circumstances is the only way to grow. I'll take on new challenges, with these troublemakers," I finished fondly.
I paused, choosing my words carefully. I couldn't speak of Ilaria's resurrection, I'd discovered, but dancing around it was possible. "About…Hariheti. And your disappearance…couldn't power like that be used for the whole world?"
"Ah," my mother said, understanding at once. She touched the crystal pendant she always wore. "It isn't up to us. Twice in a generation is rare. I'm just glad my little girl is okay." She closed her brown eyes, struggling with her worries. "What about your fear of fire?"
I remembered the flash of fire, and distant pain. My arm tightened—
But I smiled, petting Ilaria's head when she perked up to place her paws on my arm. Blaze stared at the world wonderingly, delighted by everything she saw.
My words were simple and true. "It's a start."
I left Sunfire that week, promising to keep in touch. A crystal pendant hung around my neck, twin bells tinkling beneath the carved Ho-Oh. I touched the gift from my mother, remembering home.
Ilaria never did get used to a poké ball. She was always wild at heart, skittish and shy. She got along well with Aurelia, who disliked crowds. Blaze had already declared a rivalry with Ryker, my Luxio, to everyone's exasperation. She didn't like poké balls much either, preferring to be held in my arms.
I sang while we walked, Ilaria slipping between my feet fondly.
And Blaze hummed along, her murmur complimenting my song.
I never taught her to do that…