the

b a s i n

of

F I R E

Six years old, and she watched the red dragon disappear.

She hid behind a ravaged column of the tumbled city as the knight and the priest bound the creature in runes. Though she knew she ought to be running, the sight of the man transfixed her. Minutes ago he'd grit his teeth in pleasure at his sword against her neck, and now he clung to the dragon's neck with the desperation that Manah might have once mirrored as she reached for—for—Mother.

She winced upon thinking the word and made herself smaller behind the column. None of the three figures ahead had any thought to spare for her right now. Even if they did, she was too weak to run, her mind still wrecked with the remnants of the Gods' thoughts as their connection was severed. So she watched the ceremony, watched the flicker of goodbyes on the pact-partners' faces, watched as the dragon glimmered into dust and evanesced.

Then she fled. She was far away enough from the two that the pandemonium of the city covered her escaping sounds, but she did not truly expect to get away. Her feet, so small, could not find their way around the thousand pieces of debris and chasms. The mended blue sky could conceal nothing. Without the Gods' reassurances to buffer her, the fear began to set in as she stumbled past bodies and blood.

He caught up, as she knew he would. He was alone now. When she saw him, sword in hand, she hid crouched beneath the charred husk of a building, but it only felt worse to be at his feet when he found her. In one deft motion he pulled her out and held the sword to her throat.

His angry words shattered into her. I will never forgive you. All that you see devastated is your doing. Destruction reigned here and will continue to rule for unforeseen years because of your evil, your selfishness. You must not die. You will not forget, and you will not escape.

I will never let you go.

To her mind, newly sensitized to the communication of pact-partners and gods alike from her ordeal, his voice crashed and spun. It did not deign to dance around her sorrow; it trampled her where she was raw. But beneath the surface of his words, in a roiling haze, she sensed another unformed thought. You have taken it all from me.

She sobbed Mother's name, cursed it too. He lowered the sword to his side and clenched her hand in his free one. So they walked. She tripped many times, but his grip was too tight to ever let her fall. Behind, the city burned.

v

Nine years old, and she thought she was dying.

She was alone in their camp for two as he gathered supplies. The forest was cruelly dark even in late afternoon. Unfamiliar noises not far from her were Caim's tacit warning not to leave. She had been pacing about the empty fire pit and letting her cloak trail behind her. Beneath, she was still dressed in red. Three years it had been, and she would never wash her hands of that color.

Then, the sound. The bushes near her rattled and a subhuman had emerged. She'd screamed and ran in the opposite direction. Misjudging the placement of a fallen tree trunk, she'd tripped and landed on one leg, skidding on pebbles and opening a gash on her calf to match the hue of her clothes. The pain swelled, and to her inexperienced mind, it was agony.

The creature had fled when it heard her screams. She'd dragged herself back to the camp and wailed, disregarding Caim's irritated look as he hurried back. "I'm dying! Mother, help me! I'm bleeding, bleeding, bleeding!"

She continued to scream as he cleaned and bandaged the wound, all efficiency and no comfort. "It's killed me! It hurts! Mother, save me!" She hated the feel of his hand around her scrawny leg. It was the first physical injury she had received on their journey.

After the cut was tended to, when she carried on whimpering, "I'm dying, I'm dying," his words silenced her. Does it hurt? Are you in pain? This is not one part in a hundred million of the pain you have caused. Do not claim to know what it feels like. Look. Look at me. She froze in her crying. He removed his forearm and bicep armor and rolled up his sleeve.

On his arm leapt a matrix of dull red marks and silvery scars. Most were from surface wounds, but a few were new and blistering white. She recoiled upon seeing the blood that seemed barely trapped under the healing skin. He seemed to be cut to the very bone in places, the skin unable to renew itself completely.

All the time, his eyes never wavered on her. Feel them. Know what you have caused. These scars have healed three years over and never faded. When she did not move, he grabbed her hand and pressed it to his arm, where she felt the knotted texture of the terrible scars. He touched her fingers to every one. Beneath, she felt firm, warm sinew and the hardness of bone, and in wonder and shame began to cry again.

Hold this pain forever. Do not release it, just as I will never release you.

v

Twelve years old, and she was running away.

It was the darkest part of night, and they slept in an alcove in the wilderness close to a town. They'd stayed in the town a week while Caim settled business pertaining to the Union, or the Knights of the Seal as they were now known, and Manah had made a friend. He was a villager not much older than she, the son of the innkeeper at their former lodgings, and he came to visit her when she was locked in her room during Caim's meetings. In their shared brashness, he promised to help her escape.

Now he waited outside the cave, ready to lead her through the shortest forest route to the next town. All she had to do—was—escape—

There! Tiptoed past Caim's sleeping figure and out into the starred night. She and the boy smiled at each other in the dark. They began to slowly walk, feet gingerly treading fallen leaves, hand in hand. It had been too long since she'd held a hand that spoke of kindness. Knowing her rebellion, she hardly dared to breathe. But as the minutes passed a quiet celebration began to lick at her heart.

They had been walking half an hour when the shadow leapt from the tree ahead. Before either could react, the sword was at the boy's throat. His hand tightened on hers, but he did not scream.

Manah did. "No! Don't hurt him!" Caim's eyes slid to her, and she was stunned by their depth. This was a look of wrath reserved for her, first seen six years ago. And while it had not dulled over their journey, now it seemed to be newly whetted on her disobedience.

The sword hovered closer. Every inch of her longed to drop to her knees shaking, but the boy's hand on hers prevented her. So different from Caim's grip—not like a vise but a warm glove. She found Caim's eyes in the darkness again and pleaded. "He didn't do anything. He only wanted to help."

His thoughts flashed through her mind. What know you of mercy?

In one sweep he ran the sword down the boy's body, and blood spattered them both. She was too shocked to let go of his hand, but as she felt his arm sway limply, she dropped it with a scream. Without that support, she too fell forward at Caim's knees. The boy's eyes were already blank in death.

The sight of Caim murdering was intimately familiar by now, but it was the first time she felt as if the sword was inside her as well. Despite this, words drew themselves out of her—clichéd, hackneyed words she always had heard from other people and never dreamed of using herself. "How could you! He was innocent! He didn't hurt you or me! If you're mad, you should have killed me! Kill me!"

She positioned herself under his still-raised sword and tipped her head back. Her neck sought his blade, and like six years ago, he denied it to her. No. You still have more to witness. This is your punishment, to see those you care for murdered without thought as you did to innumerable others. I will not let you run from it. I will not let you go.

The vise clamped around her hand again. He dragged her back to the alcove, where he made her sleep next to the sword still running with the boy's blood. She was, like he predicted, too terrified of it to raise it to her own throat.

v

Fifteen years old, and she had a nightmare.

Impassivity was her newest façade. After years of tears and beseeching a mother who never answered, she had decided not to give anything more to him. Thus she pretended to be unaffected by the ravaged landscape they flitted through, the piles of bodies and broken homes they passed. She bore his accusations with a stony gaze and a firm mouth. Of course, her greatest lessons in stoicism were from Caim himself—the utter indifference he watched her suffering with for nine years.

He did not react to her new attitude. She persisted, determined to show him that he could not torture her further. In her effort to remain untouched by the visions of devastation, she convinced herself too that she felt nothing. But then she began to dream.

She dreamt of the day's horrors and others magnified a thousand times under a crimson sky. She was three and Mother was coddling her brother in his crib, but not her. She was six and the world was ending. In her dreams she writhed and screamed.

She woke from the nightmares drained but convinced that it was better to face those demons in sleep than in front of him. She held onto this thought for weeks, even as they worsened and came more frequently.

Then one night, he shook her awake during a dream. The scream that died in her throat surprised her. So did the tears that coursed down her cheeks and the sweat and tangled hotel sheets. She gasped for breath and looked around wildly as the last remnants of the nightmare flashed like aftershocks over her sight. Blind in her distress, she reached for someone, even him to be comforted by. He eluded her and sat back on his own bed facing her.

"Have… have I been like this every night?"

He did not need to answer for her to know that her illusion of impassivity had faded. Do not think you can hide. The passing time will not pardon you. The world, the dead, and your own mind know of your sins. They will never let you go.

Every night when he woke her up, she hoped it would be the night that he would place a hand on her back or pat her head as a father or—Mother—would. Everything hurt so much more now that she was tortured by night as well as day. Anyone's comfort, even his, would help.

But it never came. He woke her whenever she roused him with her screams, and then retreated back to his own bed before she had blinked the tears away. She burned within the flames of hell in her dreams. The veneer burned away with her, and she remained the shivering, unloved child of nine years ago.

v

Eighteen years old, and she was still not forgiven. But the look in his eyes had begun to change.

He had become thoughtless, though no less cruel. A few months ago he had become aware of the worsening condition of his dragon, and his thoughts had shifted away from Manah. Sometimes she could slip away for a few hours when he was training and he would not notice. Her heightened senses became aware of him attempting to speak to someone else, someone he could not reach but often tried to contact. She could not discern the content of those messages, but their tone was strangely imploring.

Twelve years was too many. If she was to escape or even to die, only now did she have a chance. With her newfound windows of opportunity, she snuck out of campsites and locked hotel rooms alike to scout ahead. It did not take long to come up with plans, but it took longer to summon the courage to enact them.

One day she grew too tired of doubt and shucked it off like an old coat. In the midst of walking with Caim, she stopped.

He walked a few steps further before turning back. She unfocused her eyes and said, "Someone's speaking. From very far away." He went still. Encouraged, she continued. "I… I don't recognize it. But it's raspy… and female… and very weak."

He didn't know that she had sensed their last exchanges twelve years ago in the broken city, divined the shape and sound of the pact-beast's voice. Now Caim's own thoughts rung in her mind. Where is it coming from? Lead me to it. The feel of his words was different—tinged with an emotion more delicate than his usual anger.

Pretending to be led by the voice alone, she wound her way through the land as she had last night when she had discovered the cave. When they reached it, she stepped into its cool darkness and felt for the short knife behind her back. "Here. It's in here." He moved towards her in the dark, and for a moment she caught a hint of expression on his face that nearly shook her. Then he was shrouded in darkness again except for the glimmer of his eyes. The cave forked into two tunnels. "That direction." She pointed. His eyes wandered away from her for a fraction of a second, and she brought out the knife.

She aimed for one of the glimmers of light and felt the awful sensation of the knife plunging into his face. Before she could see what she had done, she fled the cave. Inside her mind was his soundless scream.

She didn't know where to go from here, but she ran. Soon enough she heard leaves crunching underfoot behind her as well. He was close, she not fast. Somehow he cornered her at a cliff, and unwilling to believe that her choices had been narrowed to him or an endless fall, she turned and saw him.

Blood mangled his face and his mouth was twisted terribly. Too frightened by the sight, she whirled back around and jumped.

As she fell, the wind rushing past her ears melded into his voice, broken with anguish. How dare you run! I will find you no matter where you flee. I will inflict upon you pain you have never imagined, I will brand you with shades of shame that will forever decry your filth, I will lock you in countless cages of your own guilt, and I WILL NEVER LET YOU GO.

Then the river broke her fall, and when she woke from its waters of sweet forgetfulness the voice no longer reached her.

v

v

v

Twenty-four years old, and he found her again.

In the past six years, she had made friends, found a cause, and learned to fight. She had held herself like a messiah, comforted the damned, and spoken with dignity to rouse the masses.

When his eye found hers, she forgot all of this. After she and the dragon child had parted ways, he had cornered her against the side of a building and brought her hand up to his face with a grim smile. He brushed her fingers through his hair until she revealed the dull white of his sightless eye. It was her first time seeing it, and yet the sight stirred a memory deep within her. She fell back and trembled.

And in her fright, her tongue found that familiar word. "Mother," she whimpered, and it felt worn on the tongue, though strange on her new voice. The one-eyed man did not open his mouth, but his voice invaded her mind, where it felt like familiar heavy chains.

I have suffered, sought death, sought the destruction of the world because of you.

What was it that she did? It gnawed. But her tongue could not find the words to ask.

Now, I am close. This is in part because you have been destroying the seals. This is not redemption. This is not atoning. But it is right.

He looked older. And so much wearier. But how did she know that?

Yet you must do it in light of your sins, or it means nothing. Without the knowledge of the past, you are only running once more. All that remains is for you to remember, and to choose to continue despite what you caused eighteen years ago. You will come with me until you remember.

What transpired afterwards blurred. The final two seals were broken. She was kidnapped, rescued, reunited with her brother. She learned of the Goddess seal newly unleashed and felt the heat of the red dragon's merciless fire. The one-eyed man had said this was the right way for the world just as her brother's knowledge shook the core of her beliefs. "Manah, you've re-enacted your own crime."

She was evil for instigating the end of the world and good for believing it would help humanity. She did not know; Mother's ghost pressed upon her; the one-eyed man discarded her before she could remember. The questions plagued her until they met again at the foot of his dying dragon.

He stroked the dragon's snout, and it was like eighteen years ago. She felt the same tenderness of feeling pass between them. This too stirred her sleeping past, and she yearned to recognize the truth.

What was it? She was so close to recalling, and yet afraid that the knowledge would break her.

The dragon was engulfed in flame, as was he. Beneath the upturned sky, the castle courtyard became a basin of fire. The man turned around and affixed her with a gaze that was almost… content. All chaos in her mind resolved itself into the clarity of his voice. He spoke.

Go.

Caim burned, and the memories and madness swallowed her alive.

/end.

…but don't worry, we all know it ends happily once Nowe magically flies into her mind and fixes those gaping psychological issues.

Anyways, I love this series to bits and wanted to develop Manah and the vague plot point of her amnesia some more. Thanks for reading and please give me your thoughts!