The Fire Itself
by the lady of shalott
* * *
Why wouldn't it scare me to have a fire
Begin in smudge with ropy smoke and know
That still, if I repent, I may recall it,
But in a moment not: a little spurt
Of burning fatness, and then nothing but
The fire itself can put it out, and that
By burning out, and before it burns out
It will have roared first and mixed sparks with stars,
And sweeping round it with a flaming sword,
Made the dim trees stand back in wider circle--
Done so much and I know not how much more
I mean it shall not do if I can bind it.
* * *
The hallway stretched to east and west, ending in arched stained-glass windows that painted shattered colors on the cool marble of the floor. Sheila pressed close to the wall, more for the reassurance of solidity than to avoid anyone -- the hall was so bare its emptiness felt like presence, the air pressing in on her. She moved slowly, sliding the soles of her shoes along the floor instead of stepping, careful not to make a noise that would split through the living air and betray her with echoes.
The doors were carved with hollow faces, sunken eyesockets and mouths open in eternal hunger, circled by patternless designs that caught the eye and invited it to linger among hinting curves and tiny flashes of inlaid metal or jewels. She kept her eyes on the floor to not see those strange wooden faces staring at her as she step-slid past them, cloak wrapped close around her.
It seemed to take a long time to reach the third door, though the hall wasn't long. No knob, no lock. She put her fingertips on the door, next to the face, half-expecting it to come alive and shriek an alarm. But nothing happened, and the door swung inwards soundlessly with the lightest push. She stepped into the room, any sound of footsteps swallowed by the heavy rug, and swung the door shut behind her before looking around.
Thick folds of velvet shrouded the windows, leaving the room to the shifting light of the small fire. A long table stood against the near wall, its surface littered with scrolls and devices. She ghosted over to it and examined everything, careful not to even breathe hard onto some of the strange items. But none of the objects matched the amulet she was looking for. Glancing around, she saw a smaller table by the side of the canopied bed at the other end of the room and walked towards it for a better look.
A heavy tome was spread face-down over the table's surface, but she could see a thick gold chain hanging off the table's end. She stepped up to the table and reached out a hand to the book's binding, then froze as her eyes drifted to the bed.
Venger lay not a foot away from her, his features stern even in sleep. His hair shone silver against the dark sheets, an ironic halo illuminating his face, and the coverlet left his body bare to the waist. She jerked back to herself as she realized her hand had been stretching out to his cheek and backed a few steps away, trying to breathe quietly through a mouth gone dry. He turned over and settled deeper into the pillows, muscles shifting beneath the silky grey of his skin.
She held still for longer than she intended to, her eyes caressing the smooth lines of his back, the arched curves of shoulderblades and the ridges of his spine. Her hands knew that body. Her fingers had mapped out those planes and valleys, exploring and claiming. Her mouth had tasted the salt-sweet curve at the side of his throat while her body had arched itself into his...
Trembling at the seduction of memory, she covered her mouth with both hands and turned away from the bed, squeezing her eyes shut. The images had finally begun to fade after weeks of journeying. The cold ground no longer became a silken bed in her dreams. But just the sight of him, the heat of him touching her through the air, and her body remembered all over again. Her heart thudded erratically in her chest, and she was half-afraid that he'd hear the pounding and wake up. Half-afraid, half-hoping, that he'd sense her there, come up behind her, those broad hands descending on her shoulders, pulling the hood from her head, unclasping the cloak...
She bit her lip hard enough to taste blood and yelled at herself, He seduced you to punish you, you idiot. If he woke up, he'd throw you into the dungeons and go after the others. Now GET A GRIP! Braced by the silent lecture, Sheila turned around and focused on the amulet chain, not looking towards the bed. She lifted up the book and pulled the amulet free, winding the loose chain around her fingers to keep it from clattering against the table. In a moment, she had it tucked into the bag at her waist and was hurrying back to the door, desperate to get out and breathe air that hadn't glided over his skin.
But the formerly-cooperative door wouldn't open. She planted her feet and threw her back into a hard pull, then tried to pry it open by working her fingers into the doorjamb, but the door didn't even budge. A low rustling came from the bed, and she saw that he had turned over again, although his eyes were still closed. Panic started to creep up on her as she ran across the room to the windows and ducked behind the velvet drapes. The windows were of thick frosted glass, so heavy she knew she couldn't open them without making some noise. Please let there be some way for me to get down, she prayed silently, turning the latch. She gripped the bottom of the window frame and jerked it upward.
The gust of incoming wind nearly blew her flat. Clutching the sill, she put her head out the window and felt her heart plummet even further than the ominous drop to the ground. The wall outside was smooth, only broken by occasional windows with narrow sills. Haven't these people ever heard of fire escapes? She slipped away from the curtains and looked at the fireplace in wild speculation.
"You may as well show yourself, Thief, unless you prefer to hurl yourself from the window."
The raw silk of his voice slid over her, smooth and rough all at once, and she turned dreamlike to see him sitting up in bed, his dark, unreadable eyes somehow meeting her invisible ones. Her hands trembled towards the hood of her cloak involuntarily. I'm trapped anyway, she suddenly thought. What have I got to lose? Deliberately, she reached up and slid the hood back, feeling the power of the cloak shimmer around her and vanish.
Her breath came shallowly as he rose from the bed and came towards her, and not from fear.
* * *
The fire glowed through her hair, her clear eyes dangerous with invitation. She'd come to steal from him, to help his most hated enemy, and he knew he should throw her into some dark hole to rot. She'd burned in his dreams for weeks, her awakening passion's first cry lingering in his ears even when he awoke, and he knew he wouldn't.
He hooked a finger under the clasp at her throat and pulled it open, letting the cloak slither to the ground.
* * *
When her reaching hand found nothing except a patch of warmth next to her, she stirred, lifting her head from the pillows. He was standing at the open window, holding the curtain up with one hand while he stared out at the faint glow in the night's distance that heralded sunrise. She sat up and tucked the blankets up around her shoulders, watching him. The blaze of desire was banked now, but her thoughts weren't any less muddled for that. How can someone so wrong be so...right, too? She sighed.
"Are you cold?" He didn't turn.
"No, I'm fine," she said. "You're the one standing in front of the open window."
"I rarely feel cold," he said, sounding vaguely regretful.
The words put him even further from human, and she wondered suddenly whether that was why he seemed sorry about it. "Do you mind my asking..."
"Would it make a difference?" he asked, glancing over at her with a wry smile on his lips.
She found herself smiling back without really intending to. "Okay, so I'm curious, can you blame me?" He just shook his head, gesturing to her to go on. "I've never seen anyone else in the Realm who looks like you," she started, then stopped at the sudden hardness in his face.
"You will not," he said flatly.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean--"
He raised a hand. "I know. It is...not an easy matter for me." He was quiet, then added in a contemplative tone, "I would probably incinerate anyone else who dared to ask me anything about it."
"I'm not surprised that no one has. You're not exactly the world's most approachable guy."
"You seem to have no difficulty," he observed dryly.
She shrugged. "My mom's always complaining that I rush in where angels fear to tread."
"Mm. I pity her greatly."
"Hey!" she said indignantly.
He laughed, a queer, surprised sound, as if he didn't entirely remember how. He turned away from the window and came back to the bed. Sitting down beside her, he cupped her face in his hand, the tips of his fingers nestling in her hair. "A perverse god must rule the universe," he said. "That of all women, it should be you..." He didn't continue, but her heart skipped oddly at the brief declaration.
"So now what happens?" she forced herself to ask.
"That...depends on you." His smile twisted. "It is unfortunate, but I cannot command what I want from you."
She swallowed hard, understanding yet not quite believing what he was saying...and even less knowing what to say in return. Things were actually easier when I was going nuts with lust, she thought wryly. At least part of me knew what it wanted. She closed her eyes and leaned into his hand, half-tempted to accept the unspoken offer, to let the world go hang, to give up the wearing search and find a new home, even if it wasn't one she'd ever have dreamed of wanting before.
But her friends, Bobby, her parents...duty and love together bound her to them, and she knew that she would never sacrifice all that for any passion. She sighed and raised her head, seeing in his eyes that he already knew her answer. He lifted her hand to his lips in a courtly gesture before releasing her and going to stand at the window once more.
She dressed in silence behind his rigid back, the clothes cool and heavy on her skin as if she were putting the world back on with them. The amulet still lay in the small bag she'd had on her belt. Picking it up, she felt the delicate chain through the silken bag, fingers outlining the heavy disc, then carried it over to him and held out the bag.
He accepted it from her and took the amulet out, holding it up to the sunlight. Rainbows fractured out of the pendant's crystals, glittering on his bare chest. "Why did you take this?" he asked.
"To help us get home," she said, puzzled. "Why else would we want it?"
"This could create no portal for you. It is only for storing magical power. But I have spent many hours creating it, and its loss would significantly weaken me for weeks."
"But...Dungeon Master told us that if we used it, we could get home."
"Ah." His lips twisted in a mirthless smile. "I am sure he did."
She stared at him, then at the amulet. "He lied? But...what if we had used it?"
"Are you truly so naïve? Dungeon Master knows the location of your world on the Astral Plane. He could easily open a portal for you himself. He could not so easily procure the amulet. My fortresses are warded against him."
"You're saying that he could send us home any time he wanted to." It wasn't a question, although her voice was faint.
"But...but why? Why keep us here?"
"For the same reasons he brought you here in the first place, I imagine. You have proven very useful to him." Venger's voice was dry and unemotional. "My powers go awry when turned against those with the protection of innocence, and you were all young and malleable enough to take his direction."
Sheila shivered with sudden horror. The endless sequence of almost-made-it's took on an entirely different picture if she just let herself doubt Dungeon Master's benevolence. She turned to stare out the window, taking no comfort from the sunlit landscape. "If Dungeon Master isn't telling the truth, we'll never get home. We'll never be able to find a way back without his help."
He closed his fist around the amulet, smothering the rainbows. "Would that be so terrible?"
"That--that's where we belong," she said. "Our families are there, all our other friends. If we gave up, stayed here, maybe died here, all they'd know is that we disappeared into thin air." She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. "I think, sometimes, that maybe time's going by there. Maybe my parents are sitting up nights, wondering what happened to me -- whether I'm alive or dead, or kidnapped by some horrible serial killer or something worse. How can I just give up and leave them to that?"
He walked to the fireplace and stood there, staring down into the dying flames. She watched him for a moment longer, then swung the cloak around her shoulders and fastened the clasp. With a soft click, the door swung slightly ajar. She hesitated, then slipped to his side and took his hand in hers, bringing it to her lips for a butterfly-soft kiss.
She was at the door when he spoke. "Sheila." It was the first time she'd heard her name on his lips. "The Oracle of the High Lord is not under Dungeon Master's influence. Or mine, for that matter. She may be able to show you the way home. You will find her at the High Temple, in Tiruvel."
"Thank you," she whispered.
"Farewell," he said.
* The End *