Last week, FCM focused on water. This week, we turn to fire.
EVEREMBERED is a book that has sung its siren song to me for quite some time. It’s a fantasy about a girl made of living flame, the last of her kind in a world where the sun is rapidly dying out. I’ve outlined most of it–there’s still some connective tissue that’s unknown and I’ll figure out what it is when I get to it. I often find writing is more like archaeology than invention. An author doesn’t so much fabricate a story as uncover it. I often learn my characters aren’t exactly who I thought they were, and that sort of delightful surprise is what I live for as a writer.
Aside from that outline, there’s just this one chapter. It will change, as all first chapters do, but I think it’s worthy to stand beside the first chapters of more complete novels I’ve scribed. In fact, just rereading it tonight as I prepare to post it, I’m longing to revisit this world once more and unlock the rest of its secrets…
In the tallest tower of a ruined castle nestled deep between the jagged peaks of the Twilight Lands lived a girl of ash and flame. Her name was Ember, though only one person ever had reason to use it, for Ember was a secret. She had never met anyone besides the old woman, Nan, who took care of her. Most everyone else she had ever seen existed only in paintings and books within the castle’s musty library. Outside the castle lived nothing but scattered trees, their leafless branches dusted with ash. Craggy peaks disappeared into an ash-choked sky. But in her books there was life—cities filled with people, with parties, with food and music. Colors existed beyond shades of grey. And every time she read about these things, every time she saw the paintings, something deep within her yearned to be there, to be part of that world. Despite all of Nan’s warnings.
Ember spent a lot of time reading, for she was never allowed to leave. Whenever the silhouette of the crow appeared against the glow of the eastern sky, Ember would retreat to the library where the towering shelves stuffed with leather-bound tomes filled her with peace. The whole of the library she considered ‘her’ books. Careful not to touch the books with her naked fingers, Ember absorbed their tales of daring heroes, of beautiful princesses, and of a time long ago when others like her—the Everembered—lived side by side with people of flesh and blood.
Before the people turned on the Everembered and killed them all.
Nan often said the world was dying. None of those things existed anymore outside of books and legends. And perhaps no other people existed anymore either. Except there was the crow and the man, and Ember knew they must come from somewhere.
“The fire burns low.” Nan frowned at the flames dancing within the stone archway of the fireplace.
Ember opened the iron firewood box. A fresh sheet of ash scattered to the dusty floor. The ash choked everything. Nan spent much of her time sweeping and dusting, collecting the ash into decanters that she stored in the castle cellar. On occasion, she would mutter a prayer to the world flame, asking it for forgiveness. Ember was not certain if the flame—a giant orb ever-hovering in the same spot just above the eastern horizon—acknowledged any of these prayers. Once she had asked why Nan sought forgiveness, but the old woman had only responded with a frown.
She groped around inside the iron box.
“This is the last one.” Ember pulled out a small log, no thicker than her arm, and barely as long. It weighed little, and would burn quickly. It smouldered in her grip as the living flame of her body beneath her ashen skin began to burn away at the wood. Ember set it into the fireplace.
Nan frowned, pulled a blanket fashioned of some long-forgotten creature’s skin tighter around her small, wrinkled frame. “So it is.”
“He will be here soon.” Ember did not believe her own words, but spoke to reassure Nan. “He has merely been delayed.” Black soot clung to her fingers where the log had begun to burn in her grip. Ember blew the soot off them, exposing the orange glow of her true body for a moment before the outer layer cooled and ash covered her once more. Greyish white, powdery, her skin entirely unlike that of Nan’s. The old woman’s flesh did not blow away in the breeze, did not slough off at the slightest touch. Every time Ember moved, every crevase, every place where her body rubbed against itsef or anything else, the fire within shone out. And within moments of remaining still, her living flame had consumed the dust and ash in the air, making her whole again. Dull, and grey. Like the glowing embers in the fireplace. Like her name.
Nan and Ember had once spent their time in the great hall near the castle’s wide gates, but as time passed, the flames in the castle burned weaker and weaker, and the fireplace could no longer warm such a large room. Now they sat together in Nan’s bedroom. Small, with only two narrow windows whose shutters could be drawn to better keep the warmth inside. Nan murmured about being cold more often now than ever. Cold was something that Ember understood only through watching Nan. She had read about it as well, of people succumbing to cold that would freeze them to death. A tear came to the corner of her eye and sizzled into a small cloud of steam. As the light of the world flame faded, the fireplace consumed more and more wood for less and less warmth. Soon Nan would freeze to death as well. And then Ember would be all alone.
Ember gazed out the western window, toward the eternal darkness and the small crescent moon which hung there just above the distant horizon beyond the mountains. The dark crept closer bit by bit as the world flame grew weaker, and soon these Twilight Lands would be ill-named. The scattered points of light in the darkness, the stars, had turned their patterns sixteen times in Ember’s life. The world flame would burn out before the seventeenth turn was complete.
A cry from the east window led her gaze to the light and hope washed away the despair that had begun to build in her fiery heart. The crow beat its wings against the hazy amber sky. Instinct tugged her to hide in the library, yet she stood firm, watching the approaching bird. She tried to recount how many turns it had been since she let it get close enough to see its features—its black eyes, sleek feathers, and the crates of firewood and salted meat that rattled about on its back, threatening to tear loose from the thick ropes that tied them to the gargantuan bird.
The man was coming with supplies at last. And Ember had to hide, for if the man ever discovered her, he would surely kill her. Many turns past, Nan went into a panic when the crow approached, ushering Ember into deep, distant chambers of the castle, gasping when her bare fingers touched Ember’s scalding body as she hurried the secret girl along. Ember’s favorite room had always been the library, and it was there, by herself with the books and their countless heroes, where she felt the least alone. Now, whenever the man came astride the crow, Ember went to the library of her own accord. Indeed, she spent more time with the books of late than with Nan, as the old woman slept at great lengths.
“I anticipate a lesson when you return from the library.”
“Of course.” Ember slipped the leather gloves off the stone mantle. She had set aside a book about oceans—vast fields filled with water as far as the eye could see—to read the next time the man came. As she turned to leave Nan’s room, an odd sight caught her eye. The crow was the same that had come for as long as Ember could remember, feathers and jingling crates and all. But astride the crow sat a silhouette she did not recognize. This silhouette wore a hood, and sat up much taller than the old man.
A new person had come to visit. An event that had not occurred in all of Ember’s life.
She must get a look.
The castle lay abandoned, much of it too dangerous to traverse, walls crumbling in, ceilings exposed to the wind. Ember strode past the hallway leading toward the library and instead set off for a better view of the courtyard where the crow must land. A light breeze tumbled down the stone corridor, peeling off the ashen skin on her nose. She smiled as her nose glowed red. From her new perch, she saw the wide courtyard scattered with tombstones engraved with images of the sun, the world flame, a circle enshrouded by twisting ribbons of flame. A face in its midst, dour, as if judging all it gazed upon. Many of the stones lay broken. Hundreds of them collected ash in a corner of the courtyard. Only a handful remained where they were meant to be, dedicating the final resting places of Knights of the Sun, holy warriors sworn to protect the world flame.
Ember knew not what the knights protected the flame from, or why so many were buried here in this courtyard. Or why so many of the tombstones were broken. None bore names. Occasionally when Ember grew weary of reading she would stroll through the courtyard, dusting off the tombstones, speaking to them, asking them to tell her their secrets. They never spoke back.
With a squawk that rattled the ash off the windowsill, the great crow swooped up and over the castle roof, coming to rest in the courtyard. Its dry talons scratched at the ground as it found a comfortable place to recline. Ember peered around a corner, careful not to let her gaze grow too greedy, careful not to forget the danger she was in and expose herself.
The newcomer was a young man.
He pulled his hood back exposing deep brown eyes. A bandana choked with ash covered his nose and disappeared down into his thick dusty overcoat. Wild black hair wove out from his head in all directions, like the dancing flames of a bonfire. Without hesitation he slipped from the crow’s back and set to work unstrapping a trio of wooden crates.
Her mind and reason compelled her to go to the library.
Her heart and curiosity had other plans, and Ember soon found herself standing behind a small wooden door off to the side of the great hall, cracked open just wide enough—barely a finger’s width—to allow her to peer into the cavernous room filled with hazy sunlight and gaze upon Nan as the old woman struggled to get into the chair. She was slowing down, growing weaker as the world flame grew weaker. Ember fought the call of instinct to rush out and help Nan. Instead she watched as Nan pulled herself upright, panting heavily, and pulling the animal skin tighter around her frail form. Still, she shivered.
The wide doors creaked open and in walked the newcomer, a thick rope in his hands by which he pulled a sled behind him carrying the three crates. The sled slid across the ash-dusted stone floor with a grinding sound like two rocks devouring one another. Nan clutched the armrests of the chair, hands shaking. Ember sensed fear in the old woman.
“Thank the flame you’re still alive.”
For the first time, Ember heard a voice other than Nan’s or her own. Lower than she expected, and louder, but not dangerous. Not threatening. Not at all how she’d imagined the old man’s voice with all the hate he must hold for her. Still, Nan gripped the armrests so tight that the tendons in her arms bulged at the wrists.
“You are not who I was expecting.”
The young man bowed. “Forgive me. I have forgotten my manners. The cold got to my grandfather. As his sole surviving heir, the business fell to me. You weren’t on any of his delivery lists, but the crow told me. Said you paid well. Though I’m not sure if any of it matters anymore. Flame’s nearly out. Fires don’t burn like what they used to. Almost nobody streaming out of the darkness anymore. Nobody left out there in the world to seek the light?” He shook his head. “Name’s Dusk. I have to say, I know why you live out here.”
The armrests shuddered as Nan pulled at them.
“Can’t say I blame you. Out here, where none of the survivors can find you. Where the demons will pass you by. Out here with this view, in these mountains? What better place to while away the dying of the flame?”
Nan relaxed her grip. “You will find the payment over there. Leave the crates. I expect to see you back with more of the same before the rising of the next star.” Dusk turned to follow Nan’s bony, extended finger. Ember strained to see what the old woman pointed at. She clasped her hands against the door and peeked around the corner to see three large decanters. Dusk lifted the stone lid off one, dipped his finger into it. He withdrew it and marveled at the ash clinging to it. “It’s so warm. Where do you get it?”
“It burns well enough to keep you warm until the next shipment is due, and that is all you need to know.”
Ember smelled smoke. Aghast, she stepped back from the door. The wood began to smoulder, two charred handprints. She hadn’t been wearing her gloves. She’d gotten careless. The door hung half open now, tendrils of smoke curling up from it escaping into the high ceiling of the great hall.
“Is there somebody else here?” Dusk dropped the decanter lid on the stone floor and pointed directly at Ember. She scampered away, but it was too late. “I saw someone, just now. And I think…” Eyes wide, a grin on his face, Dusk ran to the smouldering door and flung it wide open. He stared down at Ember, and her fiery heart raced at his gaze. She had been seen, she would be killed.
“You… you’re an Everembered? By the light of the world flame, we’re saved!”
A loud crack. Dusk’s eyes rolled up into the back of his head as a cloud of ash enveloped him. He dropped unconscious to the floor. Nan stood behind him, two halves of a cracked clay decanter in either hand. “I am sorry, my dear. It was for his own good. He was about to kill you. Now get your gloves on and help me get him into the dungeon.”
Ember nodded. But the look on Dusk’s face had not been one of anger or of hate.
It had been one of hope.