Diffraction Chapter Seven: Playing with Fire

In preparation for publishing, I’ve been posting chapters from my fantasy novel, Diffraction. They’re also available on WattPad here

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Peace extended unto all, no matter friend or foe.

    A soft breeze plucked the scent from hillside wildflowers and wafted down the gentle slope into the trees. At the edge of a clearing, leaves rustled and long grass waved around Lyllithe’s shins. Today she wore plain brown linen pants and a thin cotton shirt that left her arms exposed under a worn leather vest emblazoned front and back with the Sun emblem of Aulis, the Divine Aspect of Light. 
    You never know when you might be called upon as a Devoted, Marten often taught. Your powers are a gift. It would be shameful and selfish to hide them.
    Lyllithe frowned at the mental lecture. Yes, Father, like how we cower in the Abbey’s safety instead of facing evil in the real world.
    Once again, she surveyed her surroundings, reveling in the beauty. Her father loved to warn against entering the forest and mountains beyond the Woodwall. Plagued by bandits, they say. But there are worse creatures than greedy Scarred men. Lyllithe could hear him scoff in her mind. You might find a pack of Shade-wrought to devour your soul in darkness. Or even some of the Kem, granted power through the curse of the Daemons.
    Lyllithe glanced about the clearing. Butterflies flitted around a cluster of Elith-Eyes in bloom. That speech worked when I was five summers old. 
    No one had seen any Kem around Northridge in her lifetime. And although rumors from other parts of the Bordermarches spoke of increased Shade sightings, even old Stam admitted he’d never heard of one in the area.
    No, Father, it’s the Scarred men I worry about. Men who could have been noble, who bore Gracemarks once, but forsook their Aspects and the teachings of their faith. A Shade was a twisted creature, but that was its nature. A man with a Scar was corrupted by choice.
    She glanced down at the glowing symbol on her right hand. Three months dabbling in the Arcane, and I still fear I might wake up Scarred one day. Surely it would have happened by now, if magic truly meant abandoning the Light.
    The cool wind struck her pale glistening skin and tempered the strength of noon’s sun. She took a deep breath, then sighed. This isn’t why you’re out here, fool girl. 
    The stump of a fallen tree stuck out of the ground a dozen paces away. She stared at it as if expecting it to spring to life. 
    “Do not see by the light,” she recited, picturing the pages of the book Davon gave her three months ago. “See Light itself.”
    The air seemed to shimmer. Lyllithe saw rainbow strands pulsating, stretching down like an intricate web from the sky. She exerted her will on several near the stump, drawing the energy into herself. That side of the clearing dimmed for a moment. Refocus the energy. Take it, twist it, turn it, throw it.
    Power coursed through Lyllithe’s nerves. Her body trembled at first, then shook. Like fingers held too close to a flame, the initial comforting warmth shifted into pain which soon became unbearable.
    She chose flagros—fire—and squinted at the stump. A jet of flame appeared in the air before her. It streaked across the path of her vision and struck the wood with a thunderclap, shattering the stump into splinters. The brightness returned, revealing a jagged crater of wood. Smoking fragments rained down around the clearing.
    Lyllithe grinned and rocked on her heels. I can Bind an element, change it to another, and Loose it. She practiced thinking in proper terms the Arcanists used. 
She watched the strands of fire vanish. Nice to get something good out of my elemental heritage for a change. Pureblood humans like Davon could not Bind without the use of an Ocular, but Lyllithe needed no aid to see the elemental energies available all around her. 

Maybe being a half-blood Ghostskin isn’t entirely bad.

    She analyzed her attempt, and remembered the pain. “What is Bound must be Loosed,” Davon’s book stated. Binding could only be held for short periods before the user had to release it. You can only hold one Binding at a time, and that not for long. Seems rather limiting.
    Lyllithe paced around the smoking stump, assessing the damage. Davon seemed to think Binding light would be easy for me. Now what can I create when I Loose it? 
    The breeze picked up, and Lyllithe blinked to clear her vision from the strands of light. She looked for air next, and faint swirls of aera like unwound yarn appeared around her, shifting gently. She reached out with her mind, imagining plunging her fingers into the jumble. Her mental grasp closed around a handful of the transparent yarn, and she tugged. 
    Take it, twist it. A pleasant sensation filled her for a few seconds before growing more violent. She shuddered from phantom pinpricks all over her skin. Then it seemed her veins pumped acid that would burst out if not released. Turn it. Refocus it into lux. You can do this.
    Every Arcanist had an affinity for one element above all others. Drawing on the energy of that element was considered the easiest task, ideal for beginners. The book stated that converting other elements into one’s affinity is for those with greater skill and experience. 
    I do love a challenge. 
    She gritted her teeth and struggled to create light, pushing with all her will. But it felt like trying to jam mismatched puzzle pieces together.
    The strain overwhelmed her, and she lost control. A brief spray of water burst over the clearing, centered above Lyllithe’s head. She gasped at the sudden chill. The aera shifted into aqua, its natural complementary element. Droplets sizzled when they hit the smoking ruin of the tree stump.
    I can get this to work. 
    She grabbed more of the invisible yarn of air, twisting gently at first, then building up in force. Wind seemed to rush into the space in front of her, ruffling her clothes and hair. She wrung the strands together with one final effort. A ball of light appeared in her hands.
    Lyllithe laughed despite the growing pain of Bound energy. Throw it!
    She thrust her hands up into the sky. An almost invisible sphere flew into the air. Trees and clouds shimmered as it passed. When it reached its peak, the light around the ball rushed into the center, creating a glimmer in the middle of a translucent globe of shade. In a heartbeat, the compressed light exploded. A wave of force rippled out from the blast. 
    Like a star, bursting in the night sky.
    Lyllithe repeated the process three more times, sending starbursts up into the air, each one bigger than the last. On the fourth attempt, she reached out for more aera, and— 
     What is that?
    Somewhere, what she could only describe as in the distance in her mind, there was a sensation of something other. A deep power, vast and unmoving. All elements flow in some way, but this is stationary. Stagnant. 
    She tried to focus her mind on it, but a wave of nausea struck her and the feeling dissipated. When she turned her attention back to the aera, the sensation of unknown power returned. Like seeing something out the corner of my eye. 
    Her first instinct was to call it darkness. But Davon clearly stated that darkness didn’t actually exist; it was merely absence of light.
    This exists. This is a thing. 
    And yet it felt like a void, a great heavy mass of emptiness. So much power there.
    She reached out to take hold, careful to avoid direct focus on the mysterious source. Her mind brushed the surface—
    Lyllithe screamed and thrashed on the ground. Her body ached, like claws scratched within her chest out into every extremity, tearing flesh along the way. She rolled over and vomited into the grass. 
    Oh, Light, what… what was that?
    Her weak, shaking muscles pushed against the dirt. She struggled to an upright position, supported by one knee. There are clearly some things for which I need guidance. 
    A branch snapped near the edge of the treeline, and Lyllithe froze. Distant voices carried on the breeze met her ears. 
    “Over this way, I’m sure of it.” A man’s voice, gruff, yet eager. 
    “You’re wasting time, Jek.” Another male, with an air of authority.
    “I tell you true, ’twas a woman that yelled,” Jek said. 
    More branches rustled. They’re getting closer. Lyllithe looked about for cover. I’m in the middle of a clearing. Where am I supposed to hide?
    The second man laughed. “You been in the woods too long, Jek. Go pay a visit to the hired girls in the Outskirts—maybe you’ll think clearer.” 
    “You saw it, Maz,” Jek said. “Heard it too. Those balls of shadow blowin’ up in the air.”
    Lyllithe scrambled away from the ruined stump. She reached the edge of the clearing opposite from the voices and dove into the thick grass near the trees.
    “If your woman-voice made those,” Maz said, “maybe we don’t want to meet her.”
    Jek laughed. “But killin’ an Arcanist is so much fun.”
    Between swaying blades of grass, Lyllithe watched two men step into the light. Jek, the laughing man, looked short but stocky, with arms and legs thick and hard like the trees he appeared from. His unkempt shock of brown hair extended into a coarse beard that hung halfway down his chest. Jek’s chainmail vest clinked with each step, and his right hand wrapped tight around the haft of a spiked hammer. 
    Maz had a slender frame draped in a cloak of furs. Black hair hung down to his eyebrows, and the stubble on his face was peppered with grey. Chainmail peeked out from beneath a leather jerkin, and two sheathed long knives hung off his belt.
    He put a boot onto the remains of the stump. “Lookit that.”
    Jek glanced at Maz, and his smile faded. His eyes darted around the clearing. “Why’s everything wet?”
    Maz shrugged and grabbed one of his knives. Sunlight revealed a rough scar like an inverted parasol on the back on his hand.
    Lyllithe choked down fear. He was a Soulforged once.
    Maz snapped a finger to get Jek’s attention and pointed at the ground.
    Jek nodded and drew close.
    Lyllithe made out the whisper. Footprints.
    The men took slow, quiet steps, approaching the treeline where Lyllithe hid.
    Panic struck. She watched their movements, desperate. I can’t use Refocusing on them. The Abbey forbids violence. I’ll become impure. Her eyes fixated on Maz’s scar. I could lose my Gracemark, just like him.
    Adrenaline coursed through her. No choice but to run before they get close. She took a slow breath, tensed up, and whispered a prayer. Light save me from my own stupidity.
    A birdcall nearby distracted the men. 
    Lyllithe took her chance. She sprang from the ground and started running, hoping to use the trees for cover.
    Jek shouted and gave chase.
    A whooshing sound made Lyllithe stop short, and one of Maz’s knives pinned her open vest to a tree with a thunk. She strained to get free of the vest, but the angle made it awkward.
    Jek closed the distance within seconds, whooping and waving the hammer at Lyllithe. “Where ya goin’, Ghostskin?” 
    Maz strode through the grass and produced another knife. 
    Lyllithe stopped struggling and glared at the men. “I am the daughter of the Eldest of Northridge, who will not permit—”
    Maz backhanded Lyllithe, a grim sneer on his face. 
    Lights exploded in her head.
    He held his scar before her face. “You see this? Don’t presume to tell me what’s permitted.”
    Light. I need the Light. Lyllithe reached for Divine power through her Gracemark, then stopped. What am I going to do, heal them?
    Jek grinned and grabbed Lyllithe’s throat. “Skin’s so soft, so white.” He set down the hammer and ran his finger across the emblazoned sun on her vest. “Never been with a Devoted.”
    His hot breath stank, and Lyllithe gagged.
    Maz shoved Jek aside. “I’m the Second, Jek. I get first pick of any spoils.”
    Lyllithe gasped for air. Air… aera… maybe I can Refocus. She sought the jumble of invisible yarn she’d seen before, ready to risk impurity to defend herself.
    Her concentration broke when Maz groped her. No… please… 
    Maz laughed and tugged at her shirt. Seams popped. Fabric rent. Tears fell.
    Lyllithe thrashed and clawed at the men, raking at them with her fingernails. Unfazed by her effort, Jek wrenched her arms behind her back and pressed her into the tree with his muscular body. 

    “You’re gonna like this,” Maz whispered as he stroked the point of her left ear.
    Straining against the men’s touch, Lyllithe’s body shook with wasted effort. She closed her eyes. At the edge of her consciousness, she felt the stagnant power from before. I can’t do anything with that. 
    Fingers grasped at her waistline, and fear burned in her chest. 
    Her awareness melted like wax before an inferno.
    A long silence passed.
    Birds started chirping. A gentle breeze blew through the grass. 
    A stench of blood and waste filled the air.
    Lyllithe opened her eyes. She lay on the ground looking up into the sky. The sun had moved almost a full hour.
    Something stirred. A man’s voice spoke, slurring like he’d just woke up. “Mark me,” he whispered in abject fear. “Oh, scarring Mark me. What did you do?” 
Lyllithe sat up and turned toward the sound. Jek, the laughing man.
Blood matted his hair and beard. Pink meaty chunks of flesh splattered and stuck in his chainmail. A severed scarred hand lay nearby. Jek wasn’t laughing anymore. 
    Lyllithe looked down. She remained fully clothed, but soaked with blood. One of Maz’s boots sat at her feet, his calf peeking out from the leather. No sign of his knee or anything above it. She quivered and stared, unblinking.
    “Th-th-the trees,” Jek sputtered. 
    For several paces, every tree bent or fell in a circle toward the bloody center where Maz was scattered in the grass.
    Jek struggled to his feet, pointing his thick shaking finger at Lyllithe. “You killed Maz. You killed Kal’s Second.” He looked around, jaw agape. “What—what kind of Cora-spawn are you, Ghostskin?”
    Teardrops cut lines through the blood on Lyllithe’s face. She looked up at Jek, his visage nearly as white as her own, and managed a whisper. “I don’t know.”
    Jek screamed and bolted, stumbling over broken trees and snapped branches. “Scar me, Kal’s gonna hear about this,” he shouted as he ran.
    Lyllithe remained frozen in place. I’ve killed. Somehow, I’ve murdered a man. The symbol of Aulis on her vest caught her eye. I’ll never be accepted as Devoted.
    Her father’s stern face appeared in her mind. What will he say? There’s no forgiving this. 
    Jek’s voice echoed through the trees. “You’re gonna suffer, Ghostskin.”
    Lyllithe stared down at the blood on her hands. I already am.

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