Still holding me, Kai lunged at the stockiest of the three men, swiftly disarming him with a subtle maneuver with his blade. As he whipped round, I kicked out with my healthy leg, catching the bandit square in the nose as he bent down to retrieve his weapon.
His nose broke audibly under my foot, a loud crunch echoing as he fell back to the ground, seemingly unconscious.
The second lunged at us, Kai’s sudden feint to the right making me shriek in pain as my knee twisted violently with the momentum. The giant stumbled as he lumbered into the space my body had just occupied, hollering like a bull.
In a heartbeat, Kai had brought down the handle of his scimitar on the man’s skull, making his crumple to the cracked floor, eyes rolling up into his skull.
As we swung around again, a fresh burst of pain shot up to my knee.
“Put me down!” I gasped
Kai lowered me down with an unexpected gentleness: “Stay out of the way.” He brushed dark locks out of his eyes as he straightened up to face the last bandit standing.
I watched, transfixed as the two men circled each other, both gripping their weapons so heart the veins on their arms screamed out.
Alarick lunged first, grunting and slashing wildly at Kai. The General was light on his feet, dancing this way and that, with the grace of a dancer. He parried the heavy blows almost lazily, although the sweat snaking down his bare arms told me otherwise.
Alarick’s movements faltered, the desert heat taking its toll: he had spent so much energy attacking his defence was almost non-existent. At that precise moment, Kai lunged forward, as if sensing the bandit’s weakness. He attacked in a vicious flurry of strokes, not even granting a single second of respite, his movements lithe and agile.
I had been so caught up in their sparring I failed to notice the shadow looming over me till something hard poked me in the shoulder.
I whipped round, finding Nala behind me, dragging her reins on the floor.
“Nala!” I breathed, momentarily forgetting the battle. I had totally forgotten about her! Ebony followed just a few paces back, the little healer hiding behind him.
Nala snorted at me, eyes wide. She was trying to tell me something.
“Nala? What is it?”
I looked behind me, just in time to see the man whose nose I had broken rise from the dust creeping up behind Kai, broadsword held high.
My limbs froze of their own accord, voice lodged in my throat. My eyes widened as I watched the scene in front of me as if in slow motion. The bandit raised his sword behind the unaware Kai, gripping it tightly and slicing downwards, just as Kai struck Alarick in the shoulder.
Why couldn’t I move? Why couldn’t I make a sound. Time slowed down as I screamed soundlessly, throat strangely burning.
The world around me became muted, blood pumping hot in my ears and my head burning. In my peripheral vision, I saw flames erupt out of the desert heat, engulfing everything in sight.
A column of fire hit the bandit straight in the chest, burning a gaping hole in his chest. The sickly sweet stench of cooking human flesh filled the air.
The man screamed a terrible scream, the skin on his neck and face raw, and toppled forward, dead.
Alarick clambered to his feet, clutching his upper arm as blood seeped from in between his fingers. The skin around his right eye was scorched, hanging of in burnt pieces.
I whipped around wildly, trying to pinpoint the source of the fire.
My eyes found Kai, standing paralysed in total shock as he stared at me with more expressions on his face in that single moment than I had ever seen in all the time I knew him.
Alarick was warbling incomprehensibly, backing away with a look of terror.
“Demon! Demon! Child of Lilith!” he screamed
“Kai! What-” I began, stepping forward, then collapsing as me knee buckled under my weight. Kai still stared at me, unmoving. Why wasn’t he helping me? My breath rushed out in short, bewildered puffs. Why was he looking at me like that?
Alarick, finally reaching his steed, scrambled up onto it’s back and rode away at a full gallop into the barren desert, dust rising behind him.
“Kai, help me!” I pleaded
Then, looking at his horror struck face, I followed his gaze to my own shoulders.
My wild black curls, free around my shoulders and waist, glowed red with fiery embers, in some places the flames still danced strong. My heart palpitated violently in my chest as I looked up at Kai with beseeching eyes, telling him to do something. Anything. But he remained frozen.
As if in a dream, I raised my hand to my head, touching the smokeless fire. Pieces came away in my palm, and I watched in terrified fascination as an orange flower unfolded in my hand, spreading up my arm gradually in deadly beauty. I felt nothing. Nothing but a pleasant, tingling warmth.
I was on fire.
I was on fire, and I did not burn.