My alarm goes off. That means it’s just before sunrise. I get out of bed, and change into my shorts, one of my plainest t-shirts, and slip into my shoes. A quick morning prayer and I’m jogging in place as I open the door and I’m off.
Lisa, my roommate, is still asleep. I keep my alarm low, but I’m pretty sure I could set it up to max and she’d still sleep through it if it wasn’t at least two hours later. I don’t know how she ever makes it to class on time, but she isn’t in any of mine and she isn’t my responsibility. I have enough on my plate as it is. Valedictorian seems pretty much in my pocket as long as I don’t completely screw everything up.
I want to be the best at everything that I ever do. That’s why I get up first thing in the morning to beat the sun out the door. Mary watches over me no matter when I run, so there’s no reason to not get in a morning jog to keep my legs strong.
The Woodside Academy of the Sacred Heart’s dorms have a decently early late night curfew, but no one has ever minded my early morning jogs. That’s good. I’d be sad if I had to stop.
Midas City is gorgeous city before everyone’s awake. I don’t have problems with the people of Midas, but there’s something so perfectly serene about seeing His creation without as much action. There really isn’t a part of the city that doesn’t feel safe this time of day. In a lot of ways my morning jog is really an excuse to have an early morning patrol. For whatever reason I’ve never seen anyone get up to anything first thing in the morning. Crime probably likes to sleep in like Lisa. As long as it never turns out that Lisa is someone I should be keeping a better eye on that’s fine by me.
It’s also easier to jog around unsuspiciously and get an idea of what parts of the city I should be patrolling without a pair of swords dangling from my hips. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to make it so I can summon them from somewhere, but for now they have to wait under my bed until I sneak out to go on patrol.
I’m not completely unarmed without them, though. Besides just being really athletic, the golden ring around my finger does a good job of doubling it. The lifting enchantments make it so cars are pretty much a nonissue to lift.
Not that I’ve ever lifted one up carefully and set it down or anything. That would be ridiculous. I’ve just measured how strong it makes me, that’s all.
I can just never lie, or the ring stops working. Villains lie, so as long as I stay honest I can have a ring that makes me stronger without having to worry about it slipping into the wrong hands. My mask makes me immune to fear and lets me teleport near others, but if I don’t live with integrity it’ll stop working. My Twin Furies—the short swords I use very carefully against criminals—won’t work for anyone that doesn’t live a life dedicated to justice.
As long as I never violate those tenants, I’m more than equipped to deal with anything that comes my way.
My legs aren’t burning yet, so I jog a little faster and take a turn into a bad part of the city. This is the kind of place that needs a heroine like Virtue the most. Protecting people who have enough isn’t less respectable, but there’s plenty of people looking out for them already. I want to be the heroine that makes sure that the people that no one else is looking out for are safe. I want to be the heroine who makes this world a better place for the weakest who have the least hope that things can get better.
God willing, I intend to do just that.
After getting back and taking a quick shower I’m in my school uniform and ready to check over my homework before classes. Senior year. I’m already technically an adult, but is anyone really an adult before they graduate high school?
It takes forever to wash my hair. Long blonde hair is a pretty heroic thing to wear, though. When I was first designing my outfit I was really wanting a cape, but a half-cape with hair that I can practically step on? It just gets lost. I’m not cutting my hair. It could be a disadvantage in a fight, but I’m a pretty strong girl. If anyone wants to pull me around by my hair they’re going to get one or both of my Twin Furies somewhere very unpleasant.
The only part of the Sacred Heart uniform that occasionally bothers me is the tie. Skirts are fine, especially if you actually wear them as long as you’re supposed to. Not that I’m naming any names.
But I’m totally naming Lisa.
While I’m sitting in one of the common areas, just going over some math to make completely sure I didn’t make any embarrassing mistakes, one of the sisters approaches me. I smile, thankful that I wasn’t worrying over any of my magical diagrams. The last thing I need is for someone in school to catch me looking at them, but school takes up so much of my time.
“Hello, Chastity! I hope you’re looking forward to the weekend!” She beams down at me with all the grace of Mary. I’ve heard of Catholic Schools, especially boarding schools, with unpleasant sisters. That’s never been my experience here.
Usually the people I have to watch out for are other students. By now I’ve made enough of a name for myself with the ones I couldn’t just get along with. Sad, but just how it works.
If I hadn’t they’d be eating me alive.
“Good morning, Sister Wallace! I am!” Wallace is taller than me (but most people are taller than you when you barely break five feet) with short blonde hair and blue eyes that make her look entirely too pure. It suits her radiant demeanor. “Time to catch up on my reading, and I always look forward to mass! Any idea what it’s going to be about this weekend?”
“Oh yes. I think we’re going to be discussing the importance of avoiding temptation towards easy paths to success…” Sister Wallace smiles, smoothing out some of my hair with a touch that makes me wish my mother ever showed me that kind of affection instead of keeping me at a boarding school. She isn’t even in another city. “Things like performance enhancing drugs, using medications to enhance studying…” I sigh in relief. “And things like witchcraft, turning away from all that is holy. Confession is good, but you shouldn’t go looking to need it!”
My smile is only a million times more fake than I wish it were, but that’s fine. It’s not a lie. I’m happy to see her. She’s sweet to me. The sisters have been strict family with me for a long time… more than most of my family. I’ve been going to the Sacred Heart since I was going to school.
I can’t lie or my ring won’t work. It’s not the best reason to have to be honest, but it is something. “I’m sure that’ll be one to remember! Thank you, Sister Wallace.”
“Of course, Miss Allen. And I hope that you’ve been thinking a lot about what you want to do after graduation…” She pauses and shifts her weight between her feet before reaching up to grasp her crucifix. “It’s important to always walk in Mary’s light.”
Mary’s light… Something about that, something about always walking in it, feeling it… Sister Wallace gets fuzzier. The books on my legs feel heavier. “Mary’s… Light…”
My voice feels softer, quieter, so much further away. My eyelids feel so much heavier. Sister Wallace walks in Mary’s light. Sister Wallace is holding Mary’s light. I can’t help but smile as I slump back and stare up at her.
“That’s right, Miss Allen. It’s very important to walk in Mary’s light…” She smiles and moves closer to me. She feels so warm. I want to feel this more… I can feel Mary’s love tingling across my skin when she strokes my cheek and looks into my eyes. “You need to stay in Mary’s light. It’s important that you always keep yourself open to Divine Guidance.” She kisses my forehead, and I can’t help but moan as my smile grows so much wider. It’s just so easy to savor the feeling of gentle affection. “You want to be a righteous, noble woman, don’t you?”
“Yesss… Righteous… Noble…” I sigh, my shoulders feeling so much heavier. It’s impossible to keep my back straight. My math book tumbles to the floor… but I don’t really care.
Sister Wallace keeps stroking my cheek with her thumb. Every time it hits just the right spot my eyes feel heavier, and heavier, and heavier… Everything feels warmer. Fuzzier. Softer.
“You need more Divine Guidance before graduation.” Truth. Simple, divine, truth. There’s no part of me that’s even vaguely interested in questioning her. Sister Wallace always helps me walk in Mary’s light. She helps me feel Mary’s love… Why would I question anything? “You know that only the Sisters of the Sacred Heart can teach you the true path to walk in Mary’s light… And all you have to do, is just keep your heart open to us.”
Nodding. I think I’m nodding. It’s hard to keep track anymore. Everything feels warm and fluffy and far away and soft. I can’t stop smiling, almost so much it hurts.
The golden of my necklace feels so heavy, it’s almost like it’s pulling me down. My legs fall open. I can feel my skirt rising up my legs, but it’s so hard to care. I’m in Mary’s light… Only Seniors can really feel Mary’s light. Only women…
“You want to come with me to receive more… Divine Guidance…” Sister Wallace’s voice sounds like a song too beautiful to sing at mass. My thighs shudder further apart, and I nod.
“I want to come with you… more… divine… Mmmm… guidance…” I don’t know what it is, but it makes something deep between my legs itch and ache. My cheeks flush, but it doesn’t really matter. I need to walk in Mary’s light. I want to be righteous. Noble. Only the sisters of the Sacred Heart can show me the path. Only Mary can light the way.
Her thumb grazes its way across my bottom lip, and I shudder as my mouth falls open. Oh. Yes. It feels nice. I can’t help but smile more.
More divine guidance, please. More divine guidance until I’m full up. Please.
She leans in so close I can almost feel her body against mine. The word “forbidden” teases at my mind, but nothing a sister of the Sacred Heart could do would possibly be forbidden. They decide what is forbidden.
They decide what’s forbidden to remember, and what is too sacred to forget…
“Come with me, and accept your divine guidance…” Her fingers slide between mine, and I rise from my seat as though she were using Mary’s light like marionette strings. I slump against her, and walk as she starts to walk.
“Accept… divine guidance…” I stumble along with her, rubbing my face into her shoulder. My eyes are only open enough so I don’t trip over anything or fall. Mary will guide me. Mary’s divine guidance will show me the way. I don’t need to in Mary’s light. I can’t think in Mary’s light.
Wallace squeezes my hand tighter, and I moan.
I wish that I had a mother like her, but if I can’t, a sister is probably the next best thing, right?
I didn’t have time on Friday to look over my math homework before class, but thankfully I didn’t make any embarrassing mistakes. My whole body was tingling for most of the day anyway. My morning jogs really fill me with such a sense of serenity.
The whole day I felt really great. My best friend Cynthia invited me to a play. I wish I still had time to be in drama with her, but it doesn’t match up with my current priorities. Kendo is a lot better for teaching me some more practical skills, and the rest of the time I spend at the library with Em studying magic.
She doesn’t know what I use it for, but she’s also graduating this year (from another school, sadly) and it’s nice to have someone my age to learn with. Plus this way we aren’t fighting for what few magic books ended up hidden at the Gordias Library of the Arts.
And sometimes she bakes things for us to snack on before or after. She’s a really good friend. I’m really lucky to have a friend like her that I can feel so safe around.
Saturday is mostly my day, so I’ll probably spend some of it with Cynthia like we usually do time to time just sort of hanging out… but I also have plans to meet up at the Library with Em. She doesn’t check the books out, and we hide them well enough. If I took the books to school with me and even one thing was found during a room check… I’d be petrified. There’d be no way to keep using my ring or graduate.
This weekend though she wanted to go to a used bookstore and try to find some books she could buy and keep around her place for us to study with at the library. I’m looking forward to it, a lot. She’s always fun to hang out with.
I want to make my mother proud of me.
But for now, it’s still Friday. I got through class, Kendo club, and Em even made some cookies for us to eat while we studied. After that, it was time to get home early and wait. It’s one of those nights where Lisa stays out past curfew without anyone noticing somehow, so I check around a few times to make sure no one is near the door, make my bed look like I’m in it, and make sure my ring is on tight and nothing is missing from the backpack I keep under my bed before popping out the window and jumping to the nearby tree. Climbing down is a cinch, and some nearby bushes give me more than enough cover to slide into my costume.
White boots with a bit of red around the edges. White pants. A white sleeveless top that goes down my thighs like a skirt with a red stripe down the middle and one wrapping around my waist like a belt. With a mask over my eyes to match, and the Twin Furies at my hips, I’m ready to start my patrol and keep the city safe. I can’t help but smile.
Mary’s light is always guiding me to the righteous, and noble path. I’m so glad that I have the sisters of the Sacred Heart to show me the way. Without them, where would I be?
I don’t think my mother has any idea what to do with a daughter.
It’s hard to take a different path around a city than one you’re used to taking. When you’re trying to be observant and not miss a single detail around you it’s easier to fall into old rhythms, old patterns. That wouldn’t be very good right now. I’m pretty sure if someone was going to recognize me behind this mask they already would have by now, but I’d still rather not make it any easier. I’m trying to keep a secret identity, not loudly announce to the world that I’m Chastity Allen.
A gentle breeze makes my long blonde hair flutter behind me as I move through the sidewalks with hands resting over the pommels of my Twin Furies every time I think I hear a worrying sound. The winter air is still cool, but it won’t be so cool for very much longer. Well, it’ll stay cold until probably June or July, but a winter chill and a spring breeze are very different when you’re wearing an outfit without sleeves like I am.
It’s nearly spring. That knots up my stomach, but it’s a problem for Chastity and right now I’m Virtue. Tomorrow is Saturday, which means just another day after that and we’ll have Mass. That always puts me at ease. The sermon itself might be something that I’m not really excited for, but there’s something about the ritual I value a lot.
Mass hasn’t been the easiest to pay attention to lately, but I do always feel a lot better afterwards. The discussions about magic, living two lives, and other things like that do make me feel really uncomfortable… but it’s not like I’m doing anything wrong. I’m doing it so I can save people from bad things happening to them. That’s a good thing. I’m being self-sacrificing.
There’s no way that this path isn’t righteous, or noble. Mary’s light guides me to make the city a safer place. I know it.
If I didn’t have integrity, my mask wouldn’t work. If I wasn’t an honest person, my ring wouldn’t work. If I wasn’t living a life devoted to justice, my swords would be little more than fancy toys. I didn’t forge them or anything fancy like that. I know that I’m doing the right thing, because I made sure that if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to. Midas City can be dangerous like that, and the last thing I want to do is to be corrupted and hurt the people I care about.
“We need to get them down to the caves. It’ll be time for the ritual soon.” I hear their voices just before I turn the corner, which is good because it gives me time to stop and stick to the wall and lean around it carefully instead of walking right into them. No use in being spotted before I know what I’m going to be dealing with. Anyone that wants to get a group of people down into a cave has to be bad.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Midas City is a weird place. For some reason I still wasn’t imagining a group of women with pink hair wearing the same color of pink accenting black.
Their uniform is simple: a long skirt with high slits up either side to show off their knee high boots, open loose sleeved black robes with pink details, and a bright pink belt holding it tightly around their waists. The flaming details over their robes make them look like a cross between a martial arts getup combined with cultist robes.
My luck that I’d run into a bunch of highly trained zealous kidnappers.
There’s about five of them, and at least as many not wearing their uniform being kept in the middle of their group. That’s not really an optimal situation to go in, blades swinging, even if they aren’t metahuman. Usually that many of them and they’ll land at least some kind of a hit… Not to mention the opportunity for human shields.
Swords aren’t really as affected by that as projectiles, but I’d still rather not run the risk of hurting them. It’s probably going to come to that. I really can’t leave those women to become parts in some ritual.
Stealth isn’t really my element. I could probably make a belt or a bangle or a necklace to give me that capability, but as it is the only advantage I have is short range teleportation… and even that has to be beside someone. I can come in swinging, but I can’t back out nearly as quickly. The victims themselves don’t seem incapacitated, but I can’t get a look at their faces. They aren’t particularly slouched, or even bound.
Following them sounds like a good option, but if I’m going to engage in a fight then I’ll want to do it further away from their ritual location. If Em and I have learned anything it’s that the more people you have in a ritual, the better it can be.
Heart of Gold taught me that too the time we worked together to scry for an escaped villain. I hope she’s doing all right… Midnightress, too. It’s too bad we don’t get to work together more. If the three of us were together then these thugs would be no problem, even if they’re all powered up by whatever has them sporting matching pink hair.
“Of course. Pyria awaits new converts. Her eternally cleansing flame must be given more fuel.” The woman’s voice is reverent and shuddering with devotion. I’ve heard that tone before.
“Pyria will cleanse the impurities from this world and help us build a glorious new paradise.” All of them have the same quivering devotion. Maybe I haven’t heard anyone sound quite this devoted before. They sound a little bit less religious and a little bit more uhm…
I shudder. What is it with Midas City and lesbians? I mean, the church is lightening up about it, and I don’t see why that would be a bad thing, but… not every single girl in the world is into other girls. I mean any time I meet anyone from out of Midas—which isn’t often—they’re always asking if I have a girlfriend. It is possible to be a straight girl and live in Midas City. It’s not like I chose to grow up here. I didn’t choose to go to a Catholic school, though I think it’s been the best thing in my life. It’s certainly given me a lot of structure and opportunity.
Sometimes it feels like my whole life is just one big fetish for predatory lesbians. Even the thought of that just makes me shiver. No, thanks.
The five women begin to escort their prisoners away and I dart behind a bench. Being small does have the advantage that even if I’m not very stealthy at least I don’t need much to hide behind. If I could summon some kind of spirit horse to run them all down… or a motorcycle…
When the group turns I get a look at the women they’re corralling. They don’t look much older than me… probably college students. They walk as they’re directed, not seeming to look to the side or even be considering bolting. In a word, they look… compliant.
One of the victims blinks, and there’s something… pink in her eyes. Not pink in the way that they call the eye condition pink eye, but pink like pink glowing energy. Wow.
That’s really, really bad.
My arms cross over my body as I wrap my hands around the hilts of my Twin Furies. I have no idea how far away their access point to the caves is. They could have more backup anywhere if not all of them dress so obviously. Then again, I’ve never heard of a flame cult in Midas City before so there’s a possibility that no one knows they’re anything to be worried about until it’s too late.
Any cult that was too easily spotted would have been rooted out by someone bigger than me, Heart, or Midnightress. Someone like Psyche or the Blue Fox would have just swept in and they’d be gone. That means either no one’s seen them before, or they’re very dangerous.
A careful moment of focus and I call on the power within my ring. It’s not an instantaneous teleportation like some others have. After images travel ahead of me as I unsheathe my blades mid teleport, thankful that they don’t actually make a loud metal-on-metal sound in the process like I’ve heard in every movie ever. It was disappointing the first time, but I’d really rather not give myself away before my surprise first strike has a chance to land.
All of the images gather up just behind the cultist with the short, pixie cut hair at the back of the group. She doesn’t even have time to turn around before I slam the flat of the first blade against her, sending her to one side only for the other to be already moving to meet her.
She doesn’t stand a chance, collapsing into a pink and black heap.
I almost expected the rest of the cultists to turn towards me as one terrifyingly untied force, but there’s no hive mind guiding them that I can see. The two closest to me raise their hands and begin moving them through the air. None of the victims react. I’d love to focus on getting them out of the way of danger, but when I can’t teleport them there’s no way that I can risk accidently using them to shield whatever blows would be meant for me… and I’d rather not take any hits for them that I don’t need to.
As much as self-sacrifice is a virtue, it doesn’t do us any good if I meet the pavement before their attackers do. All that does is make it easy for them to get another victim to drag down into those caves. Unacceptable.
I move to the left, not bothering to teleport, just running. Jogging isn’t just to make it so my legs look strong, after all. I bring my first blade up to slam into her hands, disrupting whatever it is that she’s trying to summon up before bringing the second blade into the side of her head. It might be strange to use swords as blunt weapons instead of cutting or slashing or piercing, but all of those things are a lot more lethal. Taking a life isn’t virtuous, just easier.
Keeping a rhythm is important. Being outnumbered, a fight is a dance. If you stay still, you aren’t leading anymore. If you aren’t leading, your partner is.
That doesn’t mean they can’t try to step on your foot, of course. Gouts of pink flame burst from all three of the still standing cultists at once. I roll out of the way from the first. The second grazes my back as I roll low to the ground. It’s warm, but that’s actually pleasant.
Pink flame surges in front of me as I rise up, hitting me right in the chest. It isn’t anything like I expected. It’s hot, and my whole body starts to sweat… but my clothes aren’t singed at all. My skin doesn’t ache. Instead my skin feels hot. Sensitive. My knees shake. My eyes lose focus for just a moment before I grit my teeth. It’s not… fire-fire. It’s some sort of mental… heat…?
My mind feels like it’s sweating, which can’t be a good thing no matter how you look at it. All of them are smiling at me, and inside of the cultist’s eyes is pink fire. It dances menacingly, like a snake ready to strike.
Standing up straight is harder than I want it to be. The inside of me feels… warm. Hot. I shake my head, trying to push the feeling away. It doesn’t work.
The cultists’ victims don’t move. Their faces are expressionless, not worried or happy or angry. They’re just… there. Smaller pink flames are in their eyes, and they aren’t dancing nearly as much. They’re calmer, more tame…
I can almost feel them moving…
“Pyria’s flame will cleanse you of your impurities!” A hand thrusts out towards me, and for a moment I really wish that I had a shield or had enchanted my swords to work like one if I spun them around. On instinct I roll out of the way again, cursing the way that rolling makes it feel like I’m pouring sticky-hot syrup over my brain. My forehead is starting to sweat. My breathing feels quicker.
“I’ve never heard of this ‘Pyria’ before, and I don’t really care! I won’t let you take these women!” I cry it out as much in the hopes of being intimidating as because I’m really hoping for someone else to show up. Maybe the women the cultists nabbed up will come to and run away.
At this point, I’ll take anything that’s better than the way it feels like it would be so much easier to just fall to my knees and sweat. It’s never felt so… good to sweat before. Getting a workout feels good, and working up a sweat is nice, but the very act of sweating like this, feeling the rivulets slide down my body, feeling the way the heat forces them out of me… it’s dizzyingly good. It makes parts of me squeeze and clench that I do not want to think about.
Pyria’s cult has to be one of those societies of predatory lesbians that Midas City is filled with. Just thinking that makes me feel hot in ways that I don’t like. I wish it would just… stop.
One of the cultist grins, moving around her victims without a care in the world. Her hair is long, tied in an elegant braid. She holds up a hand, snapping her fingers, and a flame appears above her pointer finger. “Pyria is the goddess of the cleansing flame that will purify this world. Only her flame can fix the wickedness that has gripped this world that fills it with such pain, sorrow, and confusion. Only Pyria’s flames can burn away the evil that has tainted women such as you who would fight against her path.” She points her finger towards me, and I raise a sword defensively. “Do not worry. Pyria’s love is for you as it is for all.”
“Uh…huh.” I am so glad that I’m wearing my mask. Being able to feel my fear right now would be the worst thing. Instead I can run right for her, leaping in the air to come down behind her to plant one sword in the ground to balance myself and give me more leverage to throw all of my body into the other blade slamming into the side of her knee. “There’s no such goddess, heathen.”
“I think you’ll find her flames every bit as real as your blades.” Another of the cultists, this one with loose, short, wavy hair and a more athletic build is standing over me and oh so close before she lets loose a ball of pink flame.
There’s no way I can get out of the way. There’s no way that I could get out of the way if my reflexes weren’t feeling like they were being melted at. They’re still there, but they’re harder to grasp, harder to use. It’s like the way my palms feel sweaty and my fingers won’t squeeze around the handles of my swords as tight as I know they can.
I’m stronger willed than this…!
Flame slams into me, but it doesn’t just disperse. I can feel it clawing its way inside of me, through my skin, my ears, my eyes, my nose, my mouth… any way that it can. I scream as I let the images of my teleportation send me back over to the first cultist I sent to the ground.
I take a deep, slow breath, and concentrate. I might not be empowered by some demon or devil that calls itself a goddess, but I have a power inside of me just like everyone else does. All of my magic comes from books, but all of us have something inside of us that gives us power. All of us have something we can grasp and power through things that should overcome us, break us down, and leave us nothing more than hollow shells.
The pink flame may have come from a devoted woman, but my devotion to my goals is stronger. My devotion to myself is stronger. I’m stronger than Pyria. I have a noble, righteous purpose.
Mary’s light, her divine guidance, won’t let me fall here.
I’m shaking when I finally do manage to stand tall. Drenched with sweat. Everything still feels too hot. Some of it must still be inside of me. That, or it took something as it left. That’s fine. I can’t let these women be taken. There’s only two of them left. The odds are much more in my favor now. Two on one is hardly fair when one of them has a truly divine purpose.
Real fire could have slammed into me that hard and I’d still be going. The Maid of Orleans took a lot more fire than I did. My destiny isn’t to kneel here.
“Wh-what?! Pyria’s cleansing flame cannot be—!”The other cultist punches her hand forward, sending more flame coursing around their victims and right at me. By the time it arrives I’m behind her, slamming the flat of my blade into the back of her head. She manages to score a really nasty looking hit on one of the images left behind, but that doesn’t stop her from hitting the ground.
Someone is breathing so loud that I can barely hear anything else over it. The shuddery, quivery sound makes my thighs shake in ways that I’m really not comfortable with. I’m not some hormone driven teenager. I’m a grown woman. I’m pious. Noble. Righteous.
Why does this make me remember Sister Wallace stroking my cheek? I know that I met with her for some advising this morning, but she never touched me like this. I never felt this…
The cultists I’ve taken down stay down. That’s one small mercy at any rate. I twirl one of my blades around in my hand, holding it backwards as I turn to the tallest who got the drop on me before. It probably won’t do me any good, but I try to give her the most intimidating glare that I can. “Looks like it can. So. Your move, kindling.”
I twirl my other sword around in my hand like it was weightless. You can’t really juggle a sword in one hand, but moving around a weapon like it’s nothing is supposed to be scary, right?
It’s also something to concentrate on that isn’t the heat that I can still feel trying to heat up behind my eyes. Shaking my head would give it away, so I just have to grin more. My heart is beating so hard. My toes won’t stop curling.
There’s only one of them left, but I can’t mess up now. It only takes one of them to call for backup after they’ve burned me out. There’s uncertainty in her eyes. I can see it.
Flame, too, but flame and uncertainty aren’t mutually exclusive.
“Kindling?” The uncertainty fades as the braided woman snaps both of her hands at once, creating a small flame above both of her pointer fingers held out in front of her shoulders. “Funny, coming from you. You’re the one who is just so combustible. What of me that can be burned away has already been burned. For you… there’s so much more to go, and I would be more than happy to assist you with that… but…”
Her pink flames aren’t much larger than the flames atop a candle. In the dark they’re still so vibrant and bright, but they don’t look like the kind of fireball that is actually scary or worrisome. They don’t bring to mind something that could take down someone who’s taken what they’ve already dished out.
Her hands start to move, and I keep a close eye on them as the hot pink flames begin to move in slow deliberate circles through the air. They don’t stay moving in the same way for long, sometimes both moving towards her, sometimes moving away… sometimes moving in the same direction, sometimes opposed. The flames keep moving, and I can feel something inside of me moving sympathetically with them. They grow larger, twisting, flicking, licking at the air as though to pull more power out of it.
My chest feels so tight and flush. In my chest my heart is beating faster. Harder. The night looks so much darker as those pink flames feel so much brighter. It’s harder and harder to see the woman behind them… so much easier to just feel the flames move and twist, to watch them bend and arc through the air, twisting and chaining their movements around and around and… around and…
It’s important to always walk in Mary’s light…
Sister Wallace. I can hear her voice so clearly as the flames twist and dance in the air. It doesn’t interrupt from how I feel that if I keep watching the pink flicker and twist that I’ll be able to guess what she’s doing and react. It’s easier to stand here knowing that there’s something to see in that fire.
What it is… I’m not sure. I just… I can feel it, inside of me. Deeper inside of me. It’s deeper than intuition, or instinct… It’s almost… Divine. Watching it, feeling my eyes moving on a track…
The flames keep moving, twisting… turning… There’s some pattern to it. If I just watch it, and let my eyes cross, just feel the flames move and twist… It’s easy to see and watch and feel, and… it keeps feeling closer. It keeps feeling closer and closer to making sense, and the more it makes sense, the easier it is to not worry about how long it’s going to take. As long as I discover it eventually, it’ll be fine. It’ll be good. I just need to...figure it out…
You need more Divine Guidance…
Divine guidance… The fire continues to spin and twist and dance. It’s bright, warm, and I’m sure that I can feel it inside of me. I’m sure that I can feel it expanding inside of me, trying to… fill me? It’s almost as though it just…
N-no… This isn’t… No…
I can feel my eyes on those tracks, but they shouldn’t be… I shouldn’t be aware of this. She doesn’t want me to be aware of this… Staring, watching it… If I just let go, I wouldn’t be able to realize that. If I just let go and watched the fire, let it expand inside of me, I wouldn’t need to worry about anything anymore. I’d be able to just… Not worry.
I could just… feel this heat throb through me. I wouldn’t need to worry about anything. No more predators. No more stressful heroics, no more worrying about being a valedictorian, just…
I could be cleansed, I could be cured, I could be pure, I could be… Good… No worries about it, no worries about failing, no…
“No!” It’s not a very smart idea. It’s a very, very stupid idea, but it’s all that I have to disrupt this. I can’t just look away. I can’t fight her. All I can do is toss the sword in my left hand at her, spinning it through the air.
Throwing a sword isn’t something I recommend doing. Not only are they not weighted for it, but they’re heavier than they look. Putting all of my strength into trying to lob it with some semblance of accuracy hurts, a lot, but when the pommel smacks into her chest the flames above her hands burn out with a very satisfying pop as she drops to the ground.
Blinking doesn’t feel quite real… but that’s fine. I rub some sweat away from my forehead, panting, groaning as I stumble my way over to retrieve my sword. I’m just glad I can control myself again, and that I didn’t stab her.
With the flames in their victims looking like smaller versions of what’s in the cultists’ eyes… I can’t imagine they’re any more willing. That was probably what they wanted for me.
All I would have had to do was just… not throw my sword. I sheath them, but if I’d just never thrown it… all I’d need to do was just keep staring. The flames would have continued to twist and grapple through me, reaching out as much as they reached in. I would have just kept staring, accepting, ready to be told what to do.
I would have been ready, eager, to become whatever they wanted me to be. I’d be a slave to whatever power is inside of them. Whatever Pyria is, I would need to obey her.
All of those women were so happy, so eager to obey Pyria. To be that loyal, to be that willing to just do… anything… It has to feel good. It has to be good on some level, even if it’s just something base and simple and stupid. They all had a simple task. Get these women. Bring them to the ritual. With powers like theirs, I can’t imagine it would’ve been too hard if I hadn’t shown up. It was just rotten luck that they weren’t able to obey.
Flames are still in the eyes of their victims. They don’t look like they know what’s happened. They don’t look like they understand how close I came to just… to just…
“No! No! Fuck no I’m not some… stupid… flame eyed slave! I’m a righteous, noble, woman! I’m in control of my own destiny! I walk in Mary’s light, but I am not a slave!” I scream it as loud as I can. Panting. Sweat is dripping from my forehead again. Watching them, thinking like that… the flames in me were starting up again. If I’d kept going they would have burned me out.
Why is it so easy to do the wrong thing no matter how bad it is, but it’s always so hard to do the thing that I know I should want to do? I want to be better than this. I have to be better than this. It’s normally not so difficult, it’s just... It’s just tonight. That’s all.
I’m a good girl, and it’s not because I have to be. I could be a bad girl. I could be the worst girl. My roommate is proof I don’t need to be good to keep my room…
“Come on! I’m Virtue and I’m going to take you to…” Where do I lead them? If I let them just go home, I know they’ll be vulnerable. I don’t know why they were chosen—or how. Were they watched for days? Weeks? Months? Minutes? Will this Pyria go looking for her, or will she move on to finding more easily snatched prey? Have I just made this someone else’s problem?
Hopefully they’re still in town. I can try to see if I can’t find the… it’s not a team, but… Maybe with Heart of Gold as a magic battery I could track down this Pyria and put an end to her little cult.
“Come on girls! We’re going to go find some nice police and see if we can’t get someone to figure out how to help you out, all right?” I’ve heard there’s a woman who is pretty good at putting heads back together and ripping things out of them. I’ve never met her, but hey, I’ve never really needed to. Most of what I’ve dealt with so far has been pretty straight forward.
They don’t really react. They also don’t fight me when I grab two of their hands and start to pull them along. In fact they follow dutifully without a word. Whatever was done to them left them… agreeable? I guess I should feel lucky.
My head still feels warm, but I think I’m done sweating. I hope I’m done sweating. It would be embarrassing to sweat my way through mass in a Midas Winter. Not appealing.
Their hands feel warm, but I try to distract myself by thinking of Sister Wallace. I’m pretty sure it’s… Saturday. Right. Saturday. So mass tomorrow is going to be about taking easy roads to power, right? Nothing about this is an easy road. I’m suffering because I put others’ freedom ahead of my own wants, needs, and desires. That’s a self-sacrificing thing, not something I’m doing for my own glorification. The difference feels really important.
Magic doesn’t need to be a tool of the devil. I can use it for noble, and righteous causes. I’ll show everyone as Virtue, and then someday, Chastity Allen. I can’t wait for that day.
I squeeze the hands of the two women, and check back to make sure the other three are still following. They are. “It won’t be far now! You’ll see. We just need to get a little further, and then you’ll all get to rest for the ni—”
“Impressive! I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone take so much of her fire and keep rising back up.” A woman’s voice interrupts my thoughts. Her voice is powerful, and it makes a deep part of me tremble and shudder. When I look back in front of me a woman dressed in pink and white is standing there, with long pink hair and a very satisfied smile. Her eyes are pink, with bright hot pink flames dancing in her pupils.
“Well, you didn’t really see it. You weren’t there, unless you watched your friends get beat up and only decided to intervene after I started taking away the new converts for your little… ritual.” I spit the word viciously as I can, letting go of the hands of the young women as I reach down for the hilts of my Twin Furies. “Pyria, I presume?”
She shakes her head, raising a hand to wiggle it judgmentally side to side. “No. Not at all, actually. I am Ember, the avatar of Pyria… The Goddess of the Cleansing Flame.” When she says the words I can feel something inside of me tighten and flinch.
Ember. Even if she isn’t Pyria, if she’s calling herself the avatar of Pyria that probably means that she’s in charge. I tighten my hands around my swords. I don’t have any special magical senses. Magic to detect magic is pretty simple, but I haven’t gotten around to enchanting that sort of magic into my mask. Without enchantments, I basically don’t have any magic at all. Without magic, all I am is a very athletic valedictorian-to-be. That’s better than nothing, but against the avatar of whatever Pyria actually is… I don’t know that it’s that much better than nothing.
Even without burning me with more of those flames the last of her people that I fought just needed to twirl her flames around. Just another ten seconds and I would have been happy to help her carry her friends back to the ritual. I’d be another sacrifice to their “cleansing flame.”
“There’s no such thing as a goddess. I’m betting that there’s no such thing as Pyria. She’s either another personality of yours, or a woman just like you who has you wrapped around her finger!” I am again so, so, so glad that I’m immune to fear right now. I’d be terrified. I can feel it intellectually, but it can’t affect me. It isn’t really there. I unsheathe my swords, and smirk. “I think I’m more than enough to handle you.”
If I’m not, maybe I’ll be enough to weaken her hold over the other women. Maybe if I can deal enough damage, she’ll run out of juice or some opportunity. I just need to hold out. I just need to not give up and something will happen.
I walk in the light of Mary’s divine guidance. Sister Wallace should be proud of me. All of the Sacred Heart should be.
Someday, they will be.
“No, you don’t. You’re weak. You’re exhausted. And you’re outnumbered.” She points at me and snaps her fingers. I look behind me, and don’t see her minions. She’s the only one here with pink hair. “Yield, and I will make your cleansing merciful. Resist, and it will humble you to your core in ways that you’ve never felt.”
I turn back to her and shrug. “I don’t think you know what I’ve fe—!” When I looked behind me, I saw the kidnapping victims but I didn’t see the cultists so I figured that I was safe. I didn’t count on being grabbed from behind by the women that I was trying to save! Their arms are so much stronger than they should be, and together the three of them have arms around my waist, and two sets around either of my arms. Their bodies feel so hot, and no matter how hard I pull I can’t wrench my arms free.
Just the heat of their bodies is starting to make me dizzy. I can feel myself starting to sweat again, and the drops of sweat feel so much bigger now than they did before. My vision starts to blur and I pant, straining and struggling in their grasp.
Hurting them isn’t an option. They probably aren’t empowered enough to take a hit. But I have to escape…!
“Even new converts may bask in the light, the cleansing warmth… of Pyria’s flame.” Ember raises a hand as though she were about to deliver a backhand, but she’s still so far away from me. There’s no fire in her hand. “Shall I show you?”
“Yeah, go right ahead. You don’t scare me.” Not a lie, even if that’s only because right now nothing scares me. It’s still true, and not only just technically true. Integrity means I can’t always rely on technicalities. “Your friends…? At least they clearly had numbers and experience. These women here seem more like puppets than actual combatants.”
Ember nods, a wicked smile spreading across her face. Even her lips are painted pink. “You’re right, of course… But you knew that, didn’t you? You think you’re so clever, little girl.” I frown. I don’t like being treated so small and pitiful. I’m a force to be reckoned with! “Let me show you just how insignificant you really are, Virtue.”
Does she know I’m Virtue because I said it to the kidnapping victims, or because I’m starting to become notable? I don’t know. I just know that I don’t like the way she’s looking at me.
All at once a powerful aura of hot pink flame surges around her, dancing and surging out at the air around her. I try to struggle loose again, but the women holding me have arms of iron. I’d have to break them to get free. I might have to. Broken arms heal, but flames like that? The wounds they could do might not be able to.
She swats her hand out at the air, and the shape of a dragon’s head made of pure pink flame surges towards me. It moves so incredibly fast. Even if I could use my ring when my arms are held like this I’d never be able to dodge in time.
Just before the flame slams into me it shifts in mid air into… a woman. She has long, gorgeous pink hair, and dusky tan skin. She’s wearing gold jewelry… A tiara, bracelets, something around one of her legs. She hovers in the air, as though she were laying on her stomach. She’s wearing what looks more like a cloth than a top that tightly hugs her large breasts. A skirt made out of similarly diaphanous material lightly flutters in the air.
Her eyes are staring into me.
Without being told I know that I’m seeing all of her so clearly in less than a moment. Time is barely passing. I’m just removed from it, too overwhelmed by her presence.
She leans in so close, just about to give me a kiss… when the dragon consumes me, its teeth closing around me, and I thrash with a loud scream. Fire rushes into me from all angles at once. The head was so large, and I feel like heat, raw, mental heat is trying to chew me up, devour me, make me some kind of empty, helpless…
All I have to do is just… Struggle in vain. I just have to shudder and arch and sweat all of Chastity away. Then there will be room for Pyria…! I need to make room for Pyria!
You want to be a righteous, noble woman, don’t you? Sister Wallace’s words cut through the heat, parting the curtains of hot steamy wet desire and need. I can’t stop panting o struggling, but I can break free. It’s a desperate move, but it’s all I have left!
The women holding my arms are taller than me. They’re stronger than me. So, I jump, and kick as hard as I can at the woman behind me. I transfer the force of the movement through my arms, and the shock sends the women holding me flying into each other. My arms are released, and the rest of what I do is on instinct.
Embers pink eyes are so wide as I run towards her, running through the flame dragon’s open neck. Without her converts to hold me, the dragon can’t consume me. Right when I’m about to slam into her…
My image fades, and I’m behind her.
Sweat is dripping off of me in sheets, but I don’t stop. I run faster, and faster. Panting. Desperately. I can’t stop seeing that woman in my mind’s eye for a long moment, but a shake of my head makes her go away. She isn’t Mary, and I only really have room for one woman in my life… besides Cynthia and Emily, I guess… but they’re friends.
Behind me, Ember laughs. I don’t stop. I just keep running. I need to. If I stop running, then I’ll collapse. If I collapse, then she’ll have me.
I couldn’t save those women, but I have to save myself. Being a martyr isn’t about abandoning yourself to every lost cause. It’s about finding a cause that can be won if you give up yourself. It’s about finding something you believe in and throwing all that you are into it and making it work out. It’s about rising up to the challenge and becoming something… greater than yourself through sacrificing all that you are and can ever be.
This is not one of those times.
“Run, Virtue! Run as far, and as fast as you can!” I keep running, but I swear that I can still hear her as clearly as if she were whispering into my ear. I don’t stop. I can’t stop. If I stop, she’ll grasp my mind and never let go. If I don’t stop she’ll light my mind on fire and never let it burn out. if I stop… “No matter where you go… the gift of Pyria’s cleansing flame is now within you!”
I run, and run, and run faster. I run until I’m sure that I’m in a part of Midas that I’ve never seen before. I run and run and run until all I can do is collapse into a bush and sob. I sob and cry and shake and tremble like a stupid weak little girl.
I need to get back to where I stashed my clothes. I need to change, and crawl into bed. I need to hope that this heat goes away. I need to hope that this heat gets better.
Mary’s light can help me. I just need to get back to the Sacred Heart.
My body is a wet, shuddering, helpless mass by the time I finally pull myself out of the bush and start to head back for the WASH dorms. Every step feels like walking into a hotter, more humid day. When I get to my room though, I’m sure it’ll all get better. I just need to be under the guiding light of Mary, get some sleep, and I’ll wake up better in the morning. If I don’t… If I don’t…
Then I can call Em. Emily Baron. I can call Emily, and tell her about Pyria. We’ll figure something out.
I start the long walk home. I know why I’m so drenched with sweat, but why am I so wet between my legs, and… why does it make me think of Sister Wallace’s advising session this morning…?