The Arts of Fire: 01

Sylvan cocked her head and caught her breath like a firefly clasped between two hands. Her eyes searched the black velvet covering them, as if that would strengthen her aural perception. Her eyelashes brushed the cloth and tickled. She smiled at their fluttering but knew that Driven would frown if he saw her enjoying herself in the midst of duty.

Driven was lying next to her, apparently dozing, although she knew better than to think he was off guard. Sylvan herself sat with her legs crossed and with her bow lying across her knees, her back against the wall of the trench. The velvet band hiding her eyes looked silver at times, although overall it was the same shade as her long hair, which was a black more blue than brown. Driven christened it "the curtain of the night", and during the Festival, when the Prima Donna showered the youth with the dust of the moon, the crystals caught in the strands so that her mane did indeed glimmer like the galaxies.

But now Driven was also holding his breath, and above the deep buzzing of the fat blue-black flies, Sylvan heard the galloping. The earth seemed to tremble slightly though she felt no actual shifting.

"I hear it," she said, and tore off the blind.

Driven was sitting up, his good eye fixed intently on a point a few centimeters above her left shoulder. The yellow orb seemed to burn with secret knowledge. She waited for his command.

"Well…" he said at length, running the fingers of his right hand thoughtfully over the scar that blotted out his right eye, "what are you going to do?" A lopsided grin developed on his stubbly face—a dare.

Sylvan, level-headed as she often was, merely smiled. "I'll take a look."

She stood, carefully smoothing her black skirt-like pants, and then Driven joined her in peering over the edge of the trench, their post.

The sun burned the top of her head like a fire held too close, and somewhere in the back of her mind she was remembering a flame that relentlessly consumed everything. Sylvan pushed the thought back and squinted at the hazy horizon. The sparse, receding forest populated only the far left of the scene laid out before her. From her shady niche to the cresting hill in the distance was dry yellow grass and thick, spiky crabgrass, a sight Sylvan sorrowed at whenever she scanned it.

And—also—on the rolling hill there was a horse the color of charred wood.

Sylvan climbed out of the trench, bow in hand. Driven stroked his shadow of a beard, "nothing but a grizzle," as Sylvan called it, and observed.

The stallion was galloping at full speed, and as it grew in size, Sylvan realized that its legs and belly were caked in dry, clay-like mud. Her eyes fell upon the rider and immediately an angry fire stoked within her. A horse alone was never a problem; the beast could easily serve the Prima Donna. But a rider daring to venture into their isolated lands—

Sylvan took a deep breath and checked herself. Too much thinking could cost her valuable time. She bent her bow and strung it; Driven handed her the quiver she had left behind and she slung it over her shoulder, hearing to the shafts of the arrows knock together.

She gazed at the rider once more but her visual prowess had not grown enough to allow her to even identify the stranger's gender. This was Driven's job, but he was staying out of it.

"Use this," he said, handing her blindfold up to her.

"But I can't see as it is," she said, shaking back a length of hair.

"Are you arguing with me?"

Reluctantly, Sylvan tied the cloth around her head once more and waited, and listened. She tried not to imagine seeing the rider but to actually see the horse racing across the field, to actually know the rider's inclinations, to actually feel the picture before her.

Slowly, a blurry picture began to materialize in her third eye, like a blossom unfurling its petals. She still could not see true colors; everything was a strange marriage of black-and-white and a greasy yellow. But she could still see it, the horse, the rider.

When she finally snatched up an arrow and strung it, Driven was fighting off his own doubt.

He was wondering about the condition of both the rider and the horse. Though one of his eyes was sightless, his other eye was sharper than most, and unnerving. The golden iris could cause a tremor in the sturdiest of bodies, and now it was receiving disturbing information.

"That rider…"

For several hours now, a single thought had been looping through Huo's mind, sometimes shifting into a question, occasionally taking the form of an image, but always pressing guiltily upon his clouded intellect.

How did it come to this?

The dagger cut in his side had stopped bleeding, although every jolt of the horse beneath him fired a renewed shot of agony into his tired body. He had tried to sleep during the night when the horse had first sprung into action, but only a dreary doze had come to him, in which the nightmare of what had happened mixed with the reality of his ride and he became convinced that the monster that had cornered him earlier was chasing him and his steed. In his wild, half-awake state of fear and rage, he steered the beast right into a river where the two became separated and had to meet a mile downstream and regroup.

That had been at dawn, and Huo's clothes were still damp where they were shielded from the sun and they were stiff with grime overall. After the past week of rain, the sun in this new land would have been welcome if it had not burned his skin so fiercely. The back of his neck was aflame with raw pain while salty sweat slid into his eyes and blurred his vision; at one point he was sure he saw his perspiration evaporating off his nose. He tangled his fingers in the horse's mane and buried his face among its coarse hairs, shutting his eyes and riding blindly onward. His leg muscles ached from clenching, but he was afraid of shifting into a more comfortable position lest he lose his hold on the animal's ribcage and fall.

This was the worst defeat he had ever suffered. Never before had a foe devastated him so thoroughly. And it wasn't so much humiliating as it was demoralizing. The pillar of confidence he had built over the past year had been leveled within the space of a half- hour, leaving him empty-handed and bewildered.

How could this happen?

The only reason he did not simply release his mount and tumble to the ground and lie under the stars and just die—was because she had begged him to stay alive. And something whispered to him that if he could just fulfill that request, he was not completely lost.

But staying alive was much harder than one would have thought.

When Huo caught the faint, bristly smell of an old fire, he drew himself back from his sullen reverie and eyed the forest he was passing on his right. The trees were shriveled and emaciated, looking more like overgrown weeds than actual proud pines. In several odd spots, a green leaf would protrude and draw his attention, but he was too wasted to ponder the condition of this alien terrain. The horse hit a sudden drop in elevation and the bump set his teeth chattering with pain, driving any contemplation from him.

At length, he closed his eyes and ran his tongue across his chapped lips. It was so dry that it stuck in some places and he had to moisten it. He tasted dried blood and sweat, and the saltiness of both caused him to think of that distant river and wish he were drowning in its depths rather than burning with thirst on this plain.

His neck was cramping, so he shifting his head to face in the other direction. The sun greeted him with a blast of heat, and when he opened his eyes from irritation, he caught sight of the archer and her companion peeking from the trench atop the distant knoll.

Huo's bleary gray-blue eyes met Driven's lone one, and although Driven bellowed an order of cease-fire to the dark-skinned and blinded archer, Huo and he both knew it was too late. Sylvan, standing very straight in her awkwardly dark clothing, drew her arm back in a graceful movement and released the arrow.

"Stop!" Driven cried. The rider was injured, bearing a ragged tear in his clothing, which was splattered with so much blood that even the river had not been able to cleanse it. Driven grabbed Sylvan's ankle a split-second after she had fired, and then he watched with growing remorse as the arrow ripped the air with a sharp, wailing whistle.

He waited for the rider to fall.

Sylvan pulled her blindfold up. "Driven, what is wrong with you?"

"You idiot!" he snapped and pointed across the grasses at the stranger. Sylvan squinted and exclaimed:

"How did he do that?"

The arrow skimmed the horse's back, piercing the empty space where Huo would have been had he tarried a second longer. He crashed to the ground, heard his shoulder crack, and rolled away as smoothly as he could to avoid injuring it further. A sudden blast of anguish rushed him as the tentatively healing wound in his side ripped open and fresh blood stained the grass. He eventually came to a stop and lay face down, panting and swearing fiercely to distract himself from the hole in his abdomen. He didn't probe the wound for fear that he might infect it and cripple himself even more.

When he was near to expending his entire dictionary of profanity, which was lengthier than most, he became aware of approaching footsteps.

Another battle? He couldn't imagine lifting his sword with his aching shoulder and bleeding side.

Huo turned his head to the side and stared blandly up at his attacker. The archer had taken a position at his right, bow in hand. She wore a lengthy red tunic adorned with intricate ebony designs, and long, shapeless black pants. Her wide-set eyes were a rich jade. Huo eyed her movements and found himself automatically evaluating her as a fighter and calculating his chances of escape. She seemed naïve at least, for she held no arrow ready and was much too close to use the bow effectively. Huo knew his horse had not fled far; he had only become acquainted with the stallion the night before, but since then, it had loyally stuck with him despite their setbacks—just as she had promised. If he could just run to it…

He began to think he could escape.

And then the other one joined her and pinned him down with that golden eye. Huo shivered. He could not draw his gaze away from that man's face. Huo couldn't even take in his entire appearance; he only caught snatches of dirty blond hair, a tan outfit, stubble, a pursed mouth—and then the eye.

It was only when the girl stepped back a bit, muttering about a wounded animal, and reached for an arrow that Huo reacted.

"What do you mean, 'He's wounded'?" Sylvan snapped at Driven as she easily passed him on their run down to the fallen rider. "I missed him completely!"

"I know that," Driven panted, struggling to keep up with her swiftness. "But he was wounded before—look at that blood—"

"Oh!" Sylvan skidded to a stop a few paces away from the mysterious stranger and caught Driven's arm when he paused next to her. The muddy horse stood a few yards beyond the rider where it pawed the ground and tossed back its head, nostrils flaring.

"What a beast!"

"Don't worry about the horse. Worry about the boy!"

"He's not a boy," Sylvan said, noting that Driven and the stranger were probably the same height. "And I think that fall killed him." Then she noticed the sheathed sword slung on the stranger's back and regretted her statement. He might be pretending to be hurt now and was waiting for an easy kill.

She and Driven approached the "boy" warily. He was stretched out on the ground, visibly breathing, his body rising with every inhalation and falling with every exhalation, and he was also bleeding but not because of the arrow, much to Sylvan's astonishment.

Driven indicated the injury and Sylvan rolled her eyes. He always liked to be right.

Together, they inched closer. Sylvan went around this bizarre invader to get a look at his face while Driven watched him for any sudden movements. Although he had neglected to bring his sword, Driven did have a long knife strapped to his side, normally used for everyday tasks but just as useful in an unexpected battle.

Perhaps the wound was a ruse, Driven thought. He hurried to Sylvan's side and surveyed this odd specimen.

Driven first noted the scruffy blond hair above the forehead, where three cuts were grouped and aligned perfectly parallel to each other. One of them intercepted the left eyebrow and came close to grazing the eyelid, another stretched down along the left cheek. Driven wondered that this boy had not lost an eye just as he had. The rest of the face was drawn with pain; the boy's lips were slightly parted and Driven could see his jaw clenching as he gritted his teeth. The boy stared up at him intently, and Driven was unnerved that someone would have the audacity to hold his gaze so long.

"He's really hurt, isn't he?" Sylvan said mildly, her eyes fixed upon the reddening wound. She groaned. "This is disgraceful. He's like an old, beat-up dog. Driven, even if he is a foreigner, I'm not going to let him suffer like this." She took a few steps back and slipped an arrow from her quiver. "Get out of the way so I can get a clean shot."

"What a sad end."

"Oh, shut up," she said. "The last time you showed mercy was when you slit Flint's throat instead of lopping his limbs off one-by-one."

Driven could not hide his smile from her. Indeed, they were both aware that in the midst of a fight his other, wilder self took control.

"Well, just don't make a mess," he said and turned to get out of the way.

Sylvan smirked, and then she caught a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye. "Wait—Driven—watch out!"

Huo was prepared for the pain. When he shifted his right hand slowly and reached for his blade, his side pulsated with wave after wave of burning. The wound felt as if it ran from his armpit down to his thigh, and it was only through brute willpower that he kept himself from slipping into unconsciousness.

To his surprise, the girl was the one who saw his hand move, and instead of killing him immediately, she leapt forward and brought the heel of her foot down on his fingers, pinning them as she ground her foot violently into his skin. Despite his readiness, he screamed with pain and only narrowly avoided losing himself to the darkness. Instinctively, his left hand sprung into action and gripped the handle of his sword; his shoulder burned excruciatingly—he had forgotten about the jarring it took in his fall—and she was so surprised that he had a chance to free his right hand and steady his scabbard as he unsheathed the blade.

"He's left-handed?"

"You fool!" the hawk-eyed one roared and pulled her back.

The sword was almost fully drawn when he kicked Huo in the stomach and abruptly ended his bid for freedom.

"Driven—I'm so sorry!"

"Yeah—calm down—" He patted her head when she hugged him around the middle.

Although she had experienced enough close calls in her life to call herself well acquainted with death, she had never seen it approach so swiftly. Every other time had been a logical consequence of a series of events, not a dying man's last, desperate attempt at recapturing the fleeting bird of life. She couldn't help but feel cheated somehow. The stranger's attack was unwarranted and unfair; he should have died quietly—

"Stop whining, you dummy," Driven said, "and kill him already."

"I can't," Sylvan said as Driven put her at arm's length so she could regain her composure.

"Don't tell me you're scared. Just look at him."

After the kick in the stomach, the boy had dry-vomited once, expelling only digestive juices, and passed out immediately. His skin was so sickly-looking now that Driven would have assumed him dead except his chest shuddered with every breath.

"He's dying anyway."

"I don't want to."

"Don't be stupid."

"Stop calling me dumb!" Sylvan exclaimed, exasperated. "I don't want to kill him, okay? You do it!" She thrust the bow and quiver into Driven's hands and stalked off to see about the horse. He looked at weapons curiously and then dropped them on the ground. He bent over the rider and studied the pained face. To his surprise, the eyes opened.

"Heh… Nerves of steel, huh?" Driven asked him with a half-smile. "You should be dead. What are you waiting for?"

The eyelids fluttered and shut.

Sylvan was struggling with the horse in the background; she was cursing rapidly in her old dialect, partly out of frustration with the horse and partly out of frustration with herself.

Driven allowed a tender thought concerning Sylvan to enter his mind. In soft hues, he recalled the aftermath of the fire, when she had gripped his hand and refused to let go. Now he made a fist with that hand, a melancholic happiness drifting over him, and asked in a reflective tone, "What's your name, stranger?" He poked the boy's cheek with his forefinger.

The reply was thick and almost unintelligible. "Huo…"

"What are you doing here, huh?"

The dimming eyes greeted him again, and Huo drew a deep, ragged breath, so very much like a tattered cloth.

"Running away?" Driven prompted.

Huo pressed his parched lips together in assent. Threads of spit clung to his mouth and Driven cringed inwardly that a fighter should be reduced to so low a state. Sylvan was right—he was like an old, suffering dog.

"From what…?" Driven murmured.

Huo hissed with another bout of pain. Driven expected him to die at that moment, but Huo stifled his own death throes and stubbornly clung to existence.

At last, and to Driven's surprise, the boy murmured a response to his question, as if speaking—despite the labor that it was—would help him live just a few minutes longer.

"Dominica…" Then he slipped away again.

Driven froze. His eye darted over the youth again and tried to estimate how far and how long he had ridden, his class and his family history. But he could distill little except that the boy had been in a battle and had evidently lost.

"What's the matter?" Sylvan asked from behind him. Driven glanced back over his shoulder: she was riding the horse bareback as easily as if she had ridden the animal since she was a child. She sat up straight and proud. "Kill him already," she said.

"I can't," Driven said, momentarily unable to explain the full meaning Huo had proffered in that single name. There was too much to ponder—

"Fool!" Sylvan snarled, shattering his calm with her vengeful, ironic laughter.

"Oh, shut up," he muttered, "and come here. I need that horse."

Author's Note: As you can see, I have changed Chun's name to Huo (the former meant spring, the latter means fire). Chances are, his name isn't going to stay that way, and trust me - by the time this story is over, every character is going to have a different name. I mean, come on, the leader of the camp is named the Prima Donna (means "first lady" in Italian, I think, but seriously - I'm not leaving it like that).

Anyway, here's the challenge one more time: If you can guess which character Huo was originally based on (because this was meant to be a fanfic at one point), you will win an imaginary kiss! Okay, and I'll congratulate you in one of my little notes. dry sherry, you had a good guess, but I'm sorry, it ain't Cloud Strife (although I absolutely adore him!).

Check out the next chapter!