It's called wildfire.
The liquid is as clear as glass. Diana frowns, sniffs at it and recoils sharply. "What does it do?"
It will give her energy. Whenever she feels tired, she must pour it into the lid and swallow it in one gulp.
"You're not afraid, are you?" Larry asks snidely.
Diana's face heats up as she remembers falling at the feet of the mountain. She pours the wildfire into the tiny lid of the flask and swallows it.
The taste burns.
It's not that Diana's afraid of them.
All right, she is afraid of them. She tries telling herself it's because they're so powerful and intimidating, and they can snap your bones like twigs if they want or even when they don't mean to. Maybe it's because their weapons can split boulders without any effort. Or maybe it's...
She doesn't know why she's so frightened of them. All she knows is that she fears orcs the same way other people fear wolves, or spiders, or the morrigu, or drowning, or the shadows that move in the darkness and will wrap around your throat if they get too close.
She honestly doesn't want to know what that says about her.
One time, Diana's walking down the HQ stairs when she sees the shadow in the lobby and she freezes, hand clutching the banisters. She knows she should go down and greet him but she can't move. Her feet stay riveted to the stairs until Kacy and Varrone make an appearance.
Later, she stares at her reflection in disgust.
"So it's like a game?"
Larry rolls his eyes at Amber. "If by 'game', you mean a part of the ceremony that's become deeply ingrained into the Scyllian way of life, then yes, it's a game."
On the table in front of everyone is a large, detailed map of the palace that Kacy had asked someone to copy specially for this. The bride-to-be - well, the Scyllian girl who will hopefully become the bride-to-be - is a good friend of Kacy's; Tyresia is putting a serious amount of trust in Kacy and the other Lions by having them organise this part of the ceremony.
"We have to plan for everything, guys," Kacy announces. She's learned to prepare for possible defeat as well as victory. "The feast is being held here." She places a large X in the middle of a rectangular room on the map. "That's the banqueting hall."
"So how are Tyresia and Cerxes gonna get out of there?" asks Varrone. "It'll be crawling with people, and it's not even near the main door."
The final part of a Scyllian betrothal ceremony goes like this: the potential groom and his lady try to sneak away without being caught. In the past, he would literally carry her off while both their families tried to stop them; if the families were successful, the marriage didn't happen. Of course, in most cases the families were perfectly happy with the match and would allow the couple to escape. They'd even give them a head start. Unfortunately, that is not going to be the case with Tyresia and Cerxes. Leonas, Tyresia's father, doesn't think Cerxes is good enough for his eldest daughter and maybe he isn't, but Tyresia genuinely loves him and he her. Or at least, that's what Kacy's telling everyone.
But if they're caught, there won't be a wedding.
"I've already talked to Cerxes' brothers, and they'll start arguing with Tyresia's cousins. An argument or a fight is normally the cue for the couple to get going, only this time..." Kacy brushes her whip-like ponytail over her shoulder. "Just to warn you, Amber and Diana, Scyllian betrothal ceremonies can - and in this case, very likely will - get pretty violent. A little while before the brothers make their move, Savra will make hers." She motions towards the lithe young woman sitting in the corner, the light glimmering off her pale grey-green eyes.
No one's quite sure who or what Savra is. The Scyllians call her the 'shadow-nymph', and not just because she always wears clothes as black as her hair. She's as beautiful as a winter's dawn and she can make herself invisible by weaving shadows around herself; when that happens, anyone in the same room as her won't even be able to see the glowing green chain she wears around her neck. Some say she doesn't want to ever take the chain off; others, that she can't take it off. There's even a rumour that she's part morrigu; she hasn't said it's true, but she's not denying it either.
She's been invited to the betrothal ceremonies - and marriages, if they take place - of Leonas' daughters; it's the least Leonas could do, considering she saved the lives of all three of them.
"But won't they think of that?" asks Diana. "I mean, if they've got a woman who can turn invisible, won't she be the first...Oh. That's what we want them to think."
"Do you want anything to eat?" Amber knows what the answer will be, but she asks anyway.
"No thanks, Ambs. I just want to rest for a bit. Feel really drowsy." Diana rubs at one eye with the heel of her hand. She sits down on the bed, marvelling at how soft and comfortable it is. She's been running on adrenaline and wildfire for days, and now it's caught up with her.
Larry said the wildfire would give her energy and strength, everything the other Lions have and she doesn't. Now Diana's completely burned out.
Amber nods. "OK. I'll come and wake you soon." She smiles, turns and walks out the door, closing it behind her with a soft click. Diana shuffles up and flops facedown onto the bed without even bothering to get undressed or brushing her short red hair.
She closes her eyes and allows herself to melt into sleep.
Leonas has been clever. He's organised the ceremony and feast in a building all Scyllians know but most, including his family, are unfamiliar with. If they're in an environment they don't know, the easier it'll be to find them.
But Kacy's clever too. That's why she had the map made, why she and the other Lions wander around the palace while the decorations are being put up and the food is being cooked, why they make sure they know where all the entrances and exits are.
Everyone's nervous, even Diana. But as the day goes on, she feels a flicker of excitement start to stir in her - a dark fire she eagerly feeds.
Diana knows exactly why she had to be the one that helps the couple escape. She's the only one of the guests who won't be missed.
Tyresia has shrugged off her stunning purple gown, leaving the shorter and less restrictive dress on underneath. The brawl has been in full swing for a while, but it's only a matter of time before Leonas or someone else realises that Savra and the newly-betrothed couple have disappeared. Maybe they've already noticed. It'll take them even longer to realise Savra is alone.
Diana's just wondering how they're going to figure that one out when she realises they've reached the supply door. It's heavy, wooden and bolted, and it's the door that's used for getting food in and out of the palace. They had to sneak through the kitchens; thankfully, they were virtually empty because all the food's been served. A few servants were on cleaning duty, but nobody noticed them pass. At least, Diana hopes they didn't.
"Hurry!" Tyresia urges, clutching Cerxes' hand tightly. She glances anxiously over her shoulder, back up the stairs they've just come down. Cerxes looks like he wants to help Diana, but he doesn't want to leave his betrothed's side.
Carefully, Diana takes hold of the lower bolt. It feels cold and heavy in her hands. She slides it back, slowly so as not to make any noise. Suddenly, a shout echoes in the corridor; Tyresia and Cerxes jump, their eyes wide and faces white, so Diana pulls back the other bolt and throws open the door.
A mountain blocks the way. He looms above them, his form shutting out the night sky.
Diana's legs buckle. The floor rises to meet her. Something grabs the back of her dress and then there's nothing.
She drifts like the tide. When she opens her eyes, she sees the curtains dancing slowly in the breeze. They allow flickers of blue sky to come through them. The cool air caresses her face and soothes her eyes shut again. Minutes or hours pass.
She doesn't hear footsteps creak heavily on the stairs, nor does she hear the door open. Her eyelids are as heavy as lead, which is why she doesn't open them when she senses there's someone else in the room with her.
Savra puts a hand on Diana's shoulder, gently pushing her back into a horizontal position. Diana raises a hand to her temple and massages it, blinking away the last remnants of unconsciousness. Savra hands her a cup filled with red liquid. The drink tastes of spiced pomegranates; Diana almost spills it on herself trying to drink it while lying down.
"What happened?" she mumbles. "Did they get away?"
Has she ruined Tyresia and Cerxes' chances?
"They got away. They slipped out when it became obvious you weren't acting. Sip that slowly. Don't try to get up."
Diana obeys, even though the stone floor is seeping cold into her body. She lies and silently stares at the ceiling until Savra asks how she's feeling.
"Did you hit your head?"
Diana shakes her head. It doesn't hurt in the slightest. "No. Can I sit up now?" When Savra nods, her green chain moving in the darkness, Diana slowly raises herself. She closes her eyes and covers them with one hand. "I am so embarrassed."
"You're embarrassed?" Savra's voice is quiet and incredulous. "How do you think he felt?"
When it's time to leave, Diana dares to ask what she's been wondering ever since she met Savra. Are the rumours true? Is she part morrigu?
Savra laughs, and gives Diana a smile that makes her face light up. It makes her look even more beautiful. "I don't know. For all I know, I might be."
Something touches her back. "Di. Di, wake up. It's time to go."
Diana moans and tries to open her eyes. They won't open. Why won't they open?
Amber's hand disappears. Diana hears a sound that indicates her friend has picked up the empty flask that's been left on the nearby table. "Did you...Please tell me you haven't had the whole thing."
Diana tries to use her hands to push herself up, but she's got no energy. She can't even move her hands.
Someone takes hold of her and Diana tenses. That's not Amber. Her hands are much smaller than that. Before she can even make a sound, she's lifted into the air and draped across that someone's shoulder. Whoever they are, they're warm; she can feel their body heat like a living flame.
An arm slung over her back keeps her steady as they head down the stairs.
"Oh," she hears Larry laugh. "Oh, that is priceless."
"Shut up," growls Varrone.
Diana is placed on something soft before being covered with a blanket. She opens her eyes to see azure sky above her.
She spends the rest of the day half-awake, half-asleep, watching clouds passing overhead. She knows they're moving, but she doesn't know where they're going to and she can't find it in herself to care. She just watches the day pass.
Slowly, the sky changes from blue to amber, to crimson, royal purple, then finally to deep blue. Then only the firelight tells her she's awake or asleep.
"Di?" Amber's voice wakes her the next morning.
Diana winces and opens her eyes. She sits up and runs a hand through her hair, which must look completely wild now. Amber is sitting in front of her, holding a cup of something. "Are you all right now?" she asks.
"I think so." Diana still feels a little bleary. She can hear birdsong and soft conversation all around them; some of the voices sound like rocks tumbling down a mountain. The air is filled with a scent of fresh pine. "Where are we?"
Amber holds out the drink; Diana takes it without hesitation. "We're at the Syvitine Forest. I know this isn't what we planned, but it's probably the best thing for us right now."
Soothed by the relief in her friend's voice, Diana sips at the contents of the cup. A warm sweetness floods her mouth; she takes another and another. She only took the wildfire to keep her strength up, so she wouldn't be a burden to the others. It's strange how the measures she took to avoid being a burden caused her to become exactly that.
There are orcs all around them. She sees one talking to Varrone while another is engaged in a knife-throwing competition with Kacy. He's twice her size yet he moves with as much agility as she does.
Diana sees her worst nightmare talking, laughing, walking around with weapons, eating food and sparring with each other.
The smell of bread makes her mouth water. It makes her realise that she's hungry. She hasn't wanted to eat much since the first gulp of wildfire.
There's something familiar about one orc standing close to them. Something about the way his form towers in the sky that…
"That's the chieftain," Amber tells her. "He's the one who found us."
Diana ducks her head out of shame, not fear. For the first time since the ceremony, she understands what Savra meant. How can she look him in the eye?
She glances up again to see the chieftain looking at them. He begins to walk towards Amber and Diana.
His eyes are blue.