Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 24

I ran, and I ran, and I ran.

I ran through the shadowy forest, down the alleys of Mortal City, pushing past the crowds of gawkers that had gathered outside to speculate, not stopping until I reached the door of the healers’ center.

The two trainees on evening duty immediately descended on me and pelted me with questions, but their words felt muffled and far away.

My brain rifled through possible injuries and catalogued what I would need for each. Silverworm and willowbark for pain, marigold and lavender for burns. Clove to numb, yarrow to speed clotting. Comfrey for breaks or tears. And gauze—so, so much gauze.

With each item I hurled into my bag, a vision of the patients that might await me haunted my thoughts.

If it was the Benette armory I had stolen the blueprints for, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. It was late enough that only a few evening guards might be on duty.

But if it was the royal palace… if the Guardians had snuck through that secret entrance, planted their bombs around the palace grounds…

The loss of life would be catastrophic. And so many of them would be children—some of whom I’d met.

Elric.

Lily.

Oh gods, Lily.

Bile rose in my throat. I clamped my hand over my mouth and forced a long inhale of air through my nose.

One of the trainees clutched my arm and jerked me from my dark thoughts. “Diem, what do we do? Should we go with you?”

“Stay here in case someone in town needs help,” I ordered. “If any of the others come, send them to Lumnos City. Tell them to go to the explosion and come find me.”

Without waiting for their response, I hauled my overloaded bag across my shoulder and darted out the door. The second my boots hit the soil, I ran.

I ran, and I ran, and I ran.


The wind whipped through my hair as I sprinted down the long road connecting the mortal and Descended cities.

My thighs burned with the effort, my lungs going tight with a need for air, but I didn’t dare slow even for a second. The same two thoughts blared through my mind again and again, a relentless metronome keeping time with my pounding steps.

I did this.

This is my fault.

I did this.

This is my fault.

The longer I ran, the taller the flames grew and the hazier the smoke-filled air became. If I stopped, maybe I could tell whether the column of fire was coming from the palace or the city beyond, but my body refused to slow its pace.

Ahead, a line of six figures walked toward me towing two large carts. The figures were masculine, wide-shouldered, and strong. Any other night, my instincts would have warned me to hide in the trees and let them pass. A woman alone on a dark path with a group of strange men rarely ended well.

But tonight, my own safety was the furthest thing from my mind. Other than a slight shift in my path to take me around their left flank, I barely regarded the men as they came into sight.

“Diem?”

It took me a moment to register.

The voice was familiar—very familiar.

But I couldn’t stop, couldn’t slow down, not even for—

“Diem? Stop running, it’s me!”

One of the men jogged forward and into my path. Under the thick darkness of the waxing moon, I couldn’t make out the details of his face. But that voice…

“Can’t stop,” I forced out through wheezing breaths. “Please—move!

“Diem—it’s me, Henri.”

My steps faltered, then slowed, but I didn’t stop. Couldn’t. I had to keep going, get to the fire, help them—

Henri reached out and seized my arms, hauling me to a stop against my will. “What are you doing out here?”

I pointed a trembling hand toward the distant inferno. “Explosion. Fire. Going to help.” My chest shuddered as I gasped for air.

He gave me a strange look, then glanced over his shoulder at the group assembled behind him, their faces still shrouded by the darkness.

Henri’s hands felt too heavy on my shoulders. His voice dropped low. “Diem, go home. Don’t worry about the fire.”

“You don’t understand. There might be people hurt. I need to go—”

“Diem.” There was a deadly gravity to his features. “Listen to me. Go home and stay there. Forget you saw the fire, and forget you saw us.”

I started to protest, but a muted boom interrupted my words. The ground rumbled in response, and the fiery cloud ballooned higher and brighter into the sky.

Quiet snickers rippled through the group. One of the shadowed men clapped another on the back. Even the corner of Henri’s lips twitched upward at the sound.

My body went still.

The world went still.

“Henri,” I breathed. “What’s going on?”

One of the men broke off from the group and came up to Henri’s side. With the blaze now burning brighter, faint orange firelight illuminated his face.

A fragment of memory ripped through me. A man, standing outside the healers’ center, his profile softly lit by the glow of a lantern. Not a patient—a visitor. Whispering with my mother.

“Sister Diem,” Vance said in greeting. His smile was lazy and triumphant. “The victory tonight is as much yours as ours. We could not have done this without you.”

My gaze flew over the group, spotting Brant and Francis among their numbers, then took in the pair of carts, both piled high and covered with tarps.

“What’s in those?” I asked.

Henri glanced at Vance, who paused, then subtly shook his head.

“Brother Henri is right,” Vance said, kindly but firmly. “You should return home and not speak of this to anyone.”

A horrible sense of dread filled my soul.

“I can’t. People might be wounded—children—I need to go.” I started to move away, but Henri’s hands held me firm.

Vance’s smile faded as he stepped closer. “We can’t let you do that, Sister. It’s best if no mortals are seen anywhere near the target.”

I tried to free myself again, but Henri’s grip tightened on my shoulders, his fingers digging painfully into my skin to hold me in place. I stared at him in shock.

“Diem,” he started.

“Get your hands off me, Henri.”

He didn’t budge.

The other men silently formed a circle around us.

Henri’s expression turned pleading. “We’ve been planning this for weeks. We can’t risk your presence tipping them off. Please don’t make me do this.”

“Don’t make you do what?” I hissed.

The circle of Guardians inched closer, surrounding me in a ring of hard, mistrusting eyes. Henri’s hands slid from my shoulders and clamped around my upper arms.

My heart thumped wildly in my chest.

Six men. Six large, strong men.

There was no way I could take them—they would grab me, drag me kicking and screaming back to Mortal City. Even if I could get to my weapons, even if I was willing to stab them, stab Henri

My father’s words pierced my roaring thoughts.

What have I taught you about fighting an opponent that is much stronger than you are?

If you cannot be stronger, be smarter.

He had prepared me for this.

Despite my mounting panic, I worked my face into a mask of false calm. With a long exhale, I nodded and relaxed my shoulders. “Yes, of course,” I said lightly. “I was confused for a moment, but I understand now.”

A look of relief cascaded over Henri’s face. His grip relaxed on my arms, but Vance remained still, eyes trained on me. “You’ll return with us?” he asked.

I forced a laugh and held my hands up in mock surrender. “I didn’t mean to cause a fuss. I would never want to do anything to risk the mission.”

Vance eyed me, then nodded slowly. “Good. I’m glad to hear it, Sister.”

Henri’s hand found its way to the small of my back, nudging me firmly back toward the path to Mortal City. I kept my eyes forward but noted how the others fell to our flank—blocking my way to Lumnos City.

“That bag of yours looks heavy, Sister. Why don’t you hand that over and let one of us carry it for you?”

I looked over to see Brant staring at me with his hand extended. His voice, like his face, was cold and hard, laced with an unspoken threat.

I didn’t have time to think.

So I ran.

Henri reached out to grab me a second too late, though I felt the snag of my tunic as the hem slipped through his closing fingers.

Vance shouted commands, and two of the men slid together to form a barrier. With my bulky bag, I was too heavy to dodge them, my balance too lopsided for any attempt at agility. All I could do was tuck my chin and throw the force of my weight against their stony bodies.

I yelped as my shoulder collided with muscle and bone. My eyes squeezed shut, and I braced to be thrown back from the force of the impact.

But I wasn’t moving backward.

I was running—still running.

Behind me, I caught a chorus of grunting and swears, Henri calling my name, Vance barking orders, and the percussion of footsteps.

I pushed my legs and my lungs until both burned hot enough to catch fire, but the weight of my bag was slowing me down, and though Henri’s voice had faded, the drumbeat of boots on gravel was gaining ground. I felt fingers scrape against my bag and a light tug. Then another tug—harder, the strap across my shoulder yanking my chest backward.

“Stop running, you dumb bitch,” a voice snarled.

If I handed the bag over, I’d have no supplies, and there would be little I could do to help anyone. But if I didn’t—if the Guardians caught me…

Another tug on the bag jerked me back, nearly dragging me to the ground. In one fluid movement, I slid my dagger from its sheath and hooked the blade behind the leather band securing the satchel to my chest. The strap snapped, and the weight at my back dropped away, right into the path of my pursuer. He groaned as he stumbled over the fallen supplies, his body crashing and skidding across the pebbled road.

And then—silence. No yelling, no scuffling, no footsteps other than my own.

So I ran, and I ran, and I ran.

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