Precious memories boiled and blistered before her eyes but she could not turn away. She had to look on. Sear and seal the memories into her mind where the fire could not reach. The walls, now charred beyond repair, began to bleed black shadows that inundated the room.
Darkness lapped at her feet, hoping to coax her into oblivion. However, so long as she kept her eyes fixed upon the bright flames just out of reach, it seemed unable to claim her. Every breath was miasma that withered her lungs, her chest hollowed out and on the verge of collapse. Blood and tears mixed like paint washed down a drain, leaving pale pink stains on the floor.
With every blink, there was a flurry of incandescent spores that appeared to manifest out of thin air, drifting to the floor like weightless dandelion fluff and disappearing upon contact with the ground. The motes of stardust seemed impervious to fire, unaffected by flame and smoke. Without warning, the all devouring inferno parted and bowed at an unnatural angle, allowing a lone figure to pass through. The listless ebb of light spheres came to a complete stop, as if frozen in space and time.
When the entity drew close, the spores nearest by broke free from their mid-air stasis, chasing him in a spinning, elliptical dance. Writhing strands of shadow clung to his impossibly thin frame in the form of a tuxedo, stray wisps floating behind him in a lingering trail. The black fedora atop his head was pulled low and askew, dark tinted glasses revealing nothing beyond, only mirrored reflections. He seemed to be moving yet static all at once, closing the distance between him and the child in an eternity that lasted only a moment.
The man garbed in smoke and midnight tilted his chin down toward the girl. It was an acknowledgment, perhaps even a condolement. Nothing more or less than that.
The girl was positive that her lips had not moved at all despite her attempts yet her voice filled the room, rising above the dull roar of flames. The tuxedo man hesitated in his steps, twinkling orbs twirling around him playfully.
“Give… him… back.”
Regardless if she was speaking with words or not, it was a soul-quaking strain to do so, as if every word were barbed and covered in thorns, tearing away small pieces of her with every utterance. Her gaze fell upon the man’s shifting back, breaking the spell of the fire. Like creeping vines, tendrils of shadow began to inch up the length of her legs, spreading over her like some unholy blight. The man did not turn, speaking with soft thunder in his voice that echoed in her bones.
“It’s far too late for that, child. He’s gone now, as you should be. There’s nothing left for you here so you might as well go on ahead.”
The shadows were climbing up her waist and flames were licking her fingertips but the girl persisted.
“No. Not… yet.”
There was no reply this time, only an exhale of air that could have been a sigh as the man started to walk again, showing no interest in continuing the conversation. The girl’s vision began to flicker, like a roll of film reaching its conclusion and she resisted against the void that threatened to smother her, struggling to thwart the inevitable eclipse that would end everything. She became possessed by volatile emotions that had festered within her, pervading and infecting like a parasitic disease.
“Bring. Him. Back.”
This time when the man paused a ripple seemed to pass over him from tip to toe. In a leisurely manner, he turned and made his way over to the girl, kneeling down beside her. His face remained rigid but an impression of a smile was there, in his words and presence.
“Obnoxious little brat, aren’t you? That sounded like a demand, not a request.”
Though she could not see them, the girl could feel the man’s eyes upon her, inside her.
“Do you know who you have addressed in such a rude manner?”
The reply came without hesitation or reserve, albeit with less intensity than before.
Teeth like polished ivory were exposed in a jackal’s grin, the tuxedo man reaching for his hat and sliding his fingers down the brim.
“Well, I suppose I can just skip past the pleasantries then.”
He dramatically unfurled his gloved hand in the direction of the girl.
“Since you seem to like ordering me around, why don’t we make it a little more worth my while? I will bring Lukus back. I’ll even help you get your revenge. You can command of me anything you so choose, and, so long as you order me to do so, I shall obey.”
He dipped his fingers into a spatter of blood near the sole of his shoe, bringing it to his mouth and pressing it gently against his blanched lips.
“But in exchange, when Lukus has been returned to you and your vengeance complete, I will end your life with my own hands and your soul will belong to me from now until eternity.”
There was power in his words, sending a feverish heat into the girl’s ears as the air crackled violently.
“Those are the terms and the price. Know that whatever decision you make, there is no going back. So what do you say, girl? Hell or glory?”
The girl searched for herself in the reflection of his glasses and found only darkness.
A smile with far too many teeth.
A gloved hand tightly squeezing one of her own.
Then, a pain she would never be able to forget.
But what the girl remembered most, what persisted in her mind like a deep set stain, was just how overpowering the stench of brimstone had been as she watched everything she once knew be cremated into sparkling gray ashes.