The Thousand Flames by Guerric Haché

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SUMMARY: A brief story, taking place in Zefasja a few decades after the Reconciliation Wars. Part of the world of Zearth.

The Thousand Flames. Zharka shivered at the thought. He had enrolled as soon as his magic had shown; he was a burner, all right. Not just any old kind of fire; his innate magic was solid fire in his own body. It had been a surprise, when his wrist had suddenly sprouted a blade of fire during an argument with a former friend.

The Thousand Flames were the most famous regiment of the Zefazji army. Ever since the Battle For The World, they were spoken of in whispers as one of the elite units that Zefasja could muster in a conflict. And they only accepted those gifted with fire among their ranks. They might accept him.

Zharka looked around the field. It was empty; yet this was exactly where they had told him to be for the interview. He had no idea what they would ask, what they would make him do. But there was nobody here. Was he late? Was he early? He suspected not. He suspected that this was a test; but what? That was the real question.

He stepped forward, walking slowly towards the only feature in the landscape; an upright stone, about a meter high. Approaching it, he found that a strange, golden coin was nestled into the top. He reached out to touch it, to see if it would come loose.

It didn't; but something happened. There was a rustle in the grass, and there was that smell – or almost a smell, the scent of magic. He knew it, and turned around to see –

His former friend, Pasha, standing there. Charred and burned black, his left arm missing, just as Zharka had left him after that shocked, panicked moment by the river. Just as he had been when Zharka had rolled his corpse into the water. He swallowed.

"You can't win that easily," Pasha said, and his voice was hoarse, his breath carrying ash from his mouth. "You may have killed me, but I will haunt you. I will stay with you till death."

"You aren't Pasha," Zharka exclaimed, his voice shaky. "You're a demon. That is a summoning coin, on that rock; you're from my Ghostland."

The figure cackled, and the skin on its face cracked. "But where else can Pasha survive, if not in your memories? If not in your shame? I certainly can't hide in the river, cut down by somebody I trusted and admired. Betrayal is worse than plain murder, Zharka. Do you know why? Because I couldn't see it coming. Because –"

"Yes you – Pasha saw it coming, demon!" he spat, snarling. "Anyone could have seen it coming! And don't you dare say I betrayed him – you need trust to have betrayal, and he lost my trust when –"

"When he slept with me?"

It was her, now; the demon had taken on Solna's form. He paused; demons weren't supposed to change form like this. They weren't supposed to taunt him –

"I am telling you nothing you don't tell yourself," the mockery of Solna said. "Nothing you don't repeat to yourself over, and over, and over... murderer. Traitor. Animal."

"Murder?" he snarled; two blade-like beams of fire cloaked his fists. "Take on a proper form, Demon – I don't feel like killing an effigy of the woman who... who..."

"Who chose somebody else?"

It was him, now.

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