Ray had always been fascinated by fire.
When he was three years old, Mama caught him trying to open a lantern so he could get at the flickering flame inside. She gently pried it away from him, and told him sternly that fire was very dangerous and he wasn't allowed to handle it until he was older.
When Ray was four, he snuck into the library to find one of his older siblings already there, studying by the light of a flickering candle. She warned him to be quiet, but let him clamber up onto the chair beside her and read something closer to his age level (though in Gracefield that meant chapter books rather than medical textbooks). Still, he was distracted by the dancing, open flame in front of him.
He glanced over at his sister and, while she wasn't looking, passed his hand through the flame. It didn’t burn; it didn’t hurt at all, just felt warm for a moment. Curious, he stuck his hand back into the fire and held it there. Still no pain, just warmth.
She gasped when she noticed his hand, and hurriedly pulled the candle away, warning him to never do that again or he’d burn himself.
He agreed, but Ray had been lying from the moment he first entered this house.
His fascination only grew after that. At six he was allowed to use the stove with supervision from his older siblings, and it soon became apparent that he could wrangle the old gas stove into submission better than any of them. He wasn't a great cook, unfortunately, but he often found himself on breakfast duty making simple things like scrambled eggs and bacon. He often teamed up with his older sister Iona to bake bread and pastries, as the oven was a bit temperamental too.
They had a wood stove in each of the bedrooms, in case the power went out during the winter. They usually got one big snowstorm per year, and a power outage every other year. When Ray was seven, they got the biggest storm to date, causing the power to be knocked out for several weeks. The entire family, including Mama and the babies, ended up in the same room as Ray by the end of it. Partly to conserve heat at night, partly because Ray was the best at working the wood stove, and just having him nearby seemed to make it fill the room with heat.
In the spring of that year, Ray took a candle outside in the dead of night. He was on the opposite side of the house from Mama’s room, and all the windows were dark. It was safe.
Ray read a lot of stories in his free time. Only when he’d had perfect scores for a week, and could afford to take small breaks from his studying, of course. The stories he read were fascinating, taking him on journeys through magical worlds. All of them had different types of magic, of course, but he noticed a pattern. A significant amount of the stories had some kind of fire magic. Digging deeper by going through an ancient mythology book, he found even more stories of fire, and people who could command it.
So, sitting outside on a cold spring night, Ray sat with a candle and breathed. With each breath the flame rose higher and higher, reaching out to twirl around him but never touch him, not even burning his clothes. He stood, and the fire followed him, growing and shrinking in time with his breaths as he studied the dancing flame. It took him a full minute to notice that the candle had burnt out, but the fire remained, hovering around him like an elegant shield.
He let the fire vanish, and returned to bed long before anyone woke up. He didn’t manage to sleep that night, but he was strangely energized all the same.
After that, he knew. He knew that fire was his friend.
In between planning the escape and studying to keep his scores up, Ray experimented with fire. He learned to make sparks, then to create flames in his hands. He learned how to subtly light the stove when the sparker broke, how to extinguish a candle with a single thought, how to make flames weave around him in a flowing dance. He even experimented with propulsion, flames pushing at the skin of his palms as he hovered above the ground. Soon, he’d be able to fly.
He kept it hidden because that was all he knew how to do. Logically, him having his fire, this power, was a card to be played at a later date. So long as no one figured it out, he could bring out his power on the day of the escape.
Now, that gave him an idea.
Ray couldn’t burn. He’d tested it many times, with candles and with larger flames. His clothes would burn, but not him--not even his hair. That was a funny thing, actually, because his hair could burn once it was no longer attached to him. He didn’t know if there was any real logic behind it.
So, naturally, he could use fire during the escape. He’d stay behind to make sure Mama didn’t abandon the house while Emma and Norman got a head start to the wall. Then, once he was sure Mama was occupied, he’d cut out his tracker and run. She would assume he died in the flames, and they would be free.
With his new plan in mind, he started collecting lighter fluid. He could coax a flame into being with ease, but he hadn’t practiced with fire on this scale, so he figured some accelerant would help things along.
Things didn’t exactly go as planned.
It was the night before Norman’s shipment. Why Norman didn’t run away when they asked him to, Ray couldn’t understand. He came back, why did he come back.
Why did he come back?
“It was a cliff,” Norman said quietly, the three of them clustered around Emma’s bed in the infirmary. “There was no way to get across. There’s a bridge, but to get there we’d either have to run all the way around the wall or go through the Gate. It’d be too dangerous.”
“A cliff?” Ray repeated. An idea popped into his mind; a crazy, stupid idea that might get them all killed, but an idea nonetheless. “How big was the gap?”
That made Norman pause, looking at Ray with his ‘I-know-you’re-hiding-something’ look. “About 15 meters.”
Fifteen meters. That was easy. He’d gone all the way to the Gate and back one night just to see if he could. He’d tested how much weight he could carry while flying by dumping rocks into a bag, and ended up with three full bags before he couldn’t handle the strain.
“I can get us across,” he blurted out. He’d wanted to keep this secret a little longer, because fire was his and if they knew about his secret plan Emma would probably veto it, but drastic times call for drastic measures.
“How?” Emma said. “It’s not like we can just fly across.”
Ray decided he did not like being the focus of two explain-now-or-else glares. He refused to back down, though, and held up a hand before going to check that no one was remotely near the infirmary. He then gathered them into a circle, so that even if someone did look in their view would be blocked.
He summoned a tiny flame in the palm of his hand.
“Whoa,” Emma breathed. She held a hand over the flame, quickly retreating when it became too hot. Norman just stared at it, like the Earth had suddenly flipped upside-down.
He extinguished the flame quickly and moved back, waving away the small traces of smoke in the air. They sat in silence for a long time, with Norman staring down at the floor with his unguarded thinking face on.
After a solid minute he looked up and said “Ray, I’m sorry I ever doubted you.”
That was… not what he was expecting.
“I don’t want to die,” he said, a confidence in his gaze that hadn’t been there before. “We’re going with your original plan, Ray. Just with a couple of modifications.”
“Norman…” Emma’s eyes were wide, as if seeing her best friend for the first time.
“We’re escaping tonight.”
Ray stood in the dining room, waiting for the clock to strike midnight. Emma was with him, bandaging up his ear, as they’d already carefully removed the tracker without damaging it. Better to do it now and care for it properly than run with a bleeding ear.
With one minute to go, Emma stood back while Ray poured the lighter fluid on the floor, then on himself. His clothes would have to be sacrificed, but Emma assured him they’d have replacements waiting at the wall. His hair was next, a significant amount cut off from the back to be burned, hopefully creating a convincing smell. Emma added some pork sausages to the pile as well.
The clock struck midnight. Ray let out some sparks, and the lighter fluid ignited. With a few breaths the flames were leaping at the ceiling, the bonfire eating away at the stone and wood of the house like paper.
He sat on the ground, making sure he was just far enough forward to be partially visible. Sure enough, Mama arrived within seconds, and Emma screamed about how he was stuck in the flames. He took that as his cue to fake screams of pain, while he held back his laughter as Mama frantically grabbed a fire extinguisher, not noticing Emma slipping off with the tracker deactivator.
He waited, and screamed occasionally, then fell silent. A portion of the wall collapsed behind him, and he took this as the perfect opportunity to slink out and escape while Mama was still trying to find his supposed body.
Running naked through the woods in late fall was not a fun experience, but at least he didn’t have the added embarrassment factor. He’d taken baths with his siblings since they were little, none of them were body-shy.
It took less than ten minutes to reach the wall, where everyone was already climbing up the new rope, made from bedsheets stripped last-minute in the escape. Norman was the one to hand him a fresh set of clothes, which he gratefully changed into. He realized belatedly that he could have easily kept himself warm, but oh well.
“Ray!” Emma called, beckoning from the top of the wall. Him and Norman were the only ones left, and Norman urged him to go up first. Just because he could, Ray jumped and propelled himself up, earning looks of astonishment from the 15 kids who’d made it.
Then it was all up to Ray, who pulled Jemima onto his back and flew across the cliff. Fifteen meters on a downward slope, easy. The difficult part was not overdoing the propulsion, since he had to adjust for Jemima’s weight.
One by one, Ray flew each of them across the cliff, supplies and all. Emma insisted on going last, and they didn’t have time to argue so he just called over Norman and headed across.
When he got back, Mama was looking up at them from the bottom of the wall.
Ray paused, still hovering, his flames dancing around him as easily as breathing. She was looking at him , not Emma, for the first time in a long while. No, not just him, she was staring at his flames in a less surprised manner than he expected.
He landed, and Emma started getting on his back, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from Mama. She looked conflicted, for a moment, but then she smiled and held up her hand. A flame appeared there, just a small one, dancing around her palm and up her arm. Then she extinguished it, and Ray had to turn away and fly Emma across the cliff.
When he looked back, she was standing on top of the wall, hair flowing freely, with just a little fire at her fingertips. She waved, clearly visible thanks to the glowing flames, and dropped back down on the inside of the wall.
Steam drifted behind Ray as he tried to dry his tears.