Chapter 4: Flame

"Can you clearly describe what happened when the mine collapsed?" Roland asked.

Anna nodded and began talking.

Roland was surprised because he expected her to stay silent or to angrily curse at him, but she responded to all of his questions cooperatively.

It wasn’t a complicated story. Anna’s father was a miner and was working when the mine collapsed. Immediately after they heard about the accident, Anna and the other miners’ families went to rescue their loved ones. The North Slope Mine area was rumored to be an abandoned monster lair with many forked pathways extending in all directions. Since the volunteers were all acting on their own accord, they separated at the mine entryway, and only Anna’s neighbors Susan and Ansgar were by her side when she found her father.

Her father’s leg was crushed under a cart filled with ore, rendering him motionless, but at his side was another miner patting him down for money. When the looter saw them, he rushed at Ansgar with a pick and knocked him to the ground, but as he was about to strike her, Anna killed him first.

Anna’s neighbors vowed to keep her secret and helped Anna rescue her father. However, early next morning, Anna’s father went out on his crutches and reported to the patrolling guards that his daughter was a witch.

"Why?" Roland couldn't help but ask.

Barov sighed and answered, "Probably he could receive a reward. Discovering and reporting a witch can get you 25 gold royals. For a man with a crippled leg, 25 gold royals would take care of him for the rest of his life."

After a moment of silence, Roland asked, "Your opponent was a strong adult man, so how were you able to kill him?"

Anna laughed, and the flames of the torches began shaking like waves on a lake surface.

"Just as you think, I used the power of the devil," Anna said.

"Shut up! Vile sorceress!" shouted the prison warden, but everyone could hear his voice trembling.

"Is that true? I want to see it," Prince Roland said unwaveringly,

"Your Highness, this is no laughing matter!" The Chief Knight interjected as he furrowed his brows.

Roland stepped out from behind his knight and walked towards the cell. "If anyone is afraid of her, I won’t ask them to stay here."

"Don’t panic, she has a ‘God’s Locket of Retribution’ around her neck!" shouted Barov to comfort everyone, but probably mostly himself. "No matter how powerful the devil is, he cannot overcome God’s protection."

Roland stood in front of the cell bars, an arm’s length away from Anna, and could clearly see her dusty and bruised face. Her soft facial features showed that she still was a minor, but her expression contained no trace of childlike innocence. There wasn’t even anger in her face, giving her an unsettling feeling Roland had only seen on TV. It was the face of a wandering orphan who had suffered from poverty and hunger, but it was also not exactly the same. Those children always stood with a bent and broken body and a lowered head in front of cameras, but Anna did not.

Up until now, she had tried to stand straight with her vision raised and calmly looked into the prince’s eyes. "She does not fear death," Roland realized, "and she is waiting for death."

"Is this the first time you have seen a witch, my lord? Your curiosity might get you killed," Anna said.

"If you really had the devil’s power, you would be able to kill with a glance," Roland responded. "If that were true, it is not I who should fear death, but your father."

The prison torches suddenly dimmed, which was definitely not an illusion, as the flames seemed to be smothered into small sparks. Roland heard the panting and prayers of the men behind him, as well as the thuds of people who had tripped while trying to run away.

Roland’s heartbeat sped up and he felt that he was at the border between two worlds. On one side was the world of common sense, which was in exact accordance with the laws and constants that he knew. On the other side was an incredible new world, which was full of mystery and the unknown. He was standing in front of this world.

"Was the thing around her neck God’s Locket of Retribution? What a simple and crude locket," Roland thought. It was a red iron chain with a sparkling and translucent pendant, which seemed easy to destroy if the witch hadn’t been handcuffed.

Roland glanced at the crowd behind him, who were still mouthing prayers in panic. He quickly reached into the cell, grabbed the pendant, and tugged on the locket, snapping the chain—the move startled even Anna.

"Come on." Roland whispered.

"Are you actually a liar, some type of alchemist, or a real witch? If you take out bottles and jars and start compounding acids, I will be disappointed," Roland thought.

Roland then heard a crackling sound, the noise of water vapor expanding in heat. Their surroundings began to heat up rapidly, and the water on the ground was turning into steam.

Roland saw a blazing flame rise from beneath Anna, and the ground she was standing on was set on fire. The torches behind them exploded at once, as if they had received pure oxygen, giving off a blinding light. At that moment, the whole cell was as bright as day, causing the onlookers’ terrified screams.

As the witch moved forward, the flames surrounding her moved with her. When she came to the edge of her cell, the iron bars that made up the wall became pillars of fire.

Roland backed up instinctively from the biting and painful heat. In just a few seconds, he felt that he was back in summertime, but this was a different kind of heat, which was solely generated by a flame, rather than an enveloping summer heat. One side of his body was facing the flame’s heat, and the other side was still chilly. Roland could even feel cold sweat trickling down his back.

"She really does not fear fire," Roland thought.

Roland remembered the Assistant Minister’s words. Only now did he really understand what he meant.

If she is an actual flame, how could she fear herself?

Soon, the iron bars turned from crimson to a light yellow and began to melt. This meant that they were being heated to over 1,500 degrees Celsius, a temperature that seemed practically impossible to Roland to achieve without insulating measures. Like the others, he backed away from the cell, holding himself firmly against the furthest wall.

If he had not done this, the heat of the melting iron would cause his clothes to combust even without direct contact—even Anna’s clothes were reduced to ashes and replaced with a ball of flames.

After what seemed like eternity, the flames disappeared.

All that was left were a couple torches quietly burning on the wall as if nothing had happened, but Anna’s burned clothes, the hot air, and the twisted prison bars all proved that this wasn’t an illusion.

Besides Roland and the Chief Knight, the other men had all collapsed to the ground, and the prison warden was so scared that he soiled his pants. Anna now stood naked outside the cell, and her arm shackles were gone. She did not hide her naked body, her hands hanging naturally at her side and her blue eyes appearing as peaceful as before.

"Now that I have satisfied your curiosity, my Lord," she said, "can you kill me now?"

"No." Roland stepped forward, wrapped his coat around her, and said with a forcedly gentle tone, "Miss Anna, I want to hire you."