Fire. Fire was a god. Sometimes she felt like she’d been born in fire. Had her hair always been this orange? She couldn’t remember. Neither could anybody else.
Fire wasn’t the kind of god to love, though. Fire was a monster, and the more one fed him, the bigger he grew. The more he took. For little Ritsuka, eventually he took everything she had and she got sent to a group home for orphans.
That burned down, too.
No, it wasn’t her. She had a strict rule against feeding fires.
But she didn’t put them out, either.
Another boy at that group home worshipped fire, but he thought it needed him. He thought he was bringing life. Except one night the fire outgrew him and his worship vanished just like that. He ran, rousing the house, leaving her alone on the edge of the flames when the firefighters finally arrived.
The next group home was for the guilty instead of the innocent. Ritsuka did her best, but eventually it was just too much for her. That was one of the few times she broke the rule about feeding fires. Everyone else had gone to the summer festival fireworks. She just… put something in the oven and turned it on.
And then she ran, and ran, and ran. All the way to Antarctica, in the end. Not a lot of fires there, she figured.
Except here she was again, staring at an inferno from only a few feet away. A man with fire-touched hair said sadly beside her, “No survivors in there. I’ll go—”
She tuned him out. Nothing survived fire. Nothing that mattered, anyhow. Not family, not friends, not hope. This fire, born of an explosion, was a big one. There weren’t a lot of places to run, either. Chaldea was on a mountain covered in ice at the very bottom of the world. They say hope burns brightest in the dark, and in the bombed and powerless research station, Ritsuka Fujimaru saw it was true.
Hypnotized by her past and her future merging into one, Ritsuka wandered into the burning room. It was quieter than the first fire, the one that had taken her family. The flames had their own song, but nobody was screaming this time.
“Hello?” said somebody, in a wavering, pained voice from near Ritsuka’s feet. Under a broken piece of machinery lay the strange girl Ritsuka had met before. Mash, her name had been. She’d said Ritsuka was the only person in Chaldea who didn’t make her feel threatened. Now rippling pools of her blood reflected the growing fire.
Mash’s hand moved weakly, and without thinking about why, Ritsuka stooped down to touch her palm to palm.
For as long as she could remember, Ritsuka had been afraid. Fire was about the only thing Ritsuka didn’t hide from, and that was because there was no point. Fire ate everything. Her normal fear had simply vanished when she saw the Control Room fire on the monitor due to how overwhelming it was. But now, tears rolling down her cheeks as Mash weakly held her hand, all the terror came rolling back. She didn’t want to die, and she didn’t want this strange girl to die.
Her tears were cool compared to the air around her. The terrible smell of burnt wire and electronic smoke choked her. She smelled earth, too, and ice, as ridiculous as that was. But the worst scent was this girl’s blood. Ritsuka had fallen to her knees in a puddle leaking from the girl’s side.
Somewhere a computer was talking, counting down. It seemed like a voice in a dream, one that couldn’t possibly exist, except as a cruel joke.
“Possibly—” said Mash. A light flashed around them. And when Ritsuka woke up again, the whole world had burned.