Strid's clawed feet lightly tap against the floor, keeping beat with her favorite song. It crackles out of the gramophone, old and battered. Alone in her tiny cobwebbed cottage, there isn't much to keep her company, so she loves the gramophone and all her records like a missing family.
The warbling tunes are all that keeps her from that feeling. That feeling she gets when she looks outside—hollow, painful, unexplainable. Nobody has ever told her quite what that feeling means.
Outside of Strid's window are the ones she should call family. They're known as Fireflies. She is one of them in name only. They dance tirelessly, endlessly, twirling and leaping through the air. Strid doesn't have nearly enough space or energy to dance like they do, but she tries.
When a soul loses its way, sometimes it will find refuge in the Tree of Flames. These lost souls are given a second chance, a new life; one spent as part of the Fireflies. Their hair turns instead to an ever-burning flame without heat, their back sprouts wings of some kind of bug, and their skin turns a vibrant color that matches both their wings and their fire.
Silence envelops the dimly lit cottage as the record winds to a halt and Strid's movements slow, gaze drifting back to the window. There they are now. One of them in particular has caught Strid's gaze many times. Since the other Fireflies don't come to visit her, she doesn't know the girl's name, but by now she surely knows her face. She has a butterfly's wings and her fire burns a daisy yellow.
Never without a smile, the girl's wings flutter as she dances, like a feather, toes barely skimming the ground. Magnetically, as so many times before, Strid finds herself drawn towards the little window looking out. The floorboards creak without another sound to mask them, quiet whisper of a draft rustling a curtain, and Strid's hands are pressed against the window.
The girl probably has no clue that Strid exists. Never once has she made eye contact with Strid, let alone looked over at the window, or even noticed the little cottage. Too weak to go outside, Strid has become accustomed to watching the world drift by outside her window.
Normally, Fireflies have no need to eat or sleep. They are granted eternal life, in joy with each other within the Tree of Flames, so long as their fire does not go out. When a Firefly's fire is extinguished, they become nothing more than a pile of dust.
Strid isn't like most other Fireflies. Her skin is a dull grey and her wings are small, fractured, and totally incapable of flight. Her fire is faint, barely flickering, and it cannot be fixed. For her own safety, she stays inside a little room, alone.
The outside world promises death.
Without a song to occupy her thoughts, Strid's house feels even emptier than normal. The window is her only escape from the dark and lonely confinement she's been assigned to. Strid's thoughts begin to turn, watching, again. Who knows how many times she's sat at this window, watching? Watching the same thing, every day? Happiness, out of reach, for the guise of safety?
Is life worth living if you never use it? Would a few minutes with her family be better than life watching them never know she existed?
The gears in Strid's mind begin to click, desperation and longing mixing in a dangerous brew. Before she knows it, her feet are carrying her to the door. The door, that she never leaves. The door, beyond which lies that which is not safe.
The door, which she now turns the handle of.
"I refuse to live alone anymore," Strid mutters. Hearing herself say the words, repeating them again, makes her heart jump.
"I refuse to live alone anymore! I'm—I'm going outside!"
With a final deep breath, Strid steels herself and throws open the door.
The resulting wave of air is so powerful that her flame nearly extinguishes itself then and there. Her eyesight fails, knees giving out, stumbling halfway through the doorway. Of the entire group of Fireflies dancing and laughing outside her window, only one notices. The girl turns her head, eyes pausing on Strid's frail form.
The girl, however, does not get a chance to point Strid out to a single other member of her group.
There is only one thing the Fireflies have to fear. There indeed is a being which despises the Fireflies in their entirety, living only to extinguish as many of them that it can. It is aptly nicknamed the Wind. Fortunately, the Matriarch of all Fireflies has erected a magical sphere around the Tree of Flames that the Wind cannot enter. Normally, all those within the Tree are perfectly safe.
Normally, however, the Wind does not attack the shield directly. Two ethereal blue hands, clawed, press against the shield now. The Wind howls, and the Fireflies look to the sphere. Its surface splinters, giving out under the weight of unrestrained malice.
Strid watches in abject horror as the Wind whistles into the Tree, instantly turning an entire group of Fireflies to dust and lunging for the girl Strid wished to meet so badly. Bound to weakness, Strid can do nothing but outstretch her hand and let loose a desperate shout.
The world slows. Time spins down. Color fades from Strid's surroundings, and abruptly, a woman stands in front of her. The woman's hand is stretched down, offering Strid a hand up. Confused, she takes it, rising to her feet, cautious of her flame.
"Well. It's quite a predicament you've found yourself in, isn't it?" The woman comments, glancing back to the Wind and the girl, frozen in time.
"Um. Yes, it... it is," Replies Strid, thoroughly bewildered.
The woman steps back. "Tell me, child. What is your plan?"
"My... plan?" Strid looks between the woman, the Wind, and the girl. "My plan for what? I just wanted to meet everyone. And now... now the Wind is inside. Was this my fault? Did I... somehow...?"
"No, child. Sometimes fate has a strange way of finding its heroes. So, what is your plan? Once I unfreeze time, what will you do?"
Strid pauses. It's true, her cottage is specifically made to protect her from even the slightest breeze—she would be entirely safe from the Wind inside. But... retreat would mean the girl had absolutely no chance of surviving. Strid would be sacrificing the girl for her own sake. In a moment, a plan forms in Strid's head.
"I know! I'll shout and run at the Wind! That way, maybe the girl can get away!"
The woman chuckles. "That's not much of a plan. You'd be throwing your life away for only the chance of saving hers. Is that truly worth it to you?"
Strid nods without hesitation. "I don't have much to look forward to living anyway. I might as well use it to help someone."
The woman thinks, steadily studying Strid's expression.
"Then you deserve more than a single life, child. Life deals its cards mysteriously. You were made weak in body, but your soul is strong. For this, I offer you a deal."
She extends her hand to Strid.
"Take my hand. You may save your girl, of that, I promise you."
Strid looks at the hand, then at the woman's face, then down to her hand again, and takes it. "Who are you, anyway?"
"I am a second chance."
The woman dissolves into a shower of sparks and flames, burning redder than cherries or rust, brighter than blood or roses. The flame engulfs Strid entirely, without pain, without fear, and time once again resumes to tick.
At once, Strid rushes forward, faster than she's ever dared to move before. Standing between the Wind and the girl, she raises her hands. Her skin is now red, her fire brighter and higher than any other she's ever seen, and her wings full and wide like a dragonfly.
Swirling around her, thinking it has won, the Wind fights against the newly ignited bonfire that is Strid. To the Wind's shock, and Strid's, and the girl's, and every other onlooker's, it has no luck.
The Wind howls, anguished at its entire inability to extinguish Strid's life. Invigorated with new life and power, Strid howls back. Whisking itself away, almost limping, the Wind makes a swift retreat. Never before has it met an adversary, only prey—but Strid is more than even that.
With the Wind gone, the shield flickers back to life. From every branch of the Tree comes a unified cheer, howling and whooping, raucous applause. Strid turns, slowly, dazed, but happy beyond belief. The girl smiles back at Strid, carefully.
"That—that was incredible! How did you do that?"
"Oh, uh." Strid half-shrugs, attempting to act as casual as possible. "I don't really know, to be honest?"
"Well, it was awesome! Say, here—" The girl sticks out her hand. "I'm Raphael. What about you?"
Trying to contain her excitement, Strid shakes Raphael's hand, replying, "Oh! What a pretty name! I uh, really like it."
"Haha, thanks." Raphael tilts her head curiously. "So... are you going to tell me your name, or are you going to make me guess?"
"Oh! Right." Strid's face flushes, suddenly aware of how many people are watching—and listening to—her.