There's something following him.
Brand looks back over his shoulder at the desolate landscape peppered with licks of flame from his passing. Who was brave enough to approach even having seen the furiosity of his resting aura? Whatever they were, he would make sure they were gone.
"SHOW YOURSELF," he roared at the emptiness.
He waited several ticks, but nothing stirred. Brand paced menacingly, stomping the ground beneath his feet as embers shot in all directions from his footfalls.
Something moved. A twirl of a scrap of fabric, disappearing around a tree. And then, in the silent and dead air, broken only by the crackles of flame that came off his own form, he heard it. The short stifle of childish laughter.
Brand was completely flummoxed.
And as he stood there trying to come to terms with the new information, the unmistakable voice of a child called from somewhere in the underbrush.
"No... you come find me! Heehee!"
It was definitely a child's voice, calling to him like he's not walking through a deserted tundra. So Brand walked forward and pulled a shrub of the undergrowth directly from its roots, the entire greenery disappearing in a shower of flames as he did so, and he found himself staring at a little girl with her eyes shut tight, squeezing her toy to her chest, and the flames sprinkling in a harmless circle around her in a veil.
She peeked one eye open up at him. Brand stared back.
The little girl suddenly flung her arms wide. "You caught me!" Then she pointed an accusatory finger at Brand. "Now you hide." And without even letting go over her stuffed toy, she put her hands over her eyes and turned her back to Brand, and began her count in a purposeful voice.
"One, Two, Three..."
Brand flung his shrubbery aside and its charred remains hit the earth beside them with a heap. He turned and walked directly away from the girl. None of this made sense and he was ready to dismiss it as some apparition, and regardless, none of his business.
He was ten minutes out and into deeper trees when he turned about-face and walked back.
The man Brand had been was gone, but no manner of being that he had become would leave a small defenseless girl to the mercy of the cold woods at night. What a pain. Brand fumed as he stomped his way through the underbrush the way he had come. He was probably walking back for nothing, the image of the girl had been a vision sent by the heavens to vex him and no more. It made no sense. There's no way a little girl could exist out here. The nearest settlement was days of walk away. Brand decided to discard this foolish mission if he didn't see her again within twenty steps. He had wasted enough time. Every second of this was pointless. He shouldn't spend any more time on it-
A flurry of purple dress and blazing red hair leaped out from a tree branch above him and tagged him on the shoulders, a soft thud that was a strike with the stuffed bear, and then the little girl hopped down and beamed at him triumphantly. "Caught you!"
Brand stared at her.
It finally seemed to strike her as overly bold, her actions, and the child was at once shy, tucking her arms around her back and pivoting her ankles, her once-shiny Mary Janes scuffing at the ground. Then just as suddenly she thrust her stuffed bear in front of her, little hands around the fluffy torso. The bear's arms flopped as she jiggled it as if it was speaking to Brand. "Hello, my name is Tibbers," the girl said, her face hidden behind the toy and her voice pitched down in imitation, perhaps, of a bear. "Will you play with my friend and me?" She concluded, and then she peeked out from behind the bear with one big eye, his flame reflected in the shiny brown iris.
Brand opened his mouth to speak, but his throat was dry and crackled from not having used it for so long for something other than screaming. In any case he had nothing to say to this creature of the woods. He settled for closing his mouth, then turning, and beckoning to the girl with one arm. It was all he could manage in acceptance of whatever strange machination he had found himself in.
The girl squealed with delight and trailed after him, skipping, her toy bear bouncing by her side. Brand stared forward. One detour, to drop off this anomaly at the nearest town they encountered, and no more.
His mortal form had been consumed by the World Rune shard, so he had no need for rest or sustenance anymore. But the girl was still human. They had marched in quiet for hours before she had complained of being tired and hungry. So there Brand sat, in lieu of a campfire, blazing merrily in the middle of their crudely made camp. Annie slept curled up, hugging her bear. She had told him her name at some point during their trek, and she had asked him his, and he had shaken his head and kept walking. He didn't have a name anymore.
He had seen her bear, too, transform into a hulking monstrosity, at one point when he was clumsily attempting to catch her dinner. Annie had spotted birds above them and the bear had reared up, roaring, swinging a pair of mighty, fiery paws above them, upsetting the trees and missing the aforementioned birds completely. But Annie had seemed pleased nonetheless. He came to understand how she had survived in the wilds for so long.
Annie tossed in her sleep uneasily. She was such a carefree child when she was awake, but asleep, it seemed that nightmares haunted her. The wild fire magic inside the bear was not wholly the girl's own. Someone had placed it there, a crude protection catalyst that mixed with the girl's potent gift whenever she bade her guardian spring forth.
None of it was any of Brand's concern. It didn't matter where the girl had come from or who she'd known. He had his fate and she had hers, and they weren't to cross more than at this one bizarre instance.
Still he kept watch over her during his unsleeping night, her small chest rising and falling steadily, the ash from his flames fluttering through the chill night air.
“Why are you made of fire?”
She asked a lot of questions.
“Where did you come from? Why do you look like that?”
Brand just kept marching on silently, hoping that she would get bored and start sulking.
“Why were you buried in the snow?”
“What?” Brand croaked.
“In the snow. Me and Tibbers found you.” Annie perked up, apparently delighted at having gotten a response. “We were playing and trying to wake you up. Then you blasted off into the sky. Like a rocket,” she giggled.
That must have been what woke him up. Brand had known dormancy before, each time Ryze managed to shut him down, and he hadn’t stopped to wonder what made him awaken so quickly this time. But the girl’s magic was strong, and unfettered, it scattered around her like wildfire- It must have been a stroke of fate that someone like her happened upon him in the frozen tundra.
“Did you grow from the ground? Like a tree?”
Brand shook his head. “No.”
She seemed to ponder this for a second. “Did you… have a mommy?”
Brand said nothing.
When Annie was silent, he looked back in spite of himself and saw her with her head lowered, dragging her feet as she followed. She was clutching the bear to her chest. The uncharacteristic gloom unsettled even Brand, and he found himself answering. “...Yes.”
“Was she nice?”
Brand thought about it. “No.”
“That’s so sad.”
She was looking at him now with big eyes glowing with pity, and it somehow was worse than what she had been doing before. Brand floundered, looking for some way to turn the conversation away from his past.
“My mommy was nice,” Annie went on, to Brand’s relief. “But she’s gone now. She made Tibbers for me.” She held up her bear for him to see, once more. “I used to think I could make her come back. But I don’t know anymore.”
“You can’t,” Brand said. He knows enough to know it’s a lie, but also that it’s better than the truth.
“It’s okay,” Annie said, perking up again. “Now I have Tibbers. And I have you, Rocket Man,” she giggled.
Brand turned back to the road and kept walking. He didn’t mention how he was going to leave her with the first sign of civilization they met.
He couldn’t very well knock on a door, looking the way he does, and he couldn’t let the girl know he was going to abandon her. It was unlike him to care about a little girl's feelings, but Brand decided to leave the sleeping girl in the middle of the village square. She’d be out of his hands then.
Although he was careful, it wasn’t as though he was inconspicuous, being a living pillar of flame. So he hadn’t planned for a late-night loafer to sound the cry of alarm.
“Brand!” “It’s Brand!”
He set Annie on the ground and prepared to make his quick escape. They’d find her, and she’d be fine, and he’d be gone.
“And the Demon Girl!”
The shrill cry stopped him in his tracks.
Villagers were gathering, scatteredly, forming a frightened and loose ring around them, and Brand could hear them murmuring.
“Demon Girl.” “Did you hear about what happened to poor Jessica?” “She burnt her house down, killed her daughter.” “She’s with him.” “She’s better off dead.”
Annie was waking up now, rubbing her eyes and getting to her feet. “What’s happening?” She asked in a shaky voice as she scooted closer to Brand, her eyes shining with fear. The crowd rippled back away from the girl, then a rock sailed from their midst, striking the cobblestone next to Annie, and she shrieked and ducked away, and Brand’s eyes flashed and there was a roar of flame.
“So your name’s Brand?”
Brand shook his head. The village smoldered, somewhere behind them, and he carried with them a bag of salvaged provisions for Annie. It wouldn’t last long, just enough to get them where they needed to go. “They call me Brand. Long ago… I used to be Kegan.”
“What about now?” Annie chewed on a piece of jerky as they walked, Tibbers ever swinging by her side. Her clothes were a little singed, as his fire didn’t naturally avoid her form as well as hers did, but otherwise unscathed from the encounter.
“I don’t know.”
“Can I call you Rocket Man?”
Brand grinned. He doesn’t remember the last time he smiled. And maybe it was just the exhilaration from burning something down again. “Rocket Man is fine.”
“Where are we going?” She asked.
“To meet an old friend.”
Ryze teleports in ready to fight. His runes out, his arms raised, and he only falters in his stance a little when he sees Brand isn’t alone, although his face contorted in confusion is extremely funny.
“What is this?” Ryze says.
Brand gestures to the girl beside him, who looks up at him, her big eyes similarly confused.
“Yes, I see the girl,” Ryze says. “Is she your hostage? Your protégé? What have you called me here for?”
Brand clears his throat. Now that Ryze was here with his condescending voice, he didn’t actually remember what he had planned to say.
“She needs guidance,” he says. “Do for her what you couldn’t for me.”
“Wait-” Annie starts to say, stretching out her hand-
But Brand had already taken two steps back and then launched off the ground leaving a wave of heat and dust in his wake, and the two on the ground flinching from the impact, then Annie ran after him into the woods, and Ryze recovers enough to chase after her as well.
“Wait, Rocket Man! Don’t leave!” Annie was crying big tears and Ryze sets his big blue hands on her shoulders to comfort her, still trying to wrap his head around the situation.
“What was he to you?” He asks her urgently.
“He was my friend,” Annie sniffles. “He saved me from mean people, and he played with me when I was lonely.”
Ryze was dumbfounded.
”Are we talking about the same Brand?”
“He’s not Brand,” Annie said, still through her sniffles and indignant. “That’s what the mean people called him. And he’s not Kegan either. He’s just Rocket Man.”
“Okay,” Ryze relented. His mind was spinning. The creature known as Brand had taken this girl in, and he had known he couldn’t give her the care she needed. So he chose to leave her with Ryze. The only person he had ever learned to trust. He felt a swell of emotion. His immeasurable guilt deepened. He knelt down and took both of her hands in his own, and she turned and looked up at him with tearstained eyes.
"It's going to be alright," He told her.
"My name is Ryze. And Rocket Man was a dear friend of mine."