C H A P T E R 1
There weren’t words to describe the monster I had become.
The bitter chill of winter’s somber introduction was enough to leave me staring wistfully at the blank pages of the spring still to come. Soundlessly, like the many rabbits inhabiting the warrens beneath my feet, I marched through the thick of the snow-capped forest in the blue hour of the day, when the snow matched the dripping azure of the dawn long before, and the landscape bled the predominant colors of dusk that only spoke of shadows and darkness.
Before me, amidst the labyrinthine of winter, sheets of ice draped the wending tree line like coats of chainmail on the chests of soldiers, and the broad backed saplings heaved forth, great in number, withering as the sun sunk upon winter’s battlefield.
Through the gathering of shadows clustered at the ceiling of the heavily wooded place, a pall of darkness so achingly thick that I longed to see the sky with every last breath I contained, glints of light shown down in sparse bursts, igniting the mid-December evening with the last of the day’s ephemeral glow. Stars had already begun to form above the canopies, and they smiled at me through the shredded ceiling of the frost-laden forest, winking like a gilded audience I never had the chance to get used to growing up.
Unfettered flashes of fire flecked the distance back over my shoulder, and sparks sizzled amongst the snowdrifts, bright like stars left to haunt an endless skyline. Wherever I stepped, embers smoldered to life, only to be doused by the falling snow that dusted the New Hampshire countryside; the crackle of fire was all too familiar a sound, heard whenever I closed my eyes—it stayed with me, even in my sleep.
I hated winter, hated everything about it.
Everything burned so . . . easily. Too easily.
Flames, unsurprisingly, danced painlessly over my arms, and when I tried to shake them off like dirt from my flesh, my hands caught fire, and the conflagration only spread until every inch of my body glittered, abuzz with a numb sort of warmth unlike any other.
My curse flared from deep within my core, my fire eager to burn, and though I fought it—I always fought it—I couldn’t stop the inferno that had overtaken my interior from leaking out into the open. I couldn’t stop, stop the fire, stop the burning, stop the thoughts that pillaged my mind like the demons in my heart.
I was a match that had been so effortlessly struck, and no amount of wind could douse my fire. It could only fan my flames.
Monster, they called me. Cursed, I called myself.
I could still remember a time when my body went unravished by this power, this wicked nature of mine. A time when I was a kid, just the same as all the others in this burning town of Maple Creek. But now . . . my memories of that time, that paradise, were rapidly thinning out, leaving me with visions of this fire, nightmares of these flames—
I walked on through the forest, roamed the winter wasteland as it opened to valleys and rivers, cool with shadows that snaked and slithered through the snow-heavy dells like ravenous serpents, hungry for light.
New Hampshire was notorious for its darkness . . .
In the distance, bright and glowing, fire conceived from my own lethal touch, my own wicked curse, devoured the snow-slung hummocks that encircled Maple Creek like a row of jagged teeth. The whole countryside was barraged with that sinister crackling I knew all too well, that snap of the fire as it hissed my name in the dark—it lanced through the barriers I’d long since begun to build around myself, my defenses.
“Rowyn,” it sang. “Rowyn,” it beckoned. “Rowyn,” it summoned.
I tried to shake the fire from my thoughts, but these hungry flames, this edacious fire, clung to me like I was its prey on the opposite side of the nocked arrow, rather than the bowstring, drawn at the ready.
Everything I encountered burned to cinders at my feet.
I burned people . . . I hurt the ones I got close to—
Sirens still blared, and where the forest sloped down into the shadow-splayed dale below, rivers reflected the odious damage I’d done, casting the horror back up at me.
I stopped at the crest of a shady knoll deep in the thick of forest and fire, and ash rained down faster than the snow, black and white and gray.
What have I done? I wondered to myself as I slumped down against a thick tree. My calves burned from the effort, and my mind was heavy, my head even heavier on my slim shoulders; fire crackled like another layer of skin along the abhorrent stretch of flesh and bone that was my feeble body.
I didn’t feel it. Any of it. The fire didn’t bother me . . .
I was numb.
From where I sat, I could see the center of town far-off across the valley, and the church tower glittered as the moon began its laborious escalation behind the horizon’s silent lips. Over the howling of the snowy wind and the songs of the sirens blaring in the distance, the toll of the church’s bell chimed, and for a split second—a glorious moment—it drew my attention away from the fire accumulating in my lap.
Trees withered and crumbled into smoldering heaps, and fires blazed despite the snow; I could see the colors blooming in my peripheral vision, destruction looming in all its fatal glory, but I kept my eyes on the church tower high above it all.
The town was congregated at its base like shadows gathered beneath a light. I could see all the small little shops clustered around a splattering of townhouses, and all the lights in the frosty windows were lit by candles, both real and fake; the radiating glow cast by civilization shimmered and danced, blinked and blazed, but nothing—absolutely nothing—compared to the incandescence of my burning body.
I glanced down at the fire—and it grew stronger, brighter.
Keep your eyes on the distance. Don’t acknowledge the light.
I scanned the distant landscape, the snowy horizon, and my heavy eyes fell once more upon the church tower, the beacon plastered to the darkened sky; above it, a silver coin against the torn fabric of the atmosphere, the moon glimmered like a face, smiling back at me alongside those winking stars.
Look at the moon, I told myself. Don’t look down. Don’t look back.
I held my breath, held my sanity in my burning hands. Smoke burned in the night, the acrid scent wafting softly on the wind, permeating the forest like a reminder of all that’s become of me.
I am the monster they whispered about, the curse that ravishes this town. I am what is going to destroy them—and they don’t even know it yet.
Fire. It gathered all around me until I was sitting in a circle of smoke and flame—but I didn’t take my eyes off of the church, not for a second. It was all I could do to keep myself composed. My throat burned and my chest heaved, searching for the oxygen I denied it. My focus on the flames wavered until I was hardly aware of their existence at all, and when I inhaled, something in the wind changed.
The fire vanished. The flames stopped their dance, though they made sure to remind me of their hold on me the moment I thought I was strong enough to stand—
I crumpled to my knees and toppled over sideways, crashing to the snowy forest floor below. My heavy head was just another stone plastered to the face of this earth, and I didn’t dare move it for all of the fanciful thoughts it contained—the lethal thoughts it bred.
I kept my eyes clenched tightly shut, and listened to the soft pant of my labored breathing as my heart’s thud returned to a constant pitter-patter of rain on a rooftop, rather than the torrential downpour it had quickly become.
Darkness rapidly ensued, but opaque straits of smoke still loitered like faces from the inky black shadows, and I kept myself as far away from the stars above as possible, in fear that I might tumble straight into the darkness that waited in-between.
This isn’t something you can handle on your own, my father’s voice hissed inside my head, another dull reminder that I was on my own. All alone in a world on fire. This curse . . . this—this power, it’s not something that can be contained. At some point you will lose control.
How could I lose what I never had to begin with?
I scowled at the dark, at the moon cutting it in two. I couldn’t move, couldn’t stand, and the snow hugged me like two arms, cold and beautiful and heavy with heaps of ash.
I waited until the smoke from my untouched clothes wafted into nonexistence before moving. I shifted into a sitting position; my leaden bones ached and sagged, heavy beneath my lethal flesh, and my muscles were sore from trying to keep the fire back for so long.
I knew that if I moved too quickly, I might just fall apart. But I was no longer even sure whether or not that was a bad thing. I shifted into a crouch so that the world was at my fingertips, and I closed my eyes to the moon, the star-struck night sky, as I slowly rose to my feet. My heart hammered in my chest, and my vision faltered as a sudden head-throbbing delirium washed over me, leaving me to stagger into a slow walk.
The desolate wind that tore on through the wooded landscape did little to accommodate my needs as I shambled on tremulous legs. My knees quavered and knocked together, and my calves burned with a sour kind of fire, but I kept on going—the farther I walked, pressed on forward, the faster my strength seemed to return.
I knew this weakness, this exhaustion. I knew it all too well—
I hobbled back through the forest, down passed smoldering saplings and sooty snow, where ash laid in piles, and over bridges that still contained the fiery impressions of my feet. I sauntered down hill after hill, and every shadowed knoll seemed to hold a body of water big enough to refract the undeniable horror that had so easily become of me. Of this place. This world.
Monster, they called me. Misunderstood, I called myself.
I tried to pretend that the fire inside of me, the curse roiling beneath the depths of my thin, thin flesh was just something inside of me simply knocking to come out. I never used to see it for the repugnant thing that it is today . . . the monstrous thing inside of me.
This fire . . . it wasn’t a part of me. It was just waiting for the right moment when I was at my most vulnerable to break me wide open and flee into the night. This fire . . . it was inextinguishable.
Careful. I had to be careful.
Caution had always come as a second nature to me. But I had as much control over the fire beneath my skin as the sky did the stars that shot across its surface. There was nothing I could do. It wasn’t something I could run away from . . . something I could escape.
I slogged onward through the snow as the blue-hour of the night faded into the civil twilight that never seemed to last, and from there, I stumbled out into the open just as the full extent of dusk lay heavy across Maple Creek. The snow had stopped shortly before, and the clouds tumbled, one after the other, far into the distance.
Above me, spread out like a map, stars speckled the night atmosphere, so bright and alluring that I found myself momentarily mesmerized; they glided in and out of existence as tall stacks of smoke still billowed on the midwinter breeze.
My body was weary by the time I reached the sleek asphalt of one of the only roads that led in and out of town; it passed on through, straight to the center of Maple Creek, where the cast of society sauntered with the same giddiness as the playful shadows that showed themselves in the daylight.
The silvery straits of moonlight had all but vanished by the time I exited the smoky forest, hidden behind a snowy veil. My legs were tremulous beneath me as I began my weary ascent up the hill to town; sirens continued to scream in the distance, and in places over my shoulder, glimpsed amongst the snow-heavy dimness, fires still burned.
Twilight glittered with snow, and stars twinkled from the dark between where the clouds shifted and stirred. I slowly made my way forward, my hands in my pockets, and I kept to the center of the road. I didn’t care if a car came. I didn’t care if a snow plow came and swept me away. I had my eyes on the church—the church, who’s bell tower glittered atop a scorched, forsaken world—and this focus was all that was keeping the fire at bay within me.
It started when I was nine, the fire. I didn’t know what it was. I still didn’t. All I knew was that I was hurting people. I was burning this town, this world, and someone had to put a stop to the frequent acts of vandalism that were born from the monstrous thing I’d allowed myself to become.
Even if that person was me.
There were days . . . days when I would envision a time when I would wake up and I would be normal. I would open my eyes and see this world for the color of its skin, the beauty of its flesh, rather than the weakness of its shell, the flammable nature of its existence. But every time I felt the fire unfurl within me, a steady serpent set on destroying me from the inside out, all hopes of that day vanished with my sanity . . . those days didn’t come around often anymore.
Because of this fire . . . because of these flames . . .
I could feel the fire starting up inside of me, breathing again.
Wincing, I shook these thoughts from my head. I had to keep my focus on getting to the church. On the ache of my feet after walking mile after mile. On the burn of my thighs, the strain of every muscle in my legs as they brought me one step closer to my destination.
I didn’t know why I was walking toward the church. But I no longer felt I had a home. Not when I could burn it to the ground with as little as a wrong thought. I couldn’t do that to my father. My only family. I . . . I . . .
Even the thought of losing him sent a spiral of nausea sliding into my gut, and I bore the brunt of it as I staggered up the road. I flitted my gaze about the snowy place, and as I did so, only partially mesmerized by all the glimmers and glints of December, my attention fell upon a street sign that read: WELCOME TO MAPLE CREEK. And where I knew it stated the town’s population number just below, the sign had been scorched to the point where the numbers were unrecognizable.
I had done this. My fire had done this.
A tremor went through me, and a pang of disquiet roiled from within. The fire, my fire, was waking up; the monster was waking up. I had to act fast before it took control again, overwhelmed me.
Each of my fingers, one by one, caught fire.
Monster, they called me.
I shook out my hands but the fire did not vanish. Indignant, my eyes adhered to the distant churchyard, heavy with several layers of untouched snow, I kneeled to the ground and ran my fingers over the ice. The road was covered in it—it was a surprise I hadn’t slipped.
The flames dimmed, but like a feral beast’s claws, they did not retract; sparks glittered along my forearms, cinders smoldered in my pockets, and the fire from my matchstick-fingers guttered in the night the way that shadows buffeted in the daylight.
Fire. It was in me. Burning me. And I couldn’t escape.
I was trapped beneath veins of molten lava, and I couldn’t quite see through the fire, those flames igniting me. The smoke was too thick, too opaque for me to sustain my focus tethered to that which would keep me from those flames, this consumption.
My hands caught fire, followed by my arms.
Control. Such a funny word.
I shut my eyes and the church vanished, and in its sudden vacancy was born a too-familiar series of abysmal images that haunted me time and again. Houses burning. Cars on fire. Trees smoldering. The sky ablaze—
I’d seen it all before. I’d see it all again if I didn’t do something about this fire eating away at me, this curse that so easily tore me apart. And fast. I didn’t know how much longer I could take living a life so . . . isolated, so far away.
Sanity was only craved by those who knew they were losing it. And I could feel the tug of the leash as it began to slip through my fingers, the reins going taught; the burn of the rope as it grazed my flesh, cut me open.
The intensity of the flames overtook me, and I crumpled to the ground, a ball of fire burning in the center of the road like a star that forgot to remember it was supposed to hold onto the sky. I curled in on myself, a raging inferno there on the broken asphalt of this world, and I clenched down, grit my teeth, pretended like those shadows were powerful enough to douse the flames from my gaze—pretended like I wasn’t this monstrous thing I knew myself to be.
I thought I was losing my mind—and I very well might have.
A rumble went through me, a vibration that sent my eyes wide open. I rose, slow like a child in need of some direction, and a blinding light shown through the shadows—a double-edged sword that cut the dark in two, a bullet trained on my long-dead heart. I didn’t have enough time to react, to run. To get out of the way.
I threw my hands up to shield my face—
But the pain didn’t come.
A wash of fire fled my touch, and the approaching car was sent sprawling into the air; four wheels glinted from the dark as ruin wrapped around my throat like a noose, and I passed that destruction on like a common cold. The car careened to the side, prompted by the fire bleeding from my hands, and it smashed back down onto this world at an odd angle that sent it rolling off the side of the road.
Panic dwelled inside of me like bone, swelling like my heart.
Glass splintered the starlit roadway alongside shards of glittering ice, and bits and pieces of splintered metal stuck out of the ground at odd ends and angles, plunged by a force far stronger than the one I knew I contained inside of me.
Fire swelled from my flesh, a layer of destruction.
I made for the car—
Monster, they already called me. Monster, I would call myself.
The car was on fire. Guttering tendrils of flame flickered this way and that, and the entire rear of the mashed vehicle was ablaze. The windshield was gone, and in its place, a girl dangled out into the open, half on the road, half in the front seat, half-alive.
Blood splattered both.
I moved slowly to her side. I couldn’t touch her, couldn’t help her. I couldn’t call for help. No one was around in this godforsaken town, and even if I had a phone on me, it would be incinerated by my flesh in an instant.
I fell into a crouch.
I shook out the flames from my fingers but it only seemed to make things worse; fire coursed through my veins, my bloodstream, and a part of me—a part of me I could very well live without, craved the heat. The burning. The numbness.
The girl wasn’t moving. But her car was on fire—because of me—and she was laying, half-dead—because of me—so I had to get her to safety before it was too late—because of me. I couldn’t just sit by. I couldn’t just watch—no, I had to do something.
Fire snaked its way along my body, burning me gently. I took a step back, followed by a second and a third, and I extended my hands. I’d never done anything like this—I was never brave enough to experiment with this curse, this power. But I had an idea.
If I could supply the fire, maybe I could take it away . . .
A shiver spider-crawled down my spine, and I ever so gently loosed a shaky breath; the act was arduous, difficult in this time of uncertainty, and like that of a monster, plumes of smoke and flame bellowed from my lips.
My fingers shook, but the fire before me didn’t change, didn’t fade.
This was stupid. I couldn’t do it.
I didn’t know what I was doing—
Focus, I hissed inside of my head. Focus.
Monster, they called me. Hero, I would learn to call myself.
I closed my eyes, and like a wave retracting, pulling back against itself, I willed the fire smothering the crumpled vehicle to ease into itself. And sure enough, when I opened my eyes, only a few separate flames still sizzled on the shell of the car.
I . . . I had done it.
The fire on my arms was gone, and the flames dancing on each of my individual fingers were left to embers, golden in the dark. I quickly wiped them on my trousers and made my way forward to the stranger’s side, who was . . . moving?
I didn’t touch her. I didn’t move her.
My touch was cursed, lethal. What if I burned her? What if I—?
“Miss—?” I tried.
And she looked up. Two eyes, lavender like that of a winter sunset, flitted up to meet mine, and in them, like the fire roiling in the depths of my being, a peculiar light unfurled within her; her irises sizzled and snapped with a frigid glow, an enigmatic spark that left me frozen still, and I couldn’t look away.
Those eyes . . . they spoke of something . . . more.
I got a few inches closer to get a better look, and a sudden tremor raked my spine; I knew that face—that scared, scared face. I knew those eyes . . . those eyes.
Alara Blake. From Biology.
“Stay . . . back,” she meekly said, struggling to move. She pried herself from the shattered hull of the car, and without looking to me for help, she crawled out into the open; lacerations wove up and down her arms, cracks in her frame so deep that I couldn’t imagine how much strength was required for her to simply stay conscious, much less moving.
I glanced from her to the car, the wreckage.
There was no way she should have survived that . . .
“What are you?” I whispered, sinking into a crouch; my calves burned, but I didn’t acknowledge the pain. I just saw her soft violet eyes, ringed with flecks of gold; a distant sunset I wanted nothing more than to get closer to, for some odd reason . . .
I reached out a hand, my flesh no longer aflame, but Alara didn’t take it. She shut her eyes, and when she opened them again, incandescent and bold, they were glowing—glowing gold.
It occurred to me in that moment that she . . . she was . . . cursed!
Cursed like me.
“You . . . you—”
“You shouldn’t have saved me,” she said in a voice that wasn’t at all her own, and before I could move away, muster the strength to run, she brought up her hand and splayed her fingers, and like a surge of lightning passed through me, a blinding light sent me sprawling back, thrust from the snowy shadows.
My stomach fluttered with a similar sensation to that of falling, and my head collided with the asphalt, leaving my consciousness to swoon. Time stilled, came to a sudden stop, and I stared straight ahead, straight into the dark, at the gathering of shadows. My bones felt heavy, my thoughts even heavier. And as I lay there, drifting away, I heard Alara’s voice—her real voice—over the roaring in my ears.
“What have I done?” And then, from the dark, “I’m a monster.”
C H A P T E R
I woke with a sudden jolt beneath the cloud-heavy cobalt sky above. The warm-apricot glow of morning traced its touch across the downtrodden snow, and on the air, on the hesitant breeze that floated through the milky light of Maple Creek, smoke still wafted like glorious specters, twirling through the snow-leaden trees—it whispered, and each undecipherable word, left to linger throughout the day, remained the harbinger of the storm to come.
The scent of burnt wood laced the snowy gale, and slowly, slowly, I shifted so that all of the memories of the night before, lying dormant inside of me, flowed to the forefront of my mind.
A ream of images rapidly began to fill my vision, flashing on repeat: fire . . . burning . . . fire . . . running . . . fire . . . smoke . . . fire—
And then . . . light—such blinding light.
The girl, her body splayed over the earth like that of a corpse, replaced the visions of fire and smoke, and I stilled, my heart thrumming inside of my chest at a brisker pace than before. I rose into a sitting position, despite the groans of protest from my muscles, and placed my palms flat behind me in the snow—the snow that didn’t bother me, the snow that felt like grass or air, with no attempt to freeze me, hurt me.
I tried to garner a sense of calm to slow my heart, but I blinked and I saw fire, I blinked again and I saw Alara, ruin in her wake, I blinked a third time, and I saw light—that uncontrollable light . . .
The trees that surrounded our small little townhouse on the edge of town groaned in the breeze, and their branches rattled as their bodies swayed, left to hang like gallows in the buttery gaze of morning. The snow that fell in dustings glittered as it fell, and I crinkled my nose at the frozen smell . . . that cold . . . winter’s breath.
My heart hit like a drum, raging to a beat I could only relate to panic. It dwelled inside of me like it was a part of me, like an extra bone, a constant heat that lurked inside. Any chance of a normal life was blown off the table because of this panic, this fear, this fire.
I could hurt people. And what I’d done . . . the forest . . . the destruction . . . Alara . . .
The memories of the night before haunted me, as did the night before that, and every night since I could remember. Every mistake I made . . . every misstep . . . people’s lives were on the line. Inside of me was a war, a monster, an unbeatable foe. And I, ironically, remained invincible to the wrath that laid waste to this pretty little town of Maple Creek. It couldn’t hurt me . . .
I studied my hands, roved the flesh of my palms with tired eyes, and there, right where the flesh beneath my thumb ran into the strait of my palm, a peculiar brand glowed a fiery red . . . a perfect circlet imprinted in my skin, like a demon’s fingerprint forever pressed into the flesh of my hand, a wash of pain came over me, and I had to bite down to keep from screaming out.
I clutched my wrist, held my hand above my head, and as I squeezed my eyes shut, nausea heavy in my head, I could feel the pain slowly start to ebb; it retracted into itself like a wave, moving further out into the ocean’s deep.
I hesitantly opened my eyes and scanned my flesh to find that the mark had stopped glowing, and in its wake, a black circle adorned my skin like a tattoo. Something about it, about the way it still stung, reminded me that this was who I was—who I’d always been. It expressed my diversity from the rest of the town, the rest of the world.
Monster, it seemed to say. Cursed, I forever told myself.
I moved with a touch of agony laced into my mind, a pain I’d only ever used to hold myself together, all on my own, burning in the deep of the New Hampshire wilderness, and I rose to my feet. My muscles and my bones protested, but I fought against the soreness of my body, the flare of fire in my knees, and like the waxing and the waning of the moon as it pushed and pulled the tides of the oceans, I could feel the pain begin to wash from my body like rain from the clouds above.
Monster, said the voices inside my head.
Monster, said the dark spots coloring my vision.
Monster, said the silence of the snow.
Monster, I agreed with a brief glance around.
I curled my fingers into fists. Beneath me, beneath these trembling legs of mine, the snow had completely vanished, melted away; beneath the grass had been burned, and the earth below was singed with fire.
This is what came from my touch . . . this is what I did—
I was capable of monstrous things, as any monster was.
I have a fire raging inside of me, and if I didn’t let it out, it would take over and consume me, devour me in flames, and burn everything and everyone I’d ever cared for. That’s why I limit my heart to the confines of my own home—that’s why Father is my only family. If I allow myself to love outside of him, outside of these walls I’d built around myself, I’d only be setting myself up for pain—I’d only be putting people in danger.
I was a monster, and one day I would burn.
I stared up at the sky, at where the moon still hung like a broken smile against the brightening blue of the atmosphere, and tried to breathe out all the horrible thoughts resting inside of my mind—but my head was too heavy on my shoulders, too heavy from trying to will away the fire, trying to gain an ounce of control over such a monstrous thing . . .
What couldn’t be tamed, couldn’t be tamed. And this fire . . . it’s inextinguishable.
I shifted my gaze down to the ground before me. Snow rained down in sparse dustings, a quiet wind leading a dance amongst the gallows, and I watched each gust glitter and shine, left to aimlessly wander this forsaken place I knew to be my home. Birds too far from home twittered amongst the branches above, and some soured, revolving around the winter wasteland of Maple Creek; I watched them soar, listened to them speak, but all I could think—all I knew to be true—was that they flew because they no longer had homes to return to. My fire . . . destroyed their homes.
My fire . . . destroyed. It destroyed everything.
I curled my fingers into fists as a wave of heat unfurled beneath my skin, and sweat gleamed across my brow. I didn’t move to wipe it away, but instead began my short trek across our front lawn.
Sooty footprints cut across the earth from the day before, and a scattering of brambles that spotted the spaces beside our steps had been reduced to nothing more than heaps of ash, along with the poorly manicured hedges my father had attempted to save; as I staggered to the door, the wind took the midnight-snow into the air, and the scent of fire hung heavily to the place as ash rained down around me.
I gazed out at the terrible beauty that had arisen from all that I had become, and I held in a shiver as I faced my house—the house I’d told myself I’d never ever return to. But . . . where was I to go? I had no family outside of my father that I knew of, and I had no money, no shelter, nothing to keep me safe and alive.
I knew only how to run.
I kept my wild thoughts to a minimum as I entered my home. The mudroom had been badly scorched, and the kitchen beyond was riddled with burn marks all along the floor; buckets of water lay scattered along the kitchen counters, and the table had been warped and mangled in the center of the room, left to ruin.
I walked in circles around the place, taking in the damage.
The house, to my astonishment, had survived the fire pretty much unscathed. Though, upon entering the dining room, I noticed that a broken picture frame laid beside the table, and amongst a glittering pile of glass, sharp to the touch, a burnt picture of my late-mother smiled back at me.
My stomach clenched and a hand went to my shattered smile before a sob could rake my throat; I fell into a kneel, the crackle of glass beneath me hardly able to penetrate my focus, and I retrieved the photo from the floor.
This isn’t something you can handle on your own, I heard my father say to me, his voice a distant ghost, haunting me; I never heeded my father’s warning, never thought this curse was something I couldn’t keep under wraps. But now I’ve seen what it’s capable of—what I’m capable of. And I don’t know what to do . . .
At some point you will lose control—
The sound of the door opening spun me around, and the photo of my mother fluttered free of my grasp as I raised my hands in defense—because that’s the kind of person I’d become. So afraid of my shadow, of myself, the people around me, that I thought fight or flight were my only options.
My father stood in the entryway. He wasn’t the smallest man, but he certainly wasn’t the largest. His head reigned high on those broad shoulders of his, graying tufts of brown hair sprouting messily atop it all, and his dark-brown eyes glistened in the gentle light now filtering through the windows—the light only ever seemed to darken his gaze, their shadows augmented by the sun.
He was fully clothed in his police uniform, and from his breast, his badge shown in the frail light of day. He was the chief of Maple Creek’s police department, and had been for the last twenty-four years. And I . . . I was a monster standing in his home.
“Dad . . .” I whispered, unsure of what else to say.
“You came back,” he said to me, so quietly, as if afraid I might run away again.
“I didn’t have any other choice—”
“You always have a choice.” He glanced away and slipped out of his jacket, and I watched as he hung it on the coatrack beside the woodstove. He rubbed his hands together and, cupping them, loosed a hot breath to warm his fingers. “When did you come home?”
I stared after him. “Just now.”
He crouched down beside the stove and opened the hatch, and inside, a flame still burned the wood inside; I instinctively took a step back without conscious volition, and my father saw.
“We can’t live like this,” he grumbled.
“Like what?” I asked, shaking my head.
“Afraid.” He shut the hatch, and the fire vanished behind closed doors. “We have to get you help. Find someone who knows what we’re dealing with.” He sighed, hanging his head. “Someone’s going to get hurt, Rowyn. Real soon.”
“Unless we figure out what’s going on inside of you . . .”
I nodded. “I . . . I know.” I hung my head and stared down at the footprints burnt into the tiled floor, the burn marks along the wall of cabinets that surrounded our kitchen. “That’s why I came back,” I lied. “To get help.”
My father stared at me with those eyes of his—those eyes that seemed to cut right through all the crap I constantly used to muddle up the truth—but he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he pursed his lips and nodded. “Go get some sleep. I’ll call you out of school.”
I couldn’t go to sleep. I had to find Alara—find out if she was okay. And more than that, find out what that light was. How I’d gotten home. What she was.
“No,” I said, stalling my father in his steps toward the phone. “I-I want to go to school.”
“No,” he flatly said. “Absolutely not—”
“I’ve never had a problem when I was at school. The fire . . . I’m so focused when I’m at school that I don’t think about what I am.” A shiver passed down my spine at these words. “About what—what I can do.” I didn’t meet my father’s eyes. I couldn’t. There was too much reproach there, too much reluctance and fear.
“You need rest.”
“I don’t need rest,” I said, starting for the shower. “I can’t be shut up in a room all day.” I can’t just sit around and think about all that I’ve done. All the fires I’ve started, all the pain I’ve caused. The fear I’ve spread. “I just . . . I need to be preoccupied with something.”
My father narrowed his eyes. “So I’ll get you a puzzle.”
I met his gaze, challenged the darkness I saw there. “I’m going to school.” And without another word said on the matter, I headed for the shower. I stayed beneath the warm water for far too long, savoring the heat, but no amount of water could tame the fire inside of me. Nothing could.
When I was done, I half expected my father to be waiting outside the door with a pair of handcuffs, ready to chain me to my room. But he wasn’t there. He wasn’t even home.
I didn’t think much on his absence.
I grabbed my bag from my room and headed for the door, the keys to my truck in hand. I didn’t let my focus wander to the ash that painted the bitter canvas of our lawn, and from the moment the door clicked shut at my back, I held my breath to the acrid scent of smoke wafting the winter wasteland that was this town.
I could feel the fire inside me, waiting to burn. I could feel the cinders in my belly, the embers on my tongue, and nothing I did, not even the focus of the road, could steal me from these flames. I almost turned back, almost stayed home. But something, perhaps the stillness of the cage I couldn’t spend one more moment in, or maybe the silence of that house on fire, made me keep going.
C H A P T E R3
Maple Creek High, as it had a habit of doing, loomed before the brunt of the wintery sunshine like a place I’d only ever visited in my darkest of nightmares. Throwing my truck into park, a sudden pang of regret, so severe that I could already taste the bile rising to the back of my throat, shuttered through my insides. It wasn’t unfamiliar, this anxiety, this nausea. It, much like the shadow at my back, was a part of me, and wherever I went, it followed.
With fretful eyes, I followed the sun-glazed snow inching its way across the stone pathways before the school, cool and slick and partially browbeaten by restless feet.
I couldn’t help but wonder in those brief moments of solitude, isolated from the rest of the brutal world knocking on the window, whether or not I should have stayed home.
But I couldn’t turn back. Not now. I needed to find Alara.
I gazed out at the snow, at the cold that couldn’t hurt me, and I traced its surface with my eyes; it was coated in a thick layer of ice that sent the sparse rays of light that shone down upon the yard sprawling every which way. Mist, deep and dark, curled amongst the morning’s gloom like trees bending in the wind, and where the sun roved the ice leading down the slight slope before the school, step by step, a cast of shadows lay splayed across the snowy courtyard.
Winter sat before me, harsh and beautiful and unforgiving, a bitter wasteland as sinister and cold as the slab of stone I called a heart booming inside my chest. And I wondered which of us was more of a monster . . . I delighted in selecting winter, that cruel queen that kept her stay upon her frozen throne several weeks out of the year. But, then again, this fire . . . this monstrous, monstrous fire . . . was with me all year round.
Guilt slid its hot and heavy hands over my slim shoulders, and I gritted my teeth, scowled at the world outside these thin layers of glass keeping me contained. But soon . . . soon nothing would be able to hold back this beast pent up inside of me . . . this monstrous me.
I rested my head back against the seat, ran my fingers up to my temples, and groaned so loud I was surprised to find that no had heard me inside the stone walls of the school.
Everything would be okay so long as I didn’t think of this fire, this burning energy raging in my bones, roiling in my bloodstream. So long as I didn’t think of that light, that blinding light from the night before . . . of Alara Blake . . .
I shook the forming vision of her face from my head, and quickly clenched my eyes shut tight. I breathed, counted back from three, and swallowed down the embers rising in my throat. When I opened them again, my gaze roved the battered reflection that lied before me, and I found it hard not to study myself in the rearview mirror—my father had been right, I did need sleep.
Dark shadows clung to the spaces beneath my hazel-eyes, and I didn’t realize just how hungry I was until I realized how much weight I’d lost just in my face alone. The structure of my pale countenance was sharp and bony, angular beneath a thin layer of skin, and my golden-brown hair stuck up in messy waves atop my head, splaying shadows about my face.
I hadn’t eaten for two days . . .
My stomach grumbled at the thought.
With a sigh, my heart beating wildly inside the cage made by my chest, I shut off my truck and grabbed my bag before sliding down to the asphalt below; the unforgiving drop was short, but the jarring force of it sung through each of my brittle bones, and it would have brought me to my knees had I not kept myself steady against the side of my sky-blue 1970 Ford F-100 Ranger XLT.
The sky was still young, and the sun was just a burst of buttery radiance on the horizon, spreading its glow to the distance. I stared down at the snow, at the sheets of ice that covered the pathways to Maple Creek High, and I did something I probably shouldn’t have—something I told myself time and again would only activate my curse, bring out the fire inside of me. But curiosity played a dangerous game.
Hesitant, I reached out and splayed my fingers, and with a quick glance around to ensure that I wasn’t being watched, I stared down at the ice-covered pathway and curled my fingers. I willed the fire to the surface, thought of the burning, thought of the crackling whisper of my name, written in smoke—
The ice instantly began to melt. It turned to water that sizzled and steamed, and when a breath of cool air snaked across my unfeeling skin, it carried it away. My hands were unusually hot down at my sides—usual for me, but not if I were anybody else. I could feel the fire, could hear the flames . . . and it took everything to contain it.
I didn’t have control . . . I . . . I couldn’t do it—
I was in over my head. All I’d wanted to do was dip my toe, and there I was, sinking in the deep end . . . and the water rippled above my head, too far for me to reach . . . and the darkness was closing in.
I sunk to my knees there in the parking lot, and my hands collided with the harsh gravel beneath me. Flames wrapped around each finger, sprouting from my reddening skin until both of my hands were blazing, torches to fend off the remaining shadows of morning; a glaze of fire coated my touch, so thick . . .
I was a monster, a nightmare. And soon everyone would know—
I rose into a crouch, biting back a groan of frustration as I did so, and I tried to shake the fire from my hands, extinguish it on the air, but anything I did only made the flames grow stronger, brighter, fiercer. They wanted to burn, to devour, to destroy . . . and I couldn’t hold them back. I . . . I didn’t want to hold them back.
This curse . . . this—this power, it’s not something that can be contained, my father said to me. At some point you—
I knew the end of that sentence like the back of my hand. But this time—this time I didn’t listen to his voice, to the words that clung to me everywhere I went. I clenched my fists so tight that I could feel the beat of my heart in both of my palms, pulsating away, and when I glanced around, monitoring my surrounding like a wolf searching out its prey, I was relieved to find myself alone. For now.
All I had to do was stay focused. Find something to distract me.
My mind instantly turned to the night before, that light . . .
“Alara,” I whispered aloud, my heart heavy in my chest. Think of Alara, I told myself.
Those lavender eyes of hers . . . that smile that could make the sun jealous . . . those words of hers, how they could move mountains if she used them correctly . . . that light of hers, resting in the depths of her eyes, the windows to her soul . . . I could see her, clear as day. Time seemed to slow for a moment, and I was no longer crouched down in the parking lot, no longer aflame; the dull ache at the back of head that I hadn’t even noticed fled my mind, the pain receding, and I drifted like snow into the place my heart took me.
I was standing in the road, Alara on the asphalt before me, and every step I took to get to her, every aching step, a light from the dark pulsated, as if it were watching me; it gripped me, held me still, but I forced my way against it and . . . and . . . all I could see was that light, that psychedelic light, growing brighter and brighter and brighter—
I pushed myself up onto my feet and held my head as high as I possibly could while staring over at the school, waiting amongst the tide of shadows breathing from the swirling mist. And when I glanced down at my hands, down at my monstrous hands, I was happy to find that not a spark remained, not a cinder to be found, and I no longer had to clench my fingers to suppress my fire . . .
A wave of surprise came over me, threatened to pull me under.
For the first time I . . . I actually had some control over this curse. It wasn’t a lot. But it was a start.
Something just short of a smile came over me, and my lips twitched up at the corners. There was a foulness to my grin, a sharpness to it—as if I’d been born with a scowl stamped into my worn countenance. My teeth were too long, too sharp, in places, and they grazed my lower lips like fangs.
This was me—this was who I was. This monstrous thing, this cursed shell of the boy I used to be. Somewhere beneath my skin, beneath the fire that’s taken over, Rowyn Jacobs used to rest. But I was starting to think he was gone altogether, done away with by the flames thundering in my veins.
Was he really . . . gone? Or was he just . . . waking up?
I narrowed my eyes and started forward with my hands balled into fists I inside the pockets of my jacket. Little did this town know they were allowing a monster into their midst . . . and there was a war going on inside of me, a brutal war between me and this fire, and as I started for Maple Creek High, started for the place a normal life should have led me, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would put up much of a fight.
My fire smoldered in the depths of my being, and I let it.
I shouldered my way back into society and didn’t wait for the entrance to the school to click shut at my back before starting forward, through the crowd of faces, both familiar and not. They stood like statues, stone figurines that moved in tired patterns, and I studied their every moves as I slithered on through, keeping to myself; I lowered my head and pulled my hood up so that I could just slip into the shadows.
Usually I got to school much earlier than everyone else so that I wasn’t forced to face any of them, any of the innocent, so that I could make it five steps without having people balk at the monster they didn’t know I was—the monster they feared, but the face they weren’t aware it hid behind.
I walked through alleyways of people, tunnels of shouts and hollers, of paper airplanes soaring left and right, and obscene gestures surfacing like the rarity that were smiles; the halls were long and thin, and I had to push my way through just to get to where I belonged most—in the corner of the foyer, next to that weird plant no one even noticed. Thankfully.
Here, I stood undetectable, a ghost left to haunt like the nightmare I knew myself to be.
I was that blotch of color over on the sidelines, that silent thing that people noticed and pretended they hadn’t. I didn’t mind being that blotch—if anything, I preferred to be a blotch, a fly on the wall.
Saying little got me nowhere far, but listening got me places I never thought I’d ever end up. I knew names and faces and secrets that I shouldn’t have known, and in return, people knew me as “that guy”—that guy they knew nothing of.
One day they would know me as “that monstrous thing”.
The thought sent a wave of heat rippling through me, and I had to bite down on the inside of my cheek to make it go away; the fire, like the uneasiness inside of me, roiled to life, but it didn’t stay long before sinking back into its slumber deep, deep down.
I reduced the bite of pain inside my mouth and gently loosed a steamy breath; my eyes fluttered, and people across the foyer stared at me, snickering like the children that they were.
They didn’t bother me. After twelve years of schooling, they were like family—relatives I didn’t like and dreaded whenever they came to town, but family never the less. They were like bees; so long as I didn’t bother them, they didn’t bother me—much. And soon, when they knew the truth about me, they would never bother me. They would fear me. Hate me. Rally against me like they did the beast in all those movies.
One day I would be considered a threat. I already should have been.
Another wave of heat washed over me, but I didn’t let this one surface; I simply shook out my trembling fingers and went for a stroll about the school. Other than during class, I mainly kept to one area of the school, the foyer just outside the principal’s office, but today something compelled me to get out of that box I’d only ever really known, my comfort zone, and find somewhere new.
They watched me leave, and I let them.
One day they would wish they had walked after me, got to know me, understand the person I was beneath this skin and bone and flame. But it would have been too late. A monster had no friends. Not when their identities were revealed . . . not when their claws came out.
My skin reddened, flames licking just beneath the surface. I could feel it rising like my temper, so I held my breath and counted back from ten, associating every number with a different step.
I climbed the stairs, walked along the mezzanine of baby daddies and sixteen-and-pregnants, and, try as I might, I couldn’t get her face out of my mind. I saw her everywhere, saw that light . . .
“Blake,” someone said from behind me. I glanced back to find, to my utter astonishment, the one and only Alara Blake standing before me, russet hair in lengthy curls down her spine. She stared at me with those lavender eyes of hers—those bright, bright eyes, ringed with gold—and I was instantly entranced, paralyzed, frozen still.
Even some dreams could haunt like ghosts, teas like monsters. The best dreams were the worst, the deadliest, because in tasting them, we longed for another dose. And Alara . . . Alara . . .
“W-what?” I sputtered, a question broken on my lips. People didn’t talk to me. People only talked about me. But Alara—
“My name,” she whispered, quirking a brow. “It’s Alara Blake.”
“I know that,” I murmured, keeping my voice so low. I removed my hood and shook out my mussed hair, thinning my gaze as I had a habit of doing.
“So why did you say my name?” She narrowed her eyes, and her brow furrowed, those lavender irises shimmering like dew in the moonlight. “Didn’t you?” This question . . . this is what set my curiosity ablaze.
“No,” I quickly said, staring. Not out loud, anyway.
She lowered her head. “Well . . . I . . .”
“Last night,” I suddenly said, unaware of who put the words on my tongue, the bravery in my head. But they were there, these words, so I just went where they led me. “I didn’t mean to . . . I mean . . . I’m glad you’re . . . you’re . . .” I listed my head to the side. “How did you—?”
“You remember?” she hissed at me, grabbing my hand and dragging me to the side. People watched us, scowls and looks of wonder thrown up like shields, and they scanned us from head to toe. How was it, they obviously wondered, that I deserved to talk to someone like Alara Blake?
I had to ask myself the very same question.
Appearance was something, but the matter of association was everything when it came to high school. It didn’t matter as much what you looked like so long as you were seen with the right people. And Alara . . . she was like a humble queen amongst a tarnished court, and I was a jester to these people . . . a mere fool. But soon . . . soon I’d be the monster they feared.
But right then . . . I felt like a king.
“What are you talking about?” I wondered. “Of course I—” I stopped when my eyes swept her arms, where there was no indication that she’d been in an accident at all; her flesh was clean, free of injury. I grabbed her wrist, and without thinking, turned it over, dragged my finger up her forearm. “You’re . . . you’re okay,” I whispered.
Alara hesitated before drawing away. For a split moment her eyes touched mine, so soft, so bright. “I’m . . .” She glanced away and nodded that pretty little head of hers. “I’m fine.” Lavender eyes flitted to mine, a winter horizon traced the distance of my gaze, and I didn’t move; I couldn’t move. Something had a hold on me.
“You weren’t supposed to remember,” Alara said, mostly to herself. I didn’t know what she was talking about, didn’t understand the panic in her eyes, the wonder on her tongue; she smelled of lilacs and honeysuckle, and when she looked at me, the fire in my chest blazed to life.
“Why not? What . . . uh . . . what did you—”
“Nothing,” she quietly snapped, dropping her eyes. She started to walk away like we weren’t in the middle of a conversation; I grabbed her wrist and spun her back around, and something about the way she curled against my arm, straight into my comfort zone, felt right—familiar. “What you did . . . it wasn’t nothing.”
A volley of snickering was served our way, and both Alara and I glanced over at the people hanging by the railing. Chuck. Martha. Drew. Anderson. I knew their names, knew their secrets, knew their weaknesses. But all they knew about me was that I was a “no one”.
Soon they would fear me . . .
“Please,” Alara whispered to me. “Don’t talk like that.” She lowered her head, her eyes; her whole entire body seemed to droop and deflate in one sullen motion, like a flower neglected of some much needed sunlight.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry,” I murmured, sparring a glance in the direction of the idiots loitering in our shadow. “For embarrassing you in front of your friends—”
“They’re not my friends.” She lowered her voice. “I don’t have friends.”
“Preaching to the choir,” I said to her.
She grinned and I tasted metal in my mouth, fire in my throat. I loved that smile—had loved it ever since I first laid eyes on it—and all I wanted was to keep it there, and do everything in my power to defend its beauty, its brightness.
“All I see is a battlefield,” Alara quietly said, glancing about the wide corridor, at those who watched us like the spectacle we’d become; more people had begun to gather around us, but I didn’t notice them—my focus was still on that smile, on those bright eyes . . . “Allies and enemies.” She looked at me. “And you know what they say . . .”
“Keep your enemies closer,” I said, nodding. “Understood.”
“I want to . . . can you . . .” Her head lowered on those strong shoulders of hers. “Can you call me later?” She glanced over at the crowd forming on the edge of the dark, the cold corners of the hall. When she met my eyes again, Alara was smiling. She raised her voice for everyone to hear as she said: “So we can talk about . . . uh . . . last night. About what we did.”
I smiled—more at the fact that I’d get to hear her voice again that day than the fact that she was trying to change my status in this hellish place. In fact, I couldn’t stop. Nothing could possibly keep me from smiling.
“Just come to my house,” I said, these sensual words heavy on my shadow-splayed lips. “I know a place we can go to be alone.” I spared a smile and winked. “Are you okay with that?” I added at no more than a whisper. When she nodded, something compelled me to reach out my hand, and as involuntarily as a leaf floated on the breeze, I took ahold of Alara’s hand and squeezed it tight.
Fire flared within me, boiling my blood; my face reddened, and I had to look away to keep my focus, to stay sane.
“You’re special,” Alara whispered to me.
“Special?” I wondered, but if there was more to that sentence, Alara didn’t give it up. Instead, she dropped my hand and spun away, and I watched her go like the sunlight that she was, streaming through the darkness of this haunted place.
She disappeared around the corner, and as I was left to stand there like a ghost billowing in the wind, left to my own devices, I couldn’t get Alara’s words out of my head—they stayed with me like a scar upon my flesh, and a sudden chill went through me as they relayed through my head, ricocheting off the walls behind which hid the little amount of sanity that I could retain.
You’re going to regret ever saving me.
C H A P T E R4
A bustle of excitement cleaved the stillness of the afternoon, and I was left to watch every tick of the clock with eager eyes as I counted down the minutes until I could drive home and see Alara Blake once again. It had been an honor to have even heard her speak once in this life time, and the fact that she was willing to go to my house . . . alone . . .
Even the thought made my chest seize with elation, and a pleasant warmth would adorn my face, a heat not entirely unlike the burn of my flames. I was a hopeless fool, lost in a trance entirely prompted by my conversation with Alara earlier that morning, and all I could think about was the way she’d smiled, the way she’d watched me, and the way she’d said each and every word that had left her pretty little lips.
Monstrous things almost always started out as foolish things.
A change was coming, as clear and abrupt as the turn from winter to spring. I knew it. I think Alara knew it, too. Because this fire . . . and her light . . . All I could think was that I should have been holding on for dear life.
The moment the bell sounded all throughout the school, I grabbed my things and darted out the glass doors that have held me inside for far too many years. People watched me go, stared in astonishment as “that guy”, that “no one”, ran from the building and hustled up the short incline to the parking lot without an ounce of hesitation, a mere silhouette as the already dark winter sky began to darken evermore.
I stopped when my shoes touched gravel because, leaning with his back against my truck, his shoulders crossed, was the venomous Frank Jugenheimer. Frank, though he knew little about me, had been appointed the number one slot on my hate list ever since he’d first dated Alara in seventh grade. And I knew it was far from normal for me to have a hate list, but I was far from normal, and it didn’t matter if Frank was the nicest guy on the planet—which he wasn’t—I automatically hated anyone who got too close to Alara.
Jealousy was a monstrous thing, that’s why it fit so well on me.
Frank, no taller than myself, and just as slim in stature, was no threat to me—I’d never been in a fight before, but regardless, I had fire on my side. He had jet-black hair that was always gelled to look like a messy wave atop his head, and no facial hair whatsoever. He was like a hairless cat, I often thought. Even his legs were bright and shiny.
“What do you want?” I grumbled, scowling.
“So it . . . speaks,” Frank said, scanning me up and down. “Not much, are you. Just skin and bone.” He chuckled to himself and glanced away, and in that moment I wanted nothing more than to break his nose. With a brick. Or a hammer. He met my eyes and I scanned the shadows of his methodical gaze, seizing him up and down. I could beat him without my fire. I just needed to be quick . . .
“What the hell do you want?” I hissed, proud of the thickness of my voice, the gruffness of each word that left my tongue. My heart thrummed inside my chest, adrenaline alive inside of me, and I was ready—ready to knock his lights out if need be. Because why else would he be here talking to me other than to hurt me for talking to his ex-girlfriend? He’d probably been one of our spectators that morning.
I gathered my fingers together, forming fists. Fire flared within me, a rush of spark and flame, stirring from the shadows.
“I want to warn you,” Frank said, glancing back towards the school, no doubt searching Alara out of the many pooling from its open doors. “I haven’t told anyone . . .”
“What?” I wondered, too eager, too curious to know what he had to say that for a minute I lowered my defenses.
“She’s a freak,” Frank said. “A . . . a monster. There’s something not right with her.” He cringed. “She does this thing . . . I mean, there’s this light . . . and then you find yourself waking up as if you’d just slept for three weeks.” He lowered his dark eyes before meeting mine once more. “I don’t know how to explain it,” said Frank, searching over his shoulder, “but it’s like . . . it’s like she’s cursed or something.”
The word only fed my curiosity.
“Or something,” I whispered, and Frank’s brow furrowed. “Listen, I can take care of myself—”
“You already knew, didn’t you?” he purred. His eyes narrowed so that they formed black pits inside his skull, and he stared into me, through the wall of skin holding back the fire in my veins, and straight down to where the truth lied. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
“Get away from me,” was the only thing I could think to say.
Frank smirked. “All this time . . . Rowyn Jacobs has been living a double life.” He sucked on one of his teeth and shook his head from side to side, a humorless laugh audible on his lips. “Should have known. Monsters attract monsters—”
“Shut your mouth.” I didn’t know where these words were coming from—perhaps the fire, the flames writhing within my belly. I ground my teeth and a cough raked my throat, and when I faced Frank, a handful of embers lied flush against my palm, still burning. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with,” I whispered, and before the words even had the chance to leave my lips, Frank had already taken half-a-dozen steps back, away from me and my truck.
“You’re a freak,” Frank spit, sneering at me. He shook his head, and his lips quirked up at the corners to form a malevolent smile that didn’t meet his eyes. “Just wait until I tell—”
“No,” I hissed, and the crackle of flames could be heard on my voice. I was buzzing, my fire so close to the surface that I was surprised I’d managed to keep it contained for so long. “You’re not going to tell anyone.” I raised my fist and it instantly glazed over with fire.
Frank ducked and shrunk back.
“You’re a monster!” he shrieked, struggling to get away as I took a step closer, followed by another. I didn’t know what was making me move, didn’t know why I didn’t just leave. But something—some force that had me in its grasp—forced me forward, step by step, until flames covered both of my hands and arms.
“I’m more than a monster,” I whispered, sneering. “And soon,” I said, “you’re gonna see exactly what I’m capable of.” I took a final step toward him and splayed the fingers of my right hand, and flames gathered at his feet like shadows around a light. I kept them low, kept their wild heartbeats flickering around his shoes, buts all I had to do was blink and Frank would meet his end. All I had to do was blink . . .
“Rowyn,” a voice came from behind, followed by several “oh my god”s and “what the hell is going on?”s. I turned to find that a crowd had begun to gather around us, and people all over had their phones up, taking pictures of the beastly thing that was me. Camera flashes zigged and zagged, and I fought the urge to ignite them all, burn this place to ash and dust. And just when I couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t put up with the hatred in my gut, Alara stepped forward.
All eyes fixed to her as she walked toward me, and without an ounce of hesitation, grabbed my hand. My fire instantly hissed out, leaving me to stand there with my hands out, and the flames grasping for Frank died down to cinders on the dirt.
I caught Alara’s gaze, saw the light therein. It was blinding . . .
I took a step back, shrugging off her grip, and slunk away. The chatter of the innocent drove me back, and Alara watched me with worry in her eyes as I, like a lost animal, backed away.
“You’re a freak!” someone shouted, repeating what Frank had said, and six other people slung similar comments in my direction. I knew the truth would come out, knew it would hit me hard, but I didn’t imagine it would feel like this . . .
“Go,” Alara said to me, nodding her head. “They know what you are now. What we are.” She spared a brief glance in their direction before catching my eye once again. “But that doesn’t mean they can lock us up for being different.” She paused, glanced down, glanced back up. “They can’t touch us because we are the way we are.”
The flashes from the cameras at her back drove my attention from Alara’s eyes, and she turned, so swift in movement, and threw up a hand; her fingers glittered with golden light, and before anyone could react, every cellphone pointed in our direction flew into the air, carried by a swirling light.
“I’ve known it would all go up in flames for a long time now,” Alara said to me. “So now it’s time to run.” She searched my face, my eyes, my silent lips. “Get home and pack your things.” She spun her glowing hand and each of the phones suspended in the air was sent shooting into the ground so fast that each crumbled upon impact.
No one made a move toward their phones, nor to back away.
“There’s a haven for our kind,” Alara said to me. “A safe place for people like you and me.” She nodded her head at me once again, as if to instill in me that all of this was really happening. “I’ll take you there. We can get you help.”
I nodded in return, too surprised to say anything.
“Go,” Alara purred, turning away to face the gathered crowd. “I’ll find you.” Before she could even finish her sentence, I was already in my truck, backing out of the spot. I paused, and in my rearview mirror, I watched as Alara raised her fingers to her temples—
And everyone, every single person in that crowd, fell to the earth.
I hoped they were alive. But as I drove away, forced from the life I’d only ever known, a part of me didn’t care. A part of me hoped they would all burn.
I drove onward through the snow, and I never once looked back.
There’s a haven for our kind, Alara had said. A safe place for people like you and me.
The entire drive home, I couldn’t help but wonder: what were we?
The world passed by in a blur of colors.
I didn’t watch the mountains that sloped up in the distance, didn’t survey the rivers that ran wild off through the snowy woodlands. I kept my eyes on the road and my foot on the accelerator, and as my truck zoomed through the New Hampshire winter wasteland, I didn’t show an ounce of caution. I didn’t yield to pedestrians, and I even drove a few off the road. But I didn’t care—couldn’t care. I was already the Maple Creek Monster on the inside, why not show it on the outside?
In the snowier parts, I used the same trick as I had that morning; I stuck a hand out the window, despite the cold that didn’t affect me, and splayed my fingers, feeling the heat of my fire pulsate to the same rhythm of my heart.
The ice and snow on the roads vanished into clouds of steam.
I passed through town, passed all the little shops and stores that gathered around the church’s bell tower. People milled about all around, happy and joyous in the winter chill. When the center of Maple Creek fell into the purview of my rearview mirror, I slowed down a bit.
My house was isolated from the rest of town, deep in the thick of the New Hampshire woods. I drove up our drive and, despite my efforts to get home first, Alara was somehow already there, waiting on the front porch. She nodded her head to me as I pulled my truck to a stop, and she dropped a duffel bag full of clothes onto the ground at my feet.
“How’d you get here so fast?” I wondered.
Alara didn’t answer my question. Instead, she said, “I wiped the memories of everyone who was there in the parking lot. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t miss something.” She paused. “Someone might wake up and remember bits and pieces of what happened, and it could be enough to remind them fully of what you did.
“And what are we supposed to do?” I asked. “Just . . . disappear?”
“Hey, now you’re catching on,” Alara said. She picked up my bag of clothes and threw it in the rusted bed of of my truck before facing me again, lavender eyes alight with spots of gold. “We have to go. Soon. But first . . .” her eyes fell to where my hands hung at my sides, at where she’d seen the flames dance only a short while ago.
“What?” I whispered, searching her face for an answer.
“I want to see what you can do.”
“What I can do?” I watched her intently, stared into those pretty eyes of hers, so thick with color that it made up for the blandness of winter. “I start fires,” I said.
Alara nodded. “Good. Then show me.”
“Fine,” I purred, extending a hand. “Come with me.” Steam hung about my body, encompassing me like yet another layer of skin to use to keep this world out; my outer shell of mist, engendered by the sizzling of my feet on the snow, withered in the wind.
Alara hesitated. I could see the reluctance in her gaze.
“Come on,” I said to her. “I won’t hurt you.”
“I know, it’s just . . .” Her eyes roved mine, and lavender ran over the pale-russet of my own tired gaze. “I don’t that.” She glanced down at my hand. “I’d been stupid for taking your hand back at the school, stupid for doing what I did . . .” she froze. “It was reckless of me. I didn’t know what to expect, and I did it anyway—”
“So do it again.”
“I can’t.” She lowered her head and took a short step back, shuffling through the deep snow. “I don’t know that you—”
“I do,” I said to her, and took a quick step in her direction so that she was just inches from me. The fire beneath me had simmered, but the flames that hammered in my pulse remained. I looked at her, really looked at her, at those eyes of hers, and when I noticed her scanning my hands, the mark I now bore upon my flesh, I fished out a pair of black leather gloves from my pockets and slid them on, wiggled each finger, and then reached out to Alara.
She was hesitant to take my hand, it was clear to see, but after a moment or two, she did just that with a smile on her face—a smile that could have dazzled hundreds, thousands . . .
“Come on,” I said to Alara, leading her off toward where the woods stretched into the New Hampshire darkness we had all grown up under, starless and never still. Shadows ran, moving amongst the swirling mist, and silhouettes chased each other through the brambles, dancing as evening settled upon the woodlands; a wild wind whistled through the shredded branches above like the few birds that still inhabited this forsaken place, and I found myself welcomed by the quiet, the isolation of the gathering gloom. The shadows—they had become like a home to me after all this time.
Alara winked at me, a flash of lavender. “Show me what you’ve got.”
And with that, two monsters settled into the dark.
C H A P T E R5
Our midafternoon jaunt through the grounds behind my house led us to a small outcropping of trees as a veil of inky black shadows settled upon the place. Dark clouds formed overhead, coalescing like a tide of shadows gathering beneath a light, and snow drifted down in the slight breeze, causing everything in sight to glitter and shine like stars descending. We stood amongst a glade of newborn saplings and snow-heavy seedlings, and if I looked close enough through the brush, I could see the scars my curse left upon this place, the burn marks blended into the wintery scenery before us.
I would come to this very spot when the fire became too much, when the flames roiling in my depths burned so fierce, and I would sit amongst the trees and listen to the wind that carried the confidences of my burdens like we were sworn to secrecy. The sole essence of sanctuary was perched amongst such a frozen wasteland, and in the summer, when all of the shadows would recede back into themselves, this grove was where I came to witness the clash of lightning during storms through the thick branches above.
Alara, to my surprise, didn’t seem put-off by the idea of me, practically a stranger, leading her through a forest, far from civilization. She almost seemed . . . welcomed by the idea, comforted by my presence; she’d let my hand fall long before, but she’d remained at my side as if the warmth of my fire melted the shadows of her fear. We continued on in our march through the snow, through winter’s kingdom, and I spared the occasional glance in her direction, hungry for that smile I knew she possessed, that glorious warmth of hers, that brilliant, brilliant light . . .
These woods had become my home, more so than the mass of brick and wood and glass that my father inhabited; these shadows clung to me like blankets, and the layers upon layers of ash and dust that waited beneath the snow was where I’d laid my head many times before. This open space . . . this freedom . . . Every day that I awoke inside that house on fire, that mass of tinder my father called home, was another day that I felt trapped inside a cage. But here . . . so far from walls, so far from limits . . .
“How long have you been able to . . . you know?” Alara asked, and I started, having completely forgotten that, for the first time, I was no longer alone in these woods. The quiet of her words lanced through the silence, and I couldn’t help but smile—despite all that had occurred that afternoon.
“A long time,” was all I said.
Alara searched my face. “And all this time . . . you thought you were alone?” She winced at her own words, at the thought of my lonesomeness, struggling to understand this world without a guide to lead me through the dark. I shrugged it off. “I’m sorry,” she quietly added.
“It’s not your fault,” I whispered, no louder than the wind hissing through the branches above our heads. Snowflakes dotted Alara’s dark hair, and it seemed to suit her, like a star for every shadow that haunted her like they did me. “I managed well enough . . .”
“Still,” she whispered. “No one should have to bear such terror on their own.” She lowered her head, her voice. “It’s never easy, you know. Not the first time. Not the second or the third. It’s never really easy.” She lifted her hands and stared down at them, at the lines that tore their way across her fresh, the scars that dotted her skin like broken constellations. “What we bear . . .” But she didn’t finish her sentence.
“It’s special, ain’t it,” I said, and Alara smiled.
“Not as special as you’d think. But you are.” She eyed me, studied my face, my eyes. There was something in her pale complexion that told me there was more to it than that, and I wondered what horrors awaited beyond her brief truth. I parted my lips to ask, but I knew that if Alara was ready to speak about it, she already would have, so I shook the thought from my mind and turned away.
“We both are . . . But you, at least . . .” she didn’t finish that sentence, either.
“I . . . what?” My curiosity flared within me like my fire, and I yearned to know more.
Alara didn’t meet my eyes, wouldn’t meet my eyes. She ran a hand through her hair, and when I looked closely, I noticed that there was a glimmer of golden light forming around her hands; it was like she had a glowing silhouette. “We are what we are,” she breathed, so quiet that I had to lean in to differentiate her words from the snow drifting down in the breeze.
I stilled at this. “And what are we?”
“Different.” Her response was immediate.
I nodded, sparing a glance around us at the small clearing. A river ran nearby, cultivated by the melting of the snow, and the rushing of its flow could be heard for many leagues over the calm beckoning of the wind.
A sudden surge of fire flared through me, and I reached out and took Alara’s hand in mine. “A good different?” I wondered, staring straight into her fretful gaze, but I didn’t know where these sensual words came from—perhaps this fire, these flames, were more . . . maybe they . . . maybe they ignited that brave part of my mind I usually kept locked away.
“A dangerous different,” Alara murmured, and the way she said these words, the way they crested her lips and fluttered to the ground at our feet, sent a shiver tumbling down my spine. And for the first time in a very, very long time, I felt the cold—I felt winter’s breath on my skin, felt the chill of the snow at our feet, the brisk coolness of the breeze . . . I felt it all.
Startled, I quickly let her hand drop like it was hurting me, and Alara took a step back, more out of surprise than fear. Silence fell between us, a heavy veil that draped these woods alongside the lengthening shadows, and I felt the quiet like a weight on my chest.
The space that came between us, the sudden distance . . . it wounded me in a way that I couldn’t explain. Alara flitted her golden-edged gaze up to mine, and when I stared too intently at the color therein—the color I didn’t even realize could have so many layers—she glanced away. A panicked look came over her, but before I could make anything out of it, the fear in her gaze vanished.
“What are you talking about?” I couldn’t help but ask.
A noticeable shudder passed through Alara, and she pulled her coat tighter around herself. “There’s so much you don’t know . . . so much no one’s ever told you.” She hung her head, and the truth that weighed it down, bent her shoulders, made me grimace.
I kneeled upon the ground, and where I touched the earth, the snow quickly melted, the water receding into itself before turning to wafting tendrils of steam. I sluiced my fingers in the small stream that waited beneath, and the sizzle of my flesh stayed with me, reminded me what I was, who I was.
Monster, they called me. Cursed, I’d called myself. I wondered if that would still be true after today . . .
“At this point,” Alara said, searching my face, “I wonder . . .”
“What?” I whispered as I rose to my feet. “What do you wonder?” I took a step closer, closed the gap that divided us, and when Alara tried to move away, tried to shy back into the dark, I wrapped a hand around her wrist and held her too me—I held her loosely, so that she had the choice between pulling away and staying; I just wanted . . . I wanted to let her know that I’d made my decision.
“Careful,” murmured Alara. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“But I’d like to.”
Alara blushed, and I could feel the heat of my face as the fire smoldered just beneath the surface, and I wondered if it was as red as it felt. I looked down, down at my hand around her wrist, my skin on hers, and something inside of me—that door I’d kept locked for far too many years—burst wide open, and all my fear and all my nightmares began to dissipate like the steam at my feet. I didn’t need to be afraid of hurting her any longer . . . I didn’t need to be afraid of the lonesomeness I’d told myself would smother me, be my downfall.
Despite the thickness of the glove I wore, I could feel every bone in her hand as I slid mine down to encompass it, and it felt right in mine, like it was fitted just for me . . .
The thought sent a shiver through me—and there it was, that cold; that cold that had been absent all these years. It was like I was the fire, but when Alara touched me . . . It was different. If I were to say that she’d doused the flames inside of me, I would be lying . . . but the truth . . . the truth was, to my understanding, she tamed these wild flames.
A smile tugged at the edges of my lips.
Could Alara be . . . immune to my lethal abilities? Or did her own curse, her own unnatural skills counteract all that had threatened to end me, time and again?
These thoughts fled my mind when Alara parted her lips and words flew out. “I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know who you are, how you came to be . . . All I do know is that you must be pretty powerful to have hidden your . . . erm. . . abilities for so long.”
Powerful? No one had ever called me . . . powerful.
Shadows wrapped around us as a drifting haze clung to the atmosphere above, and though the sky hadn’t fully set, and the sun still ignited parts of the distant horizon, darkness choked the forest to the point where I thought I was sinking . . . and I loved every minute of it.
“I can tell you anything you want to know,” I whispered, lowering my head so that my lips were so close, so unbelievably close to Alara’s—to the lips of that girl I’ve only ever dreamed of, the girl that could turn the tides of any life . . . I don’t think it had truly hit me yet that Alara and I were in the same boat—or, rather, similar boats.
Finally, after all this time, something good had come of this curse.
“Just ask . . . I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
Alara shrugged a shoulder but didn’t pull away—didn’t even make an attempt to. “I guess I want to know . . . well . . .” she shook her head, but the fire inside of me yearned for those words on her tongue, for the glow of that smile that hid itself behind the clouds of all that was unknown; I reached out, so sudden, so fast, that I couldn’t have stopped even if I’d wanted to, and I ran my knuckles down the side of her cheek. She flushed and looked away, but her lips bore a hint of a smile.
“How are you so . . . so put together? To go all your life with . . . with this”—she said, lifting my hands up in the short space between us—“fire inside of you. It’s . . . To go through so many years of school, so isolated from everyone else . . . I guess,” Alara said, her lavender eyes fixed on mine, “I want to know how you did it. How you survived it all on your own . . .”
“Easy,” I whispered, as my fire commanded I did, “I always told myself that there would be a day when I’d wake up and everything would be different. And someone, somehow, would find stumble into my life . . . and change everything.”
I caught her eye, caught the smile that fell onto her face, and I wanted—I wanted so much in that moment: to hold her, to kiss her, to hug her and spin her and tell her all the secrets of the world, show her every star this universe had to offer. I wanted to tell her how terrified I was of hurting her, of losing her in this moment, and more than anything, more than I’d ever wanted anything before, I wanted to tell her that I was a monster . . .
Alara parted those pretty little lips of hers to respond, but she just lowered her head, her eyes, and looked away. She was skilled in the art of avoiding my eyes.
“So,” I said, and despite every protest from every bone in my body, every one of my heart strings, taught with lust and infatuation, I took a few steps away from Alara. “You want to see what I can do—”
“You really are special,” Alara suddenly blurted, taking me off guard. I shook with curiosity as she added, “It’s not just what I think of you. You are . . .” it was clear she aimed to say something life changing, but every time she got the nerve, she lost it again. “Special,” she simply said, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Just . . . special.”
Special. There was that word again.
I wanted to ask how I was special, how I was cursed. I wanted to know who and what she really was, and how she was perfectly fine after last night . . . after that monstrous thing I’d done. But these questions . . . I could tell she was hurting by the somber glint in her eye—asking her questions like this would only wound her more.
“You’re special,” I whispered in return, “but I think you already knew that.”
Alara, though hesitant, spared a grin, but it was fleeting. “Maybe.” She fingered her pockets and kicked at the snow, and I watched her every movement with a type of hyperawareness that I couldn’t possibly understand, couldn’t explain even if I wanted to. It was like . . . like I saw every piece of her at once, and even that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t just be near her . . . couldn’t just be close to her . . .
“I don’t mean to press,” I said, “but I need to know. I’ve waited all these years . . . Please, if there’s something you can tell me, do it now.” I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t. There was something about those eyes of hers that made it impossible. It was like being led into a beautiful trap, and I couldn’t afford to feel that way . . . trapped. I was already closed off from the rest of the world enough as it was.
I heaved out a sigh and raised my hand, and when Alara stared, I removed my glove and spread my fingers, my palm facing the ground below.
“For several years, I have been able to do terribly extraordinary things,” I said. “Things that I couldn’t prevent, that I wouldn’t be proud of. But I have no control.” I lowered my eyes but kept my head held high.
I had to show her what I could do without reaching that place that I couldn’t return from. I needed just the right amount of fire to demonstrate the monstrous thing I was born to be, but not scare her, hurt her in any way. If I did that . . . There was no coming back from that.
“You can show me,” Alara whispered. She smiled a tired smile. “You don’t have to be afraid.” She reached out and grasped my hand—
And I flinched away so fast that I nearly collapsed to the ground below; catching myself on a tree, I straightened, embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” I mouthed, but my heart beat so fast inside my chest, my ears, that I wasn’t even sure if I added any sound to make them real.
I wouldn’t hurt her, I had to remind myself. I wouldn’t hurt her.
“Nothing,” I breathed, but the word seemed to symbolize a lie. Just like: “It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine,” Alara said, stepping forward, cautious. There was bravery in her eyes, painted the color of evening tides, but sensibility in the way she restrained herself, held herself back. Her hand was extended out to me, but she held it back and dropped it to her side. “You’re . . . you’re shaking.”
Indeed, I was.
“Come on,” Alara whispered, her voice like the wind, beautifully slithering through the snowy forest. “You can show me. And if it makes you feel better, I’ll stand back.”
I swallowed back my fear before nodding. “Stand way back.”
Alara did as I said, but only after hesitating.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked, not looking at her, but the ground. I had to keep my focus, had to restrain the fire within me while stirring a few flames from the cinders. “This curse . . . it’s uncontrollable, Alara.” I liked the sound of her name on my lips—I felt like it belonged there, like it had quickly become a part of me . . . “I don’t know if I’ll be able to restrain myself.”
I hated these words, hated that they had to leave my mouth, but they needed to be said. I couldn’t risk endangering her, this town, all because I was too weak to keep my head above the fire.
“What you have . . . it’s not a curse,” she said from behind me. “When taught what to do with it, it’s . . . it’s magical.” I glanced back at her, and the moment my eyes caught hers, a spark ignited inside my chest—I could feel the fire unfurl itself from its slumber, stretch its flames as it rose inside of me, groggily stirring from the embers.
“What are you talking about?” I wondered.
“This fire . . . it’s a part of you, Rowyn. It’s not something materialistic such as your clothing, but rather an extension of who you are. This magic is—it’s part of you. An arm or a leg. But . . . well, if you don’t blink for a while, your eyes will start to dry out, and they’ll water, right? Your fire is like that. So long as you keep staring—so long as you keep your fire inside of you—it’s going to try to make you react.”
I held my breath against the brunt of her words.
Magic? Was that what I had? Was that what I was? Some . . . some magical . . . thing?
I didn’t respond. I had no idea how to respond to something like that. So I shook her words from my head and left the place empty, devoid of any thought, and I faced the snow-heavy New Hampshire forest before me—miles and miles of tinder.
You are not a monster, I told myself, such a heavy lie. You are not what they call you. You are not a monster. You are not a monster. You are not—I repeated the words inside my head until they were a part of me that didn’t mean anything, and yet kept me on my feet, alive, like the air in my lungs.
I retracted my hand, and like I was pushing away a wall of air, fire flared from my palm and lit the snow-covered earth ablaze; steam wafted around me, and the flames stretched out like a claw, pulling itself free of me. But what Alara had said was true. These flames . . . this fire . . . it was a part of who I was. Who I became. I’d been wrong—wrong all this time. This fire . . . it was who I was.
I raised my other hand, and instead of sending even more flame shooting out into the open, I moved my hand in circles, as if I had a rope and I was teasing it around me, reeling it back in.
“Ease up on this hand,” Alara whispered in my ear, and before I could react to how close she suddenly was, her hand was on mine and she was easing the tension from my fingers. “Think of yourself as a conductor of sorts . . . a projector.”
“I don’t . . . I don’t have any control,” I said to her.
“I know,” she said. “So let’s change that.”
Her hands were suddenly roving my spine, her fingers spider-crawling my body like a shiver, and something about her skin so close to mine felt right—it felt real. And the moment she removed her hands, I felt as if a part of me had been severed.
“Straighten your back,” she told me, and her hands were back.
My heart was beating again.
“Lower your shoulders. Relax.”
“I can’t relax,” I ground out. “I . . . I just can’t.” Knowing there’s a risk that I might hurt you, I didn’t say, but Alara must had read my face, my thoughts, for she knew exactly where my mind was at.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” she said. “You’re not going to hurt me.”
“How did you know—?”
“Focus,” she whispered in my ear. “Keep your focus.”
I did as she told me. I threw away all that I had once told myself, and rather than keep my mind affixed to something in the distance—like the church that had glittered from the dark only the night before—I closed my eyes and focused on the fire. The fire. Nothing but this fire bleeding from my touch, this roaring fire breathing from my lungs, this inferno exuded from my lethal skin.
I was fire.
“Rowyn!” Alara screamed, and my eyes snapped open. Her hands fled my back, and when I glanced back, a shadow had her in its grasp. A police officer had her in his arms, hoisted off the ground, and beyond her, my father stood with three other men.
“Alara!” I yelled, but I couldn’t stop the fire—it kept burning, kept roaring, kept climbing as my focus crumbled.
“I told you we would get you help,” my father told me with that voice of his that reminded me of gravel. “But now you’re putting other lives in danger.” He glanced back at a squirming Alara, who fought against the officer holding her, fought to get away.
“You followed me . . . you . . . you betrayed me?” My fiery eyes flitted back over my shoulder to where my father stood, his head lowered. “This is your idea of help? Giving me up?”
“I’m not giving you up—”
There was a sudden sound of CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, and my father and I turned our attentions to the three other officers at his back, who suddenly trained their guns on me—guns with bullets that could kill me.
“What in God’s name are you doing?!” my father yelled at the men. “This is my son, for heaven’s sake! Lower your guns, you damn fools!”
But the men did no such thing.
So I did what I had to do.
I raised my hand and I extended it out to the men, my fingers splayed.
“Rowyn, no!” my father exclaimed, taking a step toward me, standing before the men. “This is not a battlefield.”
“It is to them,” I spit, my eyes on the guns.
“They don’t know what you are—”
“I don’t even know what I am,” I said, my eyes dark, narrowed. “But she does.” I glanced over at Alara; the officer had her arm pinned behind her back, and when she struggled to get away, he pressed in so that she would scream out—and it was that which made me lift my hand, spin one finger in a circle, and sprout a chord of flame, while my other hand still exuded a torrent of fire.
I didn’t even know what I was doing. But now I had a giant whip hovering above my head, flickering and alive with flames.
“Don’t do this, son,” my father said to me. “This is not a war—”
“So have your soldiers lower their weapons,” Alara grumbled, spitting at his shoes; her bright eyes had gone dark, and her hair was disheveled, strands hanging loosely before her eyes.
“You brought this upon yourself,” I said, and my father lunged forward, but before he could reach me, before he could stop me, I let the flaming chord unfurl, and each of the soldiers was sent sprawling into the air—but not before an unforgiving volley of gunfire met the air, bit the wind.
Pain lanced through me like a knife in the dark.
I fell as agony sung through me, the echo of the shots ringing out with my screams, and I sunk, deep, deep down into a darkness I could only associate with unconsciousness. This pain—it cradled me in its arms, a fire entirely unlike the burning I knew, and when I breathed, jets of fire tore through me.
But then there was a light—a glowing golden light—that cut through the shadows, splaying like fingers reaching out to take me back into its arms, to bring me home. For a moment, a split second in time that could have been decades or centuries, I thought it was my mother’s hand, reaching out to me . . . I went quickly into the light, into the golden blaze that held me like the warm embrace of—
All sound ceased, and as I helplessly waded in this light, in this golden glowing light, languished and limp, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was what it was like to die . . .
At times like this, when the flames are fanned and all that remained existed amongst the ash and dust, we had to ask ourselves who the real monsters were. Every story, every book, every movie—they all focused on a hero. But heroes didn’t win in this world I knew so little of, and nice guys finished last. That’s why, despite everything I’d learned, despite all that I’d suppressed, all that I’d done to keep this curse of mine under wraps, I understood wholeheartedly that it took a monster to know a monster. And so . . .
If I had to become a monster to get what I wanted, what I deserved . . . If I was to become all that I’d told myself I wasn’t, all that I’d hoped I’d never be . . . than a monster I would be.
C H A P T E R6
I awoke as quickly as one fell asleep.
The pain stayed with me, a biting fury beneath my skin, but it was fading quick. I blinked fast against the blinding light that filtered down, so bright that I wondered if the world was truly on fire, and when it faded to a slight glow, a golden haze, I loosed a breath so long and deep, just to assure myself that this was real—that I was alive.
Hesitantly, as if afraid of what I might find, I reluctantly surveyed my body, my bullet-torn body, but found no sign of blood, of a wound, of anything at all—even the scars that had marked my fingers from years of laborious yardwork, from years of foolishness, had mysteriously vanished from the face of my flesh.
I was a blank canvas, empty, devoid of any color . . .
Alara, the angel that she was, appeared in my line of vision, fading in and out. She hovered over me, and beside her stood my father, pale and gray with worry. They both stared down at me like I was a corpse coming back to life, and I wondered if that’s exactly what I was.
Alara’s hands were glowing; her skin was ablaze with an iridescence that I couldn’t explain, couldn’t understand. Each individual finger was a beautiful sun, showering me in light . . .
“What—w-what happened?” I whispered, trying to orient myself. Shadows still crept in the cold corners of my visions, and when I rolled onto my side, my chest tight with an unfamiliar sting, I gazed off into the tide of darkness rippling through the forest.
My father’s arms were around me before I could think, and as I parted my lips to speak, he wrenched me to my feet with more strength than I knew he had. Alara wrapped her arms around my midriff to keep me stable, and I used her as a crutch for the many moments it took for the blurriness to fade.
I sought out her eyes, her glowing, golden eyes.
“Was I . . . shot?” The question laid heavy on my numb tongue.
“Yes,” Alara blatantly said, slinging one of my arms around her shoulders. She was breathing hard, as if she’d just finished the mile run at school. “But you’re okay now. And we need to go.”
“Go? Go where?” I managed.
“Anywhere,” my father said. “But you can’t stay here. They know who you are now. They’ll come after you.” He lowered his dark-brown eyes to the snowy floor below; at our backs, fire still flickered amongst the wooded place, and smoldering pines fell to smoldering mounds of ash, left to billow in the wind.
“Where will I go?”
“Anywhere,” my father repeated. “But not here. You . . . you have to run. Far. Fast.” His eyes fell on Alara, who held his stare with her head held high. “Tell him everything, Alara. Everything.” His eyes widened, as if to pass a message to her, and in turn, Alara nodded.
“What’s going on? Do—do you know each other—?”
“You raised your weapon,” my father said. “For centuries your kind has lived in this town undiscovered, but now, because of you, a war is starting.” He looked at the flames that ravished the forest before us. “We’ve had a treaty . . . but you’ve just broken it.” He looked to the officers on the ground, the soldiers in the snow.
“I don’t understand!” I shouted as my father started forward with me fast at his heels. “I didn’t do anything wrong . . . I-I was . . . I was just protecting myself.”
“I know that,” my father grumbled. He looked gruffer, fiercer, than he ever had before. He stopped walking and motioned to Alara. “She knows that. But these men . . . the people of this town—they don’t know that.” He placed his hands on my shoulders. “I should have told you a long time ago . . .”
“Told me what?” I wined. “What is going on?”
“Follow me.” He spun to Alara, eyes wide. “Do you have everything you need? Are you prepared for what’s to come?”
Alara, quick to act, raised her hand and curled her fingers into fists. Her voice was deeper when she spoke, darker. “I’ve been waiting all my life for this. To do what’s necessary.” She spared a sharp glance at me before meeting my father’s eyes. “To protect.”
Protect? Protect me? Against what?
“Good,” my father said, nodding in return. “Because there’s no turning back. Not now.” He reluctantly looked in the direction of the men lying in the snow. “What’s been done has been done. There’s no fixing that now.”
He turned back and started forward, and I didn’t chase after him this time. “Dad,” I said, so quietly that I was surprised when he actually turned back around to face me. “What is happening?” I got out before a sob could rake my throat; my fingers trembled at my sides, so much that even when I balled them into fists, I couldn’t curb the nervous energy buzzing inside of me. “I-I need . . . I need to know—”
“War is coming,” my father so brazenly said that I had no choice but to face the severity of what was said with nothing but understanding. He wasn’t joking, and nor was he lying . . . his barefaced words hit me straight in the part of my chest that burned, and I knew—I knew that he was telling the truth, as crazy as it sounded.
“How?” was all that I could think to say.
“Follow me, son, and soon everything will make sense to you.” He raised a hand to accept me, but lowered it when I shook my head. “Come on, Rowyn . . . We can’t just go back and pretend like this isn’t happening. You can’t be that selfish—”
“Selfish?” The word bit my tongue, stung my lips, but I couldn’t hold it inside of me.
It was foolish to keep a monstrous thing contained . . .
“I realize how this all my sound, Rowyn, but your mother—”
“What about my mother?” I wondered.
My father lowered his head, and I could tell by the way he held himself, how his shoulders sagged beneath the weight of what has been said that he was hurting . . . that I was hurting him.
“What does any of this have to do with her?”
“Everything.” It was Alara who’d spoken. Both my father and I glanced in her direction. “Everyone knew her . . . Everyone wanted to be just like her.” She shook her head—her head that was still held so high. “She was more than just your mother, Rowyn—more than just a person. She . . . she was a leader.”
“That was a long time ago,” my father countered, an edge to his voice.
“But should that make it any less true?” asked Alara. “Come with us,” she said to me, “and I promise everything will be alright. Come with us and . . . I promise we’ll tell you everything.” She stared at me, and as the darkness of the forest closed in, those golden eyes of hers drove away the shadows, kept me safe.
“Okay,” I said before I knew what I was doing, and when I reached out my hand, when Alara took it, a rush of cold slithered through my veins. A smile fit her face, and it made the sting inside my chest vanish, made all the congested pathways of my mind start to work again; even the cold turned into a pleasant warmth that I didn’t want to dismiss. I clenched her hand, held her tight, and for a moment there, things felt . . . right. Like I was exactly where I needed to be . . .
My father glanced between us, as if he were attempting to glean an understanding of why I looked at her so deeply, so lovingly, like I was lost in a dream that I didn’t want to leave, before turning away.
“These woods have long been a sacred place,” my father said to no one in particular as he led the way, and Alara and I followed. “For many years, shortly after your mother’s passing, and after you were born, the members of the council, myself included, decided to make this place a . . . a memorial for your mother. A testimonial to all that she’d achieved in her short life.”
The council? There was a council?
“A memorial?” I whispered. “But . . . there’s nothing here.”
“Wrong,” was all that my father said, and though curiosity bubbled up inside of me, strong enough to send an ache through my bones, I didn’t question him. I simply followed in his footsteps, happy to hold Alara’s hand, happy to feel tethered to something so . . . stable.
“A long time ago,” my father continued, “there was war. Few still speak about it these days, and many try to forget. But, never the less, it happened.” He sighed, and I was surprised to find that his breath didn’t turn to steam . . . “Those were dark days—days when you couldn’t leave your house without being attacked.”
“We were divided. Our kind was pinned against each other by the foulest man in all of history. He went by many names . . . names that still haunt me to this day. But he vanished shortly after that most dreadful day—” My father’s words faded on the air, and just when I thought he was going to continue, tell me more, he shook his head and his voice died.
Alara picked up where he left off, her hand too tight; it shackled me to this new reality, and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be . . . but nor was I sure I wanted to walk away from it so soon. So I kept my questions to myself and listened to what was said.
“Centuries ago, Rowyn, a rift was torn in the universe, and something powerful—something shapeless and unimaginable—pooled into this world.” She looked around the woods, scanned the shadows that lurked amongst the brambles overhead, and shook her head as if to rid herself of the thoughts that plagued her. “It was first thought to be a sign . . . a sign that the world was changing. But what became of it . . .” Alara didn’t finish her sentence. Instead, she replaced it with, “Some, even to this day, call it magic.”
“Magic?” The word laid heavy in my mind as it had the first time, and even heavier on my tongue as I repeated, “Magic?”
“Yes,” Alara said with a nod. “Magic. It came through the rift that day and affixed itself to certain people like a disease without a cure, and while there were those who knew of the rift, knew of its power . . . while there were those who wanted to close the rift, it had vanished.” She lowered her gaze to her fingers, to her hand in mine. “We call ourselves—”
“Children of the Rift,” my father finished for her, and he stopped as we crested a short hill leading up through the snowy forest; light spilled down here in torrents, and waves of it lapped against my skin, warming me. I dropped Alara’s hand and stepped forward, using the trees that stood beside me to propel me forward into the light.
“Children of the Rift,” I repeated, and the words were light on my tongue, as if they belonged there.
A lake glistened into the distance, so still and quiet that I feared I might disturb it might I walk too fast, step too loudly. I looked to my father, and he smiled back at me, an unfamiliar grin; it told of memories gone by and a loss I didn’t entirely understand, as if, by chance . . . this was the last time I was going to see him again.
“What is this?” I wondered aloud. “This lake . . . how did I not know this was here?”
“It’s always been here,” my father told me. “Always been waiting.”
“A long time ago, I hid something of importance here for you to find.” He motioned toward the water with his hand. “With the assistance of the rest of the council, I was able to keep this place hidden from you. From everyone.” He looked to Alara, who met his eye, and they both stared in my direction. “We made it so that it should only appear toy you on the day that you were ready to see it for yourself.”
I stepped forward, stepped free of their stares, and I knelt before the water; reluctant, I held my fingers above the surface, watching the shadows that waded in its crystalline waters, before plunging my hand into its dark depths.
A ripple washed through the mirrored image of the sky, a sudden wrinkle that ran, and ran, and ran . . .
Nothing happened. There was no steam, no bubbling. The water didn’t boil around my touch, didn’t heat. It was . . . cold? The same rush of icy briskness numbed my fingers as it had when I held Alara’s hand, and I was so astonished, so taken aback by it, that I fell back into the snow.
Panic seeped through my veins, as if I were trapped inside a box with no way out. I could feel it, writhing inside of me, and when I tried to escape it, tried to force it away, the walls kept building around me. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hear, and all the shadows of the forest crept out, one by one, to hide my vision. I was helpless. Afraid—
Alara grabbed my hand, held me close, and all the shadows blinked out as a glowing light overtook me. She stared down at me from where she kneeled beside me, her lavender eyes flitting back and forth.
“I’m . . . I’m okay,” I whispered, and she nodded.
“I know you are.” She held my hand, held my gaze, and I was sure that if I needed her to, she would have held my head on my shoulders for me.
My father coughed, and I glanced up at him. His hand was proffered down to me, and with little difficulty, he pulled me to my feet; Alara, to my relief, remained plastered to my side.
“The lake . . . it’s been imbued with magical properties that go far beyond your understanding,” my father said, spinning me around to face the water. “It would be in both of our best interests for you not to do that again,” he whispered.
I nodded, and though a question waited on my tongue, my father raised a hand and sent it away. He faced the lake, the open waters that still rippled, and a sudden tremor raked his spine. His whole body shook. For a split second, I thought he was having a seizure, but then—then everything stopped.
The snow that I hadn’t even realized was falling paused on the air, and the ripple in the water left by my touch ceased to exist. The lake returned to the image of a mirror, and instead of refracting that glorious light filtering down, it appeared to exude it . . .
“What are you . . .? But—how?” I couldn’t help but ask.
I glanced from him, his tremulous body, to the lake, as pristine and beautiful as the winter was cold and deadly. And when I glanced at my father once more, he stopped shaking, but his hands remained where they were. So I watched—watched with anticipation—as he spread his arms apart, as if pulling open a set of drapes before a window, and the water of the lake rushed away to either side; a sort of pathway led down a steep slope, and the water built up on both sides, rushing to get back where it belonged.
At the bottom of the slope, down where the shadows of the water had gathered in number, sat a chest; it was completely dry, not a drop of water on its surface, and on it hung a lock. My father, a smile pressed into his face at the look of wonder that washed over mine, jutted his chin out at Alara, who nodded in return.
She stepped forward and removed a key from the inside pocket of her coat, and held it out to me. “I completely understand the desire for a normal life,” she said to me, “but what we bear—what we hold inside—there’s nothing quite like that.” She glanced down at the key in her hand, large and silver and old. “Seeing this place for what it is, Rowyn, tells us that you’re ready. But opening this chest . . . by doing so, you fully step into the world of the Children of the Rift.”
I stared at her, at what lied there in her eyes. And when I glanced over at my father, who didn’t watch me, but the water that still rushed against the mysterious force holding it back, I nodded my head. If my father could do it . . . if Alara could do it . . .
I took the key, and taking a moment to breathe, to savor what I knew to be the calm before the storm, I hurried down the slope to where the chest sat amongst the dirt, and slid the key into the lock. With another long breath in, I turned the key and exhaled. There was an audible click, and the lock fell free of the chest.
Glancing back at Alara, at my father, I nodded and threw open the trunk. Inside, bundled up inside a sheet, was . . . was . . .
It was almost completely hidden in its leather sheath, and when I wrapped my hand around its cool, metal hilt, a cold unlike any other seeped through me—I felt it, felt its breath snake down my spine and travel deep, deep down beneath my skin as I drew it out into the light. Its metal was warped, and its blade was rusted, its point severed long ago, leaving a jagged edge; its brass grip had also rusted, and looked ghastly in my hand.
“What is this?” I wondered, looking up at my father. I clambered up the steep slope to where he stood, and he let his hands sink to his sides; the water of the lake rushed down, flowing back into place, and I watched as it quickly righted itself.
“This,” my father said, raising my hand with the sword in it so that it caught the light, “was your mothers.” His eyes roved the rusted blade, the broken sword, and after a moment, said, “Let your fire burn.”
My fire . . .
I looked to Alara, but her face was blank, unreadable.
“Give it all you got,” she said to me, and I nodded.
Facing the lake, my reflection cast up at me, I pointed the sword up and out so that it hung over the water; my fire, though quiet inside of me, unfurled from its slumber at my soundless beckoning, and flared up inside of me to the point where I could have burned cities. Nations. Countries—
Fire blazed from my hand, and it coiled like a snake up the rusted spine of the word until it roared; flames leaped every which way, so fierce that I winced as they drove in my direction, but I held my ground and forced the blade away from me, to the sky above.
A rush of adrenaline tore through me, a wave of energy so thick and unfettered that I knew I could have laid such unthinkable devastation to this world . . .
And then it stopped. My fire . . . stilled.
I could still feel it inside of me, breathing the same air that I did. But when I looked down, there were no flames in sight. No sign of it, actually . . .
I glanced over at my father with a smile lit across my face, and he nodded to the word in my hand.
I looked at it—but it was no longer the same sword it had been. It was no longer rusted and damaged, no longer broken and bent. Now—well, now it was a sword worthy of the name, its metal so steep and beautiful that it towered over me like a mirror, reflecting my astonishment. Its tip was now razor sharp, and beneath its ridged grip, a jewel encrusted pommel glittered in the light; rubies as dark as blood sparkled up at the crossguard, and inside each gem, a small, individual fire seemed to rage.
“It’s . . . it’s beautiful,” I murmured, twirling it in my fingers. I raised it and brought it down in an arch, felt it swiftly slash the air, biting it with a nasty whistle. “It’s . . . perfect.” I turned back to my father, to Alara, who stood beside behind me, staring, not at the sword, but at me.
“He’s ready,” Alara said, certain of herself.
My father nodded his head, but in his gaze was a thin layer of doubt. “But is he ready to do what’s necessary?” he wondered as if I weren’t there as he glanced over at Alara. “So much is at stake.”
I looked down as my father’s words hit me in the chest. Was I ready? I felt ready . . . but if he doubted me . . . if there was a chance that I might . . . No. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t doubt myself just because my father might.
I lifted my head, raised it high.
Monster, they called me. But that wasn’t what I was.
I was a Child of the Rift.
Alara parted her lips, but I spoke for myself. “I’m ready.”
C H A P T E R7
There came a scream so thick and powerful that it bled through the forest like darkness. I felt it in my bones as we made our way back through the shaded woodland, and the moment it met the air, bloodcurdling and spine-tingling, I felt myself come to a stop, paralyzed by the sound. Clearly female, the scream kept coming, kept tearing through the dark, almost as if its owner were being . . . chased.
“What the hell is that?” I reluctantly wondered, flitting my gaze between my father and Alara. They looked at each other, and as if they understood what was going on, they quickly glanced away. Alara wrapped her arm around mine and started forward, dragging me.
“We have to go,” she growled. “Now—”
The scream cut her off, so close now that it made my stomach clench. I trembled on shaky legs, and terror wrapped its talons around my shoulders, attempting to drag me away. But I didn’t let it. Because right through those trees, so close to where I stood, someone was in danger. Someone needed help.
“Don’t even think about it,” Alara said to me before I even dared take a step in the direction of the scream. “Just because you were given a sword doesn’t mean you should run off and try to play hero.” She tightened her hold on me, gripped me so hard that her knuckles turned white. “Our main priority is getting you to safety—”
“What’s out there?” I said through chattering teeth. I stared Alara straight in the eyes and said, “Please. I need to know.”
“It’s better that you don’t,” my father said, but I didn’t turn to him.
“I need to know what I’ve gotten myself into,” I hissed, facing the darkness of the open forest before me.
“The Rift . . .” Alara whispered, “didn’t just let in magic.”
I scowled, fought the urge to vomit. “What else?”
“Monsters,” said my father. “Real monsters.” He stepped in front of me to block my view of the woods before me, and rested his hands on my shoulders. “The Rift didn’t just tear a hole in the fabric of this universe, Rowyn, but that of many others.” He lowered his eyes but not his head, and when he met my eyes again, they were cold. “They’re called Shadow Demons. Ruthless beings from another world.”
“What are they doing here? In Maple Creek?” I knew the answer before I even asked the question.
“You,” Alara said. “They’re drawn to your fire like moths to a flame.” She faced me, those lavender eyes alight with that golden glow I couldn’t seem to get enough of. “That’s why we need to go. Now.” She tried to wrench me from my spot, but I didn’t budge.
“Why now?” I whispered.
“What?” Alara and my father simultaneously wondered.
“Why now? Why can I suddenly see them now? What’s changed?”
“They’ve always been here, always been searching. But I . . .”
“The council wanted to keep you hidden,” Alara explained. “They wanted to keep you hidden until you were ready to come back to us.” She grabbed my wrist, held me tight. “Now you’re ready.”
“Ready to do what?” I nearly shouted, my voice cracking. “I don’t understand.”
“There’s a place here in town that’s safe for our kind,” father said. “We need to get you there before we explain anything else.” He roved my face with worried eyes. “I don’t know if you’re ready or not, my son,” he told me, “but there’s too much at stake to run away now.” He clapped a hand to the side of my face and tried for a smile. “You understand me?”
I nodded my head, even if I didn’t understand.
“Let’s go,” Alara said, dragging me, and this time I followed.
The scream still howled like the wind, but I learned to ignore it as we marched our way through the snow and back to the house. The clouds gathered darkly before the last rays of sunlight, and it began to snow, hard. Flurries fell in dark straits, and what started out as a calm winter’s evening quickly became a blizzard.
I helped Alara to my truck, and with a quick glance back at the house, began to clamber in beside her—
A girl, no older than myself, came running out of the woods. And behind her, no more than a few feet away, a thing out of my nightmares swooped down out of the dark to grasp for her with silver talons; dark membranous wings flapped the snowy air, and it landed with jarring force, causing the ground beneath us to rumble; from where he sat upon its haunches, playing with what was evidently its food, I could see two great horns attacked to its skull, and a razor-edged tail lashed at its back, whistling as it fought against the calling wind.
Tendrils of shadow, so thick and defined like that of smoke, billowed about its beastly form, darkening the already gloomy evening.
Fear washed over me like a wave, and I stood there, thoughtless and still as panic tiptoed down my spine, roving the landscape of my body. My heart thundered inside my chest, and as silence fell between us, I couldn’t dismiss the idea that . . . I had to do something.
I moved my hand to my hip, wrapped my fingers around the hilt of my sword. I glanced to Alara, who vigorously shook her head from side to side, but before either her or my father could stop me, I was tearing across the snowy lawn to where the creature crawled toward the girl in the snow.
“Rowyn! No!” my father barked, but his words didn’t slow me.
I drew out the blade, and the glow of each of its adorning rubies cast over the snow like fire as the zing it made against the scabbard drew the beast’s attention. It turned its shadowed face in my direction and flashed too-big fangs that made my stomach clench in fear; glowing red eyes flared in the snowy dark, and a current of terror so strong came over me, nearly causing me to lose my grip on the sword. But I held it tight, drew it up at the ready, and I didn’t back down—I was too afraid of what would happen if I did.
I could feel my father’s eyes on me, could feel Alara watching.
The Shadow Demon bore its teeth and scratched at the snow, but it didn’t cease its advancement toward the stranger on the ground. She held up a hand in defense, her fingers curled, but if she was like me—like us—and she had abilities, she didn’t have the energy left inside of her to use them; her hand collapsed against her stomach, and she fell back onto the ground.
The beast ground its teeth as it made its way toward its dinner—
“Hey!” I involuntarily shouted, my volition lost to the fire ravaging my insides, and the monster growled at me, scanned me with those monstrous eyes.
I needed to get it away from that girl, get it close enough to wound. This distance . . . it left me at a disadvantage. Glancing between the girl and the beast, I took a step closer and let the tip of my blade dip toward the ground; the snow pressed against us, but it melted before it could even touch my skin.
I couldn’t attack. The Shadow Demon would gut me before I could even advance. No, I needed to lure the Demon away, and the sword wasn’t the way to do that. I took a step forward but sheathed the blade, and to my delight, the monstrous creature kept its focus fixated on me, interested.
I raised my hands and wiggled them, motioning for the horrifying creature to look at me.
“Rowyn, get out of there!” Alara screamed, but I pretended not to hear her over the shrill call of the wind. I had no idea what I was doing, had no idea how this day could have turned upside down so easily—but I’d spent my life trapped behind the walls of that house I knew too well, and the walls of that school I never belonged in, and every moment of every day I’d dreamt of something like this happening . . . I’d dreamt of a change, a chance at a new life . . . and here it was.
I couldn’t question the life I’d always wanted . . . I couldn’t stand down. I couldn’t . . . couldn’t be afraid.
“Come on,” I said, mostly to myself, but the Demon lifted its head; steam billowed from its large nostrils, and its teeth shone when it caught the fading light of day. “Come on,” I said louder this time, raising my hands; my fire began to unravel inside of me, and I pushed the flames to the surface, coerced them to ignite me. “Come on!” I shouted, and fire flared up all across my body, covering me, overtaking me.
The Shadow Demon roared and started forward, but I was way ahead of it. I darted for the back porch and tore across the lawn, sending up pillars of flame in my wake; the snow beneath my feet suddenly began to slide away, and when I looked back, I saw my father—he was moving his hands in a peculiar rhythmic manner, sending the snow colliding back against the monster at my back, slowing it, keeping it contained for the moment being.
I didn’t have time to think. I had a plan. I had a shot.
I raced up the steps of the porch and threw the door wide, skidding into the dining room; without slowing, I used the table to propel myself into the kitchen, where I grabbed two sharp knives from the block on the edge of the counter, and carefully slid them into the pockets of my trousers.
A growl so dark cut through the shadows of the house, and I stopped, stock-still.
I had to keep going. I had to—
I kicked open the basement stairs and started down—down to where my father kept all of his hunting equipment in a chest beneath the stairs. If I could just reach a gun . . . the monster wouldn’t stand a chance. I didn’t let my fear of the Shadow Demon slow me as I reached the chest in the darkest reaches of the cellar, but—it was locked!
I kicked at the lock with my foot, used my fire to try to melt it, but whatever it was made of—whatever magical properties my father had imbued it with—it wasn’t budging.
If I didn’t have any weapons . . . I didn’t finish the thought, for when I looked up, my eye caught the one weapon my father never locked up; his hunting bow dangled from a hook on the concrete wall, a quiver full of arrows on a hook beside it.
Taking up the weapon with trembling fingers, I started for the stairs—
There was a crash that rattled the house, and the door to the basement caved in, raining down in a hail of splinters; shadows spilled down, step after step, and the Shadow Demon appeared before me like a fragment of my nightmares come back to haunt me in this life. It raised its large wings and dove at me, descending down in one foul swoop.
Letting my instincts take over, I dove to the right and dropped the bow on the floor as I rolled to safety; my heart beat faster than any drum as I collided with the concrete beneath me and swung my legs out of reach of the monster, a painful ache tearing through my shoulder.
The Shadow Demon smashed into the concrete wall at the bottom of the stairwell, leaving a spider web of cracks in its surface; for a brief moment there I thought I’d won, thought I’d done the impossible and slain the beast . . . but it didn’t stay down long, for by the time I’d grabbed the bow and was headed back up the steps, it was already rising to his feet, shaking out its head.
And then it was after me—
All I could think as I raced up those stairs was that I had to get away. My life depended on it. Other lives depended on it. I had to climb, climb, climb! I had to escape. But I could feel the Demon’s breath on my back as it lunged, could feel its teeth, could feel the looming mass as it grasped for my backside—
I reached the top of the stairs and a screech was sent howling through the house, stopping me in my tracks. I skidded to a halt and spun to find Alara standing with a dagger dug into the Demon’s scaly hide; she pushed it in deeper, pressed against the monstrous thing, but it was stronger. I caught her eye, a moment of peace where I lost myself in the lavender of her soul, and then it was gone, whisked away as the monster let loose a growl so deep that I could feel the resonation beneath my feet. It shook Alara off like a speck of dust, sending her flying through the air, where she crashed through the dining room table, landing in a heap of rubble there on the floor, broken and bent. She didn’t get back up again.
Consternation drove through me like a blow to the chest.
I grimaced as the sound Alara’s body made as it hit the ground played on repeat through my head. I could feel it in my bones, feel it in my bloodstream, the impact of her body. It made me angry, furious. I curled my flaming fingers into fists and faced the monster before me.
The Shadow Demon looked my way, and I lifted the bow; I nocked an arrow as my father had taught me to and let it loose, catching the beast just under the eye. It whined in pain and backed down, and in that moment—that split moment where I had the upper hand—I slid a knife from my pocket and brought it down against the Demon’s neck—where it splintered into a thousand pieces.
I took a step back as time slowed, and I could see the fury in the creature’s eyes as it blossomed into something unfathomable, and the red slits of its malignant gaze ignited with fire not unlike my own. Again, it readied itself, prepared to lunge. I didn’t have a way out this time. My father was nowhere to be seen, Alara was unconscious . . . and my back was against the wall.
I drew my sword and held it out in front of me.
I couldn’t rely on others to save me now. I had to do this for myself. I had to—
“Look out!” came a shout, and the girl from the snow was suddenly at my side, pushing me out of the way as the Shadow Demon shot forward; it flew straight through the wall and out into the darkness of the night, snarling as it did so. I hit the ground with jarring force, but I didn’t let go of the blade, even as the stranger collapsed into my arms.
Her facial features lay hidden in the dark, but even in the shadows I could tell just how beautiful she was . . .
“Get up!” she hastily said, pushing her way to her feet. She scanned my face in the shadows with terror in her wild eyes, and she helped me stand, her fingers wrapped around my forearms. Golden hair caught the moonlight streaming in through the window over the kitchen sink, and it hung in ringlets like a halo around her head; she wore a leather jacket that matched her pants, and blades hung from a large belt around her waist.
Emerald eyes shone in the dark, and she shoved me away, quickly ushering me from the room; without a word, I took her through the living room and to the staircase leading up. When I turned back to her, my pulse beating so loud in my ears, she held a finger up to her lips and motioned for quiet; she wore black leather fingerless gloves, and in the pale light lancing through the dark, I could see that a scar marked the flesh of her forearm, leading down beneath the glove.
The Shadow Demon growled, and I didn’t hesitate as I charged up the stairs and came to a stop at the top, leaning my back against the unpainted walls; sweat adhered my shirt to my chest, and I could hardly breathe, hardly see; dark spots clouded my vision, made it hard to see, to keep going.
“Who are you!” I managed over the hammering in my ears, and the girl turned her beautiful eyes on me. She didn’t answer right away, and I wondered if she even understood what I’d said at all, if I’d even made sense to her.
“Raiyah,” she murmured at last, looking away. “My name is Raiyah Haverhill.” She splayed her fingers and forced her palm down at the ground, but when her fingers began to tremble and nothing happened, she stopped. “Damn it,” she hissed, slumping back against a wall.
“What the hell . . . are you doing . . . getting chased . . . by a Shadow Demon?” I panted, gasping for air; I swallowed back a few breaths and tried to control my heart, but it beat of its own freewill.
Raiyah didn’t respond right away, and the house became eerily quiet, settling upon it a stillness that I couldn’t help but be haunted by . . . The beast was toying with us. It wanted dinner and a show . . .
“You speak as if I left my house this morning and asked for this to happen!” Raiyah growled at me as she took my hand and drew me back down into the shadows that lurked amongst this place.
I glowered at her. “Are you one of us?” I wondered aloud, and Raiyah turned to look at me, though she didn’t seem impressed by what sat before her; her eyes hungrily roved my face, and there was a darkness to the way she scanned me up and down, assessing me.
She smirked. “If by ‘one of us’ you mean Child of the Rift, then yes. If you mean ‘about to be Demon food’, I seriously hope not.” She glared in my direction. “We have to get to the Veil before more like it find us. A single Shadow Demon can be difficult to beat. But if it calls on more . . . if it sends for backup . . .”
“There’s no getting out of here,” I said, nodding.
Raiyah didn’t respond.
“How do you kill one of these things, anyway?” I asked, looking away.
“Not sure,” said Raiyah. “No one really lives long enough to find out—”
The house violently shook as the Shadow Demon flew up through the floor, spraying debris every which way; both Raiyah and I collapsed to the floor, rolling away from the beast as it lurched forward, hunger in its eyes.
Raiyah grabbed me by the front of my shirt and spun me out of the way, wrenching a small blade from her belt as she did so, and I watched as she sunk it straight into the Demon’s back, causing it shriek. She shoved me back down the small corridor that consisted of our upstairs, and I fell back, just out of reach of the monster’s tail as it swept Raiyah off her feet, sending her sprawling through the newly made hole in the floor, where she hit the ground below with a sickening crunch.
I lurched back, throwing up my sword, but my hands were so slick with sweat that it slipped free of my hold and fell down through the hole, where it clattered on the floor far below.
Fear wrapped itself around my neck like a noose as I faced the beast.
“Oh . . . boy,” I whispered, and the Shadow Demon bore its teeth, catching me with those glowing red eyes. I tried to stand, tried to rise to my feet, but I shook so bad that I couldn’t get a footing, and simply fell back onto the floor each time. “Oh . . . shit—!”
“Rowyn!” It was Alara. Both the Demon and I glanced down into the hole in the floor just in time to see Alara throw my sword straight up into the air; before I could think, before I could breathe, I reached out a hand and snatched it out of the air, and as the Demon lunged, I swung it down in a large arch and severed one of its wings clean off its body.
A shriek of pain followed, so cold and shrill that I scrambled to get away, doing my best to cover my ears with a sword in my hand; black ichor stung my flesh, and where I wiped it on my clothes, the fabric began to melt away.
Ignoring the stinging pain that flared along my flesh, I retreated toward the stairs, but the Demon lashed out with its tail and bashed in part of the ceiling, blocking my way down; drawing the blade up, I made to sever the monster’s head clean from its shoulders, but it was too quick for me, and it sent me crashing to my knees at the end of the hallway. All that stood before me was a window, and at my back, the Shadow Demon.
I was trapped. I couldn’t go back, couldn’t go forward. I’d fallen right into the monster’s trap. I couldn’t jump down; the fall from the window might break my legs. And I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t . . .
I had to go up. That was my only option left. I had to go up.
Sheathing my ichor-covered sword, I made for the window and lifted it; while the Demon screeched and writhed, I kicked out the screen and clambered out onto the ledge, high above the snowy world below. I turned and heaved myself up onto the roof, and though my feet slid, I kept a firm enough hold to keep me from going very far.
For a moment, sweaty and covered in Demon blood, I stood atop the earth, safe. I’d never seen the world from this vantage point, never climbed so high to even think about the fall. But now, high above it all, the fall was all I could think about.
One misstep . . . one wrong decision . . .
The Shadow Demon crashed through the roof, leaving a gaping hole in the house; the forceful wind blew away the dust that coated the monster’s body, and it stood before me, hungry and ready to eat . . .
I was truly out of room, with nowhere left to run.
The Demon was before me, bleeding all over the snow. I raised my sword and retreated to the very edge of the roof, up atop its crest, and down below, my father watched amidst the snowy wash of the world as the storm tore through Maple Creek, and Raiyah appeared at his side, alive.
“Come on,” I said to the Shadow Demon, hefting my sword high above me. “Come on!” I shouted once more, and the monster lurched forward, sending shingles raining down onto the world below; I sauntered forward across the flat of the roof, and just before the Demon could reach me, an arrow wised by my head and tore through the shadow flesh of the monster’s neck; it reared back its head, giving me an opening.
I raised my sword and slashed down, and in one swift motion, lopped off the head of the Shadow Demon; it hit the roof with a loud thunk, and rolled off the edge, where it splattered in a mess of inky black ichor in the snow below.
The monstrous creature, now headless, stumbled back and fell through the hole in the roof, where it hit the floor far below. I watched as its body began to burn, and flames reached out in every direction, setting the place ablaze—as I always feared I might.
Alara appeared at my side, bow in hand.
She was . . . okay!
“That was . . . Nice shot,” I said as I collapsed to my knees, and Alara’s arms were suddenly around my midriff, holding me together; her lavender eyes flitted back and forth as she roved my face, and I searched her own for any sign of damage, any sign that she’d been mortally wounded in any way. But other than a few scratches, she seemed rather in tact . . . more so than I felt.
“I’m here to protect you,” she whispered to me, grabbing the side of my face with her hand, “but it looks like you can handle this world well enough on your own.” A long and bloody abrasion marked her cheek, and somehow the color only seemed to add more vibrancy to her gaze, more warmth to her glow.
I shook my head and laughed a hysterical laugh that only spoke of pain and fear. “I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.”
“No, you don’t,” Alara said, holding me close, “and yet you’re one of the first in years who has not only spotted a demon, but killed one.” She smiled—smiled through the look of pain that so clearly colored her face—and laughed. “You did it.”
“Hey,” Raiyah called from below, and I turned away from Alara to peek down over the edge of the roof; beside her, unconscious in the snow, was my father, and a dark patch had so clearly begun to form against his side.
He’d been wounded in the attack . . .
“Dad?” I whispered, rising to my feet; my knees buckled, and Alara caught me, held me close. I was surprised by how helpless I felt in that moment, and equally surprised by how welcome her hold on me was. I forced my way to me feet and wrapped an arm around Alara’s shoulder, and I didn’t take much time to wonder how she could be perfectly in tact . . .
“He needs help!” Raiyah shouted through the snow storm. “We have to get him to the Veil!”
“Come on,” Alara said to me, grabbing my hand. “It’s time to go.”
C H A P T E R8
The next few minutes passed in a blur. I stood at a distance as Alara sunk to her knees at my father’s side and rose her hands. Hesitant, she pressed her fingers, now alight with that golden glow that never ceased to mesmerize me, against the laceration carved into my father’s right side.
“What are you doing?” Raiyah exclaimed, slumping down into the snow beside her. “We have to get him to the Veil. Only they can heal a wound caused by a Shadow Demon.” Her blond hair hung messily over one shoulder.
“We can’t,” Alara said without looking up. “Give me your knife.”
Raiyah, perplexed, extended one of the blades at her hip, and Alara used it to cut away some of the fabric of my father’s shirt. When she was done, she handed it back to the girl, who stared accepted it with an expression upon her face that hinted at confusion.
“Why not?” she wondered, looking at Alara, and then to me.
“Because,” Alara said, her tone biting. “He was banished.”
The word cut through the jumbled delirium I found myself in, and I glanced down at Alara with as much astonishment as Raiyah.
“What do you mean ‘he was banished’?” I wondered.
Alara moved her fingers in meticulous patterns, and after a moment, sat back. My father’s side was glowing, and like magnets, his skin knit back together. Alara, clearly weakened, fell over sideways, and I crouched down to catch her in my arms.
“I just wanted to protect you,” came a voice, and I was surprised to find that it was my father’s, speaking from the snow. His face was gray, but his side still glowed a shade of gold, and some of the color began to return to his cheeks. “That’s why they banished me.”
“Dad, you’re okay,” I said, reaching out to him.
He took my hand and nodded. “Thanks to Alara, of course.”
We smiled down at her, but she was so weak that her eyes fell shut and they didn’t open, even as she said, “We . . . need . . . to . . . leave.”
“Yes,” my father said, gripping me tight. “Go. Get to the Veil. I only wish I could come with you,” he gruffly whispered, struggling to sit up.
“Why can’t you?” I asked, straightening. “I have no idea what I’m doing. I can’t just leave you behind—”
“Yes you can,” he told me. “You’re in good hands. And when you’re safe, Alara will explain everything—everything I was too foolish to share with you.” His eyes lowered, his head hung. “But there’s no time left. You saw what that thing could do . . .”
He glanced over at the house, and I followed his line of vision. The entire home was aflame, burning in the night; I could feel the heat from such a distance, and it warmed me inside and out.
I stood to my feet and hoisted Alara into my arms, and Raiyah silently rose beside me.
“War is coming . . . a war unlike anything this world has seen in centuries, my child,” my father murmured, meeting my eyes. “Just remember . . .” he lifted his head and flitted his eyes to mine. “Just remember what’s worth fighting for. I-I am no longer considered of your kind. I will be expected to fight for mine. . . but I’ll do whatever it takes to protect you.”
What he said . . . it didn’t make any sense to me.
“What do you mean? What war? What is going on—?”
“We’ll fill him in,” Raiyah suddenly spoke up, and my father thanked her with his eyes, nodding his head. She suddenly turned to me and placed a hand on my shoulder, and though the urge to shrug it off came over me, I let it remain. “There’s a lot you don’t know . . .”
My head spun with all this nonsense, and I felt my knees begin to buckle beneath me, my head swooning on my shoulders. An unfamiliar sting tore through me, and I could hardly fight it without wincing.
“You are my son,” my father said, grasping my shoulders with both of his hands. “You are Rowyn Jacobs. Don’t forget that on the battlefield.” And with that, not another word of explanation, he spun away, leaving me to stare after him like the child that I was.
“Come on,” Raiyah said. “There isn’t time.”
She took my hand, and without another word, led me across the lawn to where my truck sat in waiting. I didn’t say a word as we walked, even though I brimmed with questions, and when I got in the front seat, Alara draped over both of our laps, I couldn’t help but tremble as I glanced back at that house on fire, burning down in flames.
This was the only place I’d ever known. I was the only monster in this town . . . But now . . . now there was a war going on I didn’t even know about. A treaty that I just destroyed. And people . . . people were going to get hurt.
Monster, they called me. Monster, I’d called myself. But not anymore.
“War?” I whispered into the silence, glancing down at Alara’s unconscious body, at those eyes shut tight, depriving me of that golden glow I knew awaited beneath.
Raiyah, her wild eyes wide as they looked deep into mine, nodded her head. “War,” she whispered in return. And then, after a moment of silence fell between us, she added, “Your world is about to get a whole lot bigger.”
War is coming . . .
My father’s words ran on repeat inside my head all throughout the night, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I could have lived my life so long and not have known about such a thing . . . People’s lives were at stake, and a few days ago all I cared about was making sure no one knew my secret. But now . . .
I moved the gearshift into park, and the hum of the truck died down, allowing silence to infiltrate its walls. We were on one of the many mountain roads that delved deep into the thick woodland of New Hampshire, and before us, the path continued onward through the snow dark. This—this is where the entrance to the Veil was supposed to be.
Raiyah sat back with her feet up on the dashboard and Alara’s head on her lap. She was still asleep, and a part of me—that selfish part of me that I knew far too well—wanted her to wakeup simply so that I could stare into those eyes of hers . . . those—those eyes . . .
“We’re here,” Raiyah said, shaking Alara’s shoulder, though she didn’t wake.
“Where exactly is ‘here’?” I wondered.
Raiyah shifted in her seat. “The Veil is heavily guarded. Its doors don’t even open until sunrise. So . . . kick back and relax, kid. We’re gonna be here a while.” She sighed and rested her head back against the seat, snuggling down into the shadows.
I scowled at her. “What do you mean we have to wait? What if another one of those Shadow Demon things comes after us? We’re sitting ducks—”
“I’ll protect you,” she mocked, rolling her eyes. “Relax. It’s not that long, now. The gates will open . . .” she paused, “and we’ll be safe. You just need to be patient.”
“Can the Demons get into the Veil?” I nervously asked, staring up through the windshield at the sky above, searching the heavens for more dark shapes . . . more monsters in the night.
“Nothing can get in unless granted access, and even then, only Children of the Rift are physically allowed to enter.” She eyed me a little warily. “You don’t seem to know much about our kind . . . Raised a mortal, I presume. Or else you really aren’t that fast of a learner.”
I bit back a snide comment and said, “Until yesterday, I thought that I . . .” I met her emerald gaze and lowered my head, quieted my voice. “I thought I was alone.” I searched my hands in the dark, and I could feel Raiyah doing the same, scanning the dark mark that waited there.
“You’re the one . . .” She paused and looked up at me, stared me straight in the face, and I could tell there was something there—something buried deep inside—but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t hate . . . She seemed . . . interested in me, in what I was capable of. “I mean, you’re the one everyone’s been talking about. The fire-bearer.”
Fire-bearer . . . The word stayed with me.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “But I don’t even know what that means.”
“How much do you know?” She didn’t look at me when she spoke, but out at the falling snow. The moonlight that filtered down through the windshield began to gutter like a candle in the breeze before it winked out altogether as the snow piled higher, leaving us to a darkness so thick that I could no longer see Raiyah right beside me.
“I know that yesterday I was on my own. With this . . . this fire I still don’t understand. “But then Alara . . .” I didn’t finish my sentence as I recalled the car accident, and that glowing light . . . I cleared my throat and searched the dark for where the stranger waited. “I know that there’s a rift. I know that there are monsters in this world that are after me. And I know this place we’re going to . . . Alara called it a safe haven.”
“It was,” Raiyah whispered, and though I gave her time to continue, she didn’t elaborate.
“Was?” I wondered. “Not anymore?”
Shadows shifted in the dark, and I imagined Raiyah shrugging her shoulders. “Children of the Rift . . . There was once a time when we were unified. When it didn’t matter who you were or what you could do. We were all a family . . . But now we’re divided.”
“Why?” I murmured, tracing the dark for her face, for those emerald eyes . . .
“Our kind, long ago, was split into several . . . divisions. Children of the Sun. The Moon. The Earth. And the Wind. It wasn’t good enough that the nature of our abilities came from the Rift. No,” she said, “they decided to categorize us so thought our abilities defined which division we fell under . . .”
I glanced down at my hands once more, even though I knew I couldn’t see them.
“I’m . . . I’m a Child of the Sun.”
Raiyah didn’t answer me, but I knew the truth—I knew what I was.
“There was a war . . .” continued Raiyah. “Someone got it in their minds that one division was better than the other. And the Children of the Sun . . . They were feared, hated. The war . . . The rest of the divisions saw an opportunity to strike, and they—” Raiyah’s voice broke, and she flashed a harrowing look in the dark. “Massacre,” was all she managed to say.
My eyes opened a little wider. “Are they—”
“They’re gone,” whispered Raiyah. “But you . . .”
No, I thought inside my head. No, don’t say it. Don’t let it be true.
“For so long,” said Raiyah, “they were thought to be . . . wiped out. Completely gone. But now you . . .” She didn’t need to finish her sentence. I understood what she was trying to say. And it made sense, I supposed, why Alara wanted to protect me . . . why she’d come after me when that monster had attacked. Why Raiyah had done the same.
I was the last of my kind . . .
“I’m the last Child of the Sun,” I said, but only silence followed.
Alara, at the sound of my voice, lifted her head, and despite the dark I could see her sit up and glance around. She rested her hand on my arm, held me tight, and after a moment of straining my eyes to see, I simply let them fall shut and wrapped my fingers around her hand.
“We’re okay,” I said.
“It’s . . . It’s so dark,” she whispered in return, and with a look at me, those eyes glowing in the dark, she let her head fall; I slid a hand beneath her chin, and when she inclined her head so that her lavender gaze matched mine, I released my hold on her hand and concentrated on releasing a single flame . . . I shut my eyes, slowed my breathing, but just the sensation of Alara’s skin on mine made it easier . . .
A flame or two darted from my touch, throwing light all across the cramped space that diluting the dark, weaving in and out with every breath I took. Alara instinctually flinched away, but when she saw that it was okay, she spared a smile up at me and . . . and my fire glowed even brighter, stronger, to the point where every single shadow that hid amongst her face went running. There was something about the way she smiled, the way she looked at me that—
“That’s . . . Whoa,” Raiyah whispered, and Alara started, having forgotten her presence. They looked at each other, two strangers, and as their eyes darkened, I began to wonder if they, perhaps, had met before . . .
Alara looked back at me, at the fire in my hands, and then she sat, mesmerized by the calm flicker of the light; it seemed to bring her peace, and I was glad to be the source of that tranquility, however fleeting. If I could make her feel right . . . If I could make her happy . . . then nothing else really mattered. But I was still a stranger to her.
“Do you want to go for a walk,” I whispered to Alara, and after another moment of staring intently down at my fire, she nodded, never meeting my eyes. I glanced to Raiyah. “You coming?”
She shook her head. “I’ll . . . stay.”
“Okay,” I whispered as I shook out the fire from my hands—and it actually worked. Shadows spilled back into the place . . . and I hadn’t even needed to hold my breath, or focus on something in the distance. I just . . . did it.
I hopped out of the truck and spun around to assist Alara as she leaped into the snow. She didn’t drop my hand, even as we walked away, and I couldn’t help but glance in her direction . . .
The silvery moonlight danced along her slender frame, and I followed it with my eyes, traced the outline of her body, the rigidity of her spine. I could see her so clearly in the dark, as if the stars above shined solely for her and no one else . . . like they longed to be down by her side.
She was . . . brilliant.
There weren’t really many words capable of fully explaining what she was, what she meant to me. Brilliant didn’t fully capture the true essence of her nature, but it came close. Her smile . . . Her eyes . . . they were brilliant.
“How are you doing?” I asked, and Alara turned to look up at me. Worry was drawn all across her face, painted in her lavender gaze, written on her quiet lips, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was worried about . . . me.
I shook the preposterous thought from my head.
“Me?” Alara whispered as she searched my face. I was still hyperaware of her hand in mine, her fingers twined through my own, even as she said, “I should be the one asking you that.” Her head lowered and a gust of wind sent her hair rippling in her wake. “After all . . . you did just save us from a Shadow Demon.”
“I did nothing you wouldn’t have done—”
“You saved that girl,” she murmured, cutting me off. “We had every chance to flee and you . . . you went back.” She looked up at me again, a smile leveled on her lips, and I . . . I . . . I began to glow.
My fire flared so gently, so quietly. I could feel it right beneath the surface, and when I glanced down, my skin was bright and beaming, casting light into the dark, fighting the shadows back a step.
“You . . . uh . . . You’re—”
“Come on,” I told her, hurrying on ahead and pulling Alara in my wake.
“Where are we going?”
“I know these woods,” was all I said in return, and she broke out into a run to keep pace with me. We hurried down snowy hill after snowy hill, through brambles and over frozen pricker bushes, to where a small pond glittered from the dark. There was no snow on the surface, and a sheet of moonlit ice stretched into the distance, bright and blue and beckoning to me in the silence.
I slowed to a stop before its surface and extended my hand out to Alara, who, sparing a glance around, understood my offer and took my hand in hers. We stepped out onto the ice, cautious of how much weight it could bear, and though Alara was hesitant, I raced across the ice and skidded to a halt, waiting.
“Come on,” I called to her, and she took a step, then another, until she was in front of me and I wanted . . . I wanted so much. So, so much. To hold her. Kiss her—
“I’m afraid,” she murmured in the dark, but laughed when I took her hands and spun her around.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I murmured as I twirled her so that she unraveled, sliding across the slick, moonlit floor, and then I reeled her back up into my embrace, held her tight. Her face was close to mine, so breathtakingly close . . . All I had to do was just lean in—
“This world is a scary place,” she told me.
“Well, you don’t have to be afraid of it when you’re with me. I’ll fight away the shadows . . .” And to show her that I meant it, I raised my hand and sprouted a flame or two upon my palm, sending light shooting into the dark.
“I’m not afraid of the shadows,” said Alara, and without an ounce of hesitation, she placed her hand in mine and doused the flames. “ I just don’t want . . . I’m not . . . I don’t want to be alone.” The words that left her lips seemed to gather on her shoulders, because the moment they surfaced on the air, her entire frame seemed to droop like a wilting flower.
“And you won’t be,” I whispered, and instead of tilting her head up so that her eyes met mine, I squeezed her hands and crouched down, searched her face from down below, sending a smile sprawling across her weathered lips. “Ever again. You have my word.”
“You don’t even know me—”
“And that’s not going to stop me.” I glanced down, glanced back, and rose to my feet. It still snowed, but the sky could be seen in parts, and the moon was bright above us like it had willed the clouds to part simply so that it could shine down on this moment. “I don’t care if this is too soon . . . if we don’t know each other.” I stared at her, stared so deeply, searching down beneath the worry in her gaze and the silence on her lips. “Strangers or not, we’re in this together now—”
Alara suddenly leaned in and kissed my cheek, and where her lips pressed against my skin, I could feel my flesh begin to smolder and burn—in a good way. A brilliant way. And no more than a second passed before my entire body was engulfed in flame, from head to toe.
A laugh met the air as Alara flinched back, sliding across the ice.
“I wouldn’t stand there for too long,” Alara laughed, and I took her advice and hurried off the ice to the snow embankment that surrounded the glowing pond. “You must not get kissed often,” she observes, sliding across the ice to where I stood, a smile pressed into that beautiful face of hers. “I can’t imagine becoming an inferno is very fun.”
I shook my head and raised my hands. “It feels . . . amazing,” I told her. “But the cost . . . It’s not worth it.”
“Not yet,” she whispered. “Just wait . . . One day you’ll learn to take control.” Alara took a step off the ice and walked over to where I stood, a candle burning against the dark. “And one day,” she added as she placed a hand on my shoulder to douse the flames, “everything will be . . .” She stood up on her toes, and with a hand beneath my chin, drew my face down to hers as she whispered, “Different.”
I leaned down, leaned in, my lips so close—
“Hey!” came a voice from the dark, and Alara flinched away like I might have hurt her. She threw her hands up and each of her fingers glowed that same golden color, casting light into the shadows, where, straining to see against the light, stood Raiyah.
“What the hell are you guys doing?”
“Nothing!” Alara and I said in unison, glancing at each other as we drew farther apart. I was hyperaware of the cinders on my tongue, the ashes between my fingers, under my nails. Raiyah searched my face, my eyes, as if the last few moments were waiting right inside my wide-eyed gaze.
“Didn’t look like nothing, observed Raiyah, crossing her arms over her chest. She spared a dark look in Alara’s direction before facing me again.
“It has nothing to do with you,” said Alara, standing straighter as she moved to stand between us. She leveled a dark look at Raiyah and didn’t yield a step in any direction, didn’t back down, even as the girl bunched up her fists and took a step toward her, looking . . . lethal.
“Maybe not,” she hissed, “but I wasn’t about to let you to gallivant through the dark.” She backed down, and the hatred in her eyes calmed a bit. “Shadow Demons could walk these woods—”
“We can take care of ourselves,” I assured her, moving up beside Alara. “But . . . Thanks.”
Raiyah nodded. “Of course . . .”
“Why were you in those woods,” Alara suddenly blurted, and that look of unmitigated fury returned to Raiyah’s eyes, a burning that not even I could fully comprehend.
“What the hell do you think I was doing?” she barked, clearly fighting to keep herself restrained. “I was running for my life—”
“But why? Why were you there?”
Raiyah parted her lips but no sound fell out.
“Alara—” I tried.
“No, I want to know,” Alara persisted, glaring daggers. She glanced up at me, into my eyes, and whatever anger she harbored, it was solely felt for Raiyah . . . I could see it in her eyes, read it where it was written across her face. “My job is to protect you. Your father gave me those orders before I even knew what I was doing. Now . . .” she whispered from the shadows, the black adamant closing in, “Let me protect you.”
“The Council sent me,” Raiyah said, and Alara froze.
“Half the town is talking about what you did,” she said, glancing over at me. And then, the venom of her voice directed at Alara, “How could you not expect them to send a scout to see what was going on?” Her eyes narrowed to the point where they became mere slits in her face—emerald slits that appeared black in this darkness.
“Go ahead,” she spat at Alara. “Try to read my mind. We both know you can’t.” Ice. Her words were coated in a layer of ice. And they stung when they met the winter air, bit the cold breeze passing on through.
I stilled. “Read her . . . what?”
“Nothing,” Alara said to me, never lowering her eyes, her head. She stood her ground against this stranger—and never before have I been so certain that these two girls before me were anything but strangers.
But . . .
Did that explain . . . When I spoke to Alara in the halls this morning, I’d been thinking her name inside my head . . . Was it possible that she might have . . . Or when she seemed to know me so well, know exactly what I was thinking before I even had a clue . . .
I opened my mouth to press for answers but quickly thought better of it. There would be other opportunities for questions.
“You remember what happened last time,” whispered Raiyah, searching Alara in the inky black shadows that seemed to grow thicker, heavier by the minute. She shook her head and showed her teeth as she said, “When are you going to tell the fire-bearer who you really are?”
“They banished you, didn’t they?” asked Alara, never skipping a beat, and Raiyah’s face fell faster than a stone through water “You weren’t a scout . . . You knew I was planning on bringing Rowyn to the Veil. That’s why you’re here. We’re your tickets back in. You didn’t come to make sure we were okay . . . You came to make sure your chances were still intact.”
“And can you blame me?”
I took a step forward and stood between them. “What is going on? Do you know each other?” I wondered, glancing at each of them in turn.
“She’s a criminal,” Alara said to me.
“Yes,” Raiyah confirmed, “I am. I’m a criminal for not wanting them to strip me of my abilities.”
I stared, hope rising inside of me. “They can do that?”
Silence fell for several moments, only to be broken by a humorless cackle from Raiyah.
“He doesn’t even know what you’ve brought him here to do, have you?” She laughed again, and Alara raised her fist and punched the girl square in the mouth before turning away and stalking back into the dark, leaving me to chase after her.
“What was that?” I nearly yelled as I grabbed Alara’s arm and pulled her around to face me. She struggled in my grip until I let her go, and when I did she raised her fists as if she were getting ready to punch me, too.
“She’s a bitch—”
“That may be, but you can’t go around punching everyone!” I put my hand on her shoulder and steered her farther away from where Raiyah stood bent over, spitting blood into the snow. “What did she mean, Alara? What am I really here to do?”
“Alara,” I said, cutting her off.
“Fine!” she hissed, staring up at me. She crossed her arms over her chest and glanced around, first at the snow, then at the shadowy trees pressed up against the distance, and then into my eyes. “There’s a reason why your father asked me to protect you . . .”
She shook her head from side to side. “There’s a lot you don’t know.”
“So start by telling me what we’re doing here? Are . . .” I paused and started again. “Are we in danger?”
“Yes,” Alara said, showing no sign of hesitation. “But you’ve been in danger your entire life.” She glanced down, and I placed my fingers beneath her chin and drove her gaze back up to meet mine. “We want to . . .” She closed her eyes, swallowed back the pain as the truth settled heavily on her shoulders. “The Council has been waiting for a Child of the Sun for a long, long time . . .”
“Why? Why am I so important? Is it because I’m the last of my kind?”
“She told you?” Alara asked, but I didn’t answer, and after a heavy silence fell between us, she nodded her head. “Yes . . . It does. It has everything to do with you being the last of your kind. The last fire-bearer.” She looked at me, searched my face from top to bottom, and said, “The Council wants to close the Rift.”
“And?” I whispered. “Isn’t that a good thing? No more Shadow Demons—”
“No more magic,” said Alara. “You close the Rift, and all of our abilities vanish. The Children of the Rift . . . We become mortal. Human. Normal.”
“Normal,” I whispered, testing the word on my tongue.
“The Council needs a member of each division—I’m sure Raiyah told you all about that—to close the Rift. And now . . . now that you’re here—”
“I can help close the Rift . . .”
Alara nodded. “But there are people—people like Raiyah—who don’t want that to happen.” She glanced darkly over my shoulder, back in the girl’s direction. “Some people would rather take their chances in a world of Shadow Demons and dark magic than be forced to live the life of a mortal . . .”
There was still a chance—a chance at a life where I could just be normal. A life where I could graduate high school and go to college and have a life, an actual life . . . I was my own last chance at happiness.
“But no matter what,” whispered Alara, calming down, “the Rift needs to close. Magic . . . Our powers . . . We won’t survive another war. We lost so much the first time . . .”
“Okay,” I breathed, nodding in the dark. “Then let’s go.”
“It’s not that simple . . .”
“No,” Raiyah said from behind, “It’s not.” Her face had stopped bleeding and she glared daggers in Alara’s direction. “Nice hit, girly. But next time it won’t be so easy—”
“Next time? Oh, so you mean there’ll be another chance for me to take you down.” She stared darkly but glanced away and shook her head, meeting my eyes. “We should be getting back to the gates.”
“What your girlfriend failed to mention,” Raiyah said, grabbing my arm and spinning me around, “is that you can’t just close the Rift. It’s not a sliding door. You need the Book.”
“Quiet,” was all that Alara said—and I became hyperaware of the fact that she didn’t refute the idea of her being addressed my ‘girlfriend’. She didn’t even try to.
“He deserves to know what he’s been brought here to know—”
There’s a sudden blood-curdling screech, just like the one from earlier that day, and three dark black splotches formed against the night. Large, membranous wings arched, the monsters dipped straight out of the inky black of the twilight and descended.
“Shadow Demons,” I gasped to myself, and before either of us could move, the three monstrous creatures landed with a a thunderous jolt that shook the world, leaving me to collide with the snowy earth below.
We were surrounded.
I rose to my feet but my legs trembled so harshly that I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was back on the ground. My nervous fingers fumbled for my sword and I drew it, held it out before me like I was actually capable of using it—capable of fighting as tired and afraid as I was.
Alara held up her hands and they began to glow. Beside her, Raiyah held up her fists and they—to my surprise—began to freeze, forming solid blocks of ice.
“What do we do?” Raiyah asked, her restless gaze flitting back and forth.
Alara shook her head. “The only thing we can do . . .”
“Fight,” I croaked, hefting my sword high, bending my knees.
“Fight,” Alara repeated, and her hands glowed bright, bright—
The sound of an arrow piercing the night whistled through the shadows, and one of the Shadow Demons screeched as the arrow lanced straight through the center of its skull.
I stumbled back as the creature crumbled to the floor at my feet, black ichor leaking out into the snow. I glanced over at Alara, who was searching the dark for the invisible archer, when, suddenly, several more arrows cleaved through the shadows, striking the rest of the Demons as they moved to attack.
Each fell dead upon the ground, leaving me at Alara’s side. We searched each other’s eyes, searched the dark, and suddenly, as Raiyah took a step in the direction the arrows had flown, a boy stepped forward, followed by three others.
“Dalton?” Raiyah whispered, and then again, this time with realization, “Dalton!” She took a running jump and leaped over the fallen body of the Shadow Demon at her feet, and dove straight into the strangers welcoming embrace.
He picked her up off the ground and spun her, while the other boys, arrows aimed at the ready, quickly surrounded us. They had a look in each of their eyes that spoke of . . . loss. A look that told me they had more to lose than not, and I wondered if this is what my life would be like from now on. Swords. Magic. Shadow Demons. Arrows.
“I heard what happened,” the boy—Dalton—said to Raiyah as he set her back down on earth. He was a muscular African American that towered over each of the other boys, and there was no hair atop his head. War paint was smudged across his cheeks and around his eyes. “They can’t just banish you for thinking differently.” The words were venomous, so dark as they rolled of his tongue that a shiver tiptoed its way down my spine.
“They can. And they did.”
He glanced around and searched us in the shadows, Alara so close to me, so breathtakingly close . . .
“Who are they—?” he stopped when his eyes met mine. “Is that—well I’ll be—is that who I think it is?” His eyes roved my face, my body. “He’s a little . . .”
“Human,” Raiyah finished for him, and I scowled. “Dalton, you remember Alara,” Raiyah reluctantly said, her eyes narrowed. “And this”—she nudged her chin in my direction—“is Rowyn Jacobs. The last—”
“The last Child of the Sun,” I spoke for myself. “The last fire-bearer, and the only one who can help close the Rift. So unless you want to spend the rest of your days cleaning Demon ichor of your arrows, I suggest you lower your damn weapons.” I took Alara’s hand—I don’t know why, perhaps to keep me stable—and she squeezed my fingers tight.
Dalton crossed his arms and took a step forward—to intimidate me?—and the moon vanished as he blocked its silvery glow from view. “You’re pretty brave, Mortal, for talking to me like that. I’d be careful if I were—”
“And you seem pretty desperate to kill these things,” I said, motioning with my hand to the dead Shadow Demons lying in the dark, their blood making the shadows even thicker. “So, if I had to guess, I’d say your more mortal than you act.” I narrowed my eyes, sharpened my words, honed my voice on the frustration loitering in my veins. “Now have your men lower their weapons.”
Darkness. There was darkness in his eyes, such palpable darkness, adamant against the night.
“You don’t want to know what,” I assured him, and Alara’s hold on my hand tightened evermore. I could hear the fire, hear the flames whispering to me from deep within myself, and I felt the cinders in the darkness beneath my heart begin to smolder back to life . . .
“Try me,” Dalton hissed. “I dare you—”
“Leave him be,” Raiyah said as she suddenly fell between us. Her hands traveled up Dalton’s chest, his shoulders, and he tore his gaze away from mine to look down at her. “He saved my life,” she whispered, and when she glanced over her shoulder, she met Alara’s eyes. “They both did. And as much as it kills me to say this, I need their help.” Dalton glanced between us and her, and the shadows rippling in his gaze thinned, the hatred therein having eased to a dull annoyance.
“You know what this means? If you help him to the Veil? They’ll close the Rift and—”
“And its . . . it’s better than living life out here. Afraid.” She glanced at the dead Shadow Demons. “I can’t rely on you to protect me forever.”
“You don’t need my protection,” he whispered, cupping her face in his fingers. “But I understand. These creatures . . . They’ve increased in number these last few weeks.” He looked past her, through the dark, and his gaze collided with mine. “He knows the boy is here. In Maple Creek.”
“He?” I whispered. “Who’s—?”
“There’s a lot I still need to tell you,” Alara whispered to me. “And I will. I promise. Once we’re in the Veil . . . I’ll tell you everything.” I looked down at her, and she stared back, eyes gleaming from the shadows.
“Everything.” She swung my hand and smiled, and I leaned in—and I don’t know which part of me, the fire or my heart, or if the fact that we could have died a few moments ago, but I swallowed back my fear and kissed Alara on the cheek, as she’d done to me a short while ago.
“Good,” I whispered. “Because I have a lot of questions.”
“Boys,” Dalton growled, “lower your bows. “We’re going home.”
“Home,” I whispered to no one in particular as each of the strangers dropped their weapons, and Alara squeezed my hand, nodding. When she looked at me, all I wanted to do was kiss every shadow from her smile, every bit of darkness from her gaze.
C H A P T E R9
From where I sat in the coolness of my truck, I could see the silvery moon high atop the waving treetops as they swayed in the winter breeze. I hugged my knees to my chest and Alara did the same, facing me, blankets draped across both of our bodies. Raiyah was outside with Dalton and the rest of his boys.
Alara kept her distance. Was she afraid to touch me?—I didn’t blame her, couldn’t blame her. This fire . . . this curse . . . it was always there, always waiting to destroy.
She listed her head to the side and rested it back against the frost-covered window. Strips of light cut through the woodland, the dark canopies above, and I scanned her passive face in the shadows; her eyes glittered, and gooseflesh painted her skin like a new hue.
“You’re cold,” I whispered.
“It’s winter,” she said.
I nodded. “After today . . . I wish I could just go back to my house and crawl into bed.”
“You can’t go home,” she murmured, not to me, but to the moon. “We don’t have homes anymore.”
“Because of me?”
She looked at me then. “Because of them,” Alara said, jabbing a finger at the cold darkness waiting just outside the window, and I wasn’t entirely certain who she meant.
“Dalton and Raiyah? Or the Shadow Demons—”
“Your father’s men. If they hadn’t come after you . . .”
My father’s men? “You speak like they’re soldiers,” I whispered.
“That . . .” I scrunched up my face and shook my head as disbelief settled in my gaze. “Are they on the wrong side of this war we’re in?”
Alara stayed quiet. But then: “Some of them.” She searched my face, as she often did, and I found that I couldn’t look away from hers. Those eyes . . . They were captivating. Enchanting. She lowered her head but her gaze didn’t lose its gleam. “You’re thinking again.”
“I’m always thinking.” Alara didn’t respond, so I continued. “What did Dalton mean when he said—”
“Nothing,” Alara tersely said, cutting me off.
“You don’t even know what I was going to say . . . Unless Raiyah was right. And you can . . . you can read my thoughts.” I stared at her, into her, and when she tried to evade my gaze, I reached out to her and said, “It’s okay. Really.”
“You were going to ask me what Dalton meant when he said ‘he knows the boy is here’,” she whispered, ignoring me and my attempts to comfort her, make her feel okay.
“Yeah,” I said, forgetting the idea of mindreading for the moment. “I was. Who is ‘he’? Is there someone out there? The way Dalton said it . . . Am I being . . . I mean, does someone—”
“There’s always going to be some source of danger beyond these walls,” Alara assured me. “Unless we close the rift. Then they can’t hurt you.”
“Am I . . . Am I being hunted, Alara?”
“You’ve always been hunted. They just didn’t know where to find you.” She paused, her gaze reverting back to the window. “Now they do.”
They. Who were ‘they’?
Alara sighed—a deep, deep sigh that sounded as if it had come from far beneath the surface of who she was. “There’s so much you don’t know.” She looked at me, at the stranger we both know I was, the monster I saw in the mirror, and roved my face in the bitter shadows. “I’ll explain everything in the morning when we get to the Veil,” she told me. “For now . . . just know that you are one of a kind, Rowyn Jacobs. And people fear you . . . fear what you can become.”
Monster, they called me.
“I do, too.”
Alara nodded. “That needs to change.”
“Because,” she whispered, settling back against the seat; she shut her eyes and breathed out through her nose, exhaling deeply. “There is a monster out there, Rowyn. He’s been looking for you all his life . . . and he will do whatever it takes to get what you have.”
“My . . . my fire?” I looked down at myself, as if I could see straight through my skin and down to where the flames flickered below. When I glanced back up, Alara was asleep—or, at least she was pretending to be.
“Your fire is what’s going to save us all.”
I sunk back into myself and traced the shadows with my eyes. Something was out there, searching for me. Just beyond these brittle walls was a beast, and I was its quarry—when did the ruthless monster I knew myself to be become this useless creature hiding in the dark?
I’d spent the last decade doing everything in my power to convince myself I wasn’t the beast that I clearly was. Now I had to shed that doubt . . . I had to throw all that away, all that I’d believed in, to keep Alara safe—to keep them all safe. How could I be expected to do that? How could I just . . . abandon that which I’ve based this life of caution, of stillness?
I couldn’t. That’s what I told myself. That’s what I always told myself.
“You really think so?” I breathed, and my misty breath swirled around the words, frozen on the midnight air; I watched them fade against the dark, unfurling like the fire beneath the cage I called skin.
Alara’s lips quirked up into a gentle smile. “I know so.”
I rolled into the shadows like it was a bed, and laid my head against the darkness breathing through this small space; the moonlight ran its gentle touch across my flesh, and I nuzzled down into its glow.
I was a monster. I was cursed. My touch could . . . kill.
There was a war. There was a treaty . . . and I just broke it.
Now I was being . . . hunted.
I needed to be ready.
Lavender eyes glittered from the dark, and I stood to my feet as Alara took a step closer. She reached out to me, a silent silhouette of darkness weaving through the light, and I reached my hand out, stretched my fingers, but no matter how far I reached, she got farther away.
I opened my mouth to call out to her, but I was underwater.
I wasn’t breathing. I was . . . I was drowning.
“Your fire is going to save us all,” she said with that same dark voice as the she did the night of the accident, having no difficulty as she slithered through the shadows, the straits of dark cutting through the light. “But it’s not going to be you who wield its power, do you know? No, it will be him. He will come and he will stop you.” She swam to me and kissed me, pulled me into the dark, but I wouldn’t go; I anchored myself to the ground below, and even though I couldn’t breathe, even though there was no air left in my lungs, I refused to be dragged into the shadows.
“You are weak, Rowyn Jacobs.” She glided like the shadow of a bird as it floated above a city, stretching wide. “A war is coming and you don’t even know how to be what you are. You call yourself a monster because of what you can’t control. But what about what you can control? What are you willing to do to save the Children of the Rift?”
What was I willing to do? What was I willing to sacrifice?
I parted my lips to speak despite the fact that I had no answer, but water slipped on through, choking me further. I tried to fight it, struggled against this darkness closing in. But I had no fight inside of me, no control. And my fire . . . it had been doused by the fire. I was helpless. I was . . . I was dying.
“Nothing,” Alara hissed, her voice returning to normal. “You won’t do anything to change your future. My future. Our future. Because you are nothing.” She eyed me darkly, and before I could scream, she wrapped her hands around my throat.
“There’s no escaping your destiny, Rowyn Jacobs.”
I woke from the dream with a start. It took me several moments to orient myself, and as I sat up and looked around, I wondered whether or not I should hope for this all to have been one long dream . . . Did I really want this truth to bear? But Alara . . .
I shook the thought from my head.
Warm sunlight lanced through the windows of the car, illuminating the shadows with mid-day sunshine; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept so long without once waking in the night to vomit—to heave and gasp upon a bed of ashes, and tell myself everything I’d done was because of this curse . . . that I wasn’t the monster I knew myself to be.
I was surprised to find when I glanced around that Alara was no longer in the truck with me. Panic swelled inside my chest, and I groggily stumbled out into the winter air, the cold eviscerating the sunny dawn; my breath swirled around me, my silence a misty noose left to fade. I stretched and looked around.
The winter wasteland that was New Hampshire spread before me like a desolate roadmap of snow and trees and places I didn’t want to go, and mud-slung hummocks rose up against the barren horizon, isolated and clear. I could see all the way to the north, where clouds gilded by sunlight floated on by, but the quiet—the silence I knew by heart—only ever weighed me down.
Beyond these trees, beyond these mountains, this snow-studded realm, was a world—a world brimming with people. And I knew nothing more than the ice and slush of this desolation, this everlasting winter. It stayed with me, even with the fire inside of me. The cold was always there, tempting me, poking at me even though it knew I couldn’t feel it.
I used to feel safe knowing the destruction I wielded would be confined to this frosty wasteland. But now I didn’t know anything. The world could have been flat for all I knew . . . There was war. Shadow Demons. Monsters . . . It was all too much.
“Alara?” I whispered into the morning air, but no reply surfaced. “Raiyah? Dalton?” Again, no reply. I was alone, standing in the snow. I turned around and searched the ground for tracks—
And I found some, several set—my guess, Alara and the others. But what was perfectly peculiar was the fact that . . . that they just vanished. They started off in one direction and then . . . Fresh snow continued on after that.
I sighed and searched the air, finding nothing out of the ordinary. The entrance . . . It was here. It had to be here.
“Alara?” I wondered again, taking a step forward, followed by two more. “Alara?” I bent my head and continued, and even though I tried to stop, something made me keep going—something was drawing me forward. And I didn’t know what . . . But I knew it was the same mysterious force that had drawn me to the school the day before . . . Drawn me to Alara.
I fisted my hands down at my sides and stepped up to where the footprints came to an end. This had to be the entrance. There was no other logical explanation for where they could have gone—though there were plenty of illogical places that could have led them astray . . .
Reluctant, I tilted my head to the side and raised one of my hands, and though I told myself repeatedly that this was a bad idea, I rolled the dice and stepped forward—
And stumbled into an entirely different universe.
The snow was gone, and before me, a new world stretched into the distance. Trees and earth and rivers that spun into waterfalls all reached for the horizon, and golden light—light so strong and pure and exhilarating—ignited the place, setting it alight.
And before me, sitting on the ground, was Alara.
“Welcome to the Veil,” she said, spreading her arms wide, motioning to all that laid at her back. Trees. There were so many trees, too many trees. And there, pressed flush against the golden light radiating down from a sun that seemed far too close, a palace—no, a fortress—rose up out of nothing, stretching high to be seen by all.
“The Citadel,” Alara whispered upon following my line of vision. She inclined her head to gaze at the colossal building at her back, and despite its grandeur, she didn’t seem impressed—this was where Alara came to to get away from it all, where she came when the world grew heavy, the life she bore too hard. This was her home.
“It’s . . . It’s—” I could have started that sentence a thousand times with something new to say each time, but in that moment, captivated by this new world, this new reality, I couldn’t think of anything to say. So I didn’t.
Everything was so fresh, so alive . . . and yet, so old. The trees knit together around us in a manner no different than the ones on the other side of the invisible wall separating the Veil from the rest of Maple Creek, but they bore an energy that spoke of millennia. The way the branches twined about others, like they were holding hands, forced to endure all of time together.
When I turned around, I found my truck, as well as the snowy mountains of New Hampshire at my back.
“How do people not know about this place?” I scanned the distant fortress and wondered what magic could have created something so . . . beautiful. And if our powers could do that, could create and construct, then what I bore . . . Was I really cursed?
The thought had never before crossed my mind.
“Magic,” spoke Alara. She arrived at my side with her hand clasped behind her back and her shoulders high, but not as high as her head. “The Veil is one of many sanctuaries devoted to Children of the Rift. Every country has them.” She bent down low to the ground and retrieved a stone. “Though we can see them,” she said as she tossed the stone through the Veil’s invisible entrance, where it rolled back into that snowy land I wanted nothing to do with, “they can’t see us. Only Children of the Rift can physically enter this realm. Mortals would simply keep on walking.”
“And the Shadow Demons?”
“We’re safe,” Alara assured me. “So long as the Citadel remains standing, nothing can penetrate these walls.” Her voice quieted and she hung her head, and something about that statement seemed false. There was no safety from life . . . Whether or not we were still in Maple Creek, this world still turned.
“And what about . . . What about people who don’t want the Rift to close? People like Raiyah.” Speaking of which, where was she?
“She’s back at her home in the hills,” Alara answered.
“Don’t do that,” I sternly said.
“Go inside my head.”
“Oh . . .” said Alara. “I . . . I’m sorry, sometimes I don’t even realize. She didn’t meet my eyes, wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Anyway. There haven’t been many disruptions by those against the Rift closing. We’re never really had a way to do so. Until now.” Lavender. Her eyes were lavender when they flitted up to mine, flecked her and there with stars of gold.
“And now that you stand a chance?” I cleared my throat and glanced around, searching the trees before looking back at the Citadel. “Now that we stand a chance?”
“I’m not sure . . . No one has acted out. But Raiyah . . .” Alara shook her head. “We should get going,” she said, taking my hand. I didn’t pull away—even though something told me I should.
“My home,” Alara said, jutting her chin in the direction of the Citadel. She started walking, and I struggled to keep stride with her as we descended down into the world I’m still not sure I want to be a part of—the world I have no choice but to be a part of.
“No . . . You live there?”
Alara nodded. “I devoted my life to the Children of the Rift at an early age,” she told me. “Devoted my life to closing the Rift.” She met my eyes across the short distance that divided us—the inches that separated her gaze from mine. “It’s a sacrifice not many are willing to make. But I . . .” She raised her hand and each finger began to glow. “I can’t live the rest of my life afraid. Afraid that I might hurt someone. Afraid of these thoughts inside my head that aren’t even mine.” She squeezed my fingers without realizing, and I involuntarily did so in return. “Afraid of the war that’s coming.”
War . . .
War is coming, my father had said.
“War between who, exactly?” I whispered, coming to a stop. Alara kept walking but I pulled her back around. “Please,” I said. “No more waiting. Just . . . just tell me.”
“This isn’t for me to tell you,” Alara breathed. “Come on. I’m taking you to get cleaned up. And then we’re going to see the Council.” She smiled at me, and it was a smile I knew was seen by few. “By tomorrow, Rowyn Jacobs, everyone’s going to know your name. Everyone’s going to know the last Child of the Sun has surfaced. And their either going to love you or hate you.”
I tried for a smile that wouldn’t come. “Good to know.”
“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’ve got me to protect you.”
“And that’s all I’ll ever need.”
C H A P T E R10
The Citadel consisted of a confusing labyrinth of different corridors and chambers that all looked the same. All stone walls and hardwood floors, suspended lights and tapestries. Even with Alara’s help, I couldn’t find my way through the massive structure, and in an attempt to locate a shower, I involuntarily walked into a coat closet bigger than my bedroom back home.
I showered slowly, savoring the warmth of the water. It was nice to cleanse my flesh of the past day and pretend like I could scrub away the small cuts and burns left by the Demon ichor.
I left the bathing room in a set of loose-fitting close that were left for me and headed down the corridor. Alara was leaning against one wall, freshly showered and dressed.
“Thought I’d get lost?” I wondered to her, snaking my fingers through the still-wet hair.
“I knew you would get lost,” she replied, straightening. She wore an elegant dress that reached down passed her knees, and her hair was braided up and around her head in a way that was intricately tied in the back so that more of her face was revealed.
She was . . . brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
Alara’s cheeks reddened, and I quickly became aware of the fact that she can read my thoughts as easily as if I said them aloud.
“Sorry,” I whispered, hanging my head.
“Don’t,” she said, placing a hand on my chest. “You look brilliant, too.” She slid her hand down so that it landed in mine, and before I could say something stupid, she was pulling me after her. “Now come on. The Council’s been waiting a long time for you. And if you ask me, I’m surprised a few of them are still . . . around.”
“That old, huh?”
“Oddly old. I’m surprised most of them are still functioning, to tell you the truth.” We hurried up a short staircase that ran beside another, and Alara led me to a bank of elevators in a semicircular room. She pressed the highest floor and the elevator shot upward, faster than expected, leaving me to grasp at the walls in search of purchase. Alara remained perfectly stable in the center of the room, chuckling to herself.
“I’m okay,” I assured her, pressing my back up against one wall.
“Couldn’t have fooled me,” she joked, and the elevator came to a sudden halt that left me stumbling forward. Alara wrapped her sturdy arms around me and held me stable before I could crumple to the floor, much to my embarrassment. “Don’t worry,” she whispered up to me, “I’m here to protect you.”
I rolled my eyes, but I couldn’t fight the smile that started on my lips. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I breathed, and she gazed up at me, stared deep into my eyes as she had a habit of doing, to my delight.
We stood in a small chamber outside of two silver double doors set into the wall, and pressed into their surfaces were four symbols: a flame, a drop of water, a series of mountain peaks, and a swirly symbol I could only guess to be a gust of wind.
“Each of the four divisions,” I whispered to Alara. “Children of the Moon, Sun, Earth and Wind.”
“Correct,” she said, flashing a smile.
“Okay,” I breathed. “So I understand a person’s abilities tells which division they fall under. But . . . what are you?”
Alara’s face fell, and she froze. All the color leaked from her face, and in that moment, I wished more than anything to be able to read her mind, to see the gears inside her skull turning to perfection. Her gaze narrowed and darkened ever so slightly as she shook her head from side to side, and I wondered if I’d upset her.
She didn’t reply, and without looking at me, she opened the doors to the Council chambers and strode inside, leaving me to stand nervously on the threshold.
The room beyond was spectacular in size and magnificent in color. Misty-gray walls rose up before a floor of onyx, each tile so dark that it had its own individual gleam. From above, sunlight shone down through grates in the ceiling, and pillars of granite held everything in place; the walls were swimming with paintings that could have gone on forever had the far wall not ended in a wall of windows that overlooked the countryside of the Veil below.
A single ring of desks formed a circle in the very center of the room, and Alara stepped into the middle. When I didn’t follow, she motioned to me with a hand, and I entered the room and stood beside her—even as whispers arose from the utter silence.
“Members of the Council, I am pleased to introduce to you Rowyn Jacobs, the last Child of the Sun.”
The whispering stopped, and silence fell once more.
Reluctantly, I forced myself to scan the faces that scrutinized my every breath. There were eight members of the council, four men and four women—one of each gender to represent each division? Alara hadn’t been wrong when she’d said some of them were oddly old.
I loosed a careful smile and said, “Greetings and salutations.”
“Greetings,” the entire Council said as one voice, and I yielded a step back.
A gray haired woman with so many wrinkles I couldn’t begin to count them all cleared her throat and straightened, leaning against the counter before her for support. “On behalf of the entire Council, I’d like to welcome you, Mr. Jacobs, to our home. I can’t imagine the past twenty-four hours have been easy on you. Any of you,” she said, glancing to Alara and then back to me. “We would like to start by pointing out that you are in no way forced to stay here, and in no way are you in our custody. You are free to leave as you wish, Mr. Jacobs, though we advise that you stay. For your own safety.” Her eyes caught mine. “You may stay in the Citadel for as long as you wish.”
“That’s very kind of you,” I said, bowing my head—I wasn’t sure of the protocol, but bowing seemed right in that moment.
“The past night alone has indeed been a struggle,” spoke Alara, her hands once more clasped behind her back, “but I would simply like to point out the fact that Rowyn, having no prior knowledge of our kind, has proven himself worthy of the role he’s supposed to play. Not only did he rescue another Child of the Rift, he took on a Shadow Demon, and put an end to it.” She glanced over at me and struggled not to smile. “He has accepted his role in this world, and is willing to do whatever it takes to close the Rift.”
“Whatever it takes?” asked man to my right. He was much younger than the rest of the Council members, with graying-brown hair and jet-black eyes that searched my gaze, as if attempting to see straight through to where my mind worked. “This is no simple task. Are you aware of this, Mr. Jacobs?”
A shiver was sent down my spine, and I forced myself to hold his gaze even though I wanted nothing more than to look away, to run and hide. I didn’t know what I was capable of. I didn’t know the type of person I could become because in my world, the only world I knew, there was nothing quite like Shadow Demons that could make you or break you. But here, in this life . . . I didn’t know what it would take. I didn’t know what I had to give. But I would give it all if it meant I could live a normal life—if it meant Alara was happy.
I glanced around to find Alara smiling at me—smiling brighter than ever before.
“I am aware,” I said, nodding. “Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it. But I ask . . .” I lowered my head, lowered my gaze. When I looked up, they were all watching me so intently, like I was a new species all together. “I need to know about the war. And about whoever or whatever possess a threat to you. To us,” I corrected myself.
Again, the Council chamber fell silent. But then, “Konstantine Ambershade,” said a short woman to my right. She had rose-red hair and a pointed nose. “That’s the name he goes by,” she said, hanging her head. “He is . . .”
“He is a man of power, capable of dark, dark things,” said another member of the Council. “Konstantine was born with the rare ability to steal the powers from those around him. For decades he’s been gathering forces and growing stronger . . . He’s been waiting all this time for you to surface.”
“But . . . why? What does he want with me?”
“He doesn’t want you, boy, he wants you out of the way. For so long as you live, we hold a chance at stopping him. But while the Rift is open, growing stronger . . .”
“And now he’s coming,” I whispered, and all voices fell quiet. “He’s coming for me.” I looked to Alara to find her nodding. “And he’s going to do whatever it takes to keep us from closing the Rift.” It wasn’t a question.
“Worse,” said the first woman who had spoken. “We believe that if Konstantine harbors each of the main powers consisting of the Children of the Rift, he might be able to tear the Rift wide open. That would be . . .”
“Catastrophic,” Alara finished for her. “That’s why we need to put an end to . . . to our magic. Konstantine Ambershade wants to destroy this world and build an empire from the ashes—a world of his own creation. But you . . .” she reached out and grabbed my arm, and I stared into her eyes, stared straight through those lavender rings holding me in place, making me stronger. “Because of you, Rowyn, we stand a chance.”
“Then I stand by what I said.” I glanced back at the Council, at the panel of faces still scanning me, scrutinizing me from head to toe, figuring out if I’m worth getting their hopes up. But I am. I know I am. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
“Very well,” spoke the same woman as before. “In order to close the Rift, a ceremony most be performed using the Compendium, a book, Mr. Jacobs, crafted by the hands of the original four Children of the Rift. It has long since been hidden. Your task is to uncover its whereabouts and bring it back here. When that is done, and only then, will the Rift close once more.”
“Find the book. Close the Rift.”
“Indeed,” said the Councilwoman. “But make no mistake, Rowyn Jacobs, beyond these walls is a cruel and unforgiving world. Beyond Maple Creek, armies are massing.” She glanced toward the wall of windows and out at the world below and around us. “We are a divided people. Children of the Rift against Children of the Rift. There are mortals who have chosen to fight on our behalf, and mortals who have fallen under Konstantine’s spell. But a war is coming . . . a war unlike any other. Unless the Rift closes.” She leveled her dark gaze on me, and a tremor worked its way through me, made my bones shift uneasily inside of me. “Am I understood.”
I reluctantly nodded my head before facing the wall of windows. Outside, warm sunlight rained down on a glowing world, and open skies spread for all to see.
“Very much so.”
The meeting ended and Alara escorted me down the long corridors to my new bedchamber, where I would spend my first night in my entire life sleeping in a bed that wasn’t my own. Neither of us spoke the entire way there, and though I tried to count the number of rooms we passed and the amount of turns we made, I knew if I had to get out of here in a hurry, I’d never find my way out.
“Here you are,” Alara said, standing before my door. “I recommend you get as much rest as you possibly can. Finding the Compendium will be no easy thing, and with Konstantine’s armies gathering, we don’t have time to wait—”
“I didn’t mean to offend you before,” I cut her off, and Alara seemed taken aback.
“What?” She knew what I mean. She was playing dumb.
“Before the Council meeting. What I said to you . . . I didn’t mean to offend you in any way. I was just . . . curious.”
“It’s okay,” Alara whispered. “But the truth is—”
“How’d the meeting go?” came a familiar voice, and Raiyah rounded the corner. She eyes me darkly before saddling up beside me, and without a word to Alara, said, “Word’s already beginning to spread about your arrival.”
“Why aren’t you locked up?” Alara hissed, glaring.
“Because,” Raiyah sneered, “once the Council saw that I contributed in bringing home the last Child of the Sun, they didn’t even think twice about reinstating me.” She narrowed her eyes. “Isn’t there somewhere you have to be?”
Alara looked to me and nodded, her eyes widening. “I guess I’ll leave you to it, then,” she said, and before I could say anything, she turned on her heel and stalked away.
“You didn’t have to do that,” I said as I slid my bedchamber door wide open—
The room was huge. It was twice the size of the room I’ve always known, made entirely of stone. A single window adorned the wall, letting in a flood of light, and a bed fit for a king sat before me. A wardrobe stood against one wall, and one of its doors was open, revealing lots and lots of clothing—too much clothing for one person.
I balked, standing silently in the doorway, too stunned to speak.
“Welcome home,” Raiyah said, shoving passed me. She kicked off her shoes and rolled onto the bed, and as I slowly entered, she motioned for me to sit next to her. I hesitated a moment before settling into the warm embrace of the bed, resting my head down upon the pillows.
“Did they tell you about him?” she wondered.
“Konstantine Ambershade,” I whispered in response, staring up at the ceiling. After a moment of silence, I rolled onto my side and studied Raiyah’s face. “Why are you still here?”
“Well, you’re anything but blunt,” she snidely said.
“Not in the bed next to me,” I groggily said, “but here. In the Citadel. Alara told me you had a house in the hills. And you seem pretty . . . close with that Dalton guy. So why are you still here? There’s nothing keeping you here?”
Raiyah shrugged her shoulders, burrowing into the warmth of the pillows. “I guess it’s just . . . nice.”
“Nice being around people. Nice being around you. Someone who knows so little and yet is kinder than most of the people here.” She leveled her gaze on me, and upon taking in my smile, said, “I don’t throw compliments around often, so—”
“I understand,” I murmured. “They banished you simply for speaking your mind.” I shook my head against the pillows. “I understand why you want to stay.”
“Good,” Raiyah said. “For a second there I was afraid you were starting to think I liked you, or something.”
I rolled my eyes and turned away, nestling my head down onto the huge pillow beneath me. “Or something,” I mumbled, and before I knew it, I was sound asleep.
When I awoke, Raiyah was gone.
Buttery afternoon sunlight spilled down across the Veil, and as I gazed out from my window, the world began to burn like a match, and then slowly, slowly, turn to cinders. The evening failed to take on that ominous hour of the night when both the skies and the earth below were painted blue, but rather slid right into a waiting darkness—a darkness alight with stars.
The speckled the shadows above, burning like golden flames.
“Hey,” Raiyah said with a knock against the open door, and I turned to find her standing on the threshold. She was clean—no, immaculate. Her clothes were strange and hung from her flesh in a way that both accentuated the curves of her body, and did little to conceal what lied beneath . . . Tattoos ran down her arms and legs, as well as scars, scrawled into her flesh like a language I was afraid to understand. Her hair fell in golden ringlets about her shoulders, and those eyes of hers flashed emerald in the light.
She cast her gaze about the room before looking out at the dark.
“Is everything okay?” I wondered as I rose to my feet.
“Is anything in this world really okay anymore?” she asked, but something about the question, the way she said it, made me understand that she wasn’t looking for a response. She shook her head and advanced in my direction, extending a hand out to me—and in that hand, a letter. “Looks like someone’s night’s about to get a whole lot better,” she said, flashing a coy smile as her head listed to the side. “One of Alara’s many helpers asked me to give this to you.”
I ignored her and took the letter, and Raiyah yielded a step back towards the doorway, her hands curled into fists down at her sides.
“Thank you,” I said, and she nodded.
“Anything to be of assistance to the famous fire-bearer,” she mocked, rolling her eyes. “Anything else while I’m here?” she asked as she prowled to the other side of the room, snaking her touch across the shelves that lined the wall. “I mean, you know . . . because I have nothing better to do than deliver your girlfriend’s letters—”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I quickly interjected.
“But you wish she was,” Raiyah hissed in return. Her lips formed a thin, pressed line, and her eyes narrowed evermore—more than I knew to be possible. She searched the waiting dark once more, the stars above, and sneered in my direction. “You don’t even know who she is—”
“What’s that supposed to mean? What’s your problem with Alara?”
“You said you’ve known her all your life. And yet she never once thought to take you here. To tell you that you weren’t alone, and that people have been looking for you for so long.” Raiyah shook her head, curled her fingers into fists. “She had every opportunity.”
“My father told her not to—”
“And here we are,” she spit, “finally in the Veil, finally ready to make a difference, and you can’t even tell the difference between a Shadow Demon and a adgad! If Alara—if your father—really wanted to help you, they would have brought you home a long time ago!”
“But they didn’t!” I nearly shouted, scowling. “So here I am. And you can either sit back and hate how things have turned out, or you can help make a difference.”
Raiyah parted her lips to speak, crossing her arms over her chest, but whatever she’d planned to say died on her lips. She turned away and strode from the room, but stopped upon the threshold, just as she’d done upon arriving.
“You don’t know who she is,” said Raiyah. “You don’t know what she’s done.” And then, without looking back, without another word said, she vanished around the corner and off into the waiting shadows.
I didn’t make to move after her, didn’t even think of it. But as I glanced down at the note in my hand, crumpled up like it had been gripped too tightly between Raiyah’s fingers, I couldn’t help but wonder . . . Was she right?
I shook out my head, the thoughts running on repeat within, and read Alara’s message three times over until each word fell across my tongue like sugar.
Meet me down by the pond at midnight.
A soft summer’s breeze sighed through the Veil as I made my way down the stone steps behind the Citadel to where an enchanting pond loitered below—it had taken me close to half-an-hour to meander down through that monstrous building, but I was glad to know that in case of an emergency, I was capable of finding my way out. Just not quickly.
The elder trees arched above me, and the lights that zigzagged through their branches swayed in the warm wind, sending shadows dancing through the grassy hillside. I walked in the cast of moonlight leading me down to the water’s edge, and just before the water’s edge, down beneath the looming willow tree, waited Alara.
A black dress swathed her slender frame, and patterns of indecipherable shapes swept across her chest like shadows crawling from the dark; a silver necklace hung at her throat, and atop her hair—which was intricately tied up at the back in a way that left a few strands curling down before her face—sat a floral crown, a circlet that glowed goldenly in the dark.
Without conscious volition, I reached out and swept them away from her eyes, and when I became aware of what I’d done, I froze with a hand raised beside her face; she smiled at me, more with those sensual eyes gleaming from the shadows than with those pert lips I wished I knew as well as her gaze, and she took my hand and held on tight.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, suddenly hyperaware of the fact that I had no control over myself . . . This fire desired . . . more.
“Don’t be,” said Alara, her eyes twinkling. “I do have to admit a part of me was afraid you wouldn’t get my message.” She glanced off in the direction of the looming edifice, where Raiyah waited within its walls, before shaking her head. “But . . . It doesn’t matter. You’re here.”
“I’m here,” I confirmed, flashing a smile.
She beamed up at me. “So I thought after the hell we’ve been through these last few days that we could afford a night off.” She held up her hands and they began to glow, and before I could ask what she was doing, she turned and faced the darkness of the large tree, and every shadow slowly began to retract as her hands glowed goldenly. I stared in awe as a picnic blanket appeared, and on it, plates and a small basket.
“Hungry?” she wondered, glancing to me.
“Sure,” I said with an eager nod, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Alara as she sunk to her knees, bringing me down beside her. She opened the basket and pulled out some fruit and cheeses, as well as, to my surprise, a fairly large bottle of wine.
“How hard was it for you to sneak that?” I laughed.
“Not as hard as you think,” Alara whispered, filling me a cup. Her lavender eyes swept mine, and I felt a pulse go through me as my fire uncurled inside my chest, waking like a monster from the dark. Heat rose to my cheeks, and I prayed that Alara wouldn’t notice . . .
“It’s so . . . warm,” I whispered, taking a vine of grapes from the basket and laying with my back against the blanket. Alara did the same beside me, and I picked off a grape and flicked it at her nose. She laughed and kicked at my feet, and I did the same, sloshing some of my wine on the ground below as I moved to pull her close to me.
“To think,” I told her, “just a few days ago we were just . . . strangers.”
Alara winced before searching my face, my eyes. “You were never a stranger to me, Rowyn Jacobs,” and her words made my heart beat faster, made my breath catch in my lungs, and I couldn’t help the smile that climbed my lips.
“After all this time?”
“I was sent to protect you,” she whispered, and I wrapped a hand around her, pulled her in close to my side.
“So what are you still doing here? Now that I’m safe?”
She grinned. “Are you asking me to leave?”
“No,” I laughed, shaking my head against the soft ground, “quite the opposite.”
“Oh really . . .?” And with that, not a second passed before Alara was on her feet, her hand extended down to me. “Care for a dance?”
I hesitated. I’d never danced before . . . “I don’t know how,” I nervously admitted, hanging my head.
“You don’t have to,” Alara assured me, and she bent and took my hands, and though I thought of protesting, I didn’t want to . . . I’d dreamt of this moment my entire life. I wasn’t just going to pass it up now because I was afraid of looking foolish.
Strands of moonlight sauntered down Alara’s frame, and I traced them with my eyes; the glow only seemed to accentuate the brightness of her gaze, made them shine brighter in the midnight darkness . . . They were impossible to look away from.
“Come on,” Alara said, pulling down her hair, “There’s nothing to be afraid of . . .”
She held me close, to my delight, and we simply moved back and forth in the dark; at times, Alara would lift my arm and spin herself underneath, and I couldn’t remember a moment in my life that made me feel quite the way I did then . . . so enraptured and alive.
“I used to come here as a child,” whispered Alara, taking me by the arms and twirling so that she stood encompassed by the warmth of my hold, gazing out at the water—it seemed entirely made of starlight, shining back at us with a glow of its own, as if a handful of stars waited just beneath the surface. “I’d been alone back then, but . . . now—”
“So long as I’m here,” I whispered, “you never have to feel alone ever again.” I don’t know which part of me said it, the fire or my heart, but I wouldn’t take them back . . . ever. I spun Alara, and she laughed up at me—not a mocking laugh, but a happy, happy one.
“I never thought I’d actually hear those words said to me,” she murmured, letting her head fall, and I was quick to lift her chin.
“You know,” I said as I spun Alara beneath the midnight sky, glancing up at the darkness above, “I read somewhere that there was a man who claimed to have caught a falling star.” I scanned the straits of polar-white luminaries plastered against the sky before searching the cobalt waters of the sound, reflecting the same stars and the velvety shadows that lay between.
Alara stopped spinning and placed her hands on my chest, and we walked in circles, moving just because we could. “That’s absurd,” she said, shaking her head up at the sky, at the glimmering specks twinkling above our heads. “Stars are for wishing,” purred Alara, and her sensual lips turned up at the corners; she crouched and retrieved a stone from the ground, and with a quick glance back at me, tossed it into the water. Its surface rippled, sending stars in every direction.
“True,” I had to admit, “but, then again, my wish did come true.”
Alara’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, and she searched me in the dark, tracing my face, and I did the same. “So . . .” she wondered in the ivory glow of the moon, worrying away at that pretty little lip of hers, “what did you wish for?”
I smiled at her, and as I spun her a final time, I nudged her in the back of the knee so that her legs buckled, and before she could hit the ground, I swept her into my arms and spun her around, to her delight.
“What was that?!” she laughed, and I rejoiced in the wondrous sound that surpassed her lips—a part of me, a part of myself I didn’t fully understand, made a vow then and there to do whatever it took to make that sound as common as the whispering wind.
“You asked me what I’d wished for,” I told her, letting my lips quirk into a sort of side smile that warmed my cheeks. “And,” I said, biting down on my lip, searching those lavender eyes of hers, “I wished for it to be possible to catch a falling star.” I took a shot in the dark and leaned in, and to my surprise, Alara did the same, meeting me in the middle. “And would you look at that,” I whispered, pulling away just enough to search her face; my heart raced inside my chest, but it wasn’t the familiar thrilling pulsation that arose after a race, but rather the thrill of having won. “I caught one.”
The words had hardly left my lips before Alara’s hands were tangled in my hair, and she was pulling my smile down to meet hers. I kissed her slowly with enough passion to leave her breathless moments later, but when she pulled away—when she looked at me like I’ve always looked at her—she emitted a gleeful cackle and kissed me harder, faster, until I entered a peaceful delirium I’d only ever dreamed of.
Shadows blended with the light as I set her back down on earth, and she wrapped her arms around my neck, slid them down under my shirt, down my back, over my shoulders . . . Her touch roved the landscape of my spine in the moments that I left a trail of kisses down her neck, inch by inch, second by second. Her fingers were like miniscule flames against my skin, and where she touched me, where she kissed me, I could feel my fire beckoning from down beneath my flesh, calling to me.
You don’t know who she is, Raiyah had said, and her words unraveled inside my head, pounding against my skull along with my heartbeat, you don’t know what she’s done. But I kissed away these words before they could make sense inside of me, kissed away the thoughts before they could form.
I kissed her hard, kissed her fast, and one moment I had her in my hands, held her close, and then she was on the move, leaving me to the shadows of the night.
“Come on!” she laughed as she raced into the pond, and I didn’t hesitate for even a moment before trailing after her. I kicked off my shoes and leapt into the moonlit water, relishing the warmth that enveloped me in its arms as I dove beneath the star-struck surface, and down, down deep where only shadows dared go.
The water was so clear, so bright . . . even the darkness didn’t seem that dark. Alara swam above me, beautiful, like a creature stolen straight out of a fantasy land; she dove deeper, sunk quicker, and I kicked off the murky floor of the pond and swam up to meet her.
Stars smiled down at us from above, and Alara bustled in circles around me, dancing beneath the awestricken skyline like this water was our dancefloor, and she was born with a song trapped inside her soul . . . We all did, some just sang louder than others.
I held her close and kissed her softly, and when I pulled away—just to look at her, see her with my eyes wide open—she grabbed me by the front of my shirt and beckoned me to her lips, and I’d never been so happy to feel like I was drowning.
She led me in a dance beneath the moonlight, and fireflies flickered in the star-speckled sky above the pond’s surface, setting everything ablaze with that familiar golden glow that only made me think of those lavender eyes . . . that sun-grazed smile . . .
I could feel Alara’s pulse.
We kicked off the ground below and swam to the surface, and Alara emitted a trifle of a laugh, so beautiful that it left me momentarily paralyzed.
I took her in my arms, spun her in the star struck pond, and when I looked at her, searched her wide-eyed gaze, I only wished I could see straight on through and take a look at what she was thinking in that pretty head of hers.
The night was aglow with a superlative array of wonder, mixed gently with a beautiful assortment of colors I never knew existed before now. I reached out my hands, completely conscious of ever move I made, and I cupped Alara’s face in my fingers, moved her lips closer to mine; her fingers traveled down my chest, and suddenly she was unbuttoning my shirt, peeling it from my skin . . .
We floated in circles, simply holding each other, and though I held her in my arms, her skin pressed up against mine, I felt as though we were miles apart . . . I felt like we could get closer if we wanted to, and I wanted to. I’d always wanted to. And when I pressed my lips against her brow, left a trail of kisses down Alara’s nose, she gripped me tight and I knew she wanted the same thing.
Something drew me to her . . . and I never wanted to leave. Ever.
“Come with me,” I suddenly said, holding out a hand, and with a quick glance up into my eyes, Alara took it. I led her to the shallow edge, and when I could stand, I helped her to her feet; water poured from our bodies like rain, and as we departed from the starlit water, I couldn’t help but glance back down at its warped reflection . . . at the two monstrous things standing at its edge.
“How is it,” I wondered, “that everything in this world has gone to hell, and yet you manage to remain the best thing in this horrible world?” I kissed her nose, her brow, her smile, and when she pulled away, I searched her lavender eyes and whispered, “All my life people have called me a monster for what I am. For what I can do . . . But you . . . you—” I didn’t have to finish my sentence, for she pulled my smile back to hers, and the milky twilight, speckled with stars and constellations that knew my name, my secrets, my soul, seemed to ignite as she moved her fingers through my hair, down my neck, my shoulders, my chest . . .
“We could have been legends. Heroes, even. But this world,” she whispered up to me, playing with the sparks that danced along my flesh in the shadows, “made us into monsters.” She kissed my neck, my throat, my chin, and I bent my head down to search her face as she said, “But when I’m with you . . .” Both of our eyes traveled down to where her hand glowed, and I lifted it in my own, like a thousand stars beneath her skin, and kissed each of her fingers, one by one. “When I’m with you,” Alara continued, “I am those things. And more.”
I wrapped her in my arms and gently brought her to the ground beside the moonlit pond, and as we lay amongst the dark, I could see every inch of her body, swathed in an angelic glow. Her smile . . . Her eyes . . . Her lips . . . Her heart . . . Her tattoo . . .
Time turned slowly, and my mind became void . . .
I paused, shaken from my reverie.
A black hexagon was scrawled across the back of her shoulder . . . But it wasn’t a normal mark. It was too similar to the one on my palm. They weren’t tattoos. They were brands—brands that marked us as the monstrous things we knew we were.
“I’m no longer afraid of the monsters inside my head,” I whispered against her faltering smile, biting down on her lip. “The dark has become more my home than any other place with each passing day, and now . . .” I took her hands in mine and pressed mine flat against hers, smoothing the light that escaped there. “Now I’m home.”
“Home?” she wondered, pulling away, testing the words on her lips. “Home . . . it shouldn’t just be the place you go to when you have nowhere else to go. It should be the place you want to be, the place you think about when you’re not there.” Alara paused, lowered her head, and brushed a few strands of hair away from her warn face with tremulous fingers. “Home should be where you go to get away from it all . . .”
“I’ve never had a home like that . . .” I breathed. “But now . . .”
I reached out my hand and slid my fingers through hers, and when she didn’t lift her head, I squeezed them until she did; lavender eyes reluctantly flitted up to meet mine, a glimmer from the dismal darkness, and in her stare, in the color that only existed in her star-bright gaze, I saw the place she was talking about . . . I saw my home.
She looked at me, a succinct glance, but she saw through me, straight passed the silence breathing from my lips and down, down, down to where the words waited, dormant inside of me, just beneath the quiet of my flesh; her stare breached the layers of my heart and soul, stirred the words inside of me, and when I tried to hide them in the shadows beneath my heart, she plucked them free of the dark, set them free, one by one.
“Home,” began Alara, eyes on mine, hand in mine, heart in synch with mine, “is where the heart is—”
“Yes,” I quietly interjected, holding tight to the hand I clung to to keep me from the surrounding shadows, the dark breaking in, grasping for me; I reached up my hand and brushed my knuckles along her cheek, traced the sharpness of her cheekbones, the strait of her jawline, and whisked away a lock of hair that fell there. “It is.”
“What are you doing?” Alara whispered as I slipped my hands up beneath her shirt. Her eyes roved my face up and down, nervously dancing along the landscape of my countenance, flitting from my eyes to my lips and back again.
I shook my head and tucked one hand beneath her chin, tipping her head back, her lips up, her smile skyward; her eyes fluttered shut, and the closer I got, the faster I could feel her pulse, fervent like the fire that roared beyond these fragile walls I’d only ever known.
“I’m going home.”
And with that, two monsters succumbed to the darkness of the world they knew little of.
C H A P T E R11
Morning came and left me in a daze. I woke beneath the swaying branches of the Veil’s elder trees, my head cushioned by the soft dewy grass. Mist hung in the air in places over the pond like wraiths, and though the sky was gray with what looked to be the coming of a snow storm, fresh sunlight warmed my flesh. Alara’s head was rested against my chest and her arm over my stomach, and I simply lied there, listening to the softness of her breathing—like music to my ears.
I pillowed my arm beneath my head and let loose a quiet sigh, and Alara’s eyes quickly fluttered open—so fast that I couldn’t help wondering if she’d been awake for as long as I had, if not more.
“Morning,” I whispered, flashing a smile—my real smile, a smile that I only knew how to make whenever she was around. I roved her pale-skinned face with my eyes and gently kissed her lips, placing a hand just beneath her chin.
She pulled away enough to say, “Morning,” but her lips never left mine, and the reverberation of her smile left me breathless, trembling with delight; she saw the way my hands shook as they grazed her body, so she held them to her and kissed me harder, sturdier, eviscerating that sense of tired that still nagged at the back of my mind, calling for me.
I had so many things I wanted to say to her, so many things that didn’t matter as much as the way my heart happily thrummed inside my chest in this moment—and every moment that kept us plastered to the ground, held in each other’s embrace.
I would close my eyes just to convince myself that this wasn’t real, that it had all been a wondrous dream, and then when I’d open them again, relief would flood my veins so fast and hard that it would send a laugh rolling off my tongue and onto hers. And nothing—nothing I’d ever felt or endured in my short life on this earth—had ever made me feel quite like I did then, like I was falling and Alara was sinking alongside me, and whatever lied beneath us and whatever stood above us didn’t matter because there was me and her and us and this and I would never trade that for anything. But if I could—if I could turn moments like this into currency—I knew as well as I knew myself that I would be the richest man alive.
I understood in the moment she retracted her smile from mine to look into my eyes why we dreamt—why, when we shut our eyes at night, we saw the unbelievable. We dreamt because somewhere deep down, a part of us knew that what we wanted existed just around the corner, and our dreams were a way of getting our hopes up. They stirred that voice inside our heads from the silence, and from our dreams we learned what we really wanted out of life.
I knew what I wanted. Knew how I wanted to spend every minute, every second, of everyday. And I knew who I wanted to spend those very seconds with—
“Your eyes,” she whispered, narrowing her own to inspect mine further. “They’re . . .” She paused and searched my face, my lips, as if the answers to a question she had yet to ask laid there, waiting. And then she whispered, “There are flames in your eyes.”
“Flames?” I whispered, and she repositioned her body to accommodate mine as I made to sit up. Lavender eyes darted over mine before she hesitantly motioned to the water with one of her hands, her other resting in mine, each of our fingers twined about the other. I reluctantly lowered my face down to the surface of the pond, where a scent I could only correlate to sunshine and burning wood met my nose, easing the tension of the muscles I hadn’t realized I’d been clenching.
I kept my eyes closed, afraid of what I might find, and Alara squeezed my hand, letting me know that she was there, right beside me, no matter what happened next; I could instantly feel the heat inside my face, as if my head were on fire, burning my thoughts to ash. And sure enough, when I slid my eyelids open, small flames darted inside the eyes of my nervous-looking reflection—the very same way they did inside of the rubies in my sword.
I sighed and clenched my eyes shut, and when I faced Alara, she cupped my cheek and kissed each of my eyelids before whispering, “Open them.” So I did. Without hesitation. Because her voice inside of my ears was like the sound a piano made when it was played correctly, and something so mellifluous . . . something so melodic and harmonious . . . She could will the world to change with a voice like that, and Lord knew she’d already changed mine for the better.
“Don’t be afraid of what you are. Who you are,” she whispered, kissing my lips so that every word fell like a spoonful of honey over my tongue. “There’s nothing quite so demoralizing as fearing what you know yourself to be. What you know you can’t change about yourself.” She kissed me, kissed me again, and I held her in my hands like I held the universe, and in a sense, I did—I held my entire world at my fingertips, and I’d known it since that first time she’d placed her hand in mine.
“You asked me which division I fell under,” Alara said, pulling away, and I could tell by the flash of pain in her eyes, the reluctant curl of her sensual lips, that I already knew the answer.
It didn’t need to be said aloud, the words that so clearly wounded her, laid heavy on her heart, so I willed my mind to open, and thought: You don’t fall under any of them. You’re a division all of your own.
Alara scanned my face before carefully nodding her head. “I didn’t want to tell you . . . I was afraid,” she whispered. “I know. It’s stupid. But the only other person known to man who’d been born . . . different is trying to hunt you down.”
“Konstantine,” I murmured, and she nodded again.
“Not many people know,” she said to me. “The Council told me I was lucky . . . My parents told me I was gifted . . . But how am I supposed to feel lucky when I’m so different?” She hung her head. “They say that Children of the Rift are drawn to members of their own division. But I . . . For so long I . . .”
“You are not alone,” I whispered to her, lifting her hand to my lips and leaving a kiss upon her knuckles, cleaving the cool morning air with the warmth of my words, left to linger like the mist that curled above the pond. “We’re both so . . . estranged from the people around us, and maybe—maybe that explains why I’m so drawn to you, Alara Blake.” I spared a heated grin, and Alara did the same. “Me, the last of my kind. You, the only one of yours . . .”
She kissed me, and I felt a sudden tug at my conscious, an unexplainable pull, and I knew—I knew that this was where I was meant to be. It was like everything simultaneously clicked into place, perfectly aligning, and I . . . I never wanted anything different.
This was the life I’d always wanted . . . This was where I belonged, where I felt at home. And as the day trickled on, part of me began to wonder if this peace, this—this rush I felt inside of my chest, like my soul was on fire and the beat of my heart only fanned the flames—would last. I didn’t know if it would, didn’t know if it could. But I wanted it to. More than I’d ever wanted anything before.
“You are what you are,” I whispered, “and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
She stole each of these words from my lips with a kiss that made my heart skip a beat, and we spent the rest of the morning in each other’s embrace, watching the hours pass blindly as the light in the sky thickened, and the grass warmed beneath our backs.
“You belong here,” Alara told me when we stood to leave this hallowed place, tracing her touch over the brand upon my palm, the circlet of black that marked my flesh. “Not the Veil. But . . . with me.”
I nodded. “I know,” I whispered.
We didn’t speak as we made our way back up to the looming Citadel above, but the entire way all I could think was that I finally had a home. And I would face any number of Shadow Demons to protect it. I would do whatever was necessary to stop Konstantine Ambershade. Even if I . . .
“We could be monsters . . . terrible things,” I whispered from the silence as I took Alara’s hand in mine, each finger a lifeline keeping me from floating away—from falling straight into the sky above. She glanced up at me and flashed a smile that I knew had my name written all over it, like it was made just for me, before gazing back out at the Veil, at the beautiful countryside I never knew existed. I squeezed her fingers, held her tight, kept a firm hold on this life. “We could be so many different things . . .”
“We could be heroes,” she spoke. “We could change the world.”
“We can be anything we want,” I said, pulling her in close as we made our way forward. “But all I want to be . . . is yours.”
I took my time showering, and this time when I was done, I didn’t get lost finding my way back to my room. The halls of the Citadel would have been ice cold had it not been for the fire running beneath my veins, and sometimes when I walked, I liked to run my hands across the stone just to remind myself that, though I couldn’t feel the chill seep into my flesh, I could when Alara touched me. It was like . . . she could tame the monstrous thing inside of me.
The clothes that had been mysteriously left for me outside the shower were soft and warm, and lighter than air. I felt as though a gust of wind might come and snatch them from my skin, but after a while, I got used to it—they made me move faster, swifter. I didn’t feel so . . . held back.
When I returned to my bedchamber, towel drying my hair the entire way from the bathing room to my room, I stopped when I noticed I wasn’t alone. A girl no older than myself sat on the edge of my bed and stared out the window, and when I coughed to sound my arrival, she flinched and quickly stood to her feet.
“Hi,” she said, flashing a smile as her eyes roved me up and down. Dark-red hair fell down past her shoulders, and vibrant ice-blue eyes pierced straight through me, as unforgiving as the winter wind—when I could actually feel it.
She wore tight leather training clothes with straps and buckles that hooked everything into place, and only one sleeve reached down her arm, while the other bore silver and gold bands of intricately wound filigree; a large belt wrapped crookedly around her waist, and from it hung several different types of blades that I couldn’t identify, even if I tried.
Her scarlet hair was pinned back, and golden wiring was woven through her dark locks, each connecting a peculiar circlet atop her head. She looked almost like . . . royalty.
“Uh . . . hi,” I said, tossing the towel onto my bed. I narrowed my eyes in confusion. “This is my room right?” I asked, spinning. “I didn’t, like, accidentally walk into the wrong room, did I? Because everything here looks exactly the same.”
“No, no,” this is your room. “I just . . . I heard that—”
“You heard that the last fire-bearer in existence arrived and you wanted to come down and check him out for yourself, am I right?” I wondered, crossing my arms over my chest.
The girl snorted and shook her head. “I just came to welcome you to the Citadel,” she said. “But . . . I’ll go and come back when your head’s deflated a little,” she said as she made her way across the room to the door.
I laughed and caught her arm, and she spun around to face me. “Hey, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to come off so . . . big headed. But I’ve only been here one night and there are already people whispering about me in the halls.”
The girl spared a smile and sighed. “I can imagine it must be quite a change. One day a regular old mortal, the next a Child of the Rift—”
“A famous Child of the Rift,” I pointed out with a smirk, “and never have I ever been just a regular old mortal.” The word tasted funny in my mouth, almost wrong—it was the unspoken divide between what I was, what I’d always been, and what I wanted to be more than anything . . .
The girl inclined her head to look at me. “Maeve,” she said, extending her hand. “That’s what I have my friends call me.”
“Are we friends?”
She shrugged. “Perhaps. Given time.”
I loosed a gentle smile and nodded.
“Anyway, a bunch of us are heading to the training grounds. I’d thought I’d come and see if you wanted to join us?”
“In the forest.”
I scanned her up and down, careful not to miss anything as I examined every one of her features. I nodded. “That sounds like fun.” And it did. There was only so many hours I could possibly go before these walls around me began to feel as if they were caving in. A walk through the woods was better than just sitting around just a foreign place.
“Good,” Maeve said with a fleeting smile. “Then come on. The others are waiting.”
“The others?” I wondered, but she was already out the door.
I quickly grabbed my father’s sword from out beneath the bed and headed after her, trailing in her wake. She walked like she had a purpose, like she knew what she wanted out of life, and I wondered if I’d ever grow that comfortable in this new skin of mine, this new reality I was drowning in.
Maeve and I walked down behind the Citadel, where its great stone steps led away, and I couldn’t help but glance off in the direction of the elder tree casting shade over beside the pond as we made our way through to the waiting forest.
There was a briskness in the air, a tug of coolness that I was more than surprised to have felt brush across my cheeks. Maeve sauntered off ahead, and through the thickness of the woodland, the crunch of twigs and the crackle of dried leaves sounded from the shadows.
Maeve stopped and held up a hand, motioning for me to stop as well.
“What is it?” I whispered. “What’s wrong?”
Maeve, slow to tear her eyes from the darkness of the forest, met my eyes and shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean,” she lied and continued on, and as I stood there watching her leave, part of me wondered if there was something out there . . . If there was something I wasn’t being told.
I remained on high alert as I followed her down a steep, steep slope to a valley below, where the echo of blades colliding with other blades shifted through the air, beckoning me further. Maeve hurried on ahead, and I had to break into a jog to keep up with her pace.
The woods opened to a wide-open plain, where groups of people were divided into different sections. In one area, two older looking men sparred on a sturdy, wooden platform, while just across the way, arches raised their bows to distant targets and let their arrows fly.
Some people feasted at tables that were placed all throughout the camp, and above us, wires and cables wound through the old trees, and people climbed and hopped and swung in the shaded canopies above, roaring with victory whenever they succeeded.
The area was alive with sound.
In one section of the woods, dozens of buckets of water were lined up in a circle, and two people faced each other on a stage in the center; I stopped and waited, and before Maeve could command me to continue, the two people on the stage raised their hands, and the water raised with them.
“Children of the Moon,” Maeve said to me. “They have control over water and ice.” She motioned with her chin to where they stood on the stage, manipulating the water, bending it at their will—something I should have known how to do by now; something I would have already learned if I’d grown up as one of them, as a Child of the Rift.
“He had his reasons for raising you as a mortal,” Maeve said, and I knew she was talking about my father.
I cocked my head at her. “Can you read my thoughts, too?”
“No,” spoke Maeve, “but I can read your face.” She eyed me warily before she said, “Konstantine is and always will be a madman. He would have happily stolen the powers from a baby if he’d had the chance.” She dropped her eyes before raising them back to mine, and their coolness, their iciness . . . they sent a chill rolling down my spine. “If there had been any other way—”
“I know,” I whispered, nodding. “He did the best he could.” I searched the area, watched how the two Children of the Moon bent their water into giant fists to strike each other’s, and sighed. “I just wish he’d told me what I was a long time ago. That I wasn’t alone.”
“You would have come searching for us,” Maeve said, and even though she was right, I shook my head. “Our curiosity can get us into quite the trouble,” she added, starting to walk. I followed after her, and she brought me over to where the two men had been sparring a few seconds before. “Care to spar?”
I thought of declining, but I needed to know how to fight. I had to be prepared for what was coming, and if Maeve could help me do that, I needed to train. I needed to be ready for anything.
“Sure,” I said and reached for my sword.
“Oh, you won’t be needing that.” She bent low and threw me a wooden staff, and I caught it before it could collide with my face. “Despite the fact that you may have decapitated a Shadow Demon your first time wielding a sword, all beginners start out with a staff.”
“Word traveled that fast about what I did?” I asked, twirling the wooden staff around in my hands. It was smooth and light, yet surprisingly strong; I weighed it in my hands, finding it perfectly balanced.
Maeve snorted. “Faster than you know.”
From up atop the stage, I scanned the surrounding area. There were similar stages set up to the one where the Children of the Moon sparred by the water buckets, and over to my right, a woman quickly spun her hands, and her opponent was thrown right of the stage. Children of the Wind, I presumed.
Similarly, over on my left, two younger boys were dueling on a stage, one using a wall of earth as a shield, while the other attacked with a mud-like whip that writhed on the air. Children of the Earth—
And there, now all alone in the archery section, stood Raiyah. We made eye contact and she waved, and I nodded my head at her, watching as she spun away to fire an arrow at her target, striking it in the dead center.
“Come on, fire-bearer. Show me what you’ve got,” Maeve said, bringing me back to the present. I faced her again and repositioned myself so that we stood across from each other. She raised her staff and placed it in her hands so that her right hand wrapped around its middle, while her left had it by the bottom.
I mirrored Maeve’s stance and slowly advanced, swinging the upper end of the wooden rod up, and Maeve slammed hers down so fast and hard that my bones ached, but I kept my hold sturdy on the wood. She flicked her staff in my direction, and I defensively flinched back, drawing up my own weapon; they clanged together with a loud crack, the forced of her attack sending me stumbling back, but I recovered quickly enough that as Maeve jabbed at my midriff, I swung to the side and swung, and my staff connected with her side.
“Lucky shot,” she winced, and before I was ready, she grabbed my staff and wrenched me forward, sweeping my feet out from beneath me with her own in one foul swoop; I toppled back onto the wooden floor of the stage. “But there’s no luck in fighting.”
Maeve spun away, and with a devious smile spared up at her, I swung my leg out and sent her sprawling, and as she hit the floor, I swiftly rose and swung my staff down onto her belly, keeping it there.
“It’s not my luck that just knocked you on your ass,” I laughed, tossing my staff to the side. I proffered a hand down to her, and after a hesitant breath, Maeve smiled and took it, and I wrenched her to her feet.
“Alright, Big-Head,” she mocked, placing her hands on her hips, “let’s go again. And this time I won’t hold back.”
I laughed and spun my staff in my hands. “Bring it—”
A single silver speck darted through the air from above, and an arrow lodged itself into a tree on the edge of the forest at our backs, narrowly missing Maeve by inches.
Quiet fell upon the training grounds, leaving the throb of the arrow’s shaft as it quivered in the tree to sound all throughout the woodland.
My staff fell from my hands and clattered to the floor of the stage, and as I rounded in the direction the arrow had come, I realized we had drawn an audience. People of all shapes, sizes, and ages gazed up at us, and slowly, they all turned toward the archery station where, alone, Raiyah still stood, bow in hand.
But that arrow . . . It had come from above. It couldn’t have been Raiyah . . .
I inclined my head to stare up through the canopies, and I swore I saw movement up amongst the branches.
“Seize her!” came a booming voice, and several men and women in silver and black armor appeared, as if they’d run straight from the shadows. Two of the men grabbed Raiyah, throwing her weapon to the ground and binding her hands behind her back, while another raced up the steps of the stage to Maeve’s side.
“Princess Errinnea,” said the man, extending a hand. “Come with me.”
Maeve met my eyes, and for a moment there was a glint of sorrow and regret loitering there before she turned away and followed the soldier from the stage. I stared after her in awe, the word ‘Princess’ rolling through my head like thunder, echoing all throughout my hollow frame.
“Princess?” I said, following her down the steps. “What do you mean?”
Maeve stopped, but the soldier grabbed her arm. “Princess, it isn’t safe here—”
“It isn’t safe anywhere!” she snapped at the soldier, and I envied her bravado. “Now make sure that that girl is taken into custody and do not, I repeat, do not touch me again! Now, make sure she’s taken straight to the dungeons beneath the Citadel, and wait for me there.”
“We’re finished,” she sternly said, and the soldier nodded and began to walk away.
“Princess?” I repeated in question, and Maeve held her head high.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything,” she whispered. “But it’s not every day that a princess gets to play the role of soldier.” She glanced around the training grounds before looking back at me, those icy blue eyes piercing. “The king holds a tight leash on me. The only way I get to see the sun is if I sneak away.”
I stilled. “The king?”
“Yes,” Maeve slowly said. “My father . . . Has no one told you?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head.
Maeve started to walk away, and over her shoulder, she said, “I should have told you. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
I started after her again but stopped. “It’s okay. Princess.”
Maeve stopped, her back going rigid, almost as if that word, that title, had triggered it. Just when I thought she was going to turn around to say something snide, she shook her head, still high on her shoulders, and continued onward to the looming Citadel.
“Stop!” Raiyah screamed as she was dragged through mud and leaves. “Stop, it wasn’t me! It wasn’t me! It wasn’t—” She stopped when she caught my eye, and shouted, “Rowyn! It wasn’t me! You have to believe me! It wasn’t me! It wasn’t me!”
I stood there in silence, standing amongst my own kind . . . and never before had I ever felt more estranged, put at a distance from the rest of society.
Raiyah couldn’t have fired that arrow . . . Could she?
No. I shook the thought from my head. It wasn’t her. It couldn’t have been her, no matter how she felt about the state of things.
Raiyah didn’t fire that arrow. I knew she didn’t. She wasn’t that stupid. But then . . . Who did? And why at Maeve—at Princess Errinnea? Did the shooter shoot to kill? Was this an act of war?
The treaty, I thought to myself. My father said there was a treaty. And now . . . now it was broken.
So many questions ran through my head as I watched Raiyah get dragged away, helpless and afraid, her voice hoarse in her throat as she screamed and screamed and screamed. The more I watched her, the more I knew she wasn’t guilty. She just got back to the Veil, why would she risk so much?
I needed to talk to the Princess. But first . . .
C H A P T E R12
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t . . . I couldn’t . . .”
I stood in Alara’s bedchamber, and she sat on the bed before me, her head hung on low shoulders. Her eyes traced lines on the rug that covered the cold floor beneath her feet, and I wondered what exactly might be going through her head in this moment. Why didn’t she tell me the truth? Was she . . . was she trying to protect me somehow?
“You couldn’t what?”
She shook her head and slowly rose to her feet, and when she opened her mouth, I expected an explanation to come trickling out, but instead there was the same steady silence as before.
“Alara?” I paused, waited a beat. “Alara—?”
“There’s so much more at stake than you know,” was all she said, and she began to pace about the room, her fretful gaze restlessly darting about.
I moved to her side and placed my hands on her shoulders to steady her, and said, “After yesterday . . . Whatever it is, Alara, I can handle it.”
She began to bite at her nail and I knocked her hand away, and then brushed away the hair that fell into her eyes, sending a smile involuntarily sprawling across her pale face—the light that radiated from within those lavender eyes of hers stole my breath, and I stood there, choking on all the words I couldn’t say.
But then, “There are several Citadels throughout the country that’s ruled by the King,” she whispered. “And a few weeks ago, the west coast was ambushed by Ambershade’s army, leaving the King and the rest of his court to flee. But . . .” she paused and glanced to the window, as if beyond she could see the truth, and it made it easier for her to talk to me. “And the Prince—”
“The Prince? Errinnea has a brother?”
“He was taken,” she murmured, swallowing hard. “Konstantine is willing to trade the Prince for the Compendium. But that’s just not a deal we can make.” She let her head fall, and I was there to catch it. “I didn’t want to tell you because . . . because . . .”
“Because you didn’t want me to know that the life of the Prince rested in my hands,” I breathed.
Alara didn’t respond, but held my gaze, sturdy as the floor beneath us. “I thought I was supposed to be the one who could read minds,” she carefully said—and I hated that. Hated that she felt like she needed to be careful around me, that she didn’t know me the way I wanted to know her.
“I don’t have to read your mind to know what’s inside your heart,” I whispered down to her with as little conscious volition as one did when they wiggled their toes or blinked up at the sun, and Alara wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me, gently, letting my words dissolve on each of our tongues. She pulled away just far enough to stare up into my eyes, to search my face, as she had a habit of doing, and part of me wondered if she saw in them what I saw in hers . . . A home, a place where I could go to when things grew dark. A place where I . . . belonged.
And the rest of me wondered if these inches between us, this unmeasurable divide, made her feel like we were worlds apart, as they did me.
“You should have told me,” I said. “But I understand why you didn’t.”
“Good,” she said in response, searching my eyes deeper.
“What’s the matter?”
She shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
“Come on. You can tell me anything, Alara.” I scanned her face. “Tell me what’s the matter.”
She shrugged. “Your eyes . . .”
“Are they burning again?” I reflexively reached a hand up to my face to see if my gaze gave off any heat, like my heart.
“No,” Alara whispered, and I dropped my hand to my side as a short, sweet smile played across her lips. “It’s just that . . . they’re brown like chocolate and creamy like coffee . . . and now I’m hungry.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at this, and I reached out my hand and brought her closer to me, and left a kiss on her lips. “Then we’ll go get you food. But first I need to meet with the Princess somehow.”
“The Princess?” Alara wondered. “Why?”
“Because,” I told her, “Raiyah didn’t fire that arrow.”
“You have to believe me,” I pleaded to Maeve, who scanned my face, my eyes, for the truth. We stood in the Council Chambers, over by where the wall of windows looked out onto the Veil, the world shrouded in a light haze today. Alara stood at my side, and she too watched me. “Please,” I whispered. “I know what it’s like to be accused of being something I wasn’t.
Monster, they called me. Monster, I called myself.
I winced, and Maeve sensed the pain. “I do,” she whispered, nodding to herself. “Believe you, that is.” She paused and glanced around before looking at me once more. “But if Raiyah Haverhill didn’t fire that arrow, then who did? She was the only one with a bow.”
“No,” I said, “she was the only one with a bow over in the archery station. That doesn’t mean—”
“Look, when I said I believed you, I meant it. “But it’s not up to me.” She stopped, and at my look of confusion, continued, “I may be the Princess, but that doesn’t mean I have any control over what goes on. The Council . . . They decided who stays and goes. They decide who lives.”
“Are they . . . They’re going to execute her?” I said, and my voice broke. “They’re going to kill her?”
Maeve nodded her head.
“Call me Maeve,” she whispered.
I paused. “What?”
“Maeve,” she said. “I’m a girl of many names, but I prefer Maeve. So long as I’m Princess Errinnea, I feel like I’m my father’s property. Like my name is a collar wrapped around my throat. But . . . I like to tell myself that by giving myself a new name, he doesn’t have a hold on me.”
“Maeve,” Alara whispered to herself, testing it out on her tongue, and when she glanced up, Princess Errinnea—Maeve—was smiling in her direction. “It’s pretty . . . But strong. I like it.” She cleared her throat. “I know it’s not my place to say, but I think you should have the ability to overrule the Council.”
She nodded. “And try as I may to make my father understand that, he still sees me as my mother’s child. That woman who died and left me with her offspring.” Maeve’s eyes grew sharp and dark, and her teeth ground together. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking from me to Alara. “But there’s nothing I can do for your friend.” She spun away—
I reached out and grabbed her hand, and Maeve spun around and slid a knife from out of nowhere and pressed it up against my throat. “Never touch me,” she growled in a voice that was as dark and unforgiving as the winter nights in New Hampshire.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said, relenting, and Maeve shoved me away.
“Maybe if your friend was an honorable citizen the Council would let her off with a warning, but that girl is no saint,” Maeve said, jabbing a finger at the wall of glass, as if Raiyah stood just beyond it. “I told you. I have no say. It’s not me you need to convince—”
“Then call a Council meeting. Set us an appointment. But that girl, as much as it pains me to say this,” Alara said, swallowing back what could clearly be perceived as unmitigated frustration, “didn’t fire that arrow.” She turned her eyes on me. “I believe Rowyn.”
Maeve glanced at each of us in turn before turning to face the windows. “Two hours,” she whispered, and then, louder this time, “You have two hours to get your affairs in order. I’ll call a meeting and you can plead your case, and I’ll assist you in any way I can. But I can’t, and I won’t, guarantee that that girl’s freedom is secure.”
Alara smiled and grabbed my arm.
“That’s all we ask,” she whispered.
Maeve nodded, dismissing us. She didn’t turn around, but I could tell just by the way she looked out on the world that something was troubling her. And if her father was the type of person she claimed him to be, then it took no investigation to understand her pain.
“I’m sorry,” I said before I left. “For grabbing you. Maeve.”
Maeve only nodded, letting the hand that held the dagger fall to her side, where it was left to hang.
If people were seen as monsters, then monsters they would become.
Alara and I headed back to my room, where we instantly flopped down onto the bed and looked at each other, her lavender gaze seeping into my own. I wrapped my arm around her shoulders, and she nuzzled down into the warmth of the pillows, leaning her head against my own; it was nice having her at my side—it was more than nice. It felt right, like her body next to mine made sense, the way that paint went with paintbrushes. I didn’t feel right without her at my side.
“What are we going to do?” Alara whispered, closing her eyes.
I kissed her forehead and said, “Whatever we can.”
“But we shouldn’t even still be here. We need to go find the—”
“And we will,” I whispered. “But we can’t just leave Raiyah to rot. No matter how you feel about her,” I said, and Alara nodded against my shoulder.
“You always have to play the hero, don’t you,” she said with a smirk, and laughed—and just the feeling, the effervescence of her laughter, lit a smile across my face like a match ready to burn.
“What can I say?” I whispered, glancing over at her. “Rowyn’s my name, hero’s my game.”
Another bubble of laughter fluttered from her lips, and she rolled onto her side, facing me. “You did not just say that,” she managed through the hysterics—that infectious laughter that made me join in without any volition whatsoever.
I rolled onto my side to face her, my arm still around her.
She was so . . . Damn, beautiful just didn’t capture the essence of what she was. What she’d always been, ever since I could remember. She was just . . . She was everything. Everything.
Alara blushed, and a pang of realization settled within me, causing my heart to stop.
Once again, I had forgotten that she could read my thoughts . . .
“Everything, huh?” Alara implored, leaning closer, closer, closer—
I closed the distance between us and kissed that smile from her lips, replacing it with one of my own. “Everything,” I assured her, and I meant it—I knew I meant it by the assuring thrum inside my chest, starting at a quiet percolation and ending in a roar like that of rain on a tin roof.
I kissed her, kissed her harder, and Alara went rigid beneath my touch, and she pulled away. “We . . . we, uh . . .”
“We can’t,” I whispered, nodding. “I know. You’re right. We should be figuring out a way to help Raiyah.” I listed my head to the side, pressing down into the pillows beneath me. “Why would anyone want to hurt Princess Errinnea?” I wondered.
“For that very reason,” said Alara. “She’s a princess.”
“A princess with no power,” I reminded her. “So what would one have to gain by attacking her?” It didn’t make sense to me. If someone—someone who wanted the Rift to remain open, wanted magic to stick around—then why not attack a Council member? Or, better yet, the King? Why the princess? Why Maeve?
“Could stand as a revenge plot.” Alara tucked her fingers through mine and stared up at the ceiling, placing her legs on top of mine. “Can’t hurt the King, so what’s the next best thing? His daughter.” She glanced down at me, stared into my eyes. “It’s the ones we love the most that have the potential to hurt us the most.”
Love . . . The word seemed to pop from her tongue like a static shock, and I wondered . . . I wondered . . .
“But until now, there was never a chance for the Rift to close. So why wage war?” I bit my lip, bit back the thoughts gathering inside of my head. “Why get revenge? Why . . . Why risk so much?”
Alara shook her head. “Because some risks are worth taking, I suppose.”
“And am I one of those risks,” I blurted out, and Alara smiled.
“You’re a wanted man, Rowyn Jacobs. Just being seen with you is risky enough . . .”
My heart lurched inside my chest, and a weight sunk into my stomach, as heavy as the burdens I was forced to carry—the burdens we all bore. “Then why stay . . . Why risk it all? Am I—is this, whatever this is—really worth all that could come?” I scanned her face, searched her lips, her eyes, the answer beyond. “I’ve dreamed of this . . . of you,” I breathed into that divide between us I’ve grown to hate, “and I’d do anything to make it so that this doesn’t end. But . . . I don’t want to endanger you if I don’t need to. If you don’t want—”
And suddenly Alara was sitting on top of me, leaning down over my face, her dark-russet hair falling around her angelic smile; she placed her hands on my chest, the too-thick fabric that lied between her flesh and mine, and she grazed her touch all the way up my throat, my chin, until her fingers were on my lips. And then she was leaning down, kissing me, and I felt like I was drowning in light, choking on the sun—
“I don’t know what we are, what this is. But I . . . It’s worth everything. Everything.” She touched her lips down onto mine once again, and I held her, held her so close, inching my way up her arms and over her shoulders, down her back and through her hair.
Her smile sunk into mine, and there was a hunger to the way she kissed me, a primitiveness that I matched, kiss for kiss as my fingers snatched at the weak fabric of her shirt and pulled it over her head—as she did the same to mine.
I grabbed her around the waist and threw her down so that suddenly she was beneath me, and my hands were plastered to the pillows on either side of her head. I sunk into the euphoria that was her lips, the warmth of her silence, and she ran her fingers through my hair, holding on as the world rotated on its axis.
Because she could move mountains. Change the world. And I could burn it, turn it to ash. So as she held me close, and I held her closer, my fingers tumbling down the rigid landscape of her spine, I knew that we were a storm, raged against the world.
I was a fire burning high, and she tamed the flames inside of me. And her gaze was as sharp as a winter wasteland, as careful as the setting sun, and I thawed it with the heat of my lips as I kissed her lips, her chin, her throat, her—
The door to my bedchambers was thrown open, and Dalton and three other boys I didn’t recognize stepped in after him.
Alara gasped, her eyes going wild as her cheeks reddened with embarrassment, and I just held her against me—the only cure for this poison in my soul.
“For God’s sake,” Dalton hissed, turning away to the face the wall, large hands at his hips. He motioned for his boys to turn as well. “Get dressed. The both of you. I need your help.”
I looked at Alara, who looked back at me with a similar rush of panic written in her eyes, and I dropped my hands and rolled to the side, pulling on my shirt as she did the same. I awkwardly stood to my feet and ran my hands through my hair, and when I looked at Alara, a smile lit her lips like a fire, and I its kindling.
I cleared my throat, and Dalton turned, his eyes squinted as if fearful of what he might find before him. “It’s real great to know that while Raiyah is set to be executed, you two are celebrating by . . . gallivanting amongst the bedsheets.”
I scowled and ground my teeth. “Whatever you saw is none of your concern.”
“It is when my friends are in danger.” His eyes narrowed to the point where they became mere slits in his face, and his look of anger matched mine.
“She’s my friend, too,” I hissed.
“Well, you’ve got a funny way of showing it.”
“We have a meeting with the Council in a few hours,” Alara cut in, standing between us. “So how about instead of killing one another, we actually try to figure out a constructive way of helping Raiyah.” She took a step toward Dalton and raised her voice, her stance never wavering. “Sound like a plan?”
Dalton breathed deeply through his nose and yielded a step back. “Fine. But if we go into that Council meeting without a plan, then they’ll execute her without a thought. And I . . .” He shook his head from side to side and ran his fingers over his shiny, hairless scalp. “I’d rather do something I’d regret than lose her like this.”
Alara nodded sympathetically, as if she understood exactly what he meant. And I wondered . . . What would she do something she’d regret for the sake of what we held between us? Would she—
“Princess Errinnea is on our side,” Alara whispered.
“And what good does that do us? She has no more power than you or me.”
“It means we have one more person on our side,” I spoke, and all eyes uneasily shifted to me. “Whether we like it or not, we need numbers.” I shook my head. “I’m new to this . . . all of this. But I know enough that the fewer we are the shorter we’ll stand.”
Dalton took his sweet time digesting this. But then, “Then we have a chance,” he said, nodding to me. “But what are we going to say?”
“Leave that to me,” Alara said. “I deal with the Council all the time.” She nodded, swallowing hard. “I’m our best chance of freeing Raiyah.”
Dalton grinned. “Are you ready?”
Alara smiled and grabbed my fingers, and I held them firm in my own, squeezed them tight. “I’m ready. I can . . . I can do this.”
“Good,” Dalton grumbled. “Just don’t be getting all . . . handsy with each other during the meeting. If it wasn’t pleasing to us, it won’t be to the Council.”
Alara scowled. “You’re just jealous.”
“Maybe I am,” I purred, sauntering forward, and I took a step to block his path, my hands curled into fists down at my sides.
“Don’t even think about it,” I growled, and Dalton laughed.
Looking to Alara, he laughed and said, “Don’t let this one get away,” as he patted me on the chest. His darker-than-dark eyes flitted to me, and he said, “You’re brave. I like that. But there’s a lot you still need to learn.”
“And that starts with you taking a step away from my girlfriend,” I sternly said, and Dalton did as I said, his hands raised in surrender.
“Girlfriend,” Alara quietly echoed, and a smile swept across my face.
“Sound good?” I wondered, nervously glancing in her direction.
“Sounds better than good,” she said. “Sounds . . . brilliant.”
Brilliant . . . That word . . .
“My head isn’t where you belong,” I whispered to her, searching the lavender skyscape of her captivating gaze with a smile playing at my lips, and then, inside my head, I thought loud enough and strong enough for her to hear me across the divide between us, my heart is. Always and forever.
I knew in that moment what I’d known the very first time I’d laid eyes on Alara, and nothing—absolutely nothing—could change what I still knew to be true in that moment. Nothing. Not the fact that this was a new world I found myself in, nor the fact that she wasn’t the person I always thought her to be—she was even better.
I loved Alara Blake. Today. Tomorrow. Always.
C H A P T E R13
The broad doors of the Council Chambers heaved shut with a tremendous sound that rattled my bones, and a shiver spiraled down my spine. The members of the Council sat in waiting, and in the center of the large room kneeled Raiyah, her hands and feet chained to an iron stake in the floor. Maeve, no longer in her training uniform, but a tight silver gown, stood before her.
I quickly marched into the room and stood before the Council, their dark eyes flitting down to meet mine, to scan me up and down, determining my worth—such a mortal quality, I noticed. I kept my hands at my sides, and Alara stood beside me, while Dalton remained at my back.
I didn’t look at Raiyah, and yet I could feel her cool eyes on me, scanning me up and down, analyzing me—weighing the odds. I ran my tongue over my teeth, tried to swallow back my fear—my fear of failing—as I stepped forward and addressed the Council, my head held as high as humanly possible.
“Good evening,” I nervously said, clasping my hands before me. I parted my lips to speak again, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to talk to a Council, how to plead for a life to be saved. I didn’t know how to help people. I didn’t—
“We’ve called this meeting to make you see that Raiyah is innocent,” Alara said, and I was shocked to find that it was her words that floated up to meet my ears. “She’s many things,” Alara continued, her eyes darkening as they danced over Raiyah, who stared back in astonishment, “but she’s not a killer.”
“How eager you are, Miss Blake, to trust the ones we do not understand—” spoke a Councilwoman.
“I don’t understand her, you’re right.” She stared unflinchingly back at the woman, fearless as she interrupted, unafraid of the consequences. “I don’t understand how someone can love a world where magic takes so much. I don’t understand anything about her. Why she would fight for something so . . . chaotic as she does. But there is a large divide between standing up for what you believe in and committing an act of treason.”
Silence fell upon the Council Chamber, and I swore when I glanced down at Raiyah, that there was a glimmer of regret in her eyes—regret, no doubt, for treating Alara with so much repugnance. When I glanced back up at the Councilmembers, they seemed to be thinking over what had been said.
“But,” came the voice of an elderly man to my left, “there’s no denying that an act of treason was committed. That arrow was aimed at Princess Errinnea—”
“With all due respect,” Alara spoke, “the arrow could have come from anyone.”
“And with all due respect, Miss Blake,” the same man snidely said, “speak again out of term and you will be forced to leave.”
Alara bowed her head and took a step back. “My apologies.”
I gritted my teeth and stepped forward. “But she’s right,” I said. “That arrow . . . It could have come out of anywhere. But it definitely didn’t come from the direction of the archery station. It came from above—”
“You claim that we have a killer in our midst? How absurd.”
“With all due respect,” I quietly said, “don’t interrupt me.”
The entire room fell dead silent as the Councilman rose to his feet.
“What did you say?”
“Raiyah Haverhill is innocent,” Dalton growled, stepping up beside me. “You cannot condemn her for something she didn’t do. Not without any proof.”
“We have all the proof we need,” said the Councilman, jabbing a finger in our direction. “And at down, she will fall dead before the entire settlement because it doesn’t matter what you say or believe, our word is final—”
There was a sudden crash, and all heads turned to Maeve, who stood before Raiyah, with a sword drawn. My sword. I hadn’t even noticed she’d taken it. Raiyah, slow to move, rose to her feet, the remains of the weak chains dangling from her wrists and ankles.
“This meeting is over.”
“With all due respect, milady—” started the Councilman.
“Enough,” Maeve spit at the man, lowering my sword. “Every second we waste debating over who shot that arrow, a killer could be waiting outside these walls.” She scanned the Council with an expression of disgust. “I request Asseveration.” The word fell darkly from her set lips. “Allow Raiyah to assist Rowyn on the perilous journey to find the Compendium, and in return, she keeps her life. And should he fail,” Maeve said, flitting her gaze back to me, and then, to the Council, “you have my permission to execute her.”
“Asseveration . . .” the Councilman whispered, digesting this. After a moment—a moment of scanning our faces and weighing his options—he said, “Very well.” He grinned, his crooked smile spreading wide. “One week.”
“What?” Maeve said, narrowing her brows.
“They have one week to find the Compendium and return here. And should they fail, Raiyah dies by our hand.”
Maeve glanced around, looking back at me, at Raiyah, and then faced the Council once more. “Very well. One week.” She lowered her head. “You may mark her.”
Maeve motioned for Raiyah to step forward, and after a moment of hesitation, she stepped up to the Councilman. She extender her hand out to him, and he placed a single finger at the inside of her elbow and dragged it all the way to her wrist, and as he did so, a line of frost followed his touch. Raiyah’s skin began to ice over, and a scream tore from her throat as cracks formed in her flesh, weaving up and down her arm.
“What’s happening to her?” I nearly shouted, starting forward, but Maeve wrapped a hand around my wrist, commanding me to stay back. I didn’t search her eyes, didn’t speak again. I didn’t look away from Raiyah, even as my heart swelled inside of my chest, as her throat grew hoarse from all the screaming, all the pain.
The cracks stopped coming, and Raiyah’s scream died in her throat, leaving her to collapse to her knees. I shrugged off Maeve’s hold and darted to her side, and before anyone could say anything, I wrapped my arms around her and held her up, her wounded arm falling around my shoulder.
Hesitant to act, Alara moved to aid me. But Dalton was faster, and he helped me return her to her feet. As I watched, the cracks in her flesh began to vanish, and where they were, black strands of ink now laid, woven beneath her skin.
“This meeting is over,” someone said, and each members of the Council began to file out of the room, never once looking back as they did so.
Maeve placed a hand on my shoulder, but she didn’t say anything. And she didn’t have to for me to understand.
I had a week. A week to change the world. Or else Raiyah died.
One week. Seven days—
“Why did you do that? For me?” Raiyah wondered, and when I looked at her, I found that she was staring after Alara, who had crossed the room.
“Because,” Alara whispered, turning back. “No one deserves that.”
Raiyah didn’t respond, but her shadowed eyes fell to the marks unraveling up and down her arm.
“We have seven days to find the Compendium,” Maeve spoke. “I say get a good, long nights’ sleep. Because we won’t get much these next few days.”
“We?” I wondered, looking over to where she stood.
“We,” Maeve assured me. “I am coming with you.”
“But—” Alara started, and Maeve cleared her throat, stopping her.
“There is no ‘buts’. The outcome of this journey affects us all.” She glanced around. “And besides. When we close the Rift, the Veil will cease to exist. I will no longer be a princess, and just as well, my father will no longer be King.” She looked to me and searched my eyes. “And as my last act as princess, as future Queen, I vow to aid you in any way that I can, fire-bearer. This is not your burden to bear alone.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“I’m coming, too,” Dalton said. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Maeve nodded at this.
“And I,” said Alara. “We’ve seen what magic has done to us,” she said, jutting her chin in the direction of Raiyah’s markings. “We’ve seen the monsters that have arisen from this life. So . . . so let’s change this world.”
Maeve grinned. “Close the Rift. Save Raiyah. Stop Konstantine Ambershade once and for all.”
I gulped down my fear and smiled.
Alara grabbed my hand and didn’t let it go. “Everything’s going to be okay,” she whispered up to me, her voice only audible enough to be heard by me.
“You don’t know that,” I said through a sigh, meeting her eyes.
“Yes,” she said to me. “I do.”