3 | Ember
| Ember |
“I can’t believe you,” Eliza was saying, her jawbone hard under her pale skin. “I just really can’t.”
Ember rolled her eyes. “Just hark off Eliza,” she said, stepping over more building rubble. “You’re not my mom, you know.”
“Language,” Eliza snapped, her dark eyebrows creasing into a deeper frown. “And if mom were here she would have said the exact same thing.”
“Sure,” Ember mumbled, rolling her eyes again. Eliza had been grilling her about going to the No-Man’s market ever since they had climbed down the building, and now Ember just wanted her sister to go away.
“I hope you have a good explanation planned for dad,” Eliza continued, jaw still hard.
Ember blocked her out. She couldn’t listen to her sister’s scoldings any more or she might explode like she had a few minutes ago, earning more reprimands form Eliza for the string of profanities she had spewed.
But now Ember couldn’t yell, she was smarter than that. They were in the wastelands, where the ground was still scorched, garbage and debris littered the ground, the long burned skeletons of trees still standing, ghostly against the sky. Where desperate, hungry people waited, ready for the chance to slit someone’s throat just for a mouthful of food. Only the desperate came to the wastelands; the loners, people without a gang to protect them, and those who no longer cared if they lived or died.
“Are you even listening to me?” Eliza’s words cut through Ember’s thoughts.
“No,” Ember said, the fury building inside her. “I’m crussing not.”
Eliza glared at her, and Ember felt a trickle of satisfaction.
“Fine,” Eliza snapped, her pace quickening. “Don’t listen, don’t care. I’m only trying to help you, to help Dad. But obviously you’re too childish and thickheaded to think of anyone but yourself and your idiotic ideas of freedom.”
Ember grit her teeth, trying to hold back the angry words bubbling at the surface of her lips.
But she failed. “I dont give a crussing dragon scarf what you think Eliza,” She exploded. “You think I need someone to take care of me, but your harking wrong. The only reason I’m not gone is because of Dad. And you know what? I don’t even know why I’m doing that, I don’t want to be a harking healer, I don’t care what you, or Dad want.”
Eliza’s pale cheeks flushed with anger, but she didn’t say anything.
Ember clenched her fists hard. wanting to yell and scream at Eliza, for anything and everything. But she didn’t. They had reached their home, if that was what you could call it.
The shelter was made of broken pieces of metal torn from the side of fallen hovercrafts, ripped plastic covering the doorway, and broken branches tied together to make the frame. It was rough, but much better than the last shelter they had had a few years ago before it had been burned in a dragon fire.
Ember watched as Eliza stalked into the shelter, her anger showing in every line of her body.
Ember kicked a lump of burned stone, muttering curses under her breath before sitting down on a rusted tin bucket that her father usually sat on while making dinner.
Ember’s insides were a mess.
She wished she hadn’t yelled at Eliza, she wished she didn’t have to be who her dad wanted her to be. She wished her mom was alive, she wished she didn’t have to live with her family anymore.
She remembered when she had been younger she had asked her dad why they weren’t in a gang, with tears streaming down her face because she was so hungry.
“We are a gang,” Her father had said, wrapping his arm around her, as her tears soaked into his rough shirt. “We don’t need anyone else, and besides, gangs are dangerous. you don’t really want to be in a gang do you?”
Ember had said no, but now, years later, she was starting to think otherwise.
Eliza burst out of their makeshift shelter, her green eyes wide and her hair askew.
“Ember,” She said, the tone of her voice sending a chill down Ember’s back. “Dad’s gone.”
“What?” Ember asked, leaping to her feet, her heart beating unnaturally fast. “What do you mean?
“What do I mean?” Eliza cried, her voice at the edge of a scream. “I mean he’s gone! And his medicine bag is still here! He must have gone out looking for us.”
“Well it’s not my fault,” Ember shouted, her voice sounding hollow and strained in her own ears. Her face felt hot, and her throat was tight.
She was lying. To Eliza and to herself, it was her fault. Why did she always have to hark things up? Why was it always her? She had just wanted to get away, and now her dad was missing.
Eliza said something, her face even paler than usual. But Ember wasn’t listening. Her ears were filled with white noise, the anger inside of her bubbling over at last.
Before she could even think about what she was doing, Ember was running, leaping over rubble, and racing over burned land like she could never get back. She needed to do something -- something crazy, something to prove to Eliza and her father that she could take care of herself, that she wasn’t a harking mess, that she wasn’t a little girl anymore, crying over her empty stomach.
Ember heard Eliza scream her name, but she was already gone.
The smell of blood and sweat clogged Ember’s nose as soon as she pushed her way into the mass crowded around the fighting ring. Bloodthirsty yells deafened her.
Ember shoved a burly, coal smeared man out of her way, her eyes darting around for a sight of the ring.
A strong hand grabbed her thigh.
Ember whirled, a snarl rising to her lips.
“Ello’ dolly,” A black toothed man garbled, his beard stained with blood, and a can of dark liquid in his hand. “Yer a pretty thing, aren’t you?”
“Hark off, you crussing creep!” Ember hollered pushing the man’s hand away, one hand going to her knife. “I’ll pull out your harking dragon scarfing intestines.”
“Oooooh,” the man whistled, his fat hand going around her arm. “She’s got a mouth on ’er, I like it.”
Anger flared within her, and with one swift motion Ember kneed the man right in the family jewels.
The man let out a howl, falling over onto the poor people behind him.
Not wasting a moment, Ember pushed through the crowd, leaving the man behind, then she reached it -- the fighting ring.
In the middle of a rough ring blocked off by building rubble, two burly men were locked in combat, blood pouring from wounds on their body, their hands wrapped around heavy handmade weapons, and pieces of dented metal strapped onto their sweaty chests.
One of the men charged with a holler, sweeping his sword like weapon down to the other man, his long dirty braid swinging behind him. The other man charged, too, the black greasepaint on his upper lip staining his teeth. The men’s weapons collided with a sickening screech of metal that made Ember’s heart race.
The crowd around her went wild, banging their weapons together, yelling like savage animals.
The braided man drew back, roaring as he charged again. His muscles rippling under his skin. The second man never stood a chance.
The braided man’s blade plunged into the other man’s chest. Blood spurted, one hot fleck landing on Ember’s carmel brown cheek.
The crowd roared, like one massive, savage beast, the men surrounding Ember bumping into her in their excitement. Ember felt her stomach clench as the braided man bellowed in triumph, ripping his blood stained sword from the other man’s chest.
“Pyro! Pyro!” The crowd cheered, just as three men jumped into the pit. two of them hauling the dead man’s body away.
“PYRO!” The third man yelled, lifting a drinking horn into the air, his dark eyes glittering from holes in the black band wrapped around his face.
He grabbed the braided man’s arm. “Pyro!” He yelled, echoing the braided man’s name.
“Do you fall or fight Pyro?” The masked man yelled. Pyro raised his blade, his eyes glassy and wild with victory.
“FIGHT!” He hollered. the crowd roared in approval.
“Now,” the masked man yelled. “What brave soul will dare to do the impossible? Who will fight the unstoppable--” Before he could finish Ember was moving, without thinking, without wasting a moment she pushed past the group of men in front of her, and leapt over the rings edge, her boots landing hard on compact dirt of the ring. Ember’s eyes locked with the red rimmed eyes of the braided man.
“I will.” She said.
Instantly, laughs filled the crowd, making Ember’s skin burn.
Pyro laughed. “You,” he guffawed, a cruel smile twisting his face before a loud laugh burst from his throat. “You’re tiny!” The crowd laughed, and Ember bristled, the blood pumping through her veins, feeling as hot as fire.
“Looks as though a little girl has decided to take on Pyros!” The masked man yelled, his words greeted with more laughs.
“This should be entertaining!”
“Oh get off your harking dragon spike,” Ember snarled, her heart thudding so hard in her ears she could barely focus on anything else.
The crowd laughed again.
“Well, well,” the masked man said. “The little girl has a tongue! This should be very entertaining.”
The masked man leapt out of the ring.
“Now, Pyro,” he called. “Choose your weapon.”
Pyro grinned. His teeth were cracked and yellowed. “Let the girlie decide.” He smirked.
Ember grit her teeth.wanting to punch his face in already. She knew she could never win against his huge blade with her small knife. The only way to win this was with her bare hands.
“Hand to hand,” she called so everybody could hear, her voice calm despite the hot feelings raging inside her.
Pyro laughed, casting his blade aside. “Very well, girlie,” he said, rubbing his calloused palms together.
“Stop calling me that,” Ember warned, baring her teeth. “Or I swear, I will make you regret it if it’s the last harking thing I do.”
Pyro laughed. “Do you hear, everyone?” He cried, turning to the crowd. “This girl wants revenge!” The crowd hooted, but Ember could no longer hear them. All she could think about was how good it would feel to wrap her hands around Pyro’s thick neck and strangle him.
“Alright!” The masked man shouted.
“On my word you will start.”
Ember glanced at the masked man. He was taking bets. She could see him exchanging things with people: treasures, weapons, booze, and who knew what else. The sight of it made Ember even angrier.
“Take your places, fighters.”
Ember shifted back, eyes not leaving Pyro’s face.
The roar of the crowd turned into a dull buzzing in her ears.
Pyro cracked his knuckles, and Ember was suddenly aware of how much bigger he was. She was only a little shorter, but he had ten times the muscle she would ever have. This was a man who had eaten well his entire life, and never felt the pain of being hungry.
Ember pushed her short, curly hair out of her face, remembering how Pyro had moved during the last fight.
Ember thought of Eliza, of her dad. Oh, how she wished they could see this.
When she was very young, she remembered, her father took her by the hand and said to her and Eliza in his rich voice, “This is a dangerous world, girls. You’ll need to fight.” She remembered him showing them the basic moves -- punches, blocks, and throttles. She had always been better at fighting then Eliza, better at moving fast, striking hard. Over time there was no more her father could teach her. But by that time Ember had begun to practice on her own, sneaking out at night, watching brawls in the street, until she could take down anything that came in her path. And that was exactly what she was about to do now.
With a cry Ember flew through the air at Pyro, just as the beast of a man roared and charged. He came at her, his pure massiveness about to tackle her in a bone shattering attack. But Ember was to fast. As she landed, she spun out of the way. Leaping behind Pyro before he even knew what was going on. For a moment she saw his face wrinkle in shock, then she pounced. She leapt onto Pyro’s broad back, wrapping her arms around his neck in a death vice, pouring all of her frustration and anger from the day into that one action. Pyro would never get away.
Pyro bellowed, grasping at her arms with clumsy fingers, his movements already effected from the loss of oxygen. He reared up, and Ember didn’t see what was coming until it was too late.
Pyro slammed himself backwards, knocking Ember’s breath out as he crushed her between his heavy weight and the hard earth.
Ember gasped, her vision blackening for a second, but she didn’t let go. He did it again. Ember could almost hear her ribs breaking from the impact, but still she hung on.
Over and over Pyro slammed her to the ground. He rolled and yelled, trying to reach her, the skin of his face turning blue.
Then finally he slumped, his dead weight crushing Ember. She let go of his neck, pushing the fallen man off of her before getting to her feet.
It was only then that she heard the crowd, they were going insane, yelling, banging metal on metal, their faces lit in a fiery light cast by the torches illuminating the ring.
“We have a winner!” the masked man yelled, grabbing Ember’s hand above her head in triumph. She pushed him away, chest heaving.
And that was the way the rest of the night went.
Fight after fight, Ember won, going against men, women, battle-worn duelers, amateurs, muscular, sword wielding, broad fisted, and whoever else dared to go up against her. Ember took them all down, not feeling the injuries inflicted to her body, not feeling her energy slowly sapping away, until all at once she couldn’t do it any longer. Chest heaving and sweat drenching every inch of skin she had, Ember watched as they dragged the last loser of the fight away, a dark faced young man who had almost gotten her by drawing a knife in the middle of the fight and stabbing at her ribs. Luckily he had missed, but it had been close, too close.
The crowd was screaming her name. Ember wanted to feel triumphant, to bask in the glory of her victories. But she couldn’t, for all her anger was gone, leaving behind hollow melancholy.
“EMBER!” the masked man cried, dancing up to her.
“Our champion! Do you fall or fight?”
Bleary eyed, Ember looked at the crowd, exhaustion pulling her down.
For a moment the word ‘fight’ leapt to Ember’s lips, but then it fell away.
“Fall,” she said quietly, swallowing hard. Her throat was so dry.
Boos and insults echoed through the crowd, deafening her. But Ember ignored them. She vaulted over the side of the ring, ignoring the pats on the back and cat calls following behind her as she pushed her way through the crowd.
She didn’t stop moving until she was clear of the crowd, the cheers rising again as a new fighter entered the ring.
Still breathing heavily, Ember sagged against the crumbling structure of one of the surrounding buildings, suddenly aware of how much her body hurt and how cold the air was.
The realization of what she had done slowly sunk in. How could she have run away form Eliza like that? Their dad was missing, she should have gone looking for him. She had wanted to prove that she didn’t mess everything up, but instead she had done the opposite. Ember clenched her firsts, her knuckles bloody. She had made a fool out of herself, yet again.
“Nice fighting,” a heavily accented voice said, interrupting her thoughts.
Startled, Ember whipped around, looking for the speaker with narrowed eyes. Out from the shadows of an alleyway slid a young man, a sideways grin twisting his face. Everything about him looked deadly -- his black, spiked hair, pale tattooed skin, the black painted line going across his face, the ring of metal going through his lip, and his narrowed black eyes, but most of all, his grin. Ember had never seen a grin more devilish than this boy’s.
Ember scowled at him.
“What do you want?” she snarled, her body tensing again, trying not to show how hard it was to keep from wincing under his gaze.
“Nothing,” the boy answered nonchalantly, his accent sounding strange in her ears, but she couldn’t place it. “I just wanted to talk to you. What gang are you in?”
“I’m not in any harking gang,” Ember spit out, not thinking of what she was saying.
“Oh, you’re not, eh?” the boy said, smile growing wider.
Ember mentally kicked herself. Harking dragon scarf, why had she said that? Now he knew she was vulnerable. Now he knew he could kill her and no one would know to come after him. No one would even know she was dead.
“Well you should be,” he grinned, drawing closer to her. Ember felt her sweaty skin crawl.
“You should be in our gang, we could use a crussing good fighter like you. And besides, you’re pretty good lookin’. Has anyone mentioned that?”
Ember could feel his hand inching toward her waist.
“No harking way,” Ember growled. She pushed herself away from the building. storming down the alley. She had to find Eliza. She had to find her dad.
He made a strange, disappointed sound from the back of his throat. “It’s too bad,” the boy said coyly, and Ember stopped, turning toward him.
“I really didn’t want to make this harder for you.”
Then the boy attacked.
Ember instantly sprung into motion, spinning to the side to avoid the boy as he pounced at her, but she was too late, and he was too fast. The boy hit her with a rock, knocking her breath away and slamming her into the alley wall. She let out a cry of pain, slipping out of his grasp and striking out at him with a punch, but still she was to slow. Her limbs were weak from her fights before. The boy grabbed her wrist, twisting her arm up behind her back and slamming her face into the concrete wall of the building, her vision darkening as her head the wall. She could feel hot blood sliding down her cheek, as again the boy slammed her head onto the wall. Ember let out of another cry. She could feel herself slipping, slipping on the edge of darkness. Her knees buckled, she could feel the arms of the boy as he caught her. The last thing she saw before she drifted into unconsciousness was the boy’s devilish grin, her hands clenched in the leather of his vest.