Elemental Heir (Ridley Kayne Chronicles Book 3), Page 2Rachel Morgan
“Ridley,” a voice called, and she turned to see Nathan. He lowered a bag from his shoulder and grinned. He wasn’t much younger than Dad, but his dark hair had far less gray in it. The stress of everything that had happened since the Cataclysm had prematurely aged Dad, while Nathan had abandoned the idea of living in one of the cities early on, choosing instead to build a new home out in the wastelands. Ridley had asked soon after meeting him if he had a family somewhere, but the only person he’d mentioned was an ex-wife. He hadn’t said anything more about her and had changed the subject quickly.
“Hey, welcome back,” Ridley said. “What’s going on out there? Everyone else on board with your crazy plan yet? Or are some of the communities still divided?”
“Slow down,” Nathan said with a laugh. “We’ve been debating this for months. Nothing’s about to change overnight.”
“Nothing’s changed?” Saoirse asked from just behind Ridley. “Is it still those two communities in the south that are so opposed? And you, by the way,” she said to Ridley as she stopped next to her, “are getting faster. You beat me here.”
Ridley shrugged. “I guess I have a good teacher.”
“True. So, you were saying?” she asked Nathan. “Nothing’s changed?”
“Hey, would you at least let me have a shower before we do an in-depth analysis of every message from every community? We can have a meeting before dinner and I’ll update all the reps on all the communication received. Sound good?”
“I suppose I can wait until then,” Saoirse said. She, Nathan and a few other elected occupants of the reserve were ‘in charge’ around here, but they regularly met with representatives from most of the families. When it came to major decisions, everyone got a say.
“Hey, Riddles, there you are.” Ridley heard her father’s voice a moment before his arm swung around her shoulders. She turned toward him and hugged him.
“Hey, Dad. Everything go okay out there?”
Dad released Ridley and rubbed a hand through his thinning hair. “Yes. It was just … strange. We had to stop along the way, and I still find it weird to walk through all those abandoned areas. There’s so much that invokes a sense of nostalgia. And then heartache, for the things we lost.” Ridley’s thoughts turned immediately to her mother. Was Dad thinking of her too? “But yes, it was fine,” he finished. “No unexpected or unpleasant incidents.”
“And did you contact Grandpa?”
“I tried. I told him we’ve left Lumina City. But I didn’t hear back from him.”
Ridley frowned. “I hope he’s okay.”
Dad toyed with the old-fashioned arxium charm on the leather bracelet around his wrist. He’d gotten rid of the amulets he’d had for years—his AI1 and AI2—when they’d fled Lumina City so the drones couldn’t track him. The AI1 was protective, to prevent someone using harmful magic against him. Well, against the interior of his body, at least. If someone wanted to punch him with magic, they could. If someone wanted to boil his blood with magic, that was impossible. Now that Dad’s AI1 was gone, the small, uneven lump of arxium hanging from the leather bracelet would serve the same purpose. The AI2, which had to be embedded beneath the skin and prevented someone from pulling magic from the environment, was unnecessary out here where everyone was free to use magic without fear of the law.
“I’m sure Grandpa is fine,” Dad said. “He’s managed to take care of himself all these years, hasn’t he?”
“True. I guess with the kinds of conjurations he knows, he’s far more capable of taking care of himself than most people.”
Ridley’s grandfather had been a historian, and his years of research had led him to discover centuries-old conjurations. Dangerous ones that most believed had been long forgotten. Dangerous enough to potentially be weaponized.
Before the Cataclysm, when magic was still part of everyday life, members of a secret government department involved in weapons development had got wind of the conjurations Grandpa knew about. They tried to force the information out of him. When he refused, they began to threaten his family. He realized they wouldn’t stop as long as he was still alive.
So he had faked his death and disappeared. Drastic, but it had worked. Once he was gone, the people who’d been threatening Mom and Dad—and Ridley too, apparently—backed off.
“Yes, he definitely knows a few conjurations that can get him out of a sticky spot if necessary,” Dad said. Then, with a cringe, he added, “And potentially wipe out a block or two in the process. While keeping himself completely shielded, thank goodness.”
Ridley’s eyebrows climbed. “Well, let’s hope the old man hasn’t done anything crazy.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing like that. He isn’t always near a city, remember? He’s probably having communication difficulties, the way we do now.”
“Yeah, probably. It’s interesting,” Ridley mused. “Some things are so much easier out here, now that we can use magic for everything. But communicating with people far away—something I used to take for granted—is impossible.”
“Still think it was worth it?”
“To be able to live without hiding who I truly am?” Ridley let out a choked laugh. “Absolutely.”
With a wry smile, Dad said, “I was joking, Riddles. Of course it was worth it.” He gave her shoulder a brief squeeze and moved past her to greet Saoirse. The two of them walked away together, and Ridley watched them go. To anyone else, their conversation probably appeared casual, but Ridley noticed the tension in her father’s shoulders. She hadn’t missed the numerous quiet discussions he’d had with Saoirse since they arrived here. She mentally shoved away the conclusion her mind always immediately jumped to. It wasn’t something she wanted to think about.
She looked around again, and finally, her eyes landed on Archer. All thought of what may or may not be going on between her father and Saoirse scattered from her mind. Her insides flip flopped as Archer strode toward her. He stopped a few paces away, a cocky grin on his lips. “Miss me?”
Fighting the smile that tried to curve her lips, Ridley crossed her arms over her chest. Her body warmed as pure happiness swelled in her chest until she thought it might explode from her in a starburst of light. She longed to throw her arms around Archer, but she managed to hold her pose. “Nope, not at all.”
“Yeah, I didn’t miss you either,” he said, moving closer. “I didn’t dream about you, I didn’t think of you first thing in the morning, I didn’t imagine lying next to you last thing at night while you tell me, yet again, how bright the stars are outside the city.” He stopped right in front of her. “I didn’t imagine picking you up and kissing you.” He looped his arms around her waist and lifted her as she uncrossed her arms and slid them around his neck, finally giving in to the smile trying to tug her lips upward. Her hair fell around his face as she tilted her head down.
“Liar,” she whispered.
He pressed his lips to hers, and as silly as it was, everything suddenly felt like it was right again in Ridley’s world. It hadn’t been this way at first. She’d had so many doubts in the beginning, after they’d kissed beneath a storm in the wastelands outside Lumina City. After realizing that he meant more to her than was logical or sensible. But out here, in the safety of the reserve, she had let go. She had abandoned fear and doubt and let herself tumble head first into … what? Love? Was it too soon for that? Yes. No. Yes? She had known Archer forever, even though she had only really known him for a few weeks. Would she even recognize love when she felt it? Was it the kind of thing that suddenly slammed into you, or did you only notice it when you’d already been steeped in it for some time?
Ridley wrapped her legs around Archer’s waist as his arms tightened around her. Everything else disappeared. This moment consisted of only the two of them, lips and tongues and quickened breaths.
“Wow, would you two like to get a room?” a voice interrupted.
Ridley pulled away from Archer, face burning as she looked a
round for the owner of the familiar voice. Callie, one of the elementals who’d escaped Lumina City with Ridley, stood a few paces away with her arms folded over her chest. “I share my bedroom with you, remember?” Ridley said to Callie as Archer set her on her feet. “So that might be a little awkward.”
“Well, things are getting awkward for everyone out here.” Callie raised one hand to her golden blond hair and smoothed a few strands that had escaped the neat bun atop her head. “There are children present. You’re going to scar them for life.”
“They’ll be fine,” Archer said, his tone dismissive. “What would really scar them is the unicorn tattoo on Ridley’s right butt cheek.”
Ridley choked out a protest. “There is no such tattoo.”
“Really? I figured you would have got a real one by now.”
Ridley blinked. “I genuinely have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You don’t? You mean you’ve forgotten the fake tattoos you and Lilah stuck on each other’s backsides when you were like six years—”
“You knew about that?”
“Of course. Nosy older brothers know everything.”
Ridley crossed her arms and did her best to glare at Archer. “It was Lilah’s idea.”
Archer laughed and kissed her nose. “You’re adorable.”
“Okay stop,” Callie said, holding both hands up. “You’re making me feel old and alone and depressed.”
“Hey, you’re not old,” Ridley said. At thirty-four, Callie was double her age, but in her opinion, the word ‘old’ was reserved for people like Grandpa. “Neither are you alone,” she added, gesturing to the people around them.
“And since I found you a cello,” Archer said, pointing over his shoulder to a gigantic cello-shaped case Ridley had completely failed to notice when her eyes had zeroed in on him, “you shouldn’t be depressed either.”
“Ah, you found one!” Callie exclaimed, her downcast expression turning to glee in an instant. In the pre-Cataclysm days, Callie had been a popular singer. She played the guitar while song-writing and during most of her performances, but it turned out her first love was actually the cello, and she could play numerous other instruments as well. This news had spread quickly through the reserve, and she’d been here only a couple of days when she was roped into teaching music lessons at the school. She’d secretly admitted to Ridley that she was terrified, but she’d overcome her fear of little children by the end of day three and now wouldn’t stop telling Ridley about her dear, sweet students and the cute single guy who was the principal of the small school.
“You’re welcome, Miss Hemingway,” Archer said as Callie rushed toward the cello.
Callie stopped and pointed a glare at him over her shoulder. “Don’t ‘Miss Hemingway’ me. Didn’t I just tell you I feel old?”
Archer laughed. “Sorry, couldn’t resist.”
“Where’d you find this anyway?” Callie asked, crouching down and running her hand lovingly across the case.
“There’s a string instrument store we used to go to back when my mom was convinced that Lilah was going to be the world’s greatest violinist. In one of the suburbs outside Lumina City. I convinced Nathan to stop there. The store was only half demolished, and the room at the back had a few instruments still in cases. This was one of them.”
“Amazing,” Callie breathed. “I mean, the strings will need to be replaced, and I’ll probably need to re-hair the bow. Not that I’ve ever done that before, but I think I remember some conjurations that might help. I don’t know … This definitely gives me something to work on in my free time …”
Ridley looked at Archer as Callie continued speaking. “Want to go get that room she was talking about?” Archer asked, one eyebrow raised. “Mine, perhaps?”
Ridley slipped her hand into his. “I like that idea.”
Minutes later, they were climbing the stairs toward the loft inside one of the residential cabins. “Did you manage to contact someone about Christa?” Ridley asked. Christa was the woman who ran the secret bunker housing Lumina City’s illegal magic users. She provided a safe home for those who wanted to live the way they used to live before the Cataclysm—with magic. Unfortunately, as it turned out, she also had a habit of handing elementals over to the Shadow Society.
“Yes.” Archer pushed his door open. “I contacted one of the protectors in Lumina City. I don’t know what he’ll do with the information, but he’ll make sure Christa won’t be giving up any other elementals who happen to find their way into her bunker.”
“Good.” Ridley stepped through the doorway ahead of Archer, feeling a little lighter. The knowledge that Christa was still free to betray other elementals had been weighing on her mind. Hopefully it would no longer be a possibility now. “I wonder what she has against us. Elementals, I mean. She’s pro-magic, but definitely not pro-elemental. And I wonder how she got mixed up with the Shadow Society. And the director himself. That guy at the base—when we were locked up—said she had some kind of agreement with him.”
“Yeah, I wonder.” Archer dumped his bag on the floor of his bedroom. The room was small—one third of the loft space at the top of this cabin—but big enough for a bed and a wardrobe. “I don’t understand her. She hands over elementals to the director, but she didn’t—” He cut himself off, looking away.
“Didn’t what?” Ridley prompted.
Archer rubbed one hand over his face. “She knows I was living with an elemental community before I returned to Lumina City. I guess I just don’t understand why she didn’t press me for more information about them. Why didn’t she try to find out exactly where they’re located so she could tell the director?”
“Too much effort for her?” Ridley suggested.
“Mm. Perhaps she only bothers with those who cross her path.”
“Somebody must have suspected something was going on though, if you were told not to reveal any more information about elementals to her than was necessary. You thought it might be for her safety—and for the elementals’ safety—but maybe it was because someone knew elementals had disappeared after finding the bunker and didn’t know who could be trusted there.”
“Maybe.” Archer flopped onto his back on the bed.
“Did you get any other messages while you were there?”
“Oh, um, a few. Just … my family. I guess they want to know where I disappeared to.” That was pretty much the answer Ridley was expecting, but there was something about the way Archer purposefully didn’t look at her that made her doubt, for just a moment, that he was telling the truth. Was there someone else he might possibly have been messaging? Some other … girl? But then the doubt was gone. The old Archer was the one who might have done something like that. The Archer Ridley knew only through tabloids and stories passed around by other kids at school. She knew the real Archer now, and she had chosen to trust him. There was nothing purposeful about the way his gaze had been turned toward the ceiling at that moment instead of focused on her.
“Anyway, the other big news is that Mayor Madson is alive,” Archer continued, rolling onto his side and looking at her.
“Really? He survived the fire?” The last time Ridley had seen Lumina City’s mayor, he’d been motionless on the floor inside a Shadow Society base in the wastelands. She’d sent an inferno blazing through that building, and as she sped away, she saw a few people fleeing the fiery ruin. But she’d been too far away to recognize any of them.
“Someone must have got him out before your fire brought the whole place down. Of course, the public knows nothing about that. I saw a few stories in the media about the mayor missing a public appearance due to being unwell, but that was it.”
“Right.” Ridley lowered herself to the edge of Archer’s bed. “And even if someone did find out about elementals and the Shadow Society and a secret base out in the wastelands, I doubt anyone would actually run a story on all of that. Who would believe it
“They wouldn’t get that far. Someone would silence them.”
“Of course,” Ridley muttered.
“Anyway.” Archer leaned over and looped one arm around Ridley’s waist. He pulled her down next to him. “You were telling me outside how much you missed me?”
“Oh was I? I thought you were telling me how much you missed me.”
“I think I might have been showing you,” he said against her lips.
She kissed him back, pressing closer and hooking one leg around his waist. He gripped her thigh, then ran his hand all the way up her back and into her hair. She sat up and straddled his waist, then leaned down to kiss him again. His jaw, his earlobe, the bare skin beneath the wound from the hasty removal of his AI2. He hadn’t done a particularly neat job—he’d been in a rush at the time—but it was healing well now. Amid his heavy breaths, Archer murmured something against Ridley’s mouth.
“Mm?” she asked, kissing him again.
The window rattled abruptly, startling them both. Ridley pulled back, looking toward it as a gale shrieked past and rain spattered against the pane. “Weird,” she muttered, unease cooling the fire in her veins. “That’s not supposed to happen here, right? It’s always calm. Saoirse said … something about living in harmony with the elemental magic and … that keeps the weather in a good mood?”
Archer took her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist, where her pulse had been racing wildly moments before. “It must be you,” he said, dead serious. “Your crazy amount of desire for me is stirring up the wild magic out—”
“Oh shut up.” Ridley shoved his shoulder and rolled her eyes. “You know it doesn’t work that way.”