Rise of fire, p.1
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       Rise of Fire, p.1
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         Part #2 of Reign of Shadows series by Sophie Jordan
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Rise of Fire


  DEDICATION

  For every girl who finds hope in the pages of books.

  Keep reading. Keep dreaming. Your turn will come.

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Epilogue

  Back Ads

  About the Author

  Books by Sophie Jordan

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  ONE

  Luna

  THIS WAS DARKNESS.

  Of course, I was sightless, so darkness was all I had ever known. It lived in me, on me, like scars written on my skin. But this darkness went deeper. Thicker. Denser. It suffocated me. Thick as tar, I was drowning inside it, flailing, searching for air to fill my starved lungs.

  Diving underground after Fowler, I knew precisely what I was doing. Even if an earthen tomb would likely become my crypt, it was what I had to do. Fowler was gone. Dwellers had taken him. He was lost somewhere in this tar. Dead, maybe. Probably. I expelled my pain-laden breath. No. Find him. Find Fowler.

  I dropped, falling into a thick pool of sludge. I swam through the mire and sucked in a sharp breath that felt like razors scraping the inside of my throat. My palms slapped the surface of emulsified earth, keeping me from sinking. I was already underground. Who knew what lay farther down? The very bowels of the earth, perhaps.

  I lifted my fingers, letting them unfurl from their grip on ground that only seemed to break and crumble under my grasp.

  For a moment, I wobbled on my knees, my balance thrown. Lifting my chest, I took another gulp of air and inched forward, patting wet earth. The ground started to dip, so I flipped to my bottom and slid down the slope.

  Damp earth rushed past, sticking to every inch of me. Sludge clung to my hair and clumped in my lashes. I blinked, trying to clear it away. Rich, pungent loam filled my nostrils. I sucked in a breath and swallowed earth. Coughing, I spat out debris and sealed my lips shut, determined to not breathe too deeply down here.

  I came to a stop, landing on actual ground. Their ground. I’d followed Fowler into their domain. For the first time I was the invader.

  I sat still for a long moment, listening and taking slow sips of air as I attempted to still my racing heart in the dripping silence. I was certain dwellers could hear me. Terrified they could hear the wild beating in my chest, that organ that I’d thought dead. Fowler had killed it, crushed it with the awful truth, but the stupid thing knew how to keep beating, fighting no matter if it was dead. Fowler was Cullan’s son. Cullan, the man who killed my parents and hunted me. The man who killed every girl in the land for the crime of maybe being me. That monster was Fowler’s father. Fowler’s past, his legacy, was wrapped up in that evil.

  I shuddered and pushed out the thought for later. For now I couldn’t think of that. I wouldn’t. I could think only of saving Fowler and getting both of us out of here alive. Nothing else mattered right now.

  I flexed my fingers and remembered that I still clutched my knife. I was comforted to feel it in my hand. Water fell overhead, echoing in tinny pings all around me. I shivered in the bone-numbing cold that permeated my wet clothes. I shifted uncomfortably, plucking at my tunic and vest. It was pointless. There was no relief, no way to feel warm or dry or safe.

  I didn’t feel at home like I usually did in the dark. There was nothing comforting. Nothing familiar. I wanted to crawl back out and escape through the quagmire. Except Fowler was here somewhere.

  My breath came faster. My heart felt as though it might explode from my too-tight chest. Fowler, trapped in this world under our world. It didn’t seem possible that strong, capable, unbreakable Fowler could be here—that this was his fate, that he had embraced it, sacrificing himself to dwellers to save me.

  I shook my head against the terrifying possibility that I was too late. He was still alive. I would know if he wasn’t. Something like that . . . I would know.

  I deliberately shoved away the memory of the words he had said to me, that confession, that horrible truth that had always been between us like a serpent in the grass waiting to strike, waiting to inflict its poison with immense fangs.

  I kept going. My legs felt wobbly. Bracing my hands along the moist wall of earth to my left, I continued to edge forward, half expecting to come face-to-face with a dark dweller. But no, I was always good at sensing them, at knowing where they were before they knew where I was.

  Most dwellers were aboveground hunting, with the exception of the ones who had taken Fowler. Hopefully, they’d just dumped him and returned aboveground to hunt. There seemed no end to their hunger, after all.

  I hastened forward, skimming my hand along the earthen wall, the odor of bracken and rot stifling. I shuffled one foot after the other, feeling my way rather than plunging headlong down another incline. With luck, the ground would stay level. I needed to keep my bearings.

  A distant dweller’s cry echoed faintly through the underground labyrinth of tunnels. I froze, angling my head and listening, holding my breath. No other cries came. Water dripped over the blanket of calm.

  I started forward again, turning left when my hand met the open air of a tunnel. I focused intently, using my heightened senses and marking the distance my feet traveled, noting every turn I took so that I could find my way back to the spot through which I entered.

  Another cry sounded, and this time it wasn’t a dweller. It was wholly human. I followed the direction of the shout, my steps quickening as hope pulsed inside me. Let it be Fowler.

  TWO

  Fowler

  I’VE ALWAYS LIVED in darkness. With dark dwellers and death, death and dark dwellers. The two were interchangeable but the same, and by some miracle I still lived.

  I’d lost consciousness at some point, but I wasn’t gone. Not yet. I remembered that rush of adrenaline as I flung myself from the tree into the arms of the waiting dwellers. I did it for Luna. I could accept that. I had no regret. As long as she lived, I was fine.

  In this absolute absence of light, I waded through air like ink, lost.

  My ears pricked, listening. Not far away someone wept. Panic bit me in the chest. Was it Luna? Had they taken her, too? She couldn’t be down here as well. Fate wasn’t that cruel. I tried to move my body, but my arms were wedged tight.

  Maybe it was punishment for all my wrongs. I’d withheld who I was—what I was—from Luna long past the point when I should have told her. Fear held me back and now this was the price. Faulty logic, maybe, but it was all I could manage.

  My head and shoulders were free, and I looked about wildly, tossing the hair back from my eyes and squinting into the darkness, peering in the direction of the p
erson crying.

  “Hello?” I called into the murk. The tears stopped abruptly as my greeting echoed over the chilled air. “Who’s there? Luna?”

  “Who are you?” a voice demanded. Not Luna.

  Relief eased over me. “Fowler,” I replied, and then almost laughed. What did my name matter? I was stuck in here with this hapless other soul and we were both about to die.

  For a moment her ragged breaths were her only response. “I’m Mina. They took me . . . and my group. A few days ago, I think. I don’t know. There were seven of us. I’m all that’s left.” Her voice cracked into wet sobs. “There are others in here, too. But I don’t know them.”

  A few days? They’d kept her alive this long? And there were others. Maybe that meant I had more time. Time to give survival another chance.

  Determined not to give up, I tried to move my arms again, hopeful that I could break loose. My breath puffed out as I exerted pressure. If I could get free, perhaps I could find a way out of here. There was a way in, so there had to be a way out.

  There had to be.

  THREE

  Luna

  I CHASED THAT echo of a cry long after it faded. Even when the air around me softened to mere drips of water, I didn’t stop. I prowled down tunnels and passageways for so long that I worried it was only a matter of time before I came face-to-face with a dweller. I lost all sense of time in a world where every moment counted.

  The space around me was empty. I moved, straining for any sound. My nostrils flared, the odor of dwellers rich around me: loam and copper. Metal in my mouth.

  Even with the scent of them so strong everywhere, they weren’t nearby. This was their territory. The stink of them embedded in the bones of this underground tomb.

  The silence was finally broken again by another shout. Human.

  I followed the sound, my lips moving in a silent mantra. Let it be Fowler. Let it be Fowler.

  I couldn’t be certain how long I was down here, but I sensed time was fading fast until midlight—that brief duration when the ink dark faded and a haze of feeble light surfaced and chased the dwellers back underground. In an odd twist, midlight was something I didn’t want to occur. The idea of dwellers returning and prowling the same space I occupied made my steps quicken despite any reassurances.

  Suddenly the ceiling above me started to shake and froth, mud dropping down and raining on my head. Was it a cave-in? I ran, trying to escape the earth falling on me, keeping my hand on the wall to my left. I ducked down the tunnel, chest heaving.

  Pressed into the wall, I turned my face up and held out my hand. Nothing was falling anymore. The ceiling of earth was stable. Holding myself as still as possible, I listened.

  A dweller’s wet, sloughing breath filled my ears. Its dragging steps felt like a scrape of a blade across my flesh. The heavy weight of its body thudded and settled into the damp ground with each move. My heart beat so hard my chest ached. I heard the whisper of the sensors at the center of its face slither on the air, and smelled the drip of toxin.

  The monster wasn’t alone. A human struggled against the dweller’s razor talons, sobbing and choking out garbled pleas. Hopeless words. There was no reasoning with these creatures. Not pity to rouse. No help. No rescue.

  They drew near the smaller tunnel where I hid, and I debated my next move. Hold still or run? Lungs locked, I held my breath, waiting for them to pass. Hoping they passed. If they turned down this tunnel it was all over. I was lost.

  The dweller passed me, dragging the hapless human behind, and I swallowed against the dryness of my mouth. Fortunately, the dweller was so focused on its victim it didn’t detect my scent. Or perhaps being coated head to foot in mud aided in disguising my smell.

  I waited several long minutes before continuing. Part of me wanted to take cover and hide, but the longer I hid the closer we drew to midlight. And once midlight hit . . . I shivered. Dwellers would be coming home. I had to move. Fowler and I needed to be out of here before that happened.

  I took several more bracing breaths, in and out, to calm my heart as I moved down the narrow corridor. I didn’t hear that dweller or its poor victim anymore. Faint, very human moans trickled over the vaporous air. It was colder down here than above. My teeth clacked slightly as I continued, growing closer to the sounds of humans, my hand skimming the uneven wall beside me. The tunnel opened up into a great space where the air flowed swifter, the current similar to when I stood in an open field with the wind blowing, lifting the hair off my shoulders.

  I hovered, standing at the threshold, shivering at the cusp of something . . . a great maw of space that contained several humans. They were trapped. Their moans met my ears, soft anguished cries lined with defeat. Their hands slapped and clawed at the ground, trying to pull themselves free. Some were injured. I smelled the cloying sweetness of their blood. I lifted my face, smelling, listening, assessing.

  It was a nest, a vast stretch of earth with holes that imprisoned humans.

  “Fowler?” I whisper-shouted over the pitiable sobs and pleas for help. Swallowing, I took on more volume. “Fowler! Are you in here?”

  His response was almost immediate, alongside the cries of others, answering me, begging for their release. “Luna! What are you doing here?”

  Elation burst inside me, sweeping over me and making me almost limp. “Fowler!” I started to step forward, but his sharp warning stopped me.

  “Careful, Luna. You’ll fall in. Drop to your knees and crawl.”

  Lowering to my knees, I started forward, patting the ground ahead of me. It didn’t take me long to figure out why I should crawl. The ground broke off into a pattern of holes. I crawled between them. Sticky residue was everywhere. I practically had to peel my palms off the narrow stretches of ground between holes.

  Other people pleaded with me, calling for my help, but I kept an even line to where Fowler was lodged. His voice was a steady wind of encouragement that I followed until I reached him. My hand landed on his shoulder.

  “Fowler . . . are you hurt?” I skimmed the curve of his shoulder, quickly understanding that he was wedged deep in the hole, his arms trapped. This must be why none of them were moving.

  “Luna, you have to go.” Panic sharpened his voice. “You don’t have long. Get out of here before they come back—”

  “I’m not leaving you. I’m here. Now help me get you out.” My hands roamed, trying to find some leverage to pull him out.

  “I’m stuck tight and this sticky mess everywhere isn’t helping. It’s like one giant spider’s web.”

  “Then I’ll cut you out,” I declared.

  “What do you—” His words died abruptly as I used my knife and started hacking at the edge of the hole trapping him. I worked hard, panting as I cut and clawed the crumbling ground away from him with my fingers.

  “Luna, there’s no time.”

  I shook my head, pelting mud-soaked strands against my cheeks. I’d come this far. I wasn’t leaving without him.

  He released a grunt of frustration and then started struggling, apparently grasping the fact that I wasn’t giving up and he might as well try to break loose.

  My arms burned as I hacked at the ground. He jerked inside the hole, wiggling his upper body as I widened the opening a fraction at a time.

  “It’s not . . .” Whatever he was about to say was lost as one of his arms suddenly broke free. He flung his body to the side and squeezed the other one out. I grabbed his shirt and helped haul him out, although now that both his arms were free he managed most of it on his own.

  The others came alert and called out, their voices ringing around us, begging for help.

  Fowler grabbed my hand and tugged me to crawl after him, ignoring them.

  “Fowler,” I began, listening to the sound of a woman near him, crying and begging for us to save her. “We need to help—”

  “There’s no time, Luna.” His fingers tightened on my hand as if he feared I would slip free.

  I turned my
head, facing the direction of her sobbing pleas.

  “Please, please help me, too. Don’t leave me here. Don’t leave me here to die!”

  I pulled against Fowler’s hand.

  “Luna!” he growled, turning his body to snatch me by the shoulders. “We have to go! They’re lost. Most of them are covered in toxin, and it’s nearly midlight!”

  For once in my life, midlight signaled the end of safety. Not the dawn of it. The irony wasn’t lost on me.

  I shook my head, but then everything started shaking. The very ground we crawled over vibrated. The underworld cavern trembled and shuddered, great clumps of earth falling from the ceiling.

  “Dwellers,” he growled over the buzz of their return, as though I didn’t know. As though the rot of them wasn’t choking. “They’re coming.”

  This time I didn’t resist as he pulled me after him.

  A woman screamed, her cry of despair bouncing inside my head as we crawled over the nest and ran. My chest constricted, aching at the cries of the others we left behind, certain they would haunt me forever.

  We ducked into the tunnel that I took to get to the nest. The earth still trembled as we ran down the tunnel, wet chunks of dirt showering all around us. I felt the telltale draft and knew we had come to the crossroads. Fowler started to pull right, but I stopped him, tugging him hard to the left. “This way!”

  This time I led the way, clasping hard to his hand, relying on my memory.

  “Not much farther,” I tossed over my shoulder, backtracking the way I had come. “We’re almost there.” I could smell the brackish water running softly down the chute that spat me out no so very long ago.

  The rumbling intensified. More mud fell, showering us in thick clumps. Except it wasn’t just mud this time. Dwellers. Entire bodies emerged like infants pushing their way into the world. Their world. We were the interlopers in it. Never did I feel that more keenly.

  “There are too many of them,” I murmured past numb lips, a calm settling over me as I tilted my face to the deluge of sludge and dwellers.

  “No! This way.” Fowler jerked me into another tunnel, his strong fingers clenched hard around mine. He didn’t even care if we were going in the wrong direction. The goal was escape. Desperation drove him and his fear. The emotions filled my nose like burning feathers on the air.

 
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