Firelight with Bonus Material, Page 2Sophie Jordan
My fingers dig into moist earth, the rich, pungent smell nourishing my skin. Shaking my head side to side, dirt fills my hands, sliding beneath my talons. Shoulder throbbing, I crawl, clawing one hand over the other.
A sound burns the back of my throat, part grunt, part growl. Not me. Not me, I think.
I curl my knees beneath me and test my wing, stretching it carefully above my back, biting my lip to stifle a cry at the agony jolting through the wiry membranes, penetrating deep into my back between my shoulder blades. Pine needles scrape my palms as I push and try to stand.
I hear them coming, their shouts. Motors rise and fall as they ascend and descend hills. An image of the truck with its net flashes through my mind.
Just like Dad. It’s happening to me now.
Standing, I fold my wings close to my body and run, darting wildly through the crowd of trees as the engines grow louder.
Peering back through the haze of forest, I gasp at the misty glow of headlights. So near. My heart pounds in my ears. I glance up, all around me, trying to find a place to hide. Then I hear something else—the steady song of running water.
I track the sound, feet padding lightly, silently on the forest floor as I sprint. Just in time I stop, grabbing the trunk of a tree to keep from tumbling down a steep incline. Panting, I gaze down. Water burbles steadily from a small fall into a large pond surrounded on all sides with walls of jagged rock.
The air cracks above me. My hair lifts, scalp tight and itchy, and I lunge to the side. Wind whistles as the net hits the ground near me.
I look over my shoulder—at the truck with two guys in the back readying another net. Bikes bounce over the ground, their angry motors revving as they come at me. The riders stare out through large metallic lenses. They don’t even look human. They’re monsters. I make out the hard, intent lines of their mouths. Beating chopper blades converge overhead, churning the air into a violent wind that whips my hair all around me.
Sucking air deeply into my lungs, I turn back around. And jump.
Air rushes past me. It’s strange. Falling through wind with no intention, no ability to lift up and fly. But that’s what I do. Until I hit water.
It’s so cold I scream, swallow a mouthful of algae-rich water. How does Az do it? She makes it seem so…pleasant. Not this bitter cold agony.
I break the surface, and dog-paddle in a swift circle, looking, searching. For something. Anything. Then I see a cave. A small ledge really, just inside the rocky wall, but deep enough for me to tuck inside, out of sight. Unless they dive in after me.
I swim for it, heave myself inside. Sliding as deeply as I can into the shelter, I tuck myself into a small ball.
Wet and shivering, I hold my breath and wait. It’s not long before hard voices congest the air above me.
“It jumped!” Doors slam, the sound shuddering through me, and I know they’re out of their vehicles. I tremble uncontrollably in my shadowed cave, fingers a bloodless clutch on my slick knees.
“…dived in the water!”
“Maybe it flew.” This over the growling of dirt bikes.
“No way! It can’t fly. I nailed it in the wing.” I shiver at the smug satisfaction in this voice and chafe my arms fiercely against the cold. The fear.
“I don’t see it down there.”
“Someone has to go after it.”
“Ah, hell! Down there? It’s freezing—you go!”
“Why not you? What are you, chicken—”
“I’ll go.” I start at the voice, deep and calm and velvet smooth against the harsh bite of the others.
“You sure you can handle it, Will?”
I hug myself tighter as I wait to hear his reply, wishing I was a visiocrypter so I could make myself disappear.
A body arcs into the pond in a flashing blur. Water hardly splashes at his clean entrance. Will. The one with the velvet voice. I stare out at the glistening surface, holding my breath and waiting for him to emerge. Any moment his head will pop up and he will look around. See the cave. See me.
I moisten my lips, feel the simmering of my blood, the smoke building in my lungs. If it comes down to it, would I do it? Could I use my talent to save myself?
A head breaks the surface, sloshing water with a toss. His hair glistens, a dark helmet against his head. He’s young. Not much older than me.
“You okay, Will?” a voice calls down.
“Yeah,” he shouts up.
My heart seizes at the sudden nearness of that voice. I push back as far as I can into the rough wall, ignoring the stinging scrape against my wings. Watching him, I pray his vision can’t reach as far as me.
He spots the ledge and tenses, his stare fixing straight in my direction. “There’s a cave!”
“Is it in there?”
I bristle, skin contracting, quivering like the plucked bow of a violin. My wings start to vibrate with hot emotion, shooting lancing pain through the injured membrane and deep into my back. I wince, forcing myself to relax.
He swims closer.
Smoke puffs from my nose. I don’t want it to happen. It just…does. I usually have more power over it, but fear robs me of my control. Draki instincts take over.
My heart pounds in my chest as he draws closer. I know the precise moment he sees me. He freezes, stills in the water, sinking low, his lips brushing the waterline.
We stare at each other.
It will happen now. He will call the others. They will swarm on me like hungry predators. Remembering Dad, I try not to shake. I’m sure he didn’t tremble, didn’t cower at the end. And I have something, a defense Dad didn’t have. Fire.
Then he moves, swims closer in an easy glide. A muscle feathers the flesh of his jaw, and something flutters in my belly. He doesn’t look hard, as I’d imagined. He doesn’t look evil. He looks…curious.
He slaps a hand on the ledge and pulls himself inside. With me. No more than a foot separates us. Tight muscles ripple in his arms and biceps as he braces himself in a crouch, fingers lightly grazing the cave floor. Our gazes crawl over each other. Two strange animals inspecting each other for the first time.
I sip air, fight to draw it inside my smoldering lungs. I begin to burn from the inside out.
It’s not like I haven’t seen humans before. I’ve seen them lots of times when I shop with Mom and Tamra in town. Most of the time, I look human myself, even within the secret boundaries of our pride. But I still stare at him like I’ve never seen a boy before. And I guess I haven’t seen one like him. He’s no ordinary guy, after all. He’s a hunter.
His black T-shirt is a second skin, plastered to his lean chest. In our shadowed cave, his wet hair looks nearly black. It could be lighter when dry. Medium brown or even a dark blond. But it’s his eyes that hold me. Deeply set beneath thick brows, they drill into me with a stark intensity, scanning me, all of me. I imagine myself as he sees me. My wings furled behind my back, peeking up over my shoulders. My supple-sleek limbs that glow like fire even in the gloom of the ledge. My narrow face with its pronounced contours. My ridged nose. My high-arching brows and my dragon eyes—two black vertical slits where the pupils should have been.
He lifts a hand. I don’t even flinch as he closes a broad, warm palm over my arm. Feeling, testing. His touch glides downward, and I’m sure he’s comparing my skin—draki skin—to human skin. His palm stops, flattens over the back of my hand, rests over my long, talonlike fingers. Heat zings through me at the contact.
He feels it, too. His eyes widen. A lovely hazel. Green with flecks of brown and gold. The colors I love. The colors of the earth. That gaze drifts over the wet snarls of my hair brushing the rock floor. I catch myself wishing he could see the girl within the dragon.
A sound escapes his lips. A word. I hear it, but think, no. He didn’t say that.
“Will!” a voice shouts from above.
We both jerk, and then his face changes. The soft, curious express
ion vanishes and he looks angry. Menacing. The way his kind is supposed to look at my kind. His hand flies off mine, all intimacy severed. I rub where he touched me.
“You okay down there? Need me to come—”
“I’m okay!” The deep rumble of his voice bounces off the walls of our small shelter.
“Did you find it?”
It again. I huff. Smoke clouds from my nose. The smolder in my lungs intensifies.
He watches me intently, his eyes hard and merciless. I wait for him to announce my presence, holding his gaze, refusing to look away, determined that this beautiful boy see the face he sentences to death with his next words.
I suck in a breath as the smolder dies from my lungs. We stare at each other for a lingering moment. He, a hunter. Me, a draki.
Then, he’s gone.
And I’m all alone.
I wait forever. Long after the sounds of choppers and engines fade. Wet and shaking on my ledge, I huddle, hugging my legs, rubbing the supple stretch of my calves, hands gliding over red-gold skin. My injured wing burns, throbbing as I linger, listening, but there’s nothing. Only the whisper of the forest and the gentle sigh of the Cascades around me.
No men. No hunters. No Will.
I frown. For some reason this bothers me. I will never see him again. Never know why he let me go. Never learn if he really whispered what I think he did. Beautiful.
In that single moment we connected. Somehow it happened. It’s hard to wrap my head around. I thought he was going to rat me out for sure. Hunters aren’t big on mercy. They see us only as prey, a subspecies to be broken and sold to our greatest menace—the enkros. Since the dawn of man, the enkros have been hungry for the gifts of our kind, obsessed with tearing us apart or holding us captive for their use: the magical properties of our blood, our armorlike flesh, our ability to detect gems beneath the earth. We’re nothing to them. Nothing with a soul or heart.
So why did Will let me go? His incredible face burns in my mind, imprinted there. The slick-wet hair. The intense eyes peering at me darkly. I should see Cassian’s face. Cassian is my destiny. I have accepted it even though I grumble and risk daylight to break free of him.
I wait as long as possible, until I can stand the damp chill of my shelter no more. Wary of a trap, I ease out carefully and glide into the icy water. I scale the wall of jagged rock, my single wing working hard, slapping wind, the membranes taut and aching in their frenzy.
Air saws from my lips as I pull myself to the top. Collapsing, I absorb the thick, loamy aroma of the ground. My palms dig into the moist soil. It sustains me, humming into my body. Buried far below, volcanic rock purrs like a sleeping cat. I can sense this: hear it, feel it, feed from it.
It’s always this way—this connection to fertile, arable earth. This will heal my wing. No man-made medicine. I draw strength from thriving, life-giving earth.
The smell of rain rides the clinging mist. Rising, I walk into its waiting embrace, start back toward the lake where my bike and clothes wait. Faint sunlight filters through the canopy of branches, battling the mist and turning my chilled skin to a reddish bronze.
I’m convinced Az made it home. I won’t let myself consider the alternative. By now the pride will know I’m missing. I start working various explanations in my head.
The pads of my feet fall mutely as I weave through trees, listening for sounds that don’t belong, wary of the hunters returning…but beneath the wariness lurks a hope.
The hope that one hunter will return and satisfy my questions, my curiosity…this strange fluttering in my stomach at his whispered word.
Gradually a noise penetrates, ribboning through the air, chasing birds from the trees. My draki skin prickles, flashing from red to gold, gold to red.
Fear shoots through me as the faint growl of engines grows close. At first, I think the hunters have come back for me.
Did the beautiful boy change his mind?
Then I hear my name.
Jacinda! The sound echoes desperately through the labyrinth of towering pines.
Lifting my face, I cup my hands and call, “I’m here!”
In a moment, I’m surrounded. Vehicles brake hard. I blink as doors open and slam.
Several of the elders appear, storming through the evaporating mist with their faces grim. I don’t see Az, but Cassian is among them, so like his father with his mouth pressed in an unforgiving line. He usually likes me in draki form, prefers it, but there’s no admiration in his eyes right now. He moves close, towering over me. He is always this way. So big, so male…so hovering. For a moment, I remember the warm strength of his hand when he grabbed mine yesterday in Evasive Flight Maneuvers. It would be so easy to let him in and just do what everyone wants…what everyone expects.
I can’t meet his gaze, so I study the shine of his ink black hair cut closely to his head. He leans down, rustling the hairs near my temple as he growls in his smoky voice, “You scared me, Jacinda. I thought I lost you.”
My skin bristles, tingles with defiance at his words. Just because the pride thinks we belong together, doesn’t make it so. At least not yet. For probably the hundredth time, I wish I was just an average draki. Not the great fire-breather everyone expects so much from. Life would be so simple then. It would be mine. My life.
My mother pushes through the group, brushing Cassian away as if he’s just a boy and not a six-foot-plus onyx capable of crushing her. Framed with bouncy curls, her face is beautiful, pleasantly rounded with amber eyes like mine. Since Dad died, several of the males have tried to court her. Even Cassian’s father, Severin. Thankfully, she hasn’t been interested. In any of them. It’s hard enough dealing with Mom. I don’t need some macho draki trying to take my father’s place.
Right now, in this moment, she looks older. Tight lines edge her mouth. Even the day they told us Dad wouldn’t be coming home, she didn’t look this way. And I realize this is because of me. A knot forms in my stomach.
“Jacinda! Thank God you’re alive!” She folds her arms around me, and I cry out where she crushes my injured wing.
She pulls back. “What happened—”
“Not now.” Cassian’s father clamps a hand on Mom’s shoulder and moves her aside so he can stand before me. At six and a half feet, Severin is as tall as Cassian, and I have to crane my neck to look up at him. Tossing a blanket over my shivering body, he snaps, “Demanifest. At once.”
I obey, biting my lip against the pain as I absorb my wings into my body, stretching the wound, ripping it deeper with the bend and pull of my transforming flesh. The injury is still there, only an oozing gash in my shoulder blade now. Blood trickles warmly down my back and I pull the blanket tighter against me.
My bones readjust, shrink down, and my thicker draki skin fades away. The cold hits me harder now, slashes at my human skin, and I start shaking, my bare feet growing numb.
Mom is at my side, sliding a second blanket around me. “What were you thinking?” It’s this voice, so critical, so cutting, that I hate. “Tamra and I were worried sick. Do you want to end up like your father?” She shakes her head fiercely, determination hot in her eyes. “I’ve already lost a husband. I won’t lose a daughter, too.”
I know an apology is expected, but I would rather swallow nails. It’s this I’m running from—a life of disappointing my mother, of stifling my true self. Of rules, rules, and more rules.
“She has broken our most sacred tenet,” Severin declares.
I wince. Fly only under cover of darkness. I guess nearly getting killed by hunters squashes any argument on the pointlessness of that rule.
“Clearly something needs to be done with her.” A look passes between my mother and Severin as murmurs rise in the group. Sounds of assent. My inner draki tingles in warning. I stare wildly around at everyone. A dozen faces I’ve known all my life. Not a friend in the bunch.
“No. Not that,” Mom whispers.
Her arm squeezes harder around me, and I lean into her, greedy for the comfort. Suddenly, she’s my only ally.
“She’s our fire-breather—”
“No. She’s my daughter,” Mom’s voice whips. I’m reminded that she’s draki, too, even if she has come to resent it. Even if she hasn’t manifested in years…and likely can’t anymore.
“It needs to be done,” Severin insists.
I wince as Mom’s fingers dig into me through the blankets. “She’s just a girl. No.”
I find my voice and demand, “What? What are you all talking about?”
No one answers me, but that isn’t strange. Infuriating, but not unusual. Everyone—Mom, the elders, Severin—talks around me, about me, at me, but never to me.
Mom continues her stare-down with Severin, and I know that although nothing is spoken, words pass between them. All the while Cassian watches me with hungry focus. His purply black gaze would tie most girls up in knots. My sister included; my sister especially.
“We’ll discuss this later. Right now I’m taking her home.”
Mom walks me swiftly to the car. I glance behind me at Severin and Cassian, father and son, king and prince. Side by side, they watch me go, reprisal gleaming in their eyes. And something else. Something I can’t decipher.
A dark shiver licks up my spine.
Az is waiting for us at our house, pacing the front porch in tattered jeans and a blue tank top that doesn’t come close to competing with the glossy blue streaks in her dark hair. Her face lights up when she sees us.
Mom parks, and Az runs through the perpetual mist that covers our township, courtesy of Nidia. This mist is critical to our survival. No random aircraft passing through our airspace can detect us through it.
Az embraces me in a crushing hug as soon as I step from the car. I whimper. She pulls back in concern. “What, are you hurt? What happened?”
“Nothing,” I murmur, sliding a look to Mom. She already knows I’m injured. No point reminding her. “Are you okay?” I ask.