Firelight, p.2
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       Firelight, p.2
 

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
Page 2

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  She nods jerkily, the ridges on her nose contracting with a deep breath. “W-what are you going to do?”

  I force a smile, the curve of my lips painful on my face. “Fly, of course. ”

  2

  When I was twelve, I raced Cassian and won.

  It was during group flight. At night, of course. Our only authorized time to fly. Cassian had been arrogant, showing off, and I couldn’t help it. We used to be friends, when we were kids. Before either one of us manifested. I couldn’t stand seeing what he’d turned into, watching him act like he was God’s gift to our pride.

  Before I knew it, we were racing across the night sky, Dad’s shouts of encouragement ringing in my ears. Cassian was fourteen, an onyx draki. All sleek black muscle and cutting sinew. My father had been an onyx, too. Not only are they the strongest and biggest among the draki, but they are usually the fastest.

  Except that night. That night I beat Cassian, the prince of our pride, our future alpha—trained since birth to be the best.

  I shouldn’t have won, but I did. In the moon’s shadow, I revealed myself to be even more than the pride’s precious fire-breather. More than the little girl Cassian gave rides to in his go-cart. Cassian changed after that. Suddenly, he wasn’t focused on being best, but winning the best. I became the prize.

  For years I regretted winning that race, resented the additional attention it brought me, wished I couldn’t fly so fast. Only now, as my bare feet scrape over rough bark, preparing to take flight, I’m grateful I can. Grateful I fly as fast as wind.

  Az shakes behind me, her teeth clacking. A whimper escapes her lips. I know what I have to do.

  And I just…go. Dropping from the tree, I surge through the air, wings pulled taut above my back, two great sails of fiery gold.

  Shouts fill my ears. Engines rev, accelerating. Loud, indistinct voices overlap. Hard male voices. I whip through trees, the hunters in hot pursuit, crashing through the forest in their earth-eating vehicles. A smile bends my mouth as they fall behind and I pull ahead. I hear myself laugh.

  Then fire erupts in my wing. I jerk, tilt, careen wildly.

  I’m hit.

  Fighting hard to keep myself up with one wing, I manage only a few strokes before I slip through air. The world whirls around me in a dizzy blaze of lush greens and browns. My shoulder swipes a tree, and I hit the ground in a winded, gasping, broken pile, the scent of my blood coppery rich in my nose.

  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.

  “Load another!”

  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’m it.

  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 expression 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.

  “No. ”

  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.

  3

  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.
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