Firelight, p.3
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       Firelight, p.3
 

         Part #1 of Firelight series by Sophie Jordan
Page 3

  Author: Sophie Jordan

  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.

  Not what?

  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.

  4

  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.

  She nods. “Yeah, I did what you said, stayed underwater until I knew they were gone and then flew home for help. ”

  I don’t remember telling her to bring help. I wish she hadn’t, but I can’t blame her for trying to save me.

  “Inside, girls. ” Mom motions us indoors, but she’s not looking at us. She’s looking over her shoulder, across the road at one of our neighbors. Cassian’s aunt Jabel stands on her porch, watching us closely with her arms crossed over her chest. She watches us a lot lately. Mom’s convinced she reports everything we do to Severin. With a tight nod, Mom ushers us inside. She and Jabel used to be the best of friends. When I was a kid, before Dad died. Before everything. Now they hardly talk.

  When we enter the house, Tamra looks up from where she sits cross-legged on the couch, a bowl of cereal tucked in her lap. An old cartoon blares from the television. She doesn’t look “worried sick” like Mom claimed.

  Mom stalks over to the TV and turns down the volume. “Do you really have to play it so loud, Tamra?”

  Tamra shrugs and digs for the remote in the couch cushions. “Since I couldn’t go back to sleep, I decided to try and drown out the alarm. ”

  A sick feeling starts in my gut. “They sounded the alarm?” I ask. The last time they did that was when Dad went missing and they assembled a search party.

  “Oh yeah. ” Az nods, eyes growing large. “Severin freaked. ”

  Tamra finds the remote and punches up the volume. Dropping it back to the couch, she lifts a large dripping spoon to her mouth. “Are you so surprised they rounded up the posse for you?” She slants me a tired look. “Think about it. ”

  The need to defend my actions rises in my chest, but I let it go with a deep breath. I’ve tried explaining before, but Tamra doesn’t get it. She can’t understand draki impulse. How can she?

  Mom shuts the TV off. Oblivious to any tension, Az spins her hands in the air. “Well? What happened? How did you escape? My God, they were everywhere. Did you see those net launchers?” Mom looks ill.

  “I thought for sure you wouldn’t make it. I mean, I know you’re fast…and you can breathe fire and everything, but—”

  “Like we can ever forget that,” Tamra mumbles around a mouthful of cereal and performs an exaggerated eye roll.

  Tamra never manifested. It’s a growing trend among the draki, alarming to the elders so desperate to preserve our species. For all intents and purposes, my twin sister, only minutes my junior, is an average human. It kills her. And me. Before I manifested, we had been close, together in everything. Now we share nothing more than a face.

  I notice Mom then, moving about the living room closing all the wood shutters, dousing the room in shadow. “Az,” Mom says, “say good-bye now. ”

  My friend blinks. “Good-bye?”

  “Good-bye,” Mom repeats, her voice firmer.

  “Oh. ” Az frowns, then looks at me. “Want to walk to school tomorrow?” Her eyes gleam meaningfully, conveying that I can fill her in on everything then. “I’ll get up early. ”

  We live on opposite ends of the township. Our community is shaped like a giant wheel with eight spokes. Each spoke serves as a street. The center, the hub, acts as the heart of our township. The school and meeting hall sit there. I live on First West Street. Az is on Third East. We’re about as far apart as you can get. A vine-covered wall surrounds the township, so there’s no taking the outer edge to reach each other faster.

  “Sure. If you’re willing to get up early and trek it over here. ”

  As soon as Az leaves, Mom locks the door. I’ve never seen her do that before. Facing us, she looks at me and Tamra for a long moment, the only noise the sound of Tam’s spoon clinking in her bowl. Mom turns and peeks out between the shutters…as if she’s worried Az might still be in hearing range. Or someone else.
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