I made myself get off the bench, wobbling on my weak and throbbing legs, and started walking away from the scene. My heart was pounding a beat into my head, and I couldn’t think straight. Footsteps behind me said that my friends had found me, but I didn’t slow down. I climbed up a branch reaching through the walkway and stepped off the edge, trying to find a clear view of the wreckage. A small plume of smoke between the trees told me where to look.
“What in Skyglass just happened?” exclaimed Kael, the first to speak. Nobody answered. The buzz of wings laboriously keeping us up was all we could hear in our space of the sky.
“And how are you doing that?” Tracer wondered, staring at me.
“Doing what?” I asked vacantly. The image of the fire leaping off my own two hands into the air and attacking soldiers was taking a while to comprehend. Fire…me…I can control…fire…
“Doing that! Flying without moving your wings!” He pointed incredulously at my back. I turned my head around blankly as cries of men came from the stream.
“Oh. Umm…yeah, they’re moving. They’re just, uhh…going too fast for you to see. Them moving.”
“No, they’re not!” he smiled in confusion, now drawing on the full attention of the others. “If they’re going so fast, why don’t I hear them?”
I had a hard time focusing on his face and wiped my hand across my forehead. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep this up, and my shaking hands caught Tracer’s attention. My lips searched for an answer when a siren went off. It screamed through our brains, and our group darted for the nearest branch, knowing it was possible to pass out from the chaotic noise. Tracer saw I hadn’t moved, and he grabbed my hand and pulled me with him. We collapsed on the branches near the V of two trunks, trying not to fall off into the vast nothingness below. I trembled, inside and out, the epicenter at my heart, clinging to a thin, wavering twig as my wings lay like fragile panes of glass on the rough, crumbling bark.
God, no! It can’t—no! I hate fire! I don’t want it! I didn’t mean to hurt anyone! I don’t—God, take it back! Take it back from me!
Guards swarmed from every direction, leading their devious hornets to the crime scene. Their buzz was overwhelming, and I shook at the mere thought of encountering one of those bugs. Everyone knew them well enough to not approach from either end, unless you wanted a large jaw to clamp onto your leg. The stings were deadly. The Watchers who drove them sure encouraged you to spill the beans really quick.
Spill the beans. Somebody would make a bad joke about that right now, if we weren’t here. If we were anywhere but here.
The Guards swarmed mostly to the crash site, but a large group landed where the children’s carriage had landed safely. They held their weapons down, but I saw their fingers gripping the handles as their leader began asking around. He held out a sheet of paper with a picture on it. I couldn’t see it, but I knew who it was.
“Hey! That’s the Strawberry Girl!” cried out a small voice. The little girl walked boldly up to the Chief and willingly started talking. He asked her something, and she replied, “Uh-huh. She’s the one that stopped the other carriage from hitting us, an’ she had strawberry ice cream in her hair. I think she went…um…” She looked around and pointed in our direction. He thanked her and bought her an orange ice cream. She walked back to her anxious mother, slurping at her treat, and they left quickly.
Soldier movement increased. Five stayed, two continued questioning, and five more headed down the mainly vacant walkway. One trailed off and went in the same direction as the little girl and her mother, but I didn’t remember that until later. The five coming our way were inspecting everything, like I had left a trail of some sort. Two stopped to ask a shop owner if she’d “seen this girl.” All this Conforminator-esque stuff was freaking me out.
“Emma!” Tracer whispered from just above and to my right, “Who are they looking for? Shouldn’t we help?”
Fear welled up in my soul like the tears in my eyes as I shook my head slightly. Tracer tipped his head forward and pointed his thumb at the Guards and his finger at me, mouthing, “They’re coming after you?” I nodded and a tear slipped down my cheek. His expression shifted from that of curious concern to one I’d seen many times in my father’s own face, one of stern obedience and protection. He whispered down to the others.
“Guys. Hey, up here. We hafta get outta here. Those soldiers can’t find…um, us.” He glanced at me. “Anyone got any ideas?”
Kael squinted up through his bangs and glasses. Gator rubbed the back of his neck, and Wayk watched the soldiers from behind the leaves. They were closer now, maybe only a hundred feet, asking a guy selling candy apples if he’d seen the “Strawberry Girl.” I counted out the seconds in my head. This had to be perfect to work.
“I got one,” I whispered. “When I say ‘go,’ everyone dives out of here. Got it?”
“Wait!” said Falcon. He stuck his fingers out from where he gripped the tree branches. “Where are we gonna go? They’ll be on our tail in seconds.”
I nodded. “S’okay, I got it covered. Twice.”
Having their escape somehow covered twice distracted them long enough for me to get ready. The soldiers were just about to walk away from the candy apple stand. I spotted the caramel heater resting above a small pile of wood and an oil jug. It steamed with a thick, gooey, gold inside, just waiting to do something.
It would, alright.
There was no way I could hide it this time. But I was done hiding it. I knew Tracer could see a light in my hand as I curled a ball of fire up in my hand and shot it towards the stand, Iron Fae style.
It crashed into the oil jug and exploded. Flaming wood was sent in every direction, knocking the caramel bowl over and spilling hot candy onto the soldiers’ feet as they braced for the falling debris. Curses erupted from the boys as they watched the destruction unfold, but only Tracer turned back to look at me. Only one thing was written on his face—dismay.
“Go!” I shouted and fell backwards from the V. They obeyed and some yelled as they fell. My stomach jolted. I’d forgotten that the bases of the trees were laced with thornbushes and nasty insect hives. We couldn’t bank away in time. With only seconds, I pulled back and grabbed Tracer’s and Gator’s hands, and they grabbed Falcon’s and Kael’s and Wayk’s.
Then I Shifted.
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