I stood at the edge of the bonfire, letting the flying sparks land on my skin. They would sizzle and die out, leaving tiny red marks on my body. The marks disappeared in seconds. Kneeling, I reached my hand into the fire to pull out a burning coal.
Stryker stood silently behind me, watching with a stone expression. Finally, he said, “We should go, Ember.”
I ignored him. I turned the coal around in my hand, inspecting it. “They passed through here. Recently.”
“You got all that from a coal?” Dymphna asked incredulously.
I looked up at her. “Of course. The fire speaks to me.”
Dymphna frowned down at me, rolling her eyes. “Did it tell you which way they went?”
I pointed the right of us. “They’re heading west.”
“And you’re sure that’s west?” Sadi asked, keeping her distance. It hadn’t escaped my notice that she’d kept Stryker between her and me the entire trip.
“Well, we’re facing south, so… yeah.”
Dymphna rolled her eyes at my sarcasm. “Well, then, oh great master of all knowledge, lead the way.”
I ignored her sarcasm in return and stood, still holding the coal. I spoke solely to Stryker. “They have at least a two-hour head start on us.”
“Probably more,” I continued as if the older girl weren’t there. Dymphna may not have respected me, but Stryker and Sadi sure did. Well, Stryker definitely did. Sadi regarded me with something closer to fear than respect. Dymphna was just jealous because I was the youngest of our kind to ever reach full Mage status.
Most never made it past the Cadet level, if they even past the ridiculously hard examination after Training as a Novice. A Novice was a bare beginner. It’s what all magically inclined peoples started out as. If they exceeded Training and their masters thought they were ready, they took the Test, which was designed to test their skills and determine what type of power they had. Once past the Test, they were moved from the Novice dormitories into the Cadet building, where they were to take an even harder curriculum and, once their masters saw fit, they then had to undergo a screening that weaned out the weak from the strong, called the Blood Trial. It was dangerous and it was designed to seek out their weaknesses and strengths and test their agility and physical endurance, among other things. Then they were held in the Assessment wing of their master’s building. If they passed the Trial, they were made an Apprentice, picked by a Mage, Witch, or Warlock, and assigned specific duties to attend to for them. If they met all their Apprentice requirements and the Mage, Witch, or Warlock had no more use for them, or if the Apprentice became too powerful to be a personal servant anymore, they were elevated to Mage status and handed a scroll stating they’d graduated. From there, they could decide for themselves if they wanted to be a Witch, Warlock, good, or evil.
I myself was a Fire Mage. I had always loved fire, loved to play with fire, loved to watch it burn and smolder and destroy things. As a student, I used to sit and watch fires turned blue, then orange, then turn black and die. I loved to run my hands through the ashes. I loved to stick random things in the fire and watch them break and wither away in a burst of flames. That’s how I earned my name. Ember Shade, they called me now. Mages, Witches, and Warlocks got to choose their own names once they graduated, if they didn’t like their current one. As an Apprentice and all through Training, I had been Ignacia, which in Spanish meant “fire” and in Latin meant “fiery.” Ignacia Black, my parents had named me, upon seeing my eyes for the first time after my birth. My eyes had been a bright red. Still were.
My love of fire had stemmed from my childhood. My name was just too tempting for Fate, I guessed. When I was an infant, barely three years old, both my parents had died in a fire, leaving my older brother of only eight years old, to carry me outside. We waited outside the house, on our lawn, watching the house burn while waiting for the fire control people to arrive. Then again, when I five, I accidentally fell into our fireplace, at my grandparents’ house. They had taken us in, two little orphans. My brother, again, rescued me. I cried because it hurt, but I was mostly fascinated by the way my skin turned red and shiny and then blackened while my brother bandaged me up. Then, Fate dealt me one last blow. When I was sixteen, my brother died from a Fire Spell cast by an angry Warlock my brother had a dispute with. The spell ate at my brother from the inside until all that was left were his charred remains, a pile of ashes fluttering in the wind.
“How many is there?” Stryker asked, bringing me back from my thoughts.
I looked at the ground around the fire, then raised my head and sniffed the air, tossing the coal from hand to hand. “Nine.”
Dymphna made a face, which I ignored. She was probably wondering how I could possibly know that and hoping that I was wrong. Only Stryker knew my secret.
I moved off down the dirt road a little ways, leaving Stryker and Sadi to smother the fire and Dymphna to glare jealously after me.
I caught the impression of a boot in the mud. For a group who didn’t want to be caught, they weren’t particularly careful at hiding their path. Either they were in a hurry or they were completely incompetent. Or it was a trap.
I frowned and sniffed the air again, catching a different scent this time. “Stryker!” I called.
The tall boy was by my side in seconds. “What? What is it?”
“We’re not the only ones after them.” I told him quietly.
I nodded, smelling the air again. “I don’t recognize their scent.”
“Could they be helping our guys to escape?”
I shook my head. “They fought.” I indicated a small patch of brambles that had been trampled and an odd pattern of steps. I traced the boot prints, reenacting the fight. “They didn’t know each other.”
“Are you sure?”
I gave Stryker a droll stare.
“Sorry,” he muttered, glancing off down the road. “Any chance we can catch up to them?”
“Even better,” I grinned. “I think I know where they’re going.”
Dymphna and Sadi joined us then.
“How could you possibly know that?” Dymphna asked, disbelieving.
Saying a quick spell under my breath, a flame appeared in my hand, dancing across my palm. I coaxed it into a higher flame, as a picture formed in its depths.
They were all staring, transfixed, at my hand.
This was one of the many reasons I reached Mage level so prematurely.
The picture forming in the fire was that of the group we were chasing. They had assassinated one of the founders of our magic school. We were sent by the remaining five to bring them in.
“Where are they?” Sadi asked.
The assassins were gathered in a wooded area, around another campfire.
“Frenwick’s Forest,” Stryker breathed, recognizing the thick multicolored trees and the canopy of purple and blue leaves.
“That’s not three hours from here. They look like they’ve stopped for the night. Come on!” I ran back to the smothered campfire to clamber onto my horse, Sparks.
Urging Sparks forward, I headed in the direction of Frenwick’s Forest, named for the first Warlock ever brave enough to venture into it’s dark, unknown depths: Isiah Frenwick.
I felt the others join me. Listening to the pounding of hooves, I let my thoughts wander.
It didn’t seem right that these assassins had been so easy to find and catchy. They clearly weren’t professionals and they clearly hadn’t thought their plan out too well. Honestly, I was surprised they’d even managed to get past the patrols and assassinate Chrisen Laren. They weren’t very smart. Unless they were purposely leading us away from the campus to launch another attack. Or they were luring us into the forest to capture and slaughter.
But it would be rather hard to kill those armed with magic when you knew nothing of spells or what words would counter those spells. Especially if one of your pursuers was half werewolf.
Three hours later, we were at the edge of the woods. Dismounting, we decided to go the rest by foot because the terrain in the forest would be too difficult and dangerous for the horses. I took my bow and quiver off my horse and slung them onto my back. Armed with magic and arrows, I led my companions into Frenwick’s Forest.
Dymphna grumbled to herself the entire time, angry I was in charge.
Frenwick’s Forest was big, but it didn’t take four magically inclined teenagers to pinpoint the assassins’ location.
We moved wearily toward that part of the forest. They had gone surprisingly deep, for the cowards they’d proved to be. Frenwick’s Forest was notorious for the inhuman creatures that came out to play at night. Every rustle and growl and sound made my companions tense up.
A werewolf howled somewhere in the distance and Dymphna jumped.
I turned slightly to smirk at her.
“I wasn’t scared,” Dymphna said defensively.
“Right.” Sarcasm dripped from my tone. “That’s why you jumped three miles in the air.”
Dymphna spluttered, but I ignored her.
Moving swiftly through the trees and bushes that could be hiding any amount of creatures that meant us harm, we drew closer to the assassins’ camp.
I was actually surprised we hadn’t been attacked yet. It was night— a full moon, no less. Where were the bloodthirsty inhabitants of Frenwick’s Forest?
My skin tingled as we passed under a swathe of moonlight filtering in through the purple canopy. I remained human because I was only half werewolf— that, and I had lots of practice controlling the change. But full werewolves, and new werewolves (bitten or recently born), always changed. Always. And, driven by bloodlust and hunger, always attacked. So why hadn’t we been discovered yet? Surely they knew we were here. I wasn’t cloaking our scent. We’d heard one earlier, but where was it? Something had to be wrong.
Stryker’s thoughts must have been heading down the same path as mine. “Ember,” he whispered, drawing up next to me. “This doesn’t feel right.”
I stopped, looking around at the shadows. I sniffed the air. It even smelled wrong, this forest. What on earth is going on?
“What is it?” Sadi asked, eyes wide as she searched the darkness with her own blue gaze.
“I don’t know,” I admitted quietly. I strained, listening.
No more howling, growling, snarling, creaking of trees. No more whistling of wind. No more rustling on leaves or snap of branches. It was quiet. Too quiet. It was a dead kind of quiet.
“Something’s… off,” I told her. “Do you feel it?”
Sadi listened to the forest, holding as still as possible. “I don’t hear anything.”
“What do you think it is?” Sadi asked.
Dymphna rolled her eyes, most likely figuring I was making it up. “I’m not scared, Ember.” She sneered my chosen name.
I didn’t care whether or not she believed me. Stryker had noticed something was wrong and he was the only one I needed on my side. Sadi seemed to pick up on it too, slowly. She held her breath, waiting.
Dymphna stalked off into the forest, muttering to herself. Suddenly she disappeared and a scream pierced the air. We rushed to where she’d just been and looked down. There was now a huge hole in the ground.
“Dymphna?” Sadi called down. “You okay?”
There was no response.
“Dymphna?” Sadi called again.
Still no answer.
“Dymphna!” Stryker shouted, leaning over the lip of the gaping pit.
A tiny moan reached us from its depths, along with a string of foul curse words.
“Dymphna?” Stryker yelled.
“What do you see?” Stryker asked.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s completely dark down—” Her words cut off and then she screamed again.
“I’m not alone down here, Stryk.”
“How do you know?”
“I can… hear it.”
“How big is the pit?” Stryker asked.
“Cavernous,” Dymphna replied and yelped. “Something keeps touching me.”
I didn’t want to find her predicament funny, but I couldn’t help feeling amused.
“What does it feel like?” Sadi asked.
“Scaly.” Dymphna said with the utmost disgust in her voice. “And wet. Slimy.”
I exchanged a look with Stryker, which Sadi caught.
“What?” Sadi asked.
“It may be nothing…” Stryker said. Then he called down to Dymphna, “What does it smell like?”
Dymphna paused, probably trying to determine the scents assaulting her. “Vaguely like… sulfur.”
“Sulfur.” Stryker sighed, suspicions confirmed. “Anything else?”
“Blood,” Dymphna said, almost too quiet for us to hear. “It smells like blood.”
Stryker turned to me. “Could it be?”
“I thought they were extinct.”
“Well, think about it, Ember. What smells like sulfur and blood? What burrows into the ground? What is covered in scales and slime?”
Probably a lot of things, I thought, my amusement draining away, not wanting what I’d learned in Magical Creature Identification class to be right. If it was right, we were in deep trouble and Dymphna was as good as already dead.
Sadi looked back and forth between us, confused. “Did I miss something?”
“Think back to roughly three months into MCI.”
“That was the… dark creatures unit,” Sadi said.
Stryker nodded, pale and gulped. “Dym’s down there with a cavefooted smoghood.”
There were three known classifications of smoghoods. The cavefooted, the mountaindwelling, and the waterskidding. Smoghoods were incredibly dangerous and venomous. Their tails held stingers, which were full of poison with which they infected their prey, paralyzing them so they couldn’t run. Then they spun their prey into a web and slowly peeled off their flesh, which they ate, with sharp, hooked claws before they drank the prey’s blood and finally devoured the rest of them. Their hard shells worked like armor, making them immune to weapons, and magic was practically useless on them.
“Dymphna?” Stryker shouted down to her. “Did it inject you?”
“Did it what?”
“Inject you with its paralysis venom?”
“Well I can’t move, so yes!”
“Don’t struggle!” Stryker advised. “It makes the web get tighter.”
“Web?” Dymphna started screaming uncontrollably, so I figured it had her in its web-shooting pinchers.
“Try to stay calm,” Stryker said.
“Calm?” I mouthed at Stryker. He knew full well Dymphna was already lost to us.
Stryker looked defeated like he didn’t know where to go from here. “She was under my watch and I let her get…” He couldn’t even finish his sentence.
“We’ll go catch the assassins and then we’ll come back here and murder that beast for what he did.”
“But she’s not dead yet,” Sadi pointed out.
“Clearly you weren’t paying attention in class.” Stryker sighed. “The only thing these monsters are more protective of than their mates— and they mate for life— is their prey. Hell, they protect their prey over their offspring. There’s no chance in Hell of getting Dymphna out of there.”
Sadi glanced back at the dark hole in the forest floor. “And there’s absolutely no way of saving her?”
“A rescue attempt would just get us all killed. It would be a suicide run. No point in us all meeting that grisly fate while we have a job to do,” I said. I, personally, wouldn’t miss Dymphna. We weren’t close— we didn’t even pretend to be friendly towards each other. She had always been jealous of me and I’d never tolerated her unfounded hatred of me. But no one deserved this end. It was a horrible, slow death.
Dymphna’s screams echoed off the trees.
“I can’t listen to this,” Stryker said and headed in the direction we’d been walking. “Let’s go finish our job. We’ve got assassins to catch.”
I heard the hitch in his voice and touched his shoulder. “Hey, deep breaths. Dymphna was brave and she will be honored as a hero when we return— I’ll make sure of it.” While I wasn’t friends with Dymphna, Stryker had been very close with her.
“You would do that?” Stryker asked. “I know you didn’t like her.”
“Nobody deserves to die… like that. If we can’t save her, I’ll be sure she’s remembered as one of the best Cadets the academy has ever seen.”
“Thank you, Ember.” Stryker smiled weakly at me, turned, and trudged on.
Following after him, I glanced back at the pit one last time. Sadi stood on the lip, trembling, tears rolling down her cheeks.
I linked my arm through Sadi’s and pulled her on before she did anything stupid and suicidal, like try to rescue her sister. I had to support Sadi’s weight to keep her from crumbling to the ground with her grief.
“Stay strong,” I reminded my companions. “This was a great loss, but we need our wits about us since the assassins outnumber us.”
The rest of the walk was silent. Dymphna’s terrified, agonized screams followed us for a while, but then died out. The torment on Stryker’s face made me want to consol him, but his angry strides said he was too upset to talk so I remained silent. I continued to support Sadi’s weight.
Finally we reached the edge of the assassins’ camp. There was about eight of them that I could see, all milling around the campfire. We stayed to the shadows, blending into the trees like translucent specters.
Like a ghost, I drifted forward and slid the blade from my boot between one of the assassin’s ribs, angling it to pierce his heart. Before he’d even hit the ground, I’d melted back into the darkness. Sadi’s tears were still following, silently, her blue eyes glinting in anger and sorrow and self-blame. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t her fault and there had been nothing any of us could do about her older sister, but now wasn’t the time.
The man I’d stabbed fell heavily to the ground, causing the assassins to scatter and look around wildly, dropping their weapons or plates of food in surprise. I carefully fitted an arrow on my bow and shot one of the men through the heart. The nearest man headed for the direction my arrow had come, but by the time he’d reached my hiding spot, I was already on the other side of the camp. Stryker took down one more man, using a tricky spell that blocked ones airways and suffocated them. The man chocked, clutching desperately at his throat, before he collapsed on the ground.
That’ll teach you to mess with magic folk, jerks, I thought in bitter satisfaction as Sadi used a water spell to fill a fourth man’s lungs with water. In the woods nowhere near any water, the cowardly assassin drowned. Sadi would make a wonderful Water Mage some day, if that was the path she chose to take.
The remaining four men stood around the fire, terrified.
Smiling at their stupidity, I raised one hand and the fire rose with my movements to catch one man on fire. The other three jumped away as he burned up, reduced to ashes within seconds.
This is almost too easy, I thought. My spine tingled and I froze. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I remembered the feeling of wrongness I’d felt before. The dead silence. The oddly empty woods. Shifting, I glanced around. I didn’t see anything, but I had the feeling something was watching me. I perked my ears, listening, and sniffed the air. The smell was still off, but I couldn’t place the unfamiliar scent.
Another body hit the dirt, drawing my attention back to the two assassins left. Stryker had snuck up behind the one and snapped his neck.
Lunging into the clearing where they’d made camp, I stood hunched, growling. The men froze, eyes locked on me. I leapt, tearing out one man’s throat, leaving the last for either Stryker of Sadi.
“This is for Chrisen!” I heard Sadi shout and blood splattered everywhere, soaking my obsidian fur.
I glanced over to see Stryker coming into the clearing to smother their fire as Sadi wiped her blade off on her pants.
I shifted back to find Sadi staring at me, mouth ajar. “What?”
“I’m part werewolf, yes.”
Sadi didn’t quite seem sure what to say. At least I’d shocked her out of her tears, distracted her from her sadness momentarily. “How did I not see that coming? You’re always sniffing the air…”
I smiled. “You’d be surprised how many people have missed my most obvious tells.”
Sadi turned to Stryker. “Did you know about this?”
Stryker nodded. “Since she was a Cadet, actually.”
“Let’s head back, shall we?”
Stryker reached over and chopped off the head of the man we assumed was the leader. “Proof.”
I nodded and we started the long journey back to where we’d left our horses and then the even longer trip back home. We purposely took a different path to avoid Dymphna’s underground grave.
We were nearly out of the woods, when my hairs pricked again. I froze, glancing up sharply. I whirled around, scanning the darkness behind us.
“What is it?” Stryker asked.
“I don’t know. I just feel like—”
“We’re being followed?” Sadi supplied. She had been quiet the entire walk back, leaving any conversation up to Stryker and me.
I nodded. “Exactly like we’re being followed.”
“Someone’s definitely watching us,” Sadi whispered. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
I had a bad feeling in my stomach, too, a hyper awareness humming through my veins. I was over-alert, searching the shadows for any sign of danger. Turning, I took another step toward the edge of the forest, and felt the presence grow closer.
“Hello?” I shouted. “Who are you? What do you want from us?”
“Not us,” a disembodied male voice growled. “Just you.”
“What do you want from me?” I shouted to the presence. “Why are you following me?”
“I’ve been watching you since you were little, Ignacia Black,” the voice said, deliberately using my given name. “But you knew that.”
I froze. All my life, I had never felt truly alone. I had always felt like someone was watching me, but it was worse at night, worse when I was alone. But the feeling was always there.
“What is he talking about, Ember?” Stryker asked.
“Nothing,” I murmured.
The voice laughed. “Your daddy made a promise to me, didn’t he? He made a promise when he died. And he made you promise never to say yes to me.”
“You?” I gasped.
“Yes. Me.” A beautiful man materialized out of the darkness, black eyes gleaming.
“Who is that?” Sadi asked.
“Tell them,” the man urged. “Tell them who I am, Ignacia. Tell them how I butchered your family and brought you to the academy. Tell them about the proposal I made you. Tell them about your curse.”
I glared at the slyly grinning man.
I turned, keeping my eyes on the man from my past. “Stryker, Sadi… meet Lorens.”
The man’s eyes glimmered in amusement. “My real name, Ignacia.”
I sighed. Defeated, I said, “Lucifer.”
“Lucifer?” Sadi squeaked. “Like the devil?”
I nodded. “He wants me to go down to the Underworld with him, as his queen.”
Lucifer grinned. “Hell isn’t so bad. If you can get used to constant stench of rotting flesh and the incessant screaming. What do you say, Ignacia?”
“My name’s Ember now.”
“Ah, yes. Ember Shade,” Lucifer sneered. “You’re just playing at magic, my love. Come to Hell as my queen and I can give you power you’ve never even dreamed of.”
“You murdered my family.” I said flatly.
“A small matter,” Lucifer said.
I glared at him coldly. “I’m going nowhere with you.”
Lucifer sighed. “I told you I’d be back for you when you were eighteen. Sorry for the delay. I got a little caught up with other matters. Your birthday was two months ago, correct?”
“I warned you, Ignacia. I would be back and you would either say yes to me or I would take you by force.”
“I will never pledge myself to you, Satan.”
Lucifer laughed. “I always hated that name. It belittles my importance. I was an angel once, you know.”
“Who got cast out of Heaven.”
Lucifer sighed. “I’ve come to collect my bride.”
“You’ll never take her!” Stryker said. “I won’t lose two friends today!”
“Oh, that pathetic, sniveling little girl? What was her name… Dymphna?” Lucifer laughed. “Oh, yes. I sent that smoghood up to get her.”
Sadi whimpered, fresh tears streaming down her pale face. Stryker glowered.
“I refuse to go with you.”
Lucifer shrugged. “No matter.”
One second I was standing between Stryker and Sadi, and the next I was being restrained by Lucifer.
Stryker started forward, but Sadi put her arm out to stop him from doing something dumb that would get him killed.
Lucifer smirked. “Say goodbye to your precious Mage.”
It all went dark and when I blinked open my eyes, I was perched on a luxurious throne, surrounded by fire and giant, slobbering hellhounds. I glance down at my red velvet dress wondering where it had come from.
Lucifer smiled at me. “How do you like your new home, Ignacia?”