Another week, another chapter! I probably should give a small warning for some of the language used in the dialogue. Even though I didn’t warn about the violence in the earlier Meese-napping scene.
Ah, well. I’m improving.
We’re still with Ketan, the new fire elemental who has come to Lyarne to find Meese. I do love writing him. Itching to write more of him, but I’m working on Tempest right now. A Tempest which is, currently, sitting at 1,678 words.
A small amount, yes–but it’s growing.
Anyway. Onto the chapter!
Meese, as it turned out, was not her real name. Can’t say he didn’t expect that one. Names had a fluidity in his circles—about half the people he knew didn’t use their birth name. Besides, “Meese” sounded like it should be some bastardized plural form for mouse. Or moose.
Made him wonder what she looked like. “Redhead” wasn’t much to go on. And neither Leloni nor Carson had actually seen the girl, which made their description based solely on rumor.
After a while, Ketan’s sleep cycle caught up with him. As Leloni and Carson watched a movie on a beat-up laptop, he took his shoes off and settled into the second chesterfield.
When he woke up a few hours later, all was quiet.
A spring poked into his shoulder. By the edge of the cushion, a seam had come loose, and stuffing puffed out of the tear. The fabric smelled faintly of mold and marijuana.
Sleep tugged at his brain, but all of his senses were awake and aware.
Something had woken him up.
He kept still, kept his breathing even. The room was quiet, still. A draft stirred against his cheek, briefly lifting the room’s stale air. The floor creaked by his feet. Something clicked on the table. A knife?
He cracked open his eyes.
The figure bent over the table was neither Leloni nor Carson. It took him a few tries to identify a gender. Male, he thought, but with an effeminate look to him. He had a sharp, angular cut to his dark hair, and the bulb overhead highlighted a splash of bright blue down the side. He was slighter than Leloni, and the skinny jeans on his legs made them seem too thin.
One of his new roommates? Leloni had mentioned there were two more.
Ketan stirred, sat up. The switchblade dropped to the bottom of his sock as he righted himself, clunking against the floorboards. He rolled the stiffness out of his shoulder, rubbed the area where the spring had poked into him.
The stranger glanced over, eyes bright and alert. The skin on his face was smooth and unblemished—like a younger teen, though Ketan pegged him for older. Streetlife stunted growth.
The man smiled an apology. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you? I tried to be quiet.”
He stifled a yawn. “No worries. I’m awake now.”
The youth straightened. “You must be Leloni’s friend. I’m Rain.”
He held out a hand. Ketan took it. The kid’s grip was light and cold.
When he let go, Rain retreated back to the table. Ketan saw a green pepper on top, half-sliced. Other vegetables lined the edge of the cutting area, and a bottle of dark sauce gleamed under the naked light, its packaging fresh and new.
“I was just making dinner. Tired of beans, you know?”
“Dinner?” It had to be closer to noon by now. Ketan couldn’t tell. His phone was his only clock.
Rain shrugged. “I work the night shift. Dinner is when I get off work.”
Ketan grunted. “Living underground must fuck with the system a bit.”
Juice spritzed into the air as Rain got back to slicing. “Oh, yes. Not that it matters right now. Haven’t seen the sun in months. Too many clouds.”
Ah, yes. Ketan had heard of the Lyarnese winters. “You work above-ground?”
“Yeah. At the Millennial Movie Theatre in Uptown. I clean floors and sell popcorn. Two nights a week. Not exactly a living wage, if you get me.”
“Yeah.” Ketan had a history of shitty, low paying jobs. He expected to get another one, soon.
The room fell into silence. Nothing but the slicing of Rain’s knife against the plywood. Thunk, thunk, thunk. Ketan leaned forward and retrieved the switchblade from his sock. It fit neatly into his back pocket.
He had a feeling he didn’t need to hide it much, down here. From what he’d heard, Underground law was less concerned with what one carried than what one used it for. So long as he didn’t flaunt it, everything should be fine.
His foot nudged the bowl of beans from earlier, scraped empty. He picked it up, scanning the room for a sink. From what he saw, he’d be lucky if there was running water. They seemed to barely have electricity.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s the set-up here?”
Rain glanced back over, glanced down at the bowl. “We buy drinking water from the Core, haul it in. For the rest, there’s a pipe up the street—not safe to drink, but fine for washing. A place on the next block has a working shower. Hey…” Rain turned toward him fully. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
Ketan looked up. “Yeah?”
“Are you a fire elemental?” Rain asked. “I mean, Leloni said you were, but she can be full of shit, y’know? And I don’t mean to pry, but it’s just—”
“I am,” Ketan said.
“Oh, good. Hey, can you do me a favor? I was actually planning to wake you up a little later for this, but… can you light the stove for me? It seems we’ve run out of lighter fluid and matches. I blame it on our smoking problems.”
Ah. Another monkey show. Well, at least it was a practical use of his power. Ketan stood up and slid his bowl onto the edge of the table. He was nearly a foot taller than Rain, and probably twice as heavy. Now that he was standing, he could see the entirety of Rain’s meal. Tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, bok choy, and some oblong, purple vegetable Ketan had never cared to name.
He clicked his bowl onto the edge of the table. “Looks delicious.”
“Better than beans, anyway.” As Ketan reached for the stove, Rain eyed the bowl. The gravy had dried to the side, making it look like dirt-encrusted diarrhea.
Ketan grunted. Gas hissed as he turned a valve. Flame caught with a hushed whumph. He’d had his element for years, now. It took less than a thought to light things. Not with that much gas around.
He turned the stove down until the flame turned blue, just kissing the bottom of Rain’s wok.
Rain stepped in as he backed away, adding oil. The smell of cooking vegetables soon freshened the stale air.
Ketan turned back to the couch and grabbed his jacket.
“Say, you going out?” Rain asked.
“Bring back a water jug and I’ll let you eat some of this.”
Ketan grinned. “You got it.”
It would be hours before Rain saw the water. Ketan thumped down the stairs, shouldered open the door, and re-visited the street from earlier. It had become custom, for him, to have a good wander through every new area. Maps weren’t his thing. He had a good head for direction, and it always made more sense, to him, to get the feel of an area. You couldn’t get that from a map. A map couldn’t tell you what the neighborhood was like, or if there were shortcuts, places to avoid, that sort of stuff.
Besides, he doubted there were any accurate maps of the Underground. It was too new. Too hard. If what he’d heard was true, it had multiple levels as well. The Core might be the only fully excavated part of it, but there was a myriad of tunnels that branched off into other residences and areas.
He retraced his footsteps, following the paths Leloni had led him through a few hours before. There were more people out now than there had been earlier, milling in the streets, commuting on bicycles. A group collected garbage bags from the sidewalk, threw them in the back of a jerry-rigged bicycle-wagon. No cars in the Underground, he guessed. More bags waited for them up the street, tied and labeled.
Maybe Ketan could get a job as an incinerator. Another practical use of his element.
He reached the Core in ten minutes.
It was easy to tell the Core apart from the rest of the city—it was more populated, more developed, and much nicer looking. It could have been a normal, above-ground street, except for the missing cars, lack of snow, and the heavy supports that straddled the street.
Ketan looked up between the rafters. He hadn’t had time to look at them much before. They lifted much higher than he thought they had—at least twelve stories, if he had to guess. They reminded him of bridge supports, or the beams from a geodesic dome. The largest beams stretched from side to side, anchored into the face of the buildings with concrete and steel fittings. Smaller supports criss-crossed upwards, into the darkness beyond the street’s light. Up high, a few isolated windows of light shone in the shadows.
Wonder if anyone walked up there? Seemed easy enough to put a ladder between beams, make a bridge. He’d have to ask Leloni. She’d know.
But first, he needed to find someone.
The Underground had two elementals, if rumor was to be believed. Two elementals and three mages. Water, earth, and fire. Ketan hadn’t met others like him. He’d heard of them, back in Terremain, but never saw them. They didn’t run in quite the same circle of friends.
Terremain. Hard to believe it had fallen. The war had seemed so… stagnant when he’d left. A constant, unmoving presence—as if the city would have a permanent front line on its outskirts. What had happened? Had Swarzgard found something to disable the shield? Leloni had said they’d breached the front line. But, how? And what was their plan? Were they, even now, marching on Lyarne?
The shield couldn’t hold that back, could it?
He passed the same bakery from earlier. The same two women moved around inside, puttering between the front and the back. An industrial kneader worked on the next batch. Although the store was empty of customers, nearly half the front display had been sold. Maybe they’d gotten a morning rush.
His stomach twisted at the sight of the bread. Maybe he should bring some home to go with the dinner Rain was making.
As he turned the corner, checking the wallet in his pocket, someone blindsided him.
Pain exploded in his elbow. He rolled with the blow, twisted away. A fist connected with his shoulder, a second with his chest. He skipped away as the first came back, and it glanced past his cheek.
Ketan blocked the next, his arms snapping up to protect his face. He hadn’t been in a fight for months, so his reactions were slower than usual. Another blow knocked into his arm, the bony fist bouncing off his muscle. He got a glimpse of light brown hair, a dark blue hoodie. His opponent was lighter than him. Smaller. Had less power behind his punches.
Probably didn’t have his element, either.
Footsteps ran up the street. Ketan blocked another blow, turned toward the sound. The three guys running up the street looked bigger. Military. One had a gun.
Ketan retreated further, dropped his guard. Heat welled inside him.
But as he caught sight of his attacker’s face, he forced his element back down.
He dodged another blow, ducking back. They hadn’t seen each other in nearly four years—it had been that long since Aaron’s sister had dumped Ketan. The teen—what was he, 14 now? 16?—was barely larger than Rain, and probably weighed a good forty pounds less than Ketan. Wicked with a knife, though.
But if he hadn’t pulled a blade yet, he wasn’t going to.
The other three caught up. Two pulled Aaron back, each taking an arm. The man with the gun hung back, watching. His straight, professional stance reinforced Ketan’s first assumption. He gave Ketan a solid once-over.
Then, he turned back to Aaron.
“I take it you know him?” Sarcasm curled around his tone.
Aaron stopped struggling. He had a flat face, as if someone had pressed him up against a concrete wall as a child. Thin lips curled into a snarl. Ketan dropped his hands by his side, careful to keep them well within sight.
“Back in Terremain. He fucked my sister.”
Four sets of eyes looked at Ketan.
He shrugged. “She started it.”
Gunman grinned. Aaron struggled against his captors. They held him easily, their muscles bulging under their matching black jackets. Maybe they shopped at the same place. Or maybe…
“You guys part of the enforcement down here?”
One of the men holding Aaron grinned. “How could you tell?”
“He can see police coming from a mile away,” Aaron said. “He’s from the streets.”
“Like you,” reminded the man holding Aaron’s other side. He glanced back up at Ketan. “Don’t worry, we don’t discriminate.”
“You new here?” Gunman hadn’t moved, though his position had eased towards casualness.
“Arrived this morning.”
“Welcome. I hope not everyone attacks you on sight.”
“I hope not.” I haven’t fucked that many sisters. Not that everyone needed to know about his love life. Or lack thereof. Street living created dynamics more like Leloni and Carson. He hadn’t wanted to get involved in that scene.
That, and his element had manifested. Try having a normal relationship when you’re worried you’ll, quite literally, burn up.
Which gave him a thought: Aaron didn’t know about his element. He’d left before then.
His secret was safe, then.
Gunman was inspecting him further. “You got a place to stay? A support group?”
“Yeah. Crashing at a friend’s.”
“Good. Friends are good. You came from Terremain?”
Where else was there to come from? It wasn’t like there was any other way to get into Lyarne.
The man cleared his throat. “You’ve, ah, heard the news?”
Oh. Ketan sobered. No wonder he was prying.
“Yes. I heard.”
The man relaxed. “Good, good.” He stepped forward, held out his hand. “I’m Chen. Shift supervisor.”
“Ketan.” Fire elemental.
He had a strong, firm handshake. “You fight pretty well. Aaron.” He turned to the other three. “I’m going to let you go now. If you attack this gentleman again, I will shoot you. Capiche?”
The guards relaxed their grip, stood back. Aaron rolled his shoulders, adjusted his jacket, and turned his gaze back to Ketan. Ketan stared back. They were like dogs, sizing each other up. Maybe he should pee on Aaron’s shoe.
He squashed the thought.
They turned to leave.
“Hey, wait—do you know where I can find Meese?”
They stopped. The two who had been holding Aaron looked at each other.
“In the hospital, probably,” one said. “She didn’t look so great. Are you a friend of hers?”
Aaron put it more bluntly: “Did you fuck her, too?”
Ketan raised an eyebrow. At least Aaron made it easy to dodge the first question. “No, Aaron. Despite what you think of me, I have not had sex with every woman alive. Is she okay? What do you mean, ‘didn’t look so great’? What happened?”
Chen tilted his chin. “The earth mage happened. She’ll be okay. Cuts and bruises, from what I heard. She’s in good hands. I can’t imagine she’ll be back down here today, though.”
“Wasn’t Roger recruiting her?” Aaron asked.
“Even Roger allows sick days.”
A moment of quiet passed between them.
“He’ll probably let her off,” Chen amended. “I mean, she could barely walk.”
Ketan frowned. This was sounding worse and worse. Just what kind of person was this Roger? And was there some fight with the earth mage he hadn’t been privy to? As an elemental, he should probably find out these things. But, by the looks on their faces, this source of information might be tapped out—especially if he was to keep them thinking that he somehow knew and was friends with Meese.
“She’ll be around within the next few days,” Chen assured him. “On crutches, probably, but around. I’m sure you’ll bump into her at some point. She’s hard to miss.”
A redhead on crutches. Yes, that would be hard to miss. Especially down here—it seemed like half the population was Asian. Redheads would be a rarity.
Ketan smiled. “Thanks.”
“I’ll see you around. Try not to get attacked.”
He waved as the group turned back down the street.
Maybe he should get Meese a get well card for their first meeting.
I hope you like Ketan as much as I do. I quite enjoy writing him. As always, I welcome any kind of feedback–good, bad, or indifferent!
And, as always, here’s my shameless plug for Firebird‘s prequel, Into the Fire, which is currently free at the following stores: