Firebird, Chapter 18

have decided to do a pre-order (date as of yet undecided. I’m thinking January 30 or February 1. Maybe mid-February as I go on vacation between Feb 5 and 12), and have thus been tweaking Firebird’s cover. KBoards is a wonderful place with wonderful people who don’t mind commenting on covers, and I am so happy with all the input I’ve received over the last day. Bet I’ll have a rocking cover by the end!

Here’s the latest:

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And here it is as a thumbnail next to Into the Fire’s cover.

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I think it looks pretty good, considering I’m an amateur photo-manipulator who hasn’t touched photoshop in months. I just hope that it’ll be good enough that people want to click on and buy the book.

In other news, I just started writing Tempest‘s third chapter. Yay!

Anyway. Onto today’s chapter! Ketan’s back, he’s making plans, and he’s setting things on fire!

Oh, and just a warning: there is some coarse language and violence in this chapter.


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When Ketan got back, Rain wasn’t alone. Leloni, Carson, and one other person—a skinny blond boy he didn’t recognize—shared the first couch. Smoke curled up from the blond’s bong, and the skunky smell of marijuana intermixed with the old scent of cooked vegetables.

Ketan thumped the water jug onto the floor. Rain, seated in the second couch that Ketan had slept on earlier, pointed at a bowl on the table.

Ehhh, Water Boy.” Carson sprawled on the cushion, Leloni’s legs bent over his lap. A half-empty bottle glinted in his hand—his fifth, if the empties on the floor were any evidence.

Ketan ignored him. Without a word, he claimed the still-warm bowl on the table as his prize.

The Underground was bigger than he’d originally thought. More vacant than he’d expected. Instead of cramped, concrete, cave-like rooms, he found entire streets of sound, empty apartments. Sure, most of them were—like this place—“fixer uppers”, but they’d do in a pinch. And, from what he’d heard, they were fair game.

The only trouble was electricity and plumbing. As he understood it, the Society had re-fitted the excavated city with new pipes. Mostly. In the Core, they’d simply shot new pipes through the old, keeping the infrastructure underneath the street. Each building had its own style, depending on the lodger’s bank account.

In the outskirts? Well, let’s just say that two sets of rudimentary pipes ran through the wall of Leloni’s place, and it didn’t take a genius to guess the function of either.

Electricity was somewhat less tricky, albeit more unstable. It was hard to see the wires that ran through the houses, but they were there. Dangerous, in places. Prone to black-outs. Now that he knew to look, he spotted the black cable in the corner of the room.

Any idiot with a pair of clippers and a death wish could take out the power.

Ketan joined Rain on the couch. He had a computer on his lap and a social media site open on the browser.

Across the room, Leloni drew circles on Carson’s jeans with her fingernail. “You go out?”

Yeah.” The bok choy had cooled. He swallowed it down. “Thought I’d get a feel for the place.”

Did you find Meese?” Rain asked.

She’s in the hospital, apparently. But they’ll tell her I was asking for her.”

You know Meese?” The new kid, the blond, stared at him.

Oh—right.” Leloni sat up straighter. “Forgot. Riley, meet Ketan. Ketan, Riley.”

You know Meese?”

No, he doesn’t.” Carson sneered. A bottle glinted in his hand. “He’s just pretending.”

What? Why?”

I don’t know Meese, I’m looking for Meese,” Ketan explained. His fork clinked as he lifted the bowl, examining its bottom. Microwaveable, it said. Well, maybe it could withstand a little fire element.

Why are you looking for Meese?”

Because he’s a fire elemental.” Leloni giggled as Carson’s hand snaked around her waist, tugged her close. “Why’s Meese in the hospital?”

Lost a fight with the earth mage, I’m told.” What had motivated her to pick a fight with him in the first place? He couldn’t imagine fighting an earth element underground. Let alone a mage. “Is he a big bad around here?”

I hear he’s an asshole,” Riley said. “I had a friend who worked for him once. You know, housekeeping? Treated her like a slave.”

Fucker.” Leloni lay her head on Carson’s shoulder.

The room settled back into silence. The bowl heated between Ketan’s fingers. Soon, a curl of steam rose from the vegetables.

Perfect.

He ate in silence.

A little while later, Carson stirred.

Fuck. Let’s do something.”

***

They ended up in a shopping mall.

Ketan stared. The place was enormous. Vacuous. Even Terremain didn’t have malls this big. Leloni, Riley, and Carson all had flashlights, although Carson’s swayed somewhat erratically. Rain had stayed behind, citing an early shift.

Dust and debris covered the old linoleum, making it slick and unstable under his feet. Everywhere, glass storefronts dimly reflected the lights. Some of the windows had been smashed, and broken glass glinted on the floor. Shelves, clothes racks, and old, outdated advertisements jumbled together inside.

His eyes lingered on the dates. 1983? This place was over seventy years old.

Leloni giggled at his side. Her hand snuck around the crook of his arm. “Neat, huh? I love this place.”

By the smell of her breath, he could tell she’d indulged in some of Carson’s liquor.

Yeah, neat.” Ketan glanced around for Carson. He was far ahead, with Riley. Their flashlights faced forward.

There’s lots of neat places down here,” she said. “Fun places. I could show you, if you like?”

She giggled again. She felt like a bird at his side. Ketan moved forward, and she tugged along beside him.

An old escalator forced them into single-file, and she fell in behind him. Their shoes made metallic clicks against the steps. On either side, the mall dropped off into dim shadows. Distant guard-rails glinted in their flashlights. Dusty, scratched Plexiglas blocked their fall.

Carson tripped on the last step, and the bottle dropped from his hand, hitting hard against the floor. It skidded, bumped over a chunk of concrete debris, and rolled in a wide arc.

Leloni darted forth, pushed Ketan out of the way, and grabbed it. Giggling, she winged it over the edge. A flashlight caught it as it arced down to the next floor.

A few seconds later, it crashed in the darkness.

Hey, what the fuck?” Carson said. “What’d you do that for?”

You can’t hold your liquor,” she said. “I’m taking away your keys.”

He straightened, fists clenched. Riley’s light caught the white of Carson’s stained muscle shirt. His navy blue ballcap, pierced with rings in the brim, slanted sideways off his head. In the light, his skin looked redder than usual.

I wasn’t done with that one,” he said.

It was almost empty.”

Fuck off. You owe me another, cunt.”

Hey,” Ketan stepped forward. “Don’t call her that.”

Carson’s lip curled. His eyes, their pale blue washed out in the glare of the flashlight, slid over him. “What’s it to you?”

She’s my friend.”

She threw my fucking beer off the fucking ledge.”

It’s just a beer, man. She’s drunk.”

Leloni crept into the light, shoulders hunched, hands wringing together. She slid them around Carson’s abdomen, pressed her head to his chest. “I’m sorry, Carson. I’ll get you another one.”

Over her head, Carson sized him up. Ketan met his stare.

Then, the man jerked away.

Fuck off.”

After that, Ketan walked with Riley. They moved slowly through the mall, the light catching on the remnants of storefront displays and shop kiosks. A vending machine lay on its side, its inventory long gone.

The boy didn’t talk much. But, maybe there was another reason for that. He kept glancing at Ketan. After the fourth or fifth time, Ketan glanced back.

What?”

Riley’s eyes widened. He stuttered. “Sorry. It’s just—”

Just what?”

He bit his lip, looked away. After a second, he looked back.

Are you really a fire elemental?”

Ketan sighed. What was this, the third time?

Without a word, he lifted his hand. Fire slipped over his fingertips.

Riley’s breath caught. “Whoa. That’s so cool. How’d you… get that?”

Ketan snuffed the fire out. Smoke curled into the air. “Luck of the draw, I guess. Just woke up with it one day.”

Were you born with it?”

No. It happened a few years ago.”

Huh. I didn’t know that could happen.”

Ketan shrugged. “I’m not the only one.” And fire wasn’t the only element. Back in Terremain, there’d been a girl who could manipulate shadows. That had been freaky.

And then, of course, there was Kitty.

But he knew where Riley’s mind was going.

It’s really rare,” Ketan explained, “but it happens. Maybe 1 in 100,000? I dunno. I want to find out more.”

Is that why you want to find Meese?”

Yep.”

Cool. You gonna stay around?”

Ketan shrugged. “Dunno. Depends. I don’t really have a plan.”

Well, if you are, I know a guy who—”

Hey, fire boy!” Up ahead, Carson and Leloni had stopped at the top of the next escalator. A flashlight beam glared into Ketan’s face. “Let’s see what you got. Found some friends your size that you can fight.”

Tension prickled over his skin. Friends? Great. He’d already been in one fight today.

But, as he watched Carson pull Leloni closer to him, a hand sliding over her hips, he suddenly felt the urge to punch someone.

He rolled his shoulders, flexed his fingers. His element stirred with his thoughts.

Riley spoke quickly. “They’re dolls.”

Ketan stopped. “What?”

Mannequins. Taken from the stores. Not real people.”

Dolls?”

Yeah. Just behind them, on the floor above. About a hundred of them.”

Ketan narrowed his eyes.

At the top of the escalator, Carson’s smile grew. “What’s wrong? You scared?”

Anyone else up there, you think?” he asked Riley.

Not likely. Carson doesn’t have any friends. And we’re well out of the way, down here.”

Ketan smiled, stepped forward. This’d be risky, but incredibly satisfying. It had been a while since he’d been able to play—fully play—with his element.

His feet tapped on the escalator. Carson held his ground, though he swayed a bit. Drunk.

The first mannequins came into view as Ketan drew level with the next floor.

I didn’t know you played with dolls, Carson. Explains a lot.”

Fire crackled between his thoughts. A shadow of heat warped the air in front of him.

They’re for you,” Carson said. “Your type of fighter.”

What—all white plastic and no brains? Seems more like you, gringo.” Ketan held his stare. In the backsplash of the flashlight, Leloni’s eyes widened. Her hands dug into Carson’s shirt, as if to hold him back.

Ketan stepped forward, fingers sliding over the old, dusty black vinyl of the railing. He pushed past Carson and got a better look at these dolls.

Riley was right. There had to be over a hundred of them. More, probably. Carson’s light flashed across the first row, revealing pale white faces, bodies of varying sizes and genders. The men ranged from athletes with well-defined muscles to more normal-sized mannequins with a smooth, rounded finish. Some of the women had breasts with nipples, slim waistlines, a subtle tone of muscle, others barely had an a-cup.

He stepped up to a man about Carson’s height and burned its face off.

Heat hit his skin. Black smoke coiled into the air, vanishing into the shadows. The fire crackled a deep orange, spreading to the rest of the doll’s body. Plastic blackened, melted.

You know,” he said, rotating slowly, well aware of Carson watching him. “Thank you, Carson. I hardly ever get a chance to open up.”

The five mannequins surrounding him erupted into flame. The smell of burning plastic singed the air. He stepped between them, ignoring the fire that licked his sleeve, clung to his shoe, blasted his face. It was his fire. It wouldn’t hurt him.

Dolls combusted in his wake.

The scene looked apocalyptic. Red, angry flames snapped higher, leaping up to the next level. The fire overpowered what scant light their flashlights had provided, rending them moot. Heat singed his clothes, his hair, kissed his neck. The linoleum crinkled, bubbled, buckled.

Plastic. Everything was plastic. That much hadn’t changed in the last seventy years.

Ketan extended his powers, feeling the element race inside of him, and lit every mannequin on the floor.

Orange light licked the ceiling. The fire roared.

He turned and met Carson’s stare across the hall. Riley had joined them. Orange lit their faces. Carson’s had lost the smug, drunk look from earlier. He seemed more serious. Deadly. Hateful.

Ketan returned it in kind.


Love it? Hate it? Let me know! I appreciate all comments 🙂

And, as always, my shameless plug:

Hungry for more? Into the Fire is available for free at the following vendors:

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