Firebird, Chapter 22

Happy New Year from Taiwan! Only a month to go before Firebird releases!

It’s already January 1 here. Didn’t do much last night since I worked late and came home with a headache–but I have a long weekend in which to celebrate. Hoping to go down to Sun Moon Lake and see what all the fuss is about, or maybe hit up the Dakeng hiking trails in hopes of seeing wild monkeys.

I will, of course, be spending a lot of time writing. Tempest is over 9,000 words now.

Anyway. We’re back to the other fire elemental for this chapter.


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When Ketan awoke, Carson was watching him.

He stood in the shadows, leaning against the stripped and broken wood of the wall. Cigarette smoke curled away from his face. As he took a drag, the ember underlit his face in a dim, angry glow. His eyes never wavered.

There was something wrong with the main light. It hung above the table, dark and dead, its empty glass gleaming. A battery-powered lantern sat on an overturned pot underneath it, its pale, mercurial light a poor substitute for the warmth and brightness of the incandescent. The light felt weird. Otherwordly. As if they’d left the land of the living.

Carson’s eyes smoldered like the burn of his cigarette, never leaving Ketan. They looked feral. Wild. Violent.

Adrenaline spiked through Ketan, shaking through his blood. He forced it back. Instead, he faked a yawn, stirred from the couch, and rocked into a sitting position. His switchblade fell hard against his ankle when he moved.

Yo,” he said.

Carson took another drag from his cigarette.

They were alone, as far as he could tell. The house was quiet, still. Nothing moved.

What’s with the light?” Ketan asked. He took a moment to size Carson up. Was he drunk? High? Cracked out? Hard to tell with those shadows.

Finally, Carson gave. He dropped the cigarette. Its end flared until he ground it under his boot.

Light’s out,” he said.

I can see that. Do you know why?”

Carson’s eyes glittered in the dark. “No.”

He pulled something out of his pocket. Metal flashed in his hand. A knife, by the way he held it. When he next spoke, his voice had a casual aire. “You stealing my girlfriend?”

Guess he hadn’t been blind to Leloni’s affections at the mall. Ketan relaxed, slumped back into the chair.

No,” he said. “She’s just a friend.”

Carson grunted. Metal flashed. Ketan watched it, ready in case it turned his way. He hadn’t forgotten the look on Carson’s face when he’d set the dolls on fire.

Maybe she should have one less friend,” Carson said.

The knife paused.

Ketan stiffened.

Tension crept into the air. His element burned to life inside him, ready to strike.

The front door scraped open, breaking the silence. Footsteps sounded on the stair. A moment later, Rain walked into the room, plastic bags weighing down his skinny arms. When he caught sight of Ketan and Carson, he paused.

The teen’s eyes darted from one to another, reading the situation.

Then, they settled on Ketan.

Gonna need you to light the stove in a few,” he said.

Sure,” Ketan said. “I can do that.”

Carson pushed off of the wall. His boots stomped on the floor as he left.

Ketan and Rain watched him go. The front door scraped closed. Outside, a bottle skittered and bounced across concrete.

Rain met his eye. “You know, it might be a good idea to find another place to crash.”

Ketan nodded. It was time to go.

***

He waited a good ten minutes before he started out. Like the bulb over the stove, the lights on the streets were all dark. His flashlight—on loan from Rain—flicked over the street. Cracked pavement led away from its beam, the shadows jumping as he moved.

Carson was a problem. How big a problem, Ketan wasn’t sure. He could handle himself in a fight, but his fire elemental powers might put him at disadvantage if Carson got serious with his intentions. Honor vanished like smoke if the scales put someone at too much a disadvantage. If push came to shove, Carson wouldn’t bother to wake Ketan up—he’d simply stab him in his sleep.

Rain was right. Time to find another place.

He hadn’t gone far when footsteps ran up the street behind him. He spun. Another flashlight beam, paler and thinner than his, flashed in his face as he turned around.

Hey.” Leloni breathed hard, parsing her message with a gulp of air as she caught up. “I heard you’re leaving?”

Word traveled fast.

Yeah. Thought you guys could use the place to yourselves.”

But you just got here!” She pouted. Her lip ring flashed in the light. She wore a black mesh top underneath her jacket today, along with the same pair of torn jeans she’d met him in the Underground with. The black straps of her bra poked out from under her pink camisole.

Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I know.”

She followed as he turned, and the beam of her flashlight joined his as they walked up the street. Shoes crunched on loose concrete. Occasionally, a chunk would catch the edge of their toes and skitter across the road. Darkness melded the faces of the buildings together.

You know how to get a place down here?” he asked.

Blond dreads bounced as she shook her head. “Carson already had a place. I don’t know how he got the water or electric working. The Society is in charge of that. You’d have to ask one of them. But—” She pouted again, her lip drooping down her chin. “Stay. Don’t go.”

As if on cue, another flashlight popped into view up the street, a block ahead of them. Its beam spilled onto a bag of garbage, the grungy, chipped bricks of an alleyway, the scratched plywood that covered a ground-floor window. Ketan squinted as it turned towards him and flashed in his face.

Hi, motherfucker!”

Ketan recognized the voice. Aaron. Leloni tensed beside him, her face purposefully blank. Her jacket brushed his arm as she inched closer to his side. She didn’t trust strangers. He remembered that much about her. Even back in Terremain, she’d always had a pack of friends around her. Friends and quasi-friends.

Here, she had few.

Maybe that was why she didn’t want him to leave.

Aaron walked closer, the beam of his flashlight skipping over the broken roadway.

You were looking for Meese, right?”

Ketan perked up. It hadn’t been that long since their last encounter. Barely a day, by his count. Of course, time moved differently down here, where the sun didn’t shine.

Yeah?”

Leloni shrank back as Aaron approached. When he got within five feet, she vanished into the shadows behind them.

Huh. Looks like her people didn’t ran with Aaron’s people. Not surprising. Leloni had never been much for the establishment, and Carson seemed blatantly anarchist.

Aaron lifted an eyebrow at her disappearance.

Ketan squared his shoulders and put himself in between them. “What about Meese?”

Oh. Uh, she’s at Doctor D’s.”

Ketan straightened. “An Underground doctor?”

Yeah.”

What happened?”

Someone threw a bomb at the fire mage’s office.”

Ketan’s mouth dropped open. He sucked in a slow breath. Was someone targeting fire elementals? Maybe he should keep his powers on the down low for a little while longer, then.

Is she okay?”

I think so. Anyway, I gotta run. I’m on patrol. Gotta keep the crime down when the lights are dark.”

He turned to go.

Hey, wait—what happened to the lights?”

Oh. The electric mage is over from Terremain. They’re experimenting with the Underground grid system. It’ll be off and on like this for a few days.”

Aaron’s footsteps tapped on the road as he jogged away, flashlight bouncing over the broken street. He’d been oddly cheerful for that meeting. Had he gotten over the thing with his sister?

Ketan watched him go. Soon, his light disappeared around the curve of the street, briefly silhouetting the crenelated surface of the neared building.

When he turned back, Carson had found Leloni by the side of the road.

You run with the Society?” His tone belied his disgust. He wore the same hatred in his eyes as when Ketan had woke up this morning. One hand curled around Leloni’s slender shoulders, the other held a lit cigarette.

Ketan shrugged. “What’s wrong with the Society?”

He had a feeling he already knew the answer. The Society enforced the Underground’s crime laws—in a brutal, if efficient, manner. You do the crime, and you do more than the time. As Ketan had experienced earlier, Underground policing was big on the bruising.

And if ever there were a criminal element, Carson was its poster boy.

They’re a bunch of assholes. Why? You’re not thinking of joining them, are you?”

Nah. He wouldn’t.” Leloni leaned her head into Carson’s shoulder. She was so tiny, compared to him. Delicate looking, even with the studs on her jacket. “Fire doesn’t mix with water, does it?”

She met Ketan’s eyes, a single eyebrow lifting.

Ketan remained silent.

Sure. Whatever.” Carson took a drag from his cigarette. His long arm wrapped around Leloni’s hips as he blew the smoke out. “Come on, babe. Let’s go.”

Leloni gave Ketan one last look as Carson steered her back down the street. Then, the two became little more than shapes in the shadows, walking at the edges.

They vanished into an alley, and Ketan turned away.

He had things to do.

***

The apartment was old, dusty, and vacant.

Perfect.

Ketan’s flashlight swept across the room, surveying the state of the walls, floors, and ceilings. From the outside, the building had looked solid—Ketan even recognized the style. Whoever had designed it must have been popular in Terremain a hundred years ago. A boarded up storefront sat below this suite, linked only by a shared backdoor. A backdoor so wedged against the concrete landing that Ketan had kicked it open. Obviously, the wood had warped—or the frame had shifted. Whatever the case, Ketan considered it a boon.

Carson would find it hard to sneak in to his new house.

Stale air tickled his nose. Dust hung in strings from the ceiling, looking like flimsy, ethereal, urban stalactites. There were a few spots and stains in the paint, and the drywall had cracked in numerous places, but Ketan had expected that. A building couldn’t survive a 70-year burial without a few bumps and scratches. Frankly, most of the Underground looked pretty damn good, considering its history.

The floor creaked under his feet, dusty but intact. Electrical outlets and light switches—more than he had expected—gleamed and glinted as he shifted the light, their cream-colored, plastic faceplates blending in with the dirty, off-white walls. To his right, a galley-styled kitchen opened through an arched doorway. The old, electric stove made him think of Rain, back at Carson’s, and the meal he’d eaten earlier. A series of wooden cupboards slumped on the wall, one side nearly touching the counter.

All along the outside wall, glass still hung in the windows, backed by a series of plywood boards. Cracks glinted like spiderwebs when he turned the flashlight’s beam to them. A dusty table stood in front of one, two chairs parked askew at its sides. An old couch, two of its three cushions broken, sat against the wall.

It was furnished, even.

Ketan sighed. Now all he needed to do was figure out how to connect the plumbing and electricity, secure a job, and find Meese.

Easy peasy, right?

Right.

He moved back toward the exit, picking his way across the old boards. The flashlight beam swung over dusty drywall. Cobwebs hung down from the ceiling, their tendrils long and full of dust.

And, as he made his way back down the stairs, focusing on his footing, someone knocked on the door.


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