Chapter 10: The Dead Man's Mess
The world around her was burning, but something about it felt right. Where panic should've registered, all she felt was the comfort of warmth. Something about the flames made her feel at home.
Curled up, Clandestine took in a deep breath, letting the smoke fill her lungs. It felt like the smoke was coming home, not just into her space, but to where it belonged - or rather, where it came from. She found herself at peace, and with a deep sigh, she curled her tail around her--
--wait. Her tail?
Clandestine's eyes opened blearily. She could hear the loud crackle of fire eating away at the grass around her, and the heat of it nipping at her feet, piercing through the leather of her boots. It felt like her shoes were burning through to her skin.
She found herself staring at Matt.
He lay limp on the ground, one arm underneath her, one arm over her stomach, face towards the sky. Why was he holding her? Maybe that wasn't the right question to ask at the moment.
His face shone with sweat and he looked sickly. More urgently, he looked entirely unresponsive.
Her head was spinning.
One moment, she'd been on her feet, trying to stop Alexander from killing Matt. The next, she'd been hit by some dart--
She patted her arm, finding the dart was gone, but the memory and the pain of it still lingered.
But she could feel the pain of something else nip at her ankle.
Looking down, she saw that a burning piece of grass had flaked off and caught on her pants. Eyes going wide, she smacked tiny flame to death, adrenaline finally kicking in to overpower whatever sedative she'd been hit with.
The fire was two feet away and would reach them in seconds.
She glanced behind them at the creek, realizing what must have happened.
Matt was trying to get them to the water.
With a pained grunt, she forced herself to her feet and heaved Matt up, hooking her arms under his. Practically panting in exhaustion, she dragged him, walking backward into the creek.
She didn't even know if Matt was alive or dying. She didn't even know where Alexander was. She didn't know how she was going to stop this fire that she started on accident that was already so big anyone a few miles away could see it as a bright beacon.
The water came just above her knees at its deepest, slowing her down a bit, but she managed to pull Matt over to the other side. She kept dragging him until he was a few feet away from the water's edge and she dropped him, realizing there was something else she'd forgotten.
Billy. And what about Elliot?
Her eyes darted down the stream, already spotting the distant shadow of Billy, having run away. But she remembered where she'd seen Elliot.
The fire had just reached the tree he was tied to and was starting to leap up to the branches.
She burst into a sprint. Dirt flew behind her. Then water. Then dirt again.
Elliot was starting to kick and neigh, tugging at the rope that kept him bound to the burning tree. With just a few feet between herself and Elliot, the flames began to crawl down the rope.
Her sword was sheathed at her side. As she slowed with heavy steps, she drew her sword and slashed it through the rope before the fire could eat its way to Elliot.
Stomping to a sloppy stop, Clandestine whirled around and slid her sword back into its sheath. Elliot looked ready to dart away, but Clandestine came up alongside him.
"It's okay, buddy," she said, speaking over the roar of the fire. Embers sprinkled down on them from the tree overhead. Elliot neighed and jerked away. She followed him and grabbed the horn of his saddle, pulling herself up.
"Let's get out of here," she said with a click of her tongue. But Elliot was already moving. She scrambled to grab the reins, guiding him as he ran out into the water, eager to escape the heat of the fire.
It took her a moment to circle him back to where Billy and Matt were, but Elliot slowed without command when they drew near his usual rider.
She hopped out of his saddle, still breathing hard from all the running.
Billy and Elliot stood behind her, antsy.
Matt lay in the grass, unconscious, potentially dying at her feet.
And ahead of her, across the creek that felt smaller and smaller with each passing second, was the raging fire she'd started on accident.
She'd been trying to save him. But now the whole valley was in danger of being consumed by her flames. And even the creek wouldn't stop the flames from eventually carrying over to the other side. If any amount of wind came, they were done for.
How was she supposed to put this fire out?
Her palms were already sweating, but it felt like they were burning as she stared at the flames stretching into the pitch-black night sky. She wished that, of all the magics she could've been born with, she'd been gifted something else. Water was so much more useful. Earth could at least be turned to stomp out the fire.
She didn't know what to do. The best thing she could think of was to try and control the fire but even if she could, how long could she hold that with her magic?
She glanced back down at Matt. He still hadn't moved an inch since she last set him on the ground, face-up, his skin shining with sweat.
Biting her lip, she looked back at the fire.
She didn't have time to think through her options. There weren't any. She just had to try.
Extending her hands out toward the fire, she gritted her teeth and took in a deep breath.
Silva rested her hands over Clandestine's. Her hands were rough, just like she was. But whenever it came to magic, there was always something that softened in her demeanor. Clandestine used to think it was because she understood that Clandestine was afraid, but she wondered if Silva was afraid, too.
Clandestine tried to feel for the boundaries of the fire, reaching for it with her magic.
"As much as it's about control, it's about connection," Silva's words whispered in the back of her mind. She could just remember what her mentor's voice sounded like.
"It's a part of you, but if you stop paying attention to it, it does what it pleases," she said. "It needs someone to guide it."
Clandestine could feel her heart pounding in her chest as she pulled on the edges of the fire, trying to pull it back from spreading.
"Tell it where to go."
Clandestine stood with her arms spread out at her sides, fingers splayed with her palms towards the fire.
It was like there was an invisible force coming out of her hands holding the flames back, but she could feel the tension as the flames raged against it.
She looked up into the sky, wondering where she could send the fire if she could even keep it contained long enough to send it anywhere.
And then her stomach dropped.
She felt a breeze.
In the near distance, she heard howling.
Wind wolves. They were drawn to the light. And they would carry the fire far beyond what she was able to contain. The fire would just keep spreading and spreading and--
The wolves came running in, spinning around one another in circles. Their bodies overlapped, mixing together in undefined shapes, with only their heads as distinguishable blue outlines in the dark of night. She strained to keep her hold on the fire's borders as the wolves started running in circles overhead.
No. That was worse. They were going to make a fire tornado if they kept that up.
She began to step forward, still straining to keep her focus. Her hair stuck to her forehead, pasted with sweat, and when she stepped into the creek even the water felt like it was burning.
But then the course of the wolves' spinning shifted. She realized they weren't circling down into the fire - they were circling down into the creek, creating a long, spinning path to the water with their bodies.
She stared, wide-eyed as, the moment the wolves' hit the water, water started to cycle up into their spiral of air.
The spiral stretched out over the fire, from the furthest edge to the next, and she could even feel the cool air spinning at the edges she contained.
Water flowed up like a spinning stream, now airborne. It followed the spinning path to the very end, and there was a split second where she could feel the tension in the air.
The tension of the wolves' wind tunnel, carrying the stream overhead. The tension in her own hands, feeling her strength beginning to wane.
Just when she thought she couldn't hold it any longer, the tunnel of air tightened, making the corkscrew stream a single line, and then it burst.
Like rain, the water sprinkled down, the wind carrying it violently, pounding against the flames.
Water was still being pulled from the stream, instantly turning into a rainy mist that kept spraying down, turning the flames to smoke.
Her hold on the flames finally broke when she realized there were no more flames to hold.
Clouds of smoke spun and shifted, following the twirl of the wind wolves as they spun up into the sky, disappearing from view as quickly as they came.
Her arms dropped to her sides as she heaved heavy breaths, staring into the sudden darkness that followed.
Finally, she could hear the sound of the stream, trickling past her ankles. It felt so loud now that the fire was gone, and all she could hear was the faint sizzle of smoke rising.
Then the smell hit her, sending her into a coughing fit.