I was sprinting. My lungs and muscles burned with the extreme effort it took to sustain my rapid pace.
It was early morning, the sun just barely giving off a dull gray glow as it lazily awoke. Birds weren’t yet chirping. Rodents weren’t yet scurrying. The forest was quiet aside from my heavy footfalls and labored breathing.
Trees and undergrowth lined the little path for miles in every direction. They reached at me with their thorny fingers, trying to slip me up and slow me down – but I’d been practicing and I dodged them almost effortlessly. Harsh winter wind scratched and scraped at my throat with each inhale. My muscles shuddered under the strain.
I wouldn’t be able to keep this up for much longer. It was lucky I didn’t have to. The safe house wasn’t far by that point.
As the dilapidated little cabin came into view, I pushed myself even harder. Each footfall jolted through my legs like lightning. When I finally crossed the invisible finish line, I bent over to catch my breath. Sweat trickled under my white-blonde ponytail and glistened on my forehead. A drop slid down my nose and onto the ground. Dehydration and nausea battled for dominance in my exhausted body, and for a second I wasn’t sure if I was going to puke.
Chase poked his head around the side of the house and grinned. “Geez, Val, you look rough.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Nice to see you, too.”
His smile broadened. “Defensive maneuvers out back. Come on.”
I suppressed a mild groan. Training, training, and more training.
A few months ago, when Elise was rushing me through the woods toward the safe house, I’d wondered if she thought we were being followed. Turns out, we were. But not by whom she might have suspected. Not by the enemy.
Chase and Jay caught up with us a few days after we reached our temporary sanctuary. Elise was more than suspicious; she was paranoid. A Fire and a Water: exactly what I needed to help me control my newfound abilities. Too uncanny. But intel was her expertise, and she had nothing on them. Short of killing them, she had no choice but to allow them to stay and help.
Since then, it had been nothing but unending exhaustion for me. There were so many techniques and methods to learn about being Elemental that it was hard to keep up. But since my level of control was so inadequate, even I agreed that the training was necessary. Between the three of them, I learned more in three months than I probably could have if I’d grown up in the culture.
As a spy of sorts, Elise took it upon herself to coach me in the fine art of sustaining Elemental life. She taught me survival tactics that the majority of common Elementals wouldn’t have learned, such as immersing myself in one of my two Elements to draw in energy. It essentially rejuvenated every exhausted cell in the body – how this hadn’t been made common knowledge, I can’t begin to guess.
I assumed Elise trained me so hard because she was family and she cared, but sometimes, after particularly grueling exercises, I wondered if she didn’t just genuinely hate me.
Jay taught me about my Water side, like being able to breathe while submerged. He also helped me to feel more comfortable when using it. Water was usually my element of choice when consumed by fear, and as such, I’d distrusted it immediately and immensely.
Chase taught me to understand and better control my Fire side – though I was pretty sure my late mother’s Fire Opal necklace was already aiding greatly in that department.
Between Chase and Elise, I wasn’t sure who was worse. They both taught by hammering shit right into your head and throwing your underprepared ass straight to the wolves. Survival of the fittest at its finest.
I stared at Chase for a moment longer. My breathing and heart rate hadn’t quite slowed to normal. My cheeks still felt brush-burn red.
“Defensive maneuvers… like, now?”
“Yes, like now!” He shook his head and finally disappeared back around the corner.
I rolled my eyes, then cracked my back, neck, and fingers. “All right,” I whispered to myself as I stretched out my aching quads. “Let’s do this.”
When I got out back, Chase stood smirking about twenty yards away from me in the middle of the trees. Hands outstretched, each palm held a little ball of flickering fire. “Warm-up. Let’s see your guns.”
I sighed, but began charging and channeling my power. Gray smoke swirled from each of my palms, color quickly bleeding into it, giving it life and substance. The left-hand-wisp became a burning flame, so hot it mostly glowed a vibrant blue with just a hint of the stereotypical orange. The wisp on the right liquefied into sparkling water, reflecting the nearby flames like diamonds.
“Good,” Chase said with an appreciative nod. “So, during the past few months we’ve gone over how to control your Fire, and how to reel it back in once you’ve lost control. We’ve gone over some offensive tactics, as well as some general strategic moves and plays. But today is defense. In other words,” he said with a devious grin, “how do you contain someone else’s chaos?”
At that, the trees surrounding Chase immediately burst into flames. Fire licked up the rough trunks and scurried rampantly across the bare, brittle branches. He threw fireballs in rapid succession at the trees the initial burst hadn’t touched. Before I had a chance to blink, let alone figure out a plan, half the forest was on fire. The heat alone would smother Elise or Jay, but coupled with the billowing smoke, it could prove lethal.
As if on cue, Elise quickly darted out back, a look of cold determination on her face. Almost immediately, she crossed her arms and glared at Chase, keeping a healthy distance from the flames. The smile that lit up his face was so radiant it could kill. It stabbed my chest like a set of fangs, slowly leaking venom into my system.
“You dumb ass!” she shouted, half-gesturing to, half-shielding herself from the mess. “I thought an enemy was attacking! Instead, you’re just screaming our location out to them. Put the damn flames out!”
His grin widened, if that was possible. “No can do, beautiful. This is Valerie’s task.”
I narrowed my eyes and took a deep breath of scorching air, irritation mixing with the smoke in my lungs. Forcing my legs into a calm stride, I entered the heart of the destruction and spun in a circle. It was vivid and completely captivating; all heat and destruction and power. It spoke to my soul.
I dropped my eyelids shut, more feeling the fire than anything. Its power was familiar to me, yet oddly foreign. Like an accent painting the language a slightly different color. Chase and I both spoke the Fire lingo, but his dialect was not the same as mine. It was harsh and guttural – less talk, more action. I opened my eyes into a narrow gaze, and spied him through the flames. His image wavered like a mirage in the heat.
From the moment he’d laid eyes on Elise, I had become bitterly aware of how big of an asshole I’d been.
Being surrounded by Elementals meant drowning in a sea of beautiful faces. It was easy to be flighty under those circumstances. How could I not want to experience every handsome guy at least once in some way?
I was finally beginning to realize, though, that gorgeousness was now my new norm – all Elementals were inherently gorgeous. Beauty was no longer the strongest pull when it came to attraction. Beauty had become dull.
Honestly, it was embarrassing how quickly I’d jumped from Cade to Holden, and from Holden to Chase. Being ditched for Elise was karma at its finest – even if she didn’t want him in return.
I rolled my eyes to clear my stupid thoughts then held out my hands. Spinning in a slow circle, I focused on the blaze all around me. Come, I thought. Come to me. My inner voice was suddenly hypnotic, ensnaring, almost not my own, except I could feel it radiating from my soul. The heat shimmered, enchanting me as the fire began funneling quickly into my awaiting palms.
Commanding these flames seemed almost too easy; they graciously obeyed even my slightest whim.
The circle of destruction quickly shrank as each tree snuffed out immediately and continuously after the last. I pulled it ever closer to me until there was just a single tree left aflame. Then, with a smug eyebrow raised, I doused it out entirely.
I spun around, eyes landing on the two of them with a little more contempt than I meant to reveal and a little more cockiness than I knew I possessed. Elise looked extremely impressed. Chase looked like a deer in the headlights.
“Class dismissed?” I asked him, syrupy-sweet. Then I directed my gaze to Elise. “I’m ready to go home, now.”
She shook her head, arms still crossed. “We’ve talked about this, Valerie.”
“We have,” I agreed, quickly brushing her argument aside. “And I’ve stayed a month longer than necessary in order to gain further control. I’m not perfect – I never will be – but I’m a hell of a lot better than I was three months ago.” I licked my lips and glanced between them. Chase was still silent with shock.
“I can control average emotional outbursts. I can counter, deflect, and dissolve enemy Elemental attacks. I am physically stronger and more fit, as well, and can survive on my own in the woods if need be. I’m ready to go home.”
But still she shook her head. “You understand how to handle like-adversaries. But what about the two Elements you don’t control?” She uncrossed her arms and walked closer to me, picking up a charred branch from the ground.
The skill with which she spun the stick, had my head reeling. She was like a damn samurai or something. Her fingers knew exactly where to touch. Her body knew exactly where to move. When she slammed the burnt stick down into the ground, the earth formed a wave that knocked me off my feet. I managed to tuck and roll and land gracefully, but I couldn’t deny that I had zero control over her Element. And I had no idea how to block or counterattack.
She narrowed her eyes. “If you can beat me, we can go home.”
I mirrored her expression with an added shot of aggression. I might not have known what the hell I was doing, but I sure as fuck had to try.