Brooke hummed to herself lightly, the morning was going well so far. No one had taken over the foyer to practice battling indoors, that never ended well; no super-powered arguments were taking place between Elementals; they weren’t under attack. All were events that had taken place during the Soaring Dragon’s history at the Sutherland Manor. She knew with so many occupants in the Sutherland Manor, something was bound to happen soon. Especially with the idleness of all the residents. They had nothing to do until further notice and she was taking advantage of the time.
Writing had always been a passion of hers and she tried to carve out time to write in peace. Today she sat curled up with a lap desk in one of the window seats in the upper balconies of the expansive library. The late afternoon sun shone down on the seat making her drowsy and she felt her mind drifting.
A loud slam, followed by hurried footsteps jolted her out of her thoughts, and annoyance flashed through her. Fawn hurled into view, running along the upper balcony towards her but looking over the balcony to the floor below. Brooke raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing? Can you be quiet, please?”
The girl practically fell over, catching herself on the balcony railing. “Brooke!”
Fawn lowered her voice, glancing to the floor below furtively. “Sorry, I’m hiding from Flint.”
As if on cue, they heard the library door fly open with a louder bang than the previous one. Flint stormed into the library muttering darkly to himself. Fawn squeaked and sprinted away. The Fire Elemental’s head shot up to the balcony. “Fawn, get back here! C’mon, you have to practice your swordsmanship!”
Brooke leaned over the railings to scold the older Cross sibling, “Really, Flint. It’s a library, for goodness’s sakes, be quiet!”
He looked up to her irritably, “You’re not the librarian, Brooke, chill.”
“Close enough.” She rolled her eyes. “Is it too much to ask for a little peace and quiet while we can get some?”
“Sort of,” Flint replied dryly. “I know you saw where Fawn went, where is she? We need to get back to swordsmanship lessons.”
“How should I know?” Brooke replied. “Besides, you can’t dictate her entire life, Cross, she’s sixteen now.”
“Just watch me.” Flint fumed angrily as he stalked around the room. “Fawn!”
“You need a hobby,” she observed. “Can you take this out of the library, please?”
He opened his mouth to reply but was cut off by Luke entering the room behind him. A familiar athletic young man with a head of golden-blond hair and sparkling, leaf-green eyes trailed behind him but Brooke couldn’t quite place him. A gasp came from where she knew Fawn had been hiding. “Adrien!”
She raced down the stairs and threw herself at him, ignoring her furious brother. Then it clicked, Lord Adrien Agreste was a sponsor of the Soaring Dragons and used his time collecting information on the emperor and the commander from within the castle. He had turned seventeen years old last spring. He laughed as he caught her, producing a red rose from somewhere within his coat. “A rose, m’lady?”
Fawn giggled as she accepted the flower while Flint fumed from the side. Brooke leaped over the balcony, touching down lightly on the floor three stories below, and approached Luke. “Where did you find Adrien?”
“Lily and I let him in and he had some rather disturbing news. She went to round everyone up and we’re meeting here.” He scrutinized Fawn and Adrien. “I’m assuming something is going on between those two.”
“Yeah, Flint had a heart attack when they started dating last winter. He hasn’t gotten over it.”
Soaring Dragons and former Shadow Sworn began to trickle into the room in ones and twos. The room buzzed with quiet conversation and the occasional laugh from Fawn. Brooke coughed pointedly and everyone quieted, looking to her expectantly. She gestured to Luke and he began, “The Shadows are cracking down hard on the city, there’s a warrant and bounty on each of our heads that could buy a year’s worth of food for many people in Dunaire.”
“I’m assuming this means that the measures they have in place are stronger than the ones on this manor, yes?” Brooke asked, her mind already hard at work.
Flint interrupted, “It doesn’t matter, no one’s gonna sell us out, we’re careful about our selection process.”
“Maybe, but they know we haven’t left the city yet,” Luke countered. “And to answer your question, Brooke, yes. The commander has his strongest Sorcerers working on the barrier night and day. That’s not even the worst news. The emperor is going to ransom us for the lives of random men and women in the city. The shields around the city have also been reinforced so no methods of teleportation can be used to breach the bubble from the inside or outside. The only way to leave is to leave by foot.”
This announcement left the room in stunned silence. Finally, Nainika grinned, a feral smile that closely resembled her feline forms, and summed up their predicament in a single sentence: “Well, we’re screwed.”
“Thank you for that indefinitely brilliant piece of wisdom,” Lillian snipped.
“You’re welcome, feel free to leave a tip and I’m here all week,” Nainika replied, “that is unless we’re all dead.”
“Knock it off,” Luke ordered, “we have bigger things to worry about.”
“What do we do now?” Mira asked, cutting off the two women before they could respond. “At this point, I don’t see any other option than to just turn ourselves in.”
“We’ll find a way,” Brooke said confidently, “we have before, we’re going to do it again.”
Another moment of silence where each of the ten occupants of the room searched for ideas. It was Katniss who spoke next. “Has the order already been issued? How did you hear about this?”
Luke gestured to Adrien who said, “No, it’s not. I heard a snippet of conversation up at the castle and raced down here to deliver the information. Thankfully, Lily recognized me and let me in.”
“When do you think the order will be sent out?” Katniss pressed.
“Soon.” Adrien furrowed his brow. “No later than midnight tonight, why?”
Brooke caught on to Katniss’s train of thought and joined in eagerly, “Because if we were to be seen leaving the city by foot before then, they wouldn’t be able to count on us receiving and responding to the order.”
“We’re pretty defenseless here,” Ivy added. “I mean, yes, they don’t know where in the city we are but they know we’re here and that’s enough. The anonymity and mystery of the Soaring Dragons has been a big factor in your continued freedom. Many of Dunaire’s citizens support you and an order like this could cause an uprising. The emperor and commander wouldn’t risk such a thing if we are not in the city to respond.”
“So it’s a race for time now,” Mira summed up. “We need to plan our next steps.”
“Well, who needs to leave and who can stay?” Nainika asked.
“It doesn’t matter who goes,” Charlie replied. “It could be any of us. If we’re all dressed in identical black clothing, it will be hard for anyone to tell who’s who. The only big thing they’ll be looking for is making sure there are seven of us.”
Lillian cut in, “Just to be clear, we have the semblance of a plan.”
“It’s more like a vague idea,” Flint offered. “Based on a billion ifs.”
“It’s the best we can do.” Brooke shrugged. “So first let’s decide who is going to go and move from there.”
“I’m going,” Luke and Mira answered immediately, almost simultaneously.
“Same here,” Katniss chimed in, and Nainika nodded.
“I think it would be better if Charlie and I reinforced you guys from the sidelines,” Ivy offered, looking to her boyfriend for his agreement.
He nodded. “We wouldn’t be part of the seven decoys, but we could use our magic to conceal ourselves and aid the decoys if they need it.”
“So we have four decoys—” Brooke began.
Lillian cut her off. “We have five, I’m going too.”
Everyone turned their gazes to the Cross siblings. Flint’s gaze hardened and flames flickered around his fingers as he spoke. “I’ll go but Fawn’s staying here. Brooke or Adrien can come instead.”
“I’m going, Flint,” Fawn said quietly. “Adrien has to return to his post at the castle before anyone realizes he’s missing and I can’t properly defend Megan’s manor.”
“I don’t care about blowing my cover,” Adrien piped up. “I’ll go.”
“Shut up, Agreste, this is between me and my sister. You’re not going, Fawn,” Flint snapped. “It’s not safe.”
The rest of the room’s occupants watched the conversation in silence, their gazes flicking between the two siblings as they argued. Luke snapped his fingers to get the rest of the group’s attention. “Everyone start getting ready. This decision won’t affect any of the other plans we have.”
They began to trickle out as the bickering of the Elementals began to rise in volume. Lillian pulled Brooke aside and whispered in her ear. The Storm Elemental nodded and swept out of the room while she lingered in the shadows beside the doorway. Adrien moved to Fawn’s side to lend her his support. Fawn had refrained from raising her voice so far, but she was on the brink now.
“I’m sixteen, Flint!” She finally shouted, and her glassy eyes showed signs of tears. The ground shook under their feet, and the plants around the room began to grow uncontrollably. Adrien moved to her side, wrapping an arm around her shoulders protectively. “I can make my own decisions, you can’t dictate my life! I hate how you think you can control everything I do but you can’t! Lily and Megan were fifteen when they started the Soaring Dragons, Celeste was the same age when she joined. I’m already sixteen and this is my life, I want to live it.”
“You can’t live it if you’re dead,” Flint replied flatly, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m protecting you.”
“But at least I’ll die knowing that I lived my life the way I wanted to,” Fawn said desperately. “You joined this organization but so did I. With or without your blessing, I’m going to do this.”
Then she turned on her heel and stormed out of the library, leaving behind her furious brother. Adrien darted after her. “Wait, Fawn!”
Lillian stepped towards Flint tentatively, deterred slightly by the flames licking at his shoulders and the intimidating set of his stance. He appeared frozen in place, simply unmoving. Then he unfolded his arms and let them drop to his sides, his posture sagging downwards and the flames on his arms dying out. He dropped to his knees defeatedly and sat back on his heels, burying his head in his hands. Only when his shoulders shook did Lillian realize that he was crying. She moved to his side urgently, almost scared of what she would find. “Flint?”
His body stilled and he turned his head away, swiping at his tears with shaking hands. Lillian placed a hand on his thigh reassuringly and he laid his hand over hers, focusing on their intertwined fingers instead of meeting her gaze. She wrapped her arm around his shoulders as he spoke. “I don’t know what to do. What do I do?”
“Unfortunately for you, she’s right,” she said gently. “She’s old enough to make her own decisions already.”
“But I need to protect her . . . she’s all I have left.”
“You’re going with her aren’t you?” At his nod, she continued. “You can protect her without leaving her here.”
“I want your word that you’ll protect her if I fail,” Flint whispered.
“With my life.”
At sunset, Charlie and Ivy had already departed to seek out a group of Shadows to mislead. The second group was almost ready to follow. Adrien strangled Fawn in a hug and whispered, “Come back to me.”
“I’ll do my best,” she replied.
They set off with Luke and Mira in the lead, stealing across the open grounds between Megan’s manor and the city before melting into the shadows of the buildings around them. Ivy materialized beside them and they followed her through the twists and turns of the city, pausing at the edge of the buildings near the northwest wall of the bubble. “Charlie and I will watch from the flanks and join in if anyone needs help.”
Luke nodded and the young Sorcerer melted away. “So the goal here is to avoid too big of a skirmish and to just flee. Shadow Sworn are stationed at regular intervals but there’s a slightly larger gap here. I don’t think it’s possible for us to sneak through unnoticed and that’s the point. Everyone clear?”
Nods greeted his words and they set off. They were barely halfway there when a platoon of Shadow Sworn came marching north along the perimeter of the border towards them. Someone swore softly and Nainika hissed at them to hurry up.
Too late. A shout came from their right and Luke sprang upright, creating his signature golden shield around them all just as a jet of air shot in their direction. He was powerful but with seven of them, the shield was stretched thin and a watery gold in color. “Go, go, run!”
Arrows rained down on them as the surrounding Shadows called for reinforcements. Lillian raised her arms and the winds obeyed her, swirling into a shield around them. She gritted her teeth as other Air Elementals fought for control of the winds. Flint pulled his sister to his side, creating a shield of flames. “This way, everyone!”
They followed the Cross siblings as they trekked closer and closer to the perimeter. As soon as they stepped foot outside, they could teleport anywhere they wanted. Then everything started to unravel. The wind was wrestled from Lillian’s control and, just minutes later, Luke’s shield fell too. Mira rushed to catch the exhausted Mentalist while Nainika helped support the Elemental’s weight. Fawn glanced over her shoulder at that exact moment and saw the archers take aim once more. She spun out of her brother’s grip, bringing a fist to the earth with a deep pound. Cracks formed in the ground and a shield made entirely of rock began to form behind them. Flint and Katniss stood on either side of her, keeping the approaching Shadows at bay as she bent the rock to her will, shaping it around their position to give them a clear path to the perimeter. It wasn’t high, barely six feet tall but it was costing Fawn so much energy.
The archers began to shoot blindly over the wall, sending arrows almost horizontally into the air to plunge back to the ground. Flint redirected his fire to shield from the arrows while Katniss walked with the lengthening wall to continue to cover their flanks.
As the barrage of arrows continued with no sign of ending, Flint began to tire. He and Fawn looked like ghosts with their clammy, pale faces as they pushed their powers to the limits. His fire shield faltered for barely three seconds and a single arrow found its mark, hurling downwards and skewering itself straight through Fawn’s heart. It was a chance shot, the archer got lucky, but sometimes luck was all it took.
Flint turned and watched, almost as if in slow motion, as his sister crumpled, dead before she even hit the floor. His mouth opened in a silent scream as his legs seemed to give out under him. A second before his knees hit the floor, Lillian grabbed Katniss and shoved the Lightning Elemental behind her, calling on the moisture in the air to liquefy into a shield. As predicted, the moment his knees hit the ground, a wave of pure heat and fire shot out in all directions, shattering Fawn’s rock wall and slamming into Lillian’s shield with the force of a battering ram. She could feel the heat on her skin, even through her shield, and the surrounding Shadows would have burns for weeks.
Ivy and Charlie materialized at their side and took in the scene in an instant. Their faces bore matching expressions of horror, but they had been trained to adapt. There would be time to grieve later. Ivy called Katniss, Mira, and Luke to follow her and they ran together past the border, leaping away the moment they could. Charlie ran to Fawn with Nainika at his side. The Shapeshifter changed into a horse and Charlie positioned the dead Cross on her back. The moment she felt her passenger was secure, Nainika galloped for the border where Ivy had reappeared, and the three were gone.
When she returned, she found Charlie struggling with Lillian slung over one shoulder and supporting Flint with his other arm. She rushed to her boyfriend’s side and took Flint from him while reinforcing the shield at their backs. Together they ran towards the border, barely teleporting away before their shield shattered behind them.
The place they arrived at was a large but sparsely furnished room bearing cases of weapons and supplies scattered across the room. Luke lay snoring on one of the couches while Katniss was laying a sheet across what appeared to be Fawn’s body and Mira and Nainika were engaged in a hushed discussion. At their arrival, the tension in the room eased immediately as everyone took a sigh of relief.
Ivy shifted a pale Flint from her shoulder to the floor where he sat gazing at the opposite wall blankly. Lillian was eased down beside him and when Flint turned his head to her, his eyes burned with a raging fire. But his voice cracked when he whispered, “You promised.”