“Do you think you’re strong enough for this?” Eli asks, his hair gleaming golden in the morning light.
My hands shake minutely. I fist them at my sides and breathe in deep. The bitter scent of smoke and ash mask the musky scent of what used to be my woods. It’s dark in the forest, though the day is new.
“Yes,” I say. “Come on.”
We need to stamp out a fire.
The other Sprite’s have clustered around the cove, planning. But we don’t have time for plans.
He grabs my hand, and we head toward the woods. It’s too quiet, save for a scream that rips through the burned forest.
Eli whispers, “Harper?” And then looks at me like he wishes he didn’t know. Hands linked, we run to the sound. A second voice—it can only be Colt—yells her name.
A series of sharp cracks fill the air. At first I think it’s branches breaking, but as we skid to a stop at the base of the gates I realize it’s not my trees, it’s more fire.
Eli throws water, and I know it’s not going to be enough to fight the blaze that’s overtaking my best friend. Colt’s gale is dead in the air, and I know he’s terrified to add to the blaze. He rushes to Harper, but she’s glowing like an ember, and when he tries to pull her out of the fire he screams when her metal core burns his flesh. Blistered hands cover his face and I’ve never seen him cry.
He turns with and runs to Leena’s perch in the skeleton of an oak tree and hoists himself to her level. He doesn’t hesitate. He tackles her, all two hundred pounds of muscles lands on her and they fall. I spring up moss to cushion their landing, though I hope the Flame lands on the hard ground and Colt doesn’t. I can almost hear the air leave her lungs, and I know it’s a small victory for him.
He rolls and his hands are around her neck before she can scream.
“Colt!” I scream. If he kills her every flame thats rushing into this forest will be on him. She’s not used to close combat. None of us are. We aren’t fighters, we’re nurturers. At least we were, until now.
I pull vines around her feet, bring them up so they crisscross her legs and tie her torso to the forest floor that still smokes from the killing flames.
“Let me go,” she screams.
“No,” Colt says. He pushes himself off the ground and searches for Harper. I’ve already looked, and looked away. His breath catches at the sight of the melted and gnarled form that still smolders. His fingers knot in his hair, and he sinks to the ground.
There’s no time to be sad.
“Eli!” He is standing like a statue but when he hears me he shakes his head and his eyes focus on me.
“Drench her,” I say.
He glows blue as he pulls water in, directing it at the tied Flame as she screams defiance and steams. As she cools, the fire that licks the base of the gate starts to recede.
The push and pull of all of us makes my ears pop. But I dig in anyway, adding my power to the earth. Tendrils of green shoot up from the charred ground, and even as my hands shake I weave vines through and around the still-smoking remains of my woods. I want to shield the gate with green. Green won’t burn easily. I hope the baby plants will get a chance to grow strong. Somewhere in the steam and the smoke and the push and pull of everything alive, I realize we’ve lost Colt. There’s no sign of him in the woods.
I hear Eli’s gasp over everything else, and then he’s at my side. “Stop,” he says. His voice is hard and guarded, and it makes me whirl to face him. His eyes are the clearest blue and they’re huge in his face. “Should we run?”
All the Flamesprites stand at his back. Every single one. The smug look on Leena’s face is all I can see. Heat builds again. They say nothing. Sparks of flame appear again at the gates.
“This is madness,” Eli says. “You’re surrendering us to the human world. You think you’ll get far there?”
“They can’t stop fire either,” Leena says.
Fire springs up all around us. My vines start to choke in smoke. Eli takes my hand.
“They want me alive,” he says. “They’re not taking you without me.”
I want to tell him to get out. But I can’t speak. And then I see Leena’s eyes through the fire, and she’s crying, and I realize that they’re not going to keep Eli after all. I give up his hand and wrap my arms around him. One of his waves wraps around us, but it won’t be enough against the strength of fifty Flames.
The gates crack and pop like kindling. The first lick of heat brushes my heels, and I crush myself against Eli. I can’t bite back a scream.
Hold on. Colt’s voice comes to me on the wind. The sound of hundreds of footfalls fill my head, and I know that the others are coming.
I can’t feel Eli’s arms anymore, or the forest. Too late, is all I can think.
For more amazing art by Catherine Langwagen, please visit her Deviant Art page (cassiopeiaart.deviantart.com). Artwork © Copyright, Catherine Langwagen 2011. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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