Fate of Flames
THE WAR SIREN WAILED.
I gaped at the windows, my eyes locked on the sky-grazing tower that stood out against the Manhattan skyline.
The Needle. Like all the others in the country, it was a tall, sleek eyesore glimmering day and night with bright streaks of the most obnoxious metallic blue running up and down its length like little live wires. It was supposed to be some kind of high frequency . . . something-something particular disrupter. Okay, I’m not great with technical terms. The important thing was that it was more than just a tourist attraction.
Eyesore or not, it was the only thing keeping everyone in the city from being slaughtered very messily.
Blinking lights meant we were safe.
And its lights had just blinked off.
No one in my algebra class said anything. No one could. We were screwed.
“Okay, ch-children, just remain calm,” Mr. Whomsley shouted, though he tripped over his own feet trying to get around his desk. His sunken eyes darted around the classroom as if looking for one of us to tell him what to do next. Except we were all looking at him now, at his gaping mouth and his greasy forehead beading with sweat. I could tell he was nervous, no, terrified—terrified because the War Siren that hadn’t blown in some fifty years had just broken into short, quick pulses.
The signal for a Category Three attack.
It was all from the Hirsch-Johnson Phantom Disaster Scale. Four categories. Categories One and Two were already bad, with damage to infrastructure and physical injury expected to varying, awful degrees. But Category Three . . . large-scale destruction . . . city-wide terror . . .
And that was just the third level.
Wait. Category Three?
Oh god. My nails grazed my desk. This isn’t happening.
“Don’t panic!” Mr. Whomsley shuffled the papers on his desk.
“Mr. Whomsley?” Janice Gellar sounded near tears. A lot of oh my gods harmonized with her whimpers in the background. My own included.
“I said don’t panic. Don’t panic!” He started grasping his tie, wiping the sweat off his forehead with the back of his sleeve.
“What the hell are we supposed to do?” Rick Fielding roared from the back of the classroom.
Then Whomsley finally got his beady eyes to focus, probably because he knew as well as I did that another two seconds of waffling and there’d be a bloody stampede for the door. I could already hear the doors of other classrooms opening, students filing out, teachers crying out over the terrified din: “Okay, everyone, now just proceed in a calm and orderly fashion.”
Calm and orderly. Like we weren’t all going to die soon.
“O-okay, students, remain calm.” Mr. Whomsley readjusted his toupee and sucked in a breath. “Proceed to the shelter in a . . . a calm and orderly fashion.”
Right. The shelter. Just like the handbook said, going to the school’s underground shelter was the first thing we were supposed to do “in the event of an emergency.” ’Course, nobody really read the handbook anymore because we hadn’t had to in years.
So after that . . . what were we supposed to do?
As I stood from my chair, I tried to remember what those two military guys had said at that special preparedness seminar back in September—the same one they gave every year. Bits and pieces came back to me:
In the rare case of a hostile attack, take only the essentials. Get to the shelter beneath the school within ten minutes of the first few warning pulses.
Ten minutes. Or was it five minutes?
Damn it, what had I been thinking, blogging instead of paying attention?
I slung my tote bag over my shoulder and pushed my chair in. The feet groaned against the tiles, but I could barely hear it beneath the siren’s steady rhythm and my own pulse beating in my ears.
“Orderly fashion!” Mr. Whomsley cried when people started shoving. “Orderly!”
In front of me, Missy Stevenson was muttering deliriously under her breath, and I couldn’t blame her. New York had one of the most efficient APDs in the world. This wasn’t supposed to happen to us.
“The National Guard should be here in ten to fifteen minutes,” Mr. Whomsley assured us.
True. And if there was a base nearby, the Sect could get here a bit faster. That meant there was actually a chance we could make it down to the shelter alive before the big fight scene started.
I inhaled an unsteady breath and nodded. Everything was good. Everything was going to be fine.
Except . . .
Ten to fifteen minutes would be quite enough time for a Category Three phantom to raze Manhattan to the ground.
As we flooded out of the classroom and joined the long, silent death march making its way through the labyrinthine halls, I noted the terror hollowing out the faces of students and teachers alike, even those with the good sense to at least pretend to be calm and collected. Deep down, we were all hoping for the best, praying to be saved. But what if the cavalry came too late? What if nobody came to save us?
Then I would end up being the city’s only hope.
I let the thought sink in as I gazed down at my clammy hands. If people knew what I could do . . . if they knew who I was, what I was, especially now, then they’d ask me to save them. Beg me. And I knew I couldn’t.
But if I didn’t do something . . .
I squeezed my eyes shut, my heart rattling. What the hell was I supposed to do?
“Oh god, there it is!” Missy Stevenson shrieked, and it was like all of Ashford High erupted into chaos. She was pointing out the windows, up at the sky, its bright blue darkening by the second. Dead, gray clouds crackled with frantic energy, but nobody was expecting lightning. We knew better.
We saw it instead.
It was as if the clouds themselves were distended. A dark, twisting funnel slowly drooped out of the gray masses, but the farther it descended, the clearer its shape became.
I ran to the windows with everyone else, clutching the metal bars separating us from the glass. I’d never seen one before, not up close. It looked like a coiled snake detangling itself from a net, its long, thick body trying to shake itself out of the clouds. And as it slowly dipped into the stratosphere, I could see its body of gray mist hardening, an armor of black bones sprouting down its length, gripping its skin.
A phantom. A big one.
The metal bars bit into my palms, pinching the blood flow.
“Keep moving, students!” A teacher began shoving kids forward. “Get to the shelter. Now!”
I wasn’t gaping at the sky anymore. My eyes were fixed on the chaos down below. The NYPD was doing a pretty crappy job of getting citizens off the street in a calm and orderly fashion, though a giant freaking monster appearing from nowhere probably made the task all the more difficult. Traffic had come to a full stop with too many cars going in too many directions. People were abandoning their vehicles altogether and fleeing on foot, though some multitasked and captured the chaos on their phones as they ran. It was bedlam down there.
Nobody seemed to notice the tiny girl who’d hidden underneath a parked Jeep.
“Keep moving, students!”
Just go to the shelter, Maia, I told myself. It was okay; the police would take care of it.
I managed to tear my eyes away from the girl, but they slid back again, helplessly. Nobody had noticed her. Where were her parents? Why wasn’t anyone helping her?
“Maia,” a teacher called me. Mrs. Samuelson. “Get moving!”
I clenched and unclenched my hands. No doubt they could all see me shaking.
“Get moving, Maia!”
I wanted to. God, I wanted to.
But people’s lives were in danger. Neither the National Guard nor the Sect were anywhere to be found. And a horrifying monster was about to kill us all.
A deep, low cry, as haunting and pure as a whale’s song, vibrated through the streets, shuddering up my bones. The tail had broken free from the clouds, sharpening to a point, coiling its way down to Earth, dangerously close to us. When this thing landed, it’d take out a good chunk of Prospect Avenue for sure. A few streets later and Ashford High would be next.
June . . . if you were me, you’d do something, wouldn’t you?
A stupid question. I already knew the answer. I gritted my teeth.
Meanwhile, Missy Stevenson finally just flipped out. Clutching chunks of her hair, she tried to run in the other direction, howling like a banshee, pushing her way through students, and swinging wildly at whoever was dumb enough not to get out of her way.
It was the distraction I needed.
In that one hectic moment, I stupidly took off toward the fire exit.
I couldn’t tell who was calling me, and it didn’t matter. I was too fast.
“Maia, get back here!”
Tears stung my eyes as I sped down the steps. I wasn’t ready for stuff like this: saving people, fighting things. It had only been two days, two days since fate crossed my name off the list of people’s lives to manhandle. I needed more time.
Then again . . . technically, this was what I’d always wanted, in a way. This was what I’d always dreamed of, ever since I was a kid playing in the backyard with June, the two of us acting out our dumb hero fantasies with bathroom towels for capes and stuffed animals to valiantly pummel to death.
To fight like one of them. To save lives like one of them.
And now I was one of them.
Careful what you wish for, I guess.
Down three flights of steps and through the ground-level fire exit, I’d just rounded a corner when a crazed, bespectacled tax accountant type almost ran me over on his way inside Ashford High. He wasn’t the only one. People were rushing to find shelter; didn’t matter where. Ashford security stopped trying to reason with them altogether and started barricading the entrances. That definitely meant my teachers weren’t going to be following me any time soon, but the jury was still out on whether that was a good thing or not.
I stepped out onto Seventh Avenue and looked to my left. Several buildings down, beyond the street intersection, was the little girl, red hair cascading over her face in ringlets, curled up in the fetal position underneath a gaudy red Jeep. The phantom was taking its time unspooling its long torso from the sky, which gave me time.
Taking the thing on wasn’t in the cards. I was nowhere near the level I’d need to be to fight it. But if I could just get the young girl out from underneath the car and take her somewhere safe . . .
Preferably without dying.
This was easily the dumbest thing I’d ever done. Bracing myself for the worst, I fought through the crowds, gasping in shock when a car I’d thought was parked suddenly veered into me. Luckily, I rolled off the hood with minimal injuries. An Effigy thing, no doubt. I hadn’t really had much of an opportunity to test the full extent of what I could do, but now was as good a time as any.
Rubbing my left hip I slammed the hood with a fist. “What the hell, you jackass!” But the terrified man inside was too shocked to respond. I opened his car door. “Get out and run,” I said. “Now.”
He didn’t argue. The more people ran for their lives, the clearer the street got, save for all those cars, motorcycles, and trucks. I went straight for the red Jeep, squeezing through the gaps between cars, jumping on hoods when it was faster.
“Hey, you! What the hell are you doing? You gotta get outta here!” a police officer was shouting from somewhere down the street. “Hey, moron!”
Asshole. Ignoring him, I sped to the Jeep and knelt down on the pavement.
“Hey.” I kept my voice soft and nonthreatening, but still loud enough to carry over the chaos. “I’m Maia. Maia Finley. What’re you doing all the way down there?”
The girl peered up at me through her red tresses, brushing strands out of her face.
“Come on, I’ll take you somewhere safe, okay?”
The little girl curled her bottom lip, obviously hesitant. Unfortunately, when the sky starts crapping out giant monsters, hesitant stops being an option.
“Come on.” I grabbed her hand, but the girl yanked it back. “Kid, I said come on.”
“I’m scared.” She tearfully rubbed her dirty arms across her face.
“Yeah, I know. We’re all sc—”
A crash. The street shook beneath my knees so violently I toppled over, my arm just barely cushioning my face. My head snapped up just in time for me to see it: a long, serpent-like tail of black bones disappearing behind a thicket of trees. The phantom had landed a few streets away, probably Prospect Avenue. But if it were slithering through the streets, we’d still be able to see it, wouldn’t we? I couldn’t. Where did it go?
“Okay, kid, enough’s enough.” I pulled her out from underneath the Jeep. “You like high schools? Let’s go back to mine, okay?” Sweeping the girl into my arms, I started looking for a route back to Ashford. “It’ll be fun. There’s this really big shelter under . . .”
Underground. The phantom wasn’t on Prospect Avenue at all.
“Hey, kid!” The same NYPD officer. He yanked my arm with fat pasty fingers. “Come on, let’s go. You gotta get off the streets; there’s no time.”
“Wait,” I sputtered. “Wait. I think it’s—”
“Civilians are evacuating to the subway. Come on.” He started pulling me.
“But I think it’s under—I think it’s under—”
Rumbling. I swiveled around. The little girl clung to my neck. Each unsteady breath scraped my throat. Officer Friendly let me go immediately and joined me in staring down the street in absolute horror.
“It’s underground,” I whispered.
The phantom surged out of the street, leaving a violent torrent of rubble in its wake. Its body arched in the air, knocking off a traffic light, smashing through lampposts with a long reptilian head covered in a helmet of black bones.
It was coming for us.
“Run!” yelled the officer, though I could barely hear him, what with the little girl splitting my eardrums.
Run? Where? The phantom was yards and yards away, granted, but it was coming for us. There was no way we could outrun it. There was just no way. We were dead.
My arms started shaking so violently I thought I’d drop the kid altogether. Maybe my subconscious was sending me a message: Forget her.
I hugged her tighter against my chest. No one could move. It was coming. It was coming. My brain was screaming at me: Do something! You’re an Effigy. Set it on fire! Burn it to a crisp! Just do it!
I started crying instead, my feet cemented to the spot. We were about to die, and yet there I was, an Effigy, blubbering like a tool. We were going to die, and when we did, it would be my fault.
A quiet, forceful word delivered through the thick mesh of a French accent. I turned just in time to catch the delicate sway of the girl’s long blond hair. Those two things were all I needed to recognize her, because I was pathetically obsessed with this girl. Obsessed enough to know her by the defiant click of her boots against the pavement.
Oh my god, Belle. What was she doing in New York? The last I’d heard, she was in Moscow. I’d seen the pictures. Hell, I’d blogged about the pictures just last night.
Didn’t matter now.
My lips trembled into a small, shell-shocked grin. The National Guard. Sect troops. NYPD.
Guess New York didn’t need them after all.
“What’s going on?” The little girl, who’d burrowed her face into the nape of my neck, shifted just enough to stare at the tall, beautiful nineteen-year-old walking down the abandoned street.
By now I was half-crazed with a mixture of glee and pure relief. I was about to see with my own eyes what Belle Rousseau did best.
The phantom launched down the street toward Belle, knocking cars out of its path and sending them flying. The collision was inevitable.
The collision was glorious.
Belle dug her boots into the street to ground herself. Then she lifted her hands.
Her hands were all it took.
The phantom’s body crumpled, the force of the impact propelling it upward until it crashed against a lamppost, tearing it down. I was blown to the ground, but I cushioned the little girl’s head with my upper arm before rolling onto my back. Belle had been pushed back too, her knees buckling, her boots tearing the pavement as she slid across it, but she stood her ground.
Then, finally, it happened.
The air around me grew heavy and cold, so cold I could see my own haggard breaths dispersing into the atmosphere. I watched, awestruck, as frost crept from Belle’s fingers, still clenched around the bones of the phantom’s skull head. As she gripped them, the frost spread across the skull and down the phantom’s length, continuing, relentlessly, until its body was covered entirely in thick lattices of ice.
“You’re done,” she said, and pushed.
Just like that, the phantom’s body shattered into a blizzard of ice and snow, blown away with the wind.
In that one haunting moment, I realized that I would never have stood a chance against the creature. That despite whatever insane, heroic delusion had compelled me to stupidly risk my life during a Category Three attack, there was just no comparison between the two of us. No comparison at all between Belle Rousseau and the ridiculous Maia Finley.
Even though we were both Effigies.