“TELL ME AGAIN WHERE YOU found him.”
“Right out there in the middle of the road,” Callia says. “Ash saw him first.”
Andrew exhales shakily. “They just left him there, like so much trash.”
I touch him on the shoulder, gently. He doesn’t look up.
“Andrew,” the Professor says. “If you need to…”
“No.” He sits up immediately. “No. I want to know who did this to him. I want to know what happened.”
“We’ll figure it out,” I say determinedly.
“We already know that it must have been a lighter,” Callia begins. “The orange dust—only one of us would left residue like that.”
“Orange dust?” Dimly I remember the bits of colour that I’d seen on his body, interspersed with dirt and leaves and ash and… Burnt skin. “That wasn’t just… From the soil, or something?”
Parker shakes his head. “No. When we use our fires to burn an object—or, in this case, a person—” He scowls in disgust. “—incineration always leaves a residue. Burning like that takes a lot of effort, you see.”
“And the colour is indicative of power,” Callia adds. She shifts forward in her seat, looking around at each one of us intently. “The dust was orange. That’s strong, but not especially rare.” She flicks her fingers, setting off a small burst of orange sparks as if to demonstrate.
“How long had the body been there?” Ash asks suddenly. He’s been silent ever since we returned to the house.
“More than a day. Seventy-six hours at most,” the Professor says. “I will take another look at him, but there were some signs that he had been dragged out to the road, so I would guess that that wasn’t where he was killed.”
“So it could’ve been done anywhere?” Callia asks. “He’s been missing for a month, hasn’t he?”
“Yeah, but they found his car on Selton, and said it’d only been there a few days,” Andrew says grimly. “Selton is barely on the fringes of Edgecliff.”
“Maybe the murderer was from there.”
“There are no more fire-born in Edgecliff,” says Ash confidently.
Something about the way he says that makes me glance at him sharply, but then the feeling is gone, and I’m left, wondering…
“I used to see sparks,” I remember. “Two years ago, around the same time as now, mid-December. And then again just a few weeks ago, just before I came here. There were lights in the woods. I thought it was somebody from my school fooling around with firecrackers, but the light was distinctly orange. And there was some yellow. And red, too. They must have been lighters, right?”
“Red, orange, and yellow?” Callia repeats, eyebrows raised in disbelief.
“East, are you sure you saw yellow?” asks Parker. “That’s a very rare colour.” I don’t miss the way his eyes quickly fly to Ash, and then away.
“Two years ago was me, I would guess,” Ash says slowly, not looking at me. “This month… That should not have been my fire.”
Everyone around the table seems to sigh at the same time. I look around at them, feeling lost.
“So, a wildfire,” Callia says.
“Wildfires are rogue fire-born,” the Professor explains, nodding at me. “There are very many of them, as you might expect; we are a small percentage of the population and not all of us are able to find families who accept our paranormal natures. Most wildfires are friendly, of course, albeit unpredictable. But some…”
“Some are rogue,” Ash says quietly, “simply because they have a vendetta against the rest of the fire-born. Or against humans.”
“Well, that explains everything!” Andrew argues. “Russell wasn’t a lighter and nobody in his family is. Whoever killed him probably tried to dump him nearer to the woods, but an animal dragged him out on the road or whatever.”
“I don’t remember seeing teethmarks on the body,” Callia murmurs, and Andrew shoots her a furious glare. “Or whatever,” he repeats emphatically. “Anyway, this isn’t the first time they’ve found a burned body lately. This guy is a serial killer—and a lighter, just a sick SOB who hates humans and is randomly killing them off.”
And my blood runs cold. “Andrew,” I say, hesitantly, almost afraid to voice my fears. “How close are you and Ciara?”
He looks at me irritably. “Geez, we’re just friends,” he says. “I guess I’d call her my best friend, sure, but we’ve never hooked up and shit. What does that have to do with anything?”
Oh, no… “Charlotte Owens—the other girl who disappeared,” I clarify, “the one who was found in a bonfire. She… She used to be my best friend.”
A breath, and then—Callia lets out a satisfied, “Ahh…” and Parker mutters, “Well, this is not good”, but Andrew still frowns in confusion. “What?” He demands. “What does this mean?”
“Charlotte was East’s best friend, and the first victim. Russell was the brother of your friend, and the second victim,” Ash says quietly.
“Oh.” Andrew looks stunned. “Does that… Does that mean…” He looks around the table. “Do any of you have family or friends—”
Parker stands up suddenly. “I need to go home,” he says wildly. “I have siblings—three really really young sisters. My brother’s still a baby. I should help my parents with them. I need to protect them.”
“No,” the Professor says sharply. “No. If he already knows you are here, he can easily follow you home, and destroy your entire family.”
“But I’d be more use to them there!” Parker says.
“You would bring him to them!” the Professor says, far angrier than I’d ever seen her. “Do you understand what that means?”
Parker stares at her for a moment, crestfallen, and then he swallows. Callia reaches out a hand to pat his arm. Slowly, he sits back down.
We sit there for a moment, thinking, staring at the table or at each other or, in Ash’s case, the dark walls. My eyes wander to the window and the dark night outside. Only twelve hours ago we had been so excited to leave the grounds, to feel a measure of freedom, to escape—even just for a little while—from the fear and anxiety and, in my case, the sense of wrongness that still hasn’t left.
A cough forces its way out of my throat, and Parker absentmindedly pats my back. I thank him. That sense of wrongness… No matter how well I’m beginning to know these people, these lighters, this house still feels wrong. I know it’s their safehouse—our safehouse, yet whenever I have a minute to myself, whenever I’m not doing Callia’s death drills or babysitting Maggie or helping the boys with their own drills, that prickly sense of danger always returns to me, a tingle in the back of my neck—a warning…
“Ian!” Callia shouts suddenly.
I blink. “Bless you,” I say.
“No—” She waves at me dismissively. “Ian—Ian is still out there!”
To my surprise, Ash answers. “He’s my friend.”
“Have you been in contact?” The Professor asks.
“Not since last week,” Ash admits.
Parker swears lightly, and Andrew’s brows furrow with suspicion. But I see the way Ash’s fingers curl slightly, and I know he’s lying. Why would he lie?
My gaze slides up to his face—and find his grey eyes staring back. Don’t.
I look away.
“We should go look for Ian,” Parker says. “He might be in danger.”
“Or he might be colluding with the sick son of a bitch,” Andrew growls.
“He is not,” Ash says calmly.
“Can you be sure?”
“He’s Ian!” Callia slams her palms down on the table, nostrils practically flaring at Andrew. “He’s our friend, and if this ‘sick SOB’, as you call him, is following a pattern, than Ian might very well be the next victim!”
“He’s also the only lighter who we know for sure is out there,” Andrew argues, “so it’s also possible that—”
“Andrew, stop.” The Professor puts a hand on his shoulder. “I know you are hurting, but we must not fling accusations that don’t have any shred of evidence. All we know is that your friend has been hurt by a firelighter, one of average power but great skill.”
Callia shoots Andrew a See? look, but he isn’t looking at her. She rolls her eyes and sits back.
“I agree with Parker. Our first priority should be to find Ian, and make sure he is safe. I will leave immediately and do that. In the mean time, all of you should be on alert. Protect Maggie. Guard the house. Help East activate her fire.”
As if on cue, I sneeze loudly. “Bless you,” Callia says with a smirk.
But Andrew stares at the Professor, not backing down. “Our priority should be to find out who k-killed Russ,” he argues. “The police won’t be able to do anything. Whatever evidence they can gather will be tainted by the lighter residue. We have to be the ones to do this.”
“We do, and we will, but not you,” the Professor says firmly. “Asher and Callia will help me with this. The rest of you will—”
“What? Hell, no!” Andrew suddenly stands up, eyes flaring. “Russell was Ci’s sister! He was my friend, and I might be the reason why he’s dead! I-I have to figure out what happened to him!”
“And Charlotte was my friend,” I say, almost only to myself. “Once upon a time, sure, but if her death was my fault… I owe it to her, and her family, too.”
“I’m not sure it’s safe—”
Ash and the Professor break off simultaneously, and resolutely look away from one another. I fight the urge to grin. It definitely isn’t the right time.
“I don’t believe it’s safe,” the Professor continues eventually, when Ash doesn’t speak again. “If Russell was indeed chosen because of his connection to Andrew, and Charlotte for her connection to East, then this killer is playing with us and his main targets, in fact, are you.”
“Not all of us,” Parker interrupts slowly. “Maybe… Maybe it’s only Andrew and East. They’re the only ones with loved ones around here.”
Andrew looks at me, horrified. “Who would possibly target us?” He says.
I give him a shrug, but inside my head, Kieran’s voice suddenly sounds. THE TRUTH WILL OUT. Charlotte and Russell—what if it’s supposed to be Charlotte and Ciara? I’d be the only connection. And then it all goes back to the same old story…
All heads turn towards the doorway. Maggie is standing there, in her Hello Kitty pyjamas, clutching a pillow to her chest. She ducks her head and scoots back a little at our attention, biting down on her thumb. “Parker, nightmare,” she says, so quietly we almost can’t here her, as if she’s afraid to say it out loud, as if that would make it true.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mags,” Parker says, getting up immediately and rushing over to her. He bends down, wraps his arms around her and picks her up. “Something terrible’s happened, and I got caught up talking to everyone. What’s wrong? What was it? Tell me…”
The Professor watches them go, eyes gentle and full of an emotion I can’t name. “No matter who this killer is targeting, we must protect Margaret,” she says softly. “Her mother was a very, very powerful lighter.”
“We’ll watch her,” Callia says. “Ash and I will take care of things.”
“Hey—” Andrew starts again, but the Professor’s tired sigh stops him. He has the grace to look a little sheepish.
“Enough, Andrew.” She touches her palm to her forehead for a moment, as if too tired to keep her eyes open. Then she sits up straight again and looks each one of us in the eye. “This is a dangerous situation. I will start to search for Ian—but I had another appointment, one I also have to keep… I should leave as soon as possible…
“You should all try to get some sleep tonight. I will strengthen the safeguards before I go. No one has crossed them in over a hundred years, and lived…” Her eyes pause on me. “But in the meantime, I will have to reinstate the rule that none of you leave the grounds. Callia, Asher—that applies to you as well. Wait until I return.”
Andrew raises a finger. “Parker will want to contact his family, though,” he objects.
“No,” the Professor says firmly. “Not until I come back.”
Andrew frowns, teeth clenching, but he gives her a curt nod.
Her face relaxes a little. “Now, off to bed, all of you. We are safe here yet. East,” she adds, just as we’re all about to leave the room, “stay for a moment.”
I sit back down while the others file out. “What’s wrong?” I ask.
The Professor hesitates, as if trying to make a hard decision; and then a determined light enters her face and she nods to herself, then looks me square in the face. “East,” she says, grey eyes burning into mine. “I should be back quickly, but while I’m gone, I would like to ask two favours of you.”
“Of course,” I say immediately. “It’s the least I can do. What is it?”
“First, I would like to ask you to watch the cameras.” She tilts her head to indicate her office, situated two floors above us. “That is usually Asher’s job, but I fear he may be… Distracted. I also need you to take care of Andrew. I imagine that Parker will have his hands full with Maggie and his own training, and Callia has her own demons to fight. Andrew has always been independent, unlike all the rest of the children, but quite like you—” She smiles, then, a warm smile still tinged with sadness. “It will be good for him to have a friend.”
“I can do that,” I say. “Gladly.”
“I knew I could count on you,” the Professor says. She places a hand over mine. “And finally, East, I would like to ask you to keep an eye on Asher.”
“Ash? What do you mean?”
Her finger curl, then relax. “I… He has been absent very often lately, going off on his own for sometimes half the day. I would like to know where he is going, and whether he is safe. I am his mother, after all—even if he doesn’t wish to be reminded of that sometimes.” This time her smile is truly sad, and full of regret.
“You want me to spy on your son?” I gape at her. “He would see through me in an instant!”
“Ah. But sometimes, East, what we have come to expect as the obvious is exactly what blinds us to the truth.”
I open my mouth to say, “Not for Ash,” but a sudden sneeze interrupts me, and then another, and then a third.
“My goodness,” the Professor says when I can finally look her in the eye again. “And do take care of yourself, too, please. I fear you might be coming down with a cold.”
“I’ll be fine,” I say, still sniffling. I decide not to mention that I haven’t had a cold since I was eleven.