Aled moved off, one easy stride after another. Seryn watched him, a little longer than she had to, but stayed where she was. Her head was still a little hazy, her thoughts a little too soft around the edges. Slowly, she leaned her head into her hand, but didn’t rest it there. She rubbed her fingers gently into her hairline, and didn’t move.
She wouldn’t have done it. There was no need.
But she could have.
Seryn pressed the fingers of her other hand, down into her palm. She could still feel his ribs, the lift of them as he breathed, hard bone just beneath warm skin. The air was cold, but her hand was still warm. She could have flashed out a bit of heat of her own. It would have been as easy as bleeding. Not difficult to do, just a quick slash of will, but it would hurt afterward.
Seryn rolled her fist shut.
Dropping her head to her chest, she stretched her shoulders, arced her spine until all its pieces slid back into their places, then stacked herself back up straight. She pushed her shoulders back, resettled her arms across her knees. She dug her heels farther into the ground, just for comfort. Her eyes shut after a moment. Her head leaned back, catching the warmth off the sun, while the rest of her bones settled into each other.
She almost slept. Or maybe she did sleep, lightly, easily, drifting out of the world with her fingertips still hooked over the edge to drag herself back in an instant.
Someone screamed behind her.
Seryn pulled her head up, eyes flashing open again. The sun felt a little hotter than it had before. An hour might have passed. She rolled forward onto her knees, spun to look behind her. It had not been a scream like last night, high and shrill and uncertain. It had been low and quiet, frustrated. She wasn’t sure if she wouldn’t have moved just at the sound of it. But she’d heard something like it before, and she could hear the fear in it.
“Come on,” the cry again, sharp.
Seryn was on her feet, almost running, as soon as she saw Bethan, sitting up in the middle of the others. Seryn picked her feet up, avoiding heads and hands and moving straight for the other girl. Bethan’s hands were clenched in front of her. She held them, wrist up, too far away from herself, as if she didn’t want them anymore.
Seryn crouched in front of her.
“It’s all right,” Bethan told Seryn. The words came fast, as if she didn’t want to unclench her jaw for too long. “It’s all right. I don’t need–“
“Shut up,” Seryn told her.
Bethan’s hands were hot, and the air above them burned against Seryn’s cheeks. Blue slid between her clenched fingers, dark and thick. Red bit her palm where her fingernails hit flesh, and it slid down the side of her palms.
“Open your hands,” Seryn ordered.
Bethan didn’t move, hands tight, arms taut, eyes glued to the blue rising off her fingers like heavy smoke. Seryn didn’t bother to repeat herself. She yanked Bethan’s fingers apart. She hissed when she touched the blue fire. Usually, it wouldn’t hurt, but this bit like real flame.
“Keep them open,” Seryn told her. She wanted to press her hands over the girl’s palms, to force them flat and keep them there, but settled for squeezing her wrists from beneath.
“I can’t stop,” Bethan said.
“Keep trying,” Seryn said.
Rhian was shifting beside them, rolling over and pulling her hair out of her eyes. Seryn glanced at her, and the sharpness of it woke the other girl immediately. She rolled to her knees.
Seryn shifted behind Bethan. She tugged her jacket up, then her shirt, baring the pale skin of her lower back. Bethan barely moved, strung too tight, until Seryn pulled her shirt a little higher, a little too hard. Then she flinched, cried out, straightened her spine to pull away.
Deep red-purple bruises dripped down her back, stark, straight lines down either side of her spine. They had started to reach for each other, threading between the knobbed bones. Seryn gentled her hands and pulled the shirt higher. The bruises widened across her shoulder blades, and darkened almost to black. Seryn had heard them called Dark Wings before, Fate’s shadow as she hovered overhead, ready to take what belonged to her. These were too dark to just be a shadow. Fate was already here.
Gareth was awake now too, and Drystan behind him.
“How bad?” Gareth asked, too quiet. Bethan was looking at him, her eyes finally off her own hands, and she had leaned close to his shoulder. Gareth had his hand on her elbow. Usually, they would have been holding hands by now. But they couldn’t touch.
“Bad,” Seryn said. She pulled Bethan’s shirt back down, careful.
She slid back around to face Bethan.
“Just breathe,” Gareth was telling her.
Seryn looked at her hands. There wasn’t much to see under the blue-black haze rising off them. The fire had started to spit a little, spark at the edges where it met the air. But Seryn watched a moment longer and blood dripped onto the ground between her fingers.
Drystan was kicking the others awake. Seryn wished she could tell him not to, but nothing about this was going to be quiet. Each of them woke sharp. Leolin complained. Tes swore. Then they fell quiet enough to hear the hiss coming off Bethan’s hands. Gwyn kicked back, knocking Drystan to the ground, and she chuckled sleepily as he hit.
It was the laugh that made Seryn’s chest pull in against itself.
“Stop,” Seryn told Bethan.
Gareth stared at her. Bethan’s fingers curled, almost into a fist again.
“I’m trying,” she said.
“No,” Seryn said, too sharp. “Stop trying to stop. Just let it happen. Whatever you’ve got, let it go.”
Now Bethan stared at her too.”That’s dangerous.” She hesitated, winced at something. “Isn’t it?”
Seryn shook her head, without really answering. She was spreading her fingers now too, letting ice-blue fire tumble down through her fingers and disappear into the air. Even invisible, she could feel it on the air, and she gathered it close to her skin, building it up and pulling it around her like another skin. Thicker, and thicker.
“What are you doing?” Gareth asked.
“I’ve seen this work,” she said. She didn’t look at him, but held Bethan’s eyes as steadily as she could. “You’re going to give me everything you have,” she said. “And I’m going to burn it away for you. And when you have nothing left, you might be all right again.”
Blinking, Bethan swallowed.
“You’re sure about this?” Rhian asked behind Seryn.
Seryn didn’t look back. “It’s this or nothing,” she said, still to Bethan. She paused, sweating in the new heat, and yanked her arms out of her jacket. But she never released Bethan’s gaze.
Slowly, Bethan nodded. Her fingers flattened out again.
“Move back!” Seryn said, just before the light in Bethan’s hand flashed suddenly high.
Seryn rocked back with the force of it. She should have expected it, but she didn’t, and the first flash felt like it pushed too much air into her lungs, choked her with it, and froze her chest from the inside out. Seryn brought her hands up, peeled a sheet of her own energy away from her skin and wrapped it around what Bethan was throwing into the air. Bethan’s fire spat and crackled as Seryn tore a piece of it off, then crumpled under Seryn’s force and burned away to nothing. The fire, orange and real, caught in the grass beneath their feet.
Seryn pulled back, less from the fire, and more from the heat that was rolling off Bethan. She peeled anther piece of her new skin away, clamped it down around Bethan’s hands and dragged everything in the air down to the ground. The grass blacked and crumbled, the fire smoked out on a moment’s breath, and the blue smoke turned brightest white and died as well.
Seryn kept her hands spread, adding to her buffer of energy even as she tore pieces off. Her skin turned to ice with the flow of it over her muscles, and then went numb, too deep in the cold. Her hands, her chest, the front of her thighs were too warm as she sat in front of Bethan and they both filled the air with these two riling things, the black and biting wild heat and the blue-white that pinned it to the ground.
Seryn watched the clashing fires at first. Then she realized that Bethan was watching her, and she met the girl’s eyes, hard and steady.
She should have said something. Seryn knew there were comforts, lies that should have been offered, but she couldn’t. The heat was getting too high too fast, and Bethan was shaking, and already starting to slump toward the ground. This wasn’t enough.
But Seryn kept going. The energy raced out of her hands, tore a little at the skin in its rush to leave, and wrapped around Bethan’s hands over and over. Seryn stole everything she could from her, over and over.
It wasn’t long before Bethan fell forward onto her hands. She was still spilling dark blue smoke onto the ground, and it had turned almost black, spitting.
“I can’t breathe,” Bethan said, and every consonant was dull as if there wasn’t enough air for them.
Seryn laid another blanket of energy around her, automatic, but stopped herself before she burned it out. She let the heat hover around Bethan and moved in close again.
“It’s all right,” Seryn murmured. She wasn’t sure the words came from her mouth.
Bethan rolled onto her back, trying to stretch her chest to fit the air she needed. Seryn put a hand on her shoulder, held her steady.
“It’s all right,” Seryn said. “Breathe out.”
Bethan tried to suck a breath in and shook harder. Gareth arrived on her other side, holding her arm. Her hands were still spitting, but he held her wrist, as close as he could to the palm, firm.
“Breathe out,” Seryn said again.
Bethan gasped, then finally followed orders and pushed everything in her lungs out, almost a cough. But the next breath pulled in easier. She pushed it out again. Breathed in easier still.
Gareth smiled at her. Seryn couldn’t.
Bethan pushed another breath out, and took the easiest breath she’d had in the last hour. She never let it go. She didn’t move, looked up, but didn’t see. Her hands spat a few moments longer, her pulse moved under Seryn’s fingers a few beats more, then those both stopped too.
Silence settled in. Seryn thought she might stop breathing next, took a few too-smooth breaths, looked at Gareth, and realized he might. Looking up, she glanced through the ring of faces around them, too far back now, but pushed there by the previous heat.
They were quiet too long, and it didn’t sound like quiet anymore. Seryn pushed herself to her feet, shut her eyes.
“So, that what happens?” Rhian asked, stunned. “When we work too much?”
No one answered her. Seryn looked over slowly, met her wide eyes.
“That’s what happened?” Rhian continued. “She worked too much last night?”
Seryn looked down, swallowed hard, trying to keep her eyes on Bethan, lying too-still on the ground. She looked at Gareth once, saw him crying, and jerked her eyes away.
“This is not her fault,” Seryn murmured. She thanked every star she knew to name when Rhian didn’t ask anything more.
Another too-deep silence hung in the circle. And on the other side of it too many strangers still slept, like nothing had happened.
“Bury her,” Seryn said.
Someone moved after her command sank in, at the corner of her eye. Seryn didn’t bother to see who it was. It didn’t much matter who dug the grave.
“Seryn,” Drystan said, farther away, on the other side of the circle.
Seryn didn’t want to move, but she did. He’d called her name, and her head turned on instinct. “What is it?” she asked.
“It’s…” He said the single word so low, she didn’t wait for him to finish the sentence. She took five steps to clear their circle, and stopped immediately.
Drystan stood over Harun. The older boy slept still, curled in on himself for heat, face hidden under his arm to keep the sun out. Seryn blinked. Once, twice, she felt her heartbeat echoing between her ribs, then she forced a deep breath and it stopped.
“He’s not moving,” Drystan said.
Seryn moved slowly, took the next few steps and knelt beside him. She put a hand on his shoulder, shook him. He didn’t move. She pressed a hand under his jacket, touched his neck. He was still warm, but colder than he should have been. And his heartbeat was gone too.
Seryn sat back on her heels, laid her hands on the top of her thighs, still.
“I kicked him,” Drystan said, and it sounded like the only thought in his head.
“It’s all right,” Seryn said. She ran a hand over her face. She thought she should be crying – her eyes felt heavy enough for it – but her hands came away dry. “We’ll bury him, too.”
“What happened?” Rhian asked, confused now, and Seryn could hear the tears in her voice. Like she was supposed to.
“He worked too much,” Seryn said. She looked over her shoulder at the younger girl. “You go quiet, in your sleep. I don’t think you feel anything, except maybe a little cold. There’s no good way to leave a world, but this is the best we can hope for.”
Rhian looked back toward Bethan. Seryn started begging the stars again, that the girl wouldn’t ask anything.
She didn’t turn that time. She refused, though the voice was gentler than it should have been. She thought it should have been more hollow, too, not so easy.
It took her a moment, to realize it was Aled. She looked up quickly.
He was looking at her, glancing at Harun, but watching her. She swallowed.
She was the oldest of them now, and he knew it.