Chapter One: Roxy

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Fire rose high into the trees on either side of me, closing in much faster than I'd anticipated. The air was thick with heat and smoke. I had to keep moving, fast. My heart hammered against my chest, keeping time with my feet as they pounded across the uneven ground. Both suns hung high in the air above me, shining down mercilessly and adding more heat to that of the blaze.

A huge ball of flames rushed through the trees, devouring everything in its path and I threw myself to the ground to avoid it, hitting my cheek against the earth. Great. They were getting closer.

I struggled to my feet and set off again, faster than before. As I ran, I pushed a loose strand of hair---as red as the inferno surrounding me---away from my face. It had fallen out of its tie hours ago, but I hadn't stopped for long enough to fix it.

The flames kept coming, attacking me from both sides, forcing me to duck and weave as I went.

But I couldn't outrun them forever.

I needed to stand and fight.

''Come on then. I'm ready for you," I whispered to myself, wheeling around in time to see a cloaked figure emerge from the trees to my left.

It looked as though the cloak itself was aflame, gleaming with glittering red swirls. Where there should have been a face, I saw nothing but darkness.

Slowly, the figure raised his hands out towards me, toying with me; he thought I was beat. Flames sprung up at his fingertips, dancing along his hands, gradually increasing in intensity.

But he was being complacent. He was nowhere close to winning this fight. While he put on his pyrotechnics show, flames danced in my own palms, burning faster and fiercer. Before he realised what was happening I cast my hands out in front of me, sending a ball of fire straight at his chest. Thrown back by the force of the hit he lay on the ground, motionless.

One down, two to go.

The sparks receded from my fingers but the tingling sensation lingered, I was ready to attack as soon as I needed. Bending over the unconscious figure I pulled a shining silver ring off of the index finger of his left hand. Shoving it into my pocket I set off again, but this time I headed left, from where the cloaked figure had emerged.

I'd had enough of being hunted.

It didn't take me long to find the next one, following the sounds of his gasps for breath, audible even over the increasing noise of the blaze. He wasn't even trying. I paused behind a tree, braced on my toes, ready to attack. My fingers tingled as flames sparked at the tips, before gradually winding down around my hands, growing hotter and brighter every second. The fire was only a precaution though; I had other plans for this hunter.

I heard his footsteps approaching, but stayed still until he finally lumbered past, then I kicked out with a strong shot to the right, hitting him square in the side. He stumbled and almost fell to the ground, but righted himself at the last moment and sent a flare in my direction. I dodged quickly, swinging round to the side and kicking out again, this time colliding with his stomach. Before he could counter I followed rapidly with two more shots, sending the cloaked figure to the ground, unconscious. I bent over him and tugged the ring from his finger.

''Not bad. But you really need to remember to watch your back."

Flames! I spun round to face a third cloaked figure. Unlike the others his hood was down, so I saw the arrogant glint in his eye and the smug smile which dominated his face, as well as his hair---streaked with the same violent red as mine---and the blaze dancing menacingly in his hands; he was ready to strike.

The shot came faster than I expected, a small ball of fire, whizzing past my ear as I dodged right to avoid it. Before I could steady myself another followed and I was forced to throw myself behind the tree. Come on, Roxy, you can do this. I breathed deeply, letting the flames rise up inside me. They curled around my fingers as I emerged and found their target straight on, hitting him on the shoulder with a blow that made him curse. It would take a lot more than that though.

Fire flew in both directions. Sparks hit me relentlessly and I took blows as many times as I made contact with him. The air simmered and the strain of three days on the run was taking its toll; my muscles screamed. But I couldn't lose; too much was at stake. He'd been out here just as long as me and the fatigue showed---his eyes were circled in blue and his reactions were slower. I knew I could beat him.

When it came to fire we were evenly matched though. I wasn't going to win with flames. I needed to try something else, something that would make him mad. I lunged at him, throwing as many punches as I could manage, making contact with arms, chest and head. Eventually my fist collided with his face.

Blood trickling from his lips he lost it. ''Flames!" he yelled. ''Look what you've done! I'll make you pay for that, Roxanne." There was a flash of silver and I found myself on the floor, a gleaming silver dagger hovering inches above my body. ''Give me your rings," he hissed, his eyes glinting with victory.

''That's cheating!" I breathed, wary of raising my chest towards the blade.

He grinned at me wickedly, pressing down with the full force of his weight. ''You need to stop thinking in terms of the rules, Roxy. We're out in the real world now. And you're going to pay for touching my face."

While he was busy taunting me I forced my knee up hard into his gut and he doubled over in pain. Before he recovered, I'd flipped him off me and wrenched the knife out of his slackened grip. Sitting astride him I held the knife up to his cheek.

''Don't think I won't do it, Cinaer!" I hissed, letting the blade touch his flesh. I don't know if it was the cold sincerity in my voice or the shock of being straddled by a wild, mud covered woman, but he didn't try to argue. ''Give me your ring. Now."

He pulled it off of his finger and handed it over to me without a word, his lower lip quivering.

''See, that wasn't so hard." I smiled sweetly and moved the blade away from his face. He let out a sigh and I got to my feet.

It was over.

''Not bad, Firefly." Another cloaked figure emerged from the trees. ''I really thought he had you for a minute." This man was older than the other, but he too had his hood down, revealing soft brown eyes and red streaked hair.

''You could have stepped in, Vincent---he cheated---there were no weapons allowed."

Vincent shrugged. ''I wanted to see what you could do. Outside of the camp people won't always stick to the rules; you need to be able to adapt, which is what you managed to do today. I think I can safely say that you've passed with flying colours."

I grinned with relief.

''But don't think you're not going to pay for that, Cinaer," he added, looking sternly at my attacker, who had stood up rather tentatively. ''The rules were clear. No weapons; just your powers and your fists. I'll be reporting this to your mentor."

Cinaer shrugged casually and walked to join us. ''Whatever. We can go now, right?" Vincent looked at him, exasperated.

''Yes. Roxy, I'll take you back to base so we can hand over the rings. We can take my bike."

''What about me?" Cinaer demanded, incredulous. ''How do you expect me to get back?"

Vincent smiled. ''The same way you got here. On foot."

''But that will take days!"

''You should get started then. It will give you plenty of time to work on an excuse for cheating. Come on, Roxy, let's go."


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