A dog was barking.
At least, it sounded like a dog, although May could be forgiven for being uncertain — she could count on both hands the number of dogs she'd encountered in her entire isolated life.
Regardless, something was barking. It was close and loud enough to wake May up. She pushed herself up on her elbows in the darkness, feeling remarkably awake. Her eyes found Jeremy's silhouette at once. He was framed by the window and backlit by what dim light filtered in from the narrow alley.
"What's going on?" May whispered at his shadow. She wasn't frightened, but she could feel adrenaline coursing through her system already.
Jeremy unlatched the window and slowly slid it up. He tipped his head out and over the sill and let out a single, quick whistle.
The barking stopped and the world went still.
"It's time to go," Jeremy said, glancing over his shoulder. The light caught on his eyes, forming a pair of crescent moons; the only feature on his darkened face. "Ready to roll?"
May was on her feet before he finished his question.
An old fashioned iron fire escape clung to the side of the building. As quietly as possible, May and Jeremy crawled from the window and maneuvered the structure in the gloom, with only the ends of the streetlamp rays that reached down the alley to keep them from stumbling. The bottom ladder was raised, but they both knew better than to risk the noise of lowering it. Jeremy scaled the railing first, lowering his body until he was dangling from his arms. Even then, there was a four foot drop to the ground, but he made it with cat-like grace.
When he looked back, May saw him sizing her up. As he disappeared into the darkness, she started to climb. She landed softly, well-prepared from years of dancing, and found herself face-to-face with Jeremy when she straightened back up. He blinked at her in surprise over the large garbage can hoisted in his arms. May raised an eyebrow.
"All right then," Jeremy whispered and placed the can back on the ground.
May replied with a roll of her eyes.
The sound of a low bark came from the back end of the alley. May turned and froze. The fewer than ten dogs she had known had never been as gargantuan as the animal in front of her now. Four tall, powerful legs held a body covered in long brown fur. A pair of perked, pointed ears stood at attention, and above the dog's pointed snout were two amber eyes, watching the two of them with what looked like a glimmer of mischievous delight. The animal gave a quick flick of its tail and let out another huff of a bark, then darted out of sight.
"C'mon," Jeremy muttered, surging past May in pursuit of the dog.
They traveled like this through the night for what felt like hours. The dog would race ahead and May and Jeremy followed. Whenever the route called for a turn or a venture into more open–and therefore vulnerable–streets, the dog went first to investigate, returning to fetch them when the way was clear. They didn't encounter another living soul the entire walk.
Eventually the dog turned them down a side street that stretched away from tall buildings and into a quiet residential neighborhood. Towering oaks with great leafy canopies lined both sides of the narrow street, and darkened vehicles were parked nose to end along either curb. As May and Jeremy watched, a vehicle door opened a handful of spaces ahead and the dog jumped inside.
The pair exchanged skeptical glances, and then Jeremy shrugged. They followed the sidewalk to the open door. The interior light was off but May recognized the vehicle at once. She let out a quiet exclamation of relief and scampered inside, where she was immediately enveloped by a pair of long arms and the curious mingled scent of wood smoke and amber that was distinctly Welkin's.
Out on the sidewalk, Jeremy hovered, uncertain. Finally, May had to reach out and pull at the front of his too-big t-shirt to get him to budge.
Once they were inside with the door closed, a sound came from the front seat that raised the hairs on the back of May's neck. The snapping and crunching reminded her of the cracking of a felled tree, and mixed with a cacophony of barely contained squeaks and groans of something—or someone— in incredible pain. Jeremy's hand clamped down on her forearm—thankfully not the one strapped under the star cannon— as if readying himself to drag her from the vehicle.
But then the sounds subsided and were replaced by steady, pained panting. The ignition was turned and though the vehicle's lights remained off, whoever was driving eased out of the parking space and down the street with ease.
It was some time before anyone spoke. Welkin's arms remained wrapped protectively around May's shoulders, and Jeremy's clenched hand maintained a marginally looser grip on her arm. Amazingly, May felt safer between the two of them—Jeremy, with his spirit of fire, and Welkin as indomitable as the sky itself—than she had in a very long time.
Only when the city finally fell away, opening up to a wide rural landscape and sleepy highway, did the headlights come on. From that minuscule light emerged the figure of Dom, alert and observant in the front passenger seat, and an apparently topless Lety behind the wheel.
"Lety!" May hissed. "Where are your clothes?"
Lety's amber eyes found her in the rearview mirror, flashing in the eerie mix of moon and headlights. "Clothes get in the way when I'm shifting. It's easier to go without. Relax, they're just tits."
Beside her, Dom nodded sagely.
"What are you nodding for?" May asked. "It's not like you're naked when you transform."
"That's because my clothes are as real as the rest of me — it's all glamor, baby." He twisted in his seat and grinned at her. "Glad to see you safe and sound, by the way. Both of you."
Jeremy tensed beside her. She didn't blame him — the last time he and Dom met, he had forced the mountain-dwelling forest spirit to help him track down Em and May. He had been a bit of a dick about the whole thing, but luckily for him Dom wasn't the type to hold a grudge.
"Thanks for picking us up," Jeremy said, his voice tight.
"Anything for the prodigal son," Lety said, laughing. "I've heard so much about you it feels like I'm chauffeuring a celebrity."
"Careful," Welkin's measured tone cut in from the darkness. "From what I recall, Mr. Parker's ego doesn't need any additional stroking."
This time, Jeremy jumped — a full-body jolt of surprise that finally released his hand from May's arm. He pressed himself hard against the door. At first May assumed he was startled because he hadn't realized there was someone else in the car. But then he spoke.
"Holy shit." His voice was barely a whisper. "Welkin, is that you?"
Oh, right, May thought. These two have history. She wondered how long it had been since they had last seen one another.
Welkin let the silence hang a beat before sighing.
"Yes, it's me."
May thought she might suffocate in the heavy tension that settled between them.
"Should we switch places?" she asked. "I get the feeling you two need to talk."
"You wanna squeeze up here, Tiny?" Lety asked, grinning into the mirror. "It's roomier than it looks. Dom'll shove over for you."
"Absolutely not," May snapped. "I'm not going near you until you put some clothes on."
In the end, she and Welkin switched places. May scooted close to the window, trying to give them as much privacy as one could in a full and moving vehicle. She turned her head and tried not to listen as Welkin and Jeremy conversed in sharp whispers beside her. If she closed her eyes and rested her head against the cool glass, she could make believe she was asleep and not listening to Welkin plead for forgiveness for resurrecting Audrey as Em without letting Jeremy or the others know. They told Jeremy how they had paid for their transgressions with their immortality, though it didn't seem to do much to pacify his seething anger. Squeezing her eyes shut tight, May tried to block out Jeremy's soft sobs as he described just how nightmarish his life had been since losing the love of his life.
Eventually, May got so good at pretending, she really did fall asleep. She slipped into nothingness, leaving all the twisted messiness behind, only to dream of the end of the world.
YOU ARE READING
The Fire and the Sky (Book 3 of the Starborn Series)Fantasy
Separated from her Starborn girlfriend, Em, and the rogue group of Wishes known as WIND, May Alana knows she can't go back to life she once knew. Now, armed with a family secret that could help put an end to the chaotic power of the ruthless Loyals...