Thank you so much for the five reviews of Burn the Ashes! It makes a huge difference when potential readers hear what you have to say about a book, not just the copy I wrote to describe it. I am so happy that you all think enough of my book to post your thoughts. ♥
Our base beneath the arch line already looks like a makeshift town two weeks after arrival. Everyone has their own little lean-tos built beneath the canopies of the lowest arches, circling a much bigger tent built in the middle for the weapons. I glance up at the guards scouting above as I stand in line for morning rations.
Even outside of The Compound we still have rations, though here they do their best to give us as much good food as possible. Teams go out hunting daily for meat and others scavenged enough seeds that we should have a garden soon.
I’ve been keeping to myself as much as possible, staying out of the commotion and observing. Anza was allowing it… until today. I was in my crevice under the bottom arc, blocking out the early morning racket and the growing chill as the rest wake, move around, and get started for the day. At The Compound I had to withstand the overload of sounds and bodies. I held myself together and got used to the discomfort.
Here, I have a choice. I choose to wait until everyone has dispersed.
The calmer, the better.
When I find her, Anza is already surrounded by a group. I recognize Eli, Stella and, amongst the other unknowns, Solar. I approach, hesitant, and stand opposite him.
I cross my arms, hugging myself tight, and study the ground. The space between us is rigid. I cannot see it—the air is still clear—but I can feel it pressing against my skin, threatening to suffocate me if I approach him.
I’m not sure I even want to.
“You have a full team, Eli, but I want you to bring Peony, too,” Anza directs.
“What for?” he scoffs.
She studies me. “To observe. She needs to get back out there.”
“I—” I start to say, but my voice is too soft for her to notice. I don’t want to go back out. I don’t want to risk capture. I want to speak up, but I can’t make myself.
Eli is directing everyone around to get ready. I can see his mouth moving, but I can’t make out his words.
Where are we going?
The others are getting knives and guns from Stella and tucking them into the jackets and coats that Anza is passing out.
Why do we need weapons?
Anza approaches and holds a jacket out to me, to keep out the cold and to hide my Compound dress. Our scavengers haven’t been able to steal enough clothes from the towns for all of us yet.
I can’t make my arms move. They’re the only thing holding me together, keeping the energy inside that would break me if it escaped.
“What’s wrong, Peony?” Anza asks.
I don’t want to go.
I can think it, but I can’t make my mouth work. I close my eyes and will it, but it makes no difference.
—You can do this.
I hear her voice in my mind, breaking through my resistance.
—Calm, Peony. Loosen your muscles. Find them and let them go.
I look at her for a moment before closing my eyes again. I focus on my forehead, releasing the tension. I do the same with my neck, my jaw, my hands and arms, my calves.
But what if, my thoughts begin questioning again and my arms tighten back up around my body.
—Stop. You control your own thoughts, Peony.
I focus on the fears and I let them float away. I picture them going, their nagging growing distant until silenced.
I feel empty without them. I study Anza and wonder what she sees. My face is slack, emotionless. I let the muscles release and the doubts go, after all.
“I don’t want to go,” I manage to say. My voice is flat, monotone.
“You need this, Peony,” Anza says, certain. “You may have physically escaped The Compound, but mentally you’re still there.
I take the proffered jacket and pull it on.
We follow the arch line towards the sun. I keep my eyes intent on Eli’s feet, blocking out the light as best I can. Around midday we turn north, eating rations as we walk.
The town was rebuilt from what once was, one of the few that chose that option. An old rusted sign from the arch line hangs at the entrance, proclaiming the town’s name in repainted letters: Spring Creek. We circle the town to the side, choosing not to take the front entrance.
“We’ll meet back here after the rally,” Eli begins. “I want everyone with a partner. Your job is to blend in and stand guard. If any talists are in danger, we’ll step in.”
The others nod and begin to buddy up, heading into town in different directions.
When there’s just me, Solar, Eli, and one other girl, Eli hesitates.
“Can you handle this?” he asks, eyes intent on Solar. Solar glowers back at him.
What does he mean? Why wouldn’t Solar be alright?
Eli doesn’t back down until Solar lowers his gaze and nods. “Aeroue, you’re with me.” He looks from me to Solar.
“Don’t do anything stupid.” I watch him and the girl skirt a building and slide into the crowd.
When I look back, Solar is studying me. HE almost looks sad. Then he shakes his head and the moment is gone. I follow him closely into town, unsure where we are supposed to go. We end up in the center of town, to the side of a small stage that must have recently been erected.
“What are we waiting for?” I ask.
“The Guardia. They can’t risk anyone helping us and they want to control public opinion.” He doesn’t face me, but at least he answered.
“Watch,” he answers, motioning as a soldier takes the stage. Others surround the stage and fill the crowd. Voices go silent so that he can be heard.
“Good evening, everyone,” he greets, his voice resounding. “We are here today to alert you to a very real threat to Spring Creek and Trinity. As you know, we maintain a compound to contain and exterminate mutated individuals in our society.
“A fortnight ago, a terrorist from within The Compound created an explosion that helped a great number of those elementalists escape.” The crowd around us gasps collectively, murmurs picking up as they wonder at their safety.
“He’s calling you a terrorist?” I ask.
“Trinity needs your help,” he commands, voice booming.
Solar’s hands tighten into fists and his jaw clenches. I want to reach out and take his hand. I want to reassure him but, when I try, my body won’t budge.
“If you see or hear of a mutant here, you must turn them in. Do not help them. They already destroyed The Compound; don’t let them take down Trinity!
Solar runs forward, parting the crowd. “Why do you think we did?” he shouts. A flame sparks up in his left hand. “We aren’t mutants, and we are tired of being treated like it!”
“Fuck!” Eli shouts off to my right as guards encircle Solar. He turns around, realizing he’s trapped, and throws his flame to the ground.
Everyone around me seems fluid, moving in waves, and I am the rigid stone, unable to budge. I feel the air change, shift almost, and I look to my left. I see the woman running against the current, pushing towards Solar.
She stops and seems to scoop the air up in her arms, holding it close before pushing it directly at Solar. His flames turn to smoke as though they had been atop a single candle and the guards are toppled. The woman runs in, pulls him up and drags him the way she came.
She is different, I begin to notice. Her clothes are all leather, a mismatch of colors and textures taken from different animals. Her hair is white blonde—not golden—and pulled back into a ponytail. She is about function and need, not aesthetics. She is also much older than the average Compound Talist. Why is she here now?
She turns a corner, a sharp right behind a building. I run to keep up, almost tripping over them when I make the turn.
“Where is the meeting spot?” she asks.
Do I trust her? She just saved Solar, but her vice grip on his arm makes me hesitate.
—Where is the meeting spot?
She asks this again, now sending the question the way Anza does. My mind conjures a view of the place and I look around, lost now and unsure how to get back.
“This way,” she says, starting off again with Solar in tow.
I never answered her.
Was she able to see what I envisioned?
I run to catch up.