From Flame and Ash – Carrie Ann Ryan

I HADN’T HAD this dream in a while. The fact that I knew it was a dream right off the bat told me I wasn’t going to like where it led. Of course, knowing what I did now, none of the dreams from my past had been very good for me either. Though they might have told me some important things, stuff that meant something, it didn’t mean I had to like them. Or their underlying message. This time, I stood at the center of a star with five points. Before I knew that everything I dreamed was true, I’d always thought of where I stood as the four corners of the seasons, each of the elements, or the four cardinal directions. But I had been wrong…even as I’d been right. I hadn’t known there was a fifth. But then again, I hadn’t known much at the time. I still felt like I didn’t. Not at all. I stood at the crossroads, my hair blowing in the wind and the screams of a thousand voices echoing in my mind. I knew they were my own. My screams mixed with those of my friends, those I loved, and others I didn’t know.

These were memories. My dreams weren’t really dreams. But each time the visions came, I didn’t know if they would be my memories or a future that would never come. I didn’t know if they were the memories of those who kept sending me these nightmares, or if it was just something to try and scare me into coming back. I didn’t want to go back. Or maybe I did. The fact that I was still deciding on when told me I wasn’t ready. But I pushed those thoughts out of my head and tried to focus on what the dream was trying to tell me—if it was trying to tell me anything at all. The element that I was most afraid of was in front of me. Spirit.

And I did not know a single person who possessed it. I didn’t know anyone who could Wield it like the others. Every time I looked into the face of this element, I could feel the fear crawling up my back, into my shoulders, moving down to my belly to latch on. Because I didn’t know what Spirit Wielders could do, other than walk in my dreams. Yet I knew it could be so much more. It had to be. Because if it weren’t, then the others wouldn’t have tried to kill the Spirit Wielders for their powers. In the far right upper corner of the star, there was Fire. Below that, Earth. To the left, Air, and above, Water.

All elements. All coming at me…and yet not. The Air blew my blond hair back from my face, and I lifted my chin, letting the heat of Fire warm my pale skin. I’d gotten slightly tanner outside of my dreams this past year by being outside, but within my visions, it was as if the sun had been leached from my skin altogether. As if I were just a pale shadow of who I once was. As with the elements, and like with anything, there were different types of people, various Wielders who used their powers and magic in ways that were either helpful or hurtful depending on the individual. There were those who Wielded their elements and used them to protect others or to harm even more. They used them to their advantage and had had hundreds of years to perfect those skills. I had been born human. And I still was…maybe.

Even in my dreams. Here, I didn’t possess the elements that had been thrust upon me, unlocking inside of me with bonebreaking agony and pain. The torment of which was so haunting, I knew I would never forget. In these dreams, I was the girl I had been before. And I was powerless. I hadn’t been without power in the end, and yet in these dreams, I was reminded of what I’d been, and what I might become if I went back without knowing what was to come. I had left the Maison realm because I was afraid. Because I had been beaten. I’d lost my best friend and so much more. I’d died with a sword in my belly and blood on my hands.

And the Spirit Wielders, those who’d remained hidden for centuries from the other Wielders, saved me. The boy I loved—who I thought I could love, at least—the one I thought was my soulmate, hadn’t been able to save me. There hadn’t been that true connection. Legend said that a soulmate could heal a mortal wound. And he couldn’t heal mine. Now, Rhodes was gone, off to his own kingdom. And I was in the human realm, hiding. He had his people to protect…and I had to find a way to heal. But what I was living right now was a dream, I reminded myself. Just a dream.

Water from its corner of the star lapped at my feet, cold and icy. It wasn’t like that time on the beach as a child, playing in the sand and letting the waves crash into me. I had been a strong swimmer, but my mother had always warned me about the rip tides, the strong currents. They could take you out into the abyss and drown you, take you away from everything you’d ever known, and no one would be able to hear you scream. As I thought that, the waves grew stronger, knocking into my knees until I went weak, shaking just slightly. Sand scraped my skin, but I did not fall. Not now. This was just a dream. And I wasn’t that girl anymore. The ground rumbled beneath my feet, and I knew that Earth was angry.

I reminded myself that there was more to come from that land. More to take. Because while the king of the Fire and Earth territories was one man—one who had saved me—the Lord of Earth was not as welcoming, not as forgiving. I owed their lord a favor, one I was afraid I might not ever be able to repay. The man who ruled the territory had not killed me, and therefore, I owed him. It was funny how being able to breathe could be something owed, a favor. The mere idea that I could walk away with my life in my hands, that was what I owed someone. The earth cracked ever so slightly beneath me, jagged lines appearing that sent dust spiraling into the air, but I did not falter. I did pull myself back from thoughts of what I owed, however. Because unlike with Water, I could Wield this element.

I could feel Earth, and it tugged on something within me, a part so deep that it caused warmth to spread through my fingers. And though I didn’t actually possess that element in this dream, I knew that once I woke up, I would be able to. And then the Fire came at me, and I held back a wince. Fire, such heat. I didn’t possess this element, even though its twin, Earth, called to me. Earth and Fire were friends, tangling with each other not only in magic and genetics but also within a kingdom that was falling apart under its new king. The new ruler who had come into his title as the kingdom fell apart around him. I didn’t know if I would be enough to save it. I disregarded the Fire and what it represented, ignored its temptation. It had called to me since I was a child, and it still called.

It was not the Water with its siren song that lured me, but the Fire that burned. And then I remembered that Water could douse the flames, even though Fire could dance above the waves. All of that might soon unlock within me. And I wasn’t sure I was strong enough. I turned myself fully within the star to face the first element that had ever unlocked within me. Air. I had unlocked it to save the boy that I thought I could love—and myself. I could still feel the wind dancing between my fingers and tangling in my hair. It was the warmest of elements, even more so than Fire in my opinion. Because Fire raged and burned, while Air hugged and caressed.

But it could kill. I knew that firsthand. And I possessed this element. That was something I was still coming to understand. Even a year later. “You’re wondering why you’re here,” a voice said from behind me. I turned in the direction I had faced at first, towards the Spirit element. That element meant nothing to me. All I knew was that it was a void. That was the only way I knew it was Spirit at all.

I had no idea what it could do. Hadn’t truly met anyone who could Wield it. While the rest of the elements were physical, Spirit seemed to dwell within. I knew the Spirit Wielders could walk within my dreams and give me dreams. I knew that they could heal. But I didn’t know if that was because it was me, or if it was their element. Though it wasn’t as if I could ask them. When the Spirit Wielders came into my dream, they tended to talk to me, not with me. I should have found that annoying, but that was how all of my training had gone for the past year once I returned to the human realm and moved away from the Maisons. I had quickly found out that the world was not as it seemed.

Another world was pressed tightly up against ours, connected by portals that led from the human world to the Maison realm. And a thousand years ago when the Maison realm was five territories, five kingdoms with kings and queens who worked together, there had been peace. And then, over time, Earth and Fire had become the Obscurité Kingdom, and Water and Air had become the Lumiére. Light and dark. Opposites. And they had warred. I didn’t know the reason for the war, although it is said that the King of Obscurité started it all. But after meeting the latest king and his mother, the late queen, I wasn’t sure if anything I had been told about the Fall was true. When the war had paused and became what it was now, at least in its abstract form, the Fall had begun. The Spirit Wielders had left the Maison realm to hide with the humans.

I didn’t know if my ancestors had been among those to hide, but none of that mattered now. Because everything had changed. The Maison realm was fracturing. It was failing. People were losing their ability to Wield. Some had been stripped of their Wielding powers by magical forces, others nearly losing it because the crystals that powered the Maison realm were dying, as well. And I knew all about this because, apparently, I was the fabled Spirit Priestess. The one who could save them all. Or so they told me. “Why am I here?” I asked the Spirit Wielder in front of me.

I couldn’t see his face, his cloak covered him completely. Although I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to see the Spirit Wielders’ faces. For all I knew, this was all just my imagination trying to help me come up with answers for what I needed to know to remain sane. “You are here to learn. You are here to remember. You can’t stay here forever, Lyric.” I shook my head, not wanting to hear the words. It had been a year since I ran from my responsibilities and what could be. I’d needed to figure out who I was, and I still wasn’t sure. But I didn’t have time for myths and dreams.

But they apparently had time for me. A movement in the dream, a shift in the wind, caused me to pause. Then the elements around me burned, flooded, ached. This wasn’t my dream. And it wasn’t the man in front of me. “You must go, Lyric.” “Where?” There were so many places I could go within the kingdoms once I left the human realm. But it wasn’t like I could just figure out my journey without help. I didn’t know what I needed to do, and nobody was actually guiding me. Not anymore.

“All is not what it seems.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes because that was the understatement of my year. Of my life. But then, before I could speak again, Earth rumbled harder, and Fire lashed out at me. Water seemed to wrap itself around my ankles, and Air slammed into me, so hard that it felt like ice sticking to my skin. This was different. This wasn’t the same type of dream I’d had before. And then the Spirit Wielder lifted his hood, vacant, dark pools of shadow where eyes should have been. “You must go. Before he finds you.

Before they all find you. The Gray is coming. And you are still too weak.” And then the elements slammed into me with such ferocity that I screamed. I startled awake and winced as the others in the classroom around me clapped. I wasn’t in the Maison realm, and I wasn’t alone. I was in a classroom with a bunch of students, most of them glaring at me. I had fallen asleep, and the others had seen. I had left the Maison realm to find myself, to heal. But I had been left wanting.

I waited to learn the next step, but the nothingness around me only pulled me farther away from where I knew, deep down, I needed to be. A place I was afraid I’d never reach again. I had left those who needed me. And I knew I needed to go back. No matter the cost. C H A P T E R T W O I HAD ALREADY PACKED my go-bag weeks earlier, knowing this time would come. I repacked it every night, ensuring that I had what I would need, unpacking and changing things out when I thought better of it. Items made in the human world didn’t last long in the other realm. So, I had most of the things I’d taken with me when I left the Maisons, as well as some stuff Alura, a friend of Rhodes and Rosamond who also lived on my block and happened to go to school with me, had given me over the past year. I was ready to go back.

And my new friend—my only friend these days—wasn’t of this realm either, so it seemed I wasn’t really alone. I paused at that thought, wondering why that seemed to be the first thing that popped into my mind. Maybe it was because the idea swept over me with each passing day and every passing dream, all the memories of what I had left behind. I’d abandoned it all because I was scared. Because I’d needed time to regroup. But so much time had passed at this point, I wasn’t sure what would happen next. I wanted to go back. I didn’t know if it was about facing my destiny because, honestly, I didn’t know if there was a true destiny there for me. But I had to go back because people were counting on me, even if I wasn’t sure I could rely on myself. I couldn’t just walk away again and pretend that nothing had happened.

The very evidence of what had happened currently sat in my bag, purring and licking her toes. My little polydactyl cat, the one with bat wings. Yes, a cat with extra toes was extraordinary on its own. A cat with extra toes on each foot and wings? That wasn’t of this world, or of this realm. But Braelynn, my best friend in the entire world, had once been from this realm. “Please stop getting your cat hair all over my clothes,” I said, reaching out to pick her up out of the bag. “I swear, you’re mostly black, but your little white hairs on the tuxedo part of your front stick to my clothing, showing themselves to the world.” She just snorted. Damn cat. I tended to wear black these days.

I didn’t know if it was because the color happened to look good on me, or if it was because I was in mourning. Grieving the fact that my best friend had died, only to come back as a cat that was now in my arms. Or maybe it was me mourning what I once had. I had once thought my life was normal. Normal heading into boring. I hadn’t been able to pick my major, I was almost about to watch my friend and my ex-girlfriend—the only two people I truly talked to often—walk away from me as they went off to undergo their own college careers. Braelynn was never going to college now. She had lost that opportunity when she came with me into the Maison realm to see what my dreams were about. I had known she was following her own path, figuring out why she felt as if she didn’t belong either. But in the end…in the end, it was my fault that she was dead.

Or at least changed. And my ex? She was never coming back either. She couldn’t. Brae bumped my chin with the top of her head, and I looked down to see her glaring at me as if she knew where my thoughts had gone. “You can’t really read my thoughts, can you?” I asked. She just gave me a look that said she could do whatever she wanted and to bow before her regalness. Okay, maybe that was just the look of a cat in general. I liked felines, though the idea that this cat happened to be my best friend was still a little weird. I mean, once you clean your bestie’s litter box, there’s no going back. And let’s not get started on the hairballs and the self-cleaning, and everything else that comes with being a cat.

I didn’t think Braelynn as a cat could actually read my thoughts, but sometimes it sure seemed like it. I forgot, when I wasn’t thinking too closely about it, that she wasn’t actually a cat. Nor was she human anymore. It was this weird dichotomy where I felt like I was still speaking to my friend even though she couldn’t talk back. I slipped my go-bag into the closet, wondering when I would finally come back for it. It wasn’t like I could just venture into the Maison realm and know that I would be safe. When Easton had dropped me off here, he hadn’t told me how I could get in contact with him again, only that he would be here for me when I was ready. That was so not helpful, but I had been a little shaken about the fact that not only was my best friend dead, at least as I had known her, I had died. Though the Spirit Wielders had somehow helped me out of that.

.

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