The walls of the cave were dripping water as the storm blew in sheets of rain. Thunder boomed outside. The room was small, lit only by sconces attached low on the wall. Five men stood unmoving, clad in tribal brilliance, their long black hair swayed slightly with the cold breeze. A crumpled figure lay before them, his skin glistened with a dampness. The man shifted, strong black wings emerged from his back, pumping as he struggled to his knees. Hands bound behind his back, he used his shoulder to wipe the blood from his mouth.
“Untie me.” His voice reverberated through the hollow cave.
“You have to take responsibility…” one of the men spoke.
“Untie me!” he yelled.
The men lifted their heads to the heavens. A voice echoed through the walls. “Your gifts will be taken for the duration of you punishment. You will live among the Earth dwellers until your trial. Take this time to redeem yourself.”
He pumped his wings again, a powerful current of air circled the cave. “I will not be judged by you. I will not live among them. I will not live as one of them.”
“The choice is no longer yours. It was not the intent of your gifts to use them for your own pleasure. You were sent to protect the tribes, not abuse them.” The voice grew stronger at the man’s defiance.
“My gifts will find me. They call to me. They cannot be hidden. What has been given to me will not be taken away.”
A bolt of lightening struck his chest. With a guttural growl he arched his back, clenching his jaw, refusing to show pain as his heart was removed and his powers stripped.
“They are no longer yours.” The voice echoed through the cave.
I threaded my fingers through my long blonde hair, lifting it off my neck, I pulled it into a ponytail. I cringed when my fingers grazed the greenish purple bruise at my temple. Luke and I had gotten into an argument and I’d gotten to cross country practice late. I hurried to catch up with the pre-workout stretches.
“Holy crap Emma what happened to your head?” My best friend and running partner, Greg, looked over from where he sat on grass.
“Luke and I bumped.” I settled in the cool grass next to him.
Greg let out a loud laugh. “What where you guys doing?”
“Not what you’re thinking. It was an accident.” Or at least that’s what I’d convinced myself.
“So are you two…like dating?” Greg stood up and placed his hand on my head for balance while he stretched his quads.
“I’m not sure we’re officially dating. The Ridge frowns on fraternizing.” The Ridge was the group home where I currently lived.
“Fraternizing? What are you? Like eighty?”
I shrugged. “That’s their term so it probably came from someone who was eighty.”
“Em, you’ve spent every waking moment with him this summer, and when you’re not with him he’s texting you to find out where you are. That is the definition of dating. Or at least stalking.” Greg’s words faded as he took off running, leaving me behind.
I jumped up and ran after him. I matched my short strides to his longer ones. Greg was tall and lanky, the perfect body for cross country. I was a good head shorter, making each of his strides equal to two of mine. My phone buzzed in my pocket. Announcing a new text.
“Is that your phone?” Greg asked. “Why do you have your phone when you’re running?”
“Luke gets mad if he can’t reach me.” I pulled my phone out, texting while I ran.
“That’s not normal.” Greg didn’t seem too happy with my answer.
“You don’t like him?” We headed into the woods beside the school to begin a five mile run for the day.
“I don’t know him and he doesn’t want to know me. The way he looks at you is creepy. Like he knows something no one else does. Does it matter if I like him? I’m not dating him.”
The path evened out as we came out the other side of the trees.
“I want you to like him. You’re my best friend.” Greg had been my friend since I was placed in the group home.
Greg stopped short.
I ran a few paces, then turned around and jogged back to him. “What?”
“Emma you need to be careful.”
I jogged in place, trying to keep my muscles loose. “Careful of what?”
“Just be careful. Sometimes people aren’t what they seem.”
“Like he’s a mass murderer disguised as a high school senior?”
“You never know. He does live…” Greg’s voice trailed off. “Just be careful, Em.”
“He does live where?! At The Ridge? That’s what you were going to say—wasn’t it? Because everyone at The Ridge is a screw up right.” I shoved him.
I’d been in foster care or groups homes for as long as I could remember. I didn’t know my parents. They’d abandoned me when I was little. There had been a few families that jumped at the chance of adopting a tiny blonde haired, blue eyed, little girl…but every time I got close to getting a family something happened. One of the parents died in car accident another was diagnosed with cancer. If they had other children, they didn’t like me. I was known in the system as bad luck and eventually everyone stopped trying and just stuck me in a group home.
“Don’t do that. You know I don’t think you’re a screw up. Just be careful. You don’t know him that well,” Greg said.
“I know he’s had it tough. His dad was horrible to him. I know he gets angry.” I knew Greg was just watching out for me. That seemed to be what he did. Grateful for his concern, I wrapped my arms around his waist and squeezed. “I’ll be careful.”
“That’s all I ask. Now let’s get this run over so you’re not late for your date.” Greg gave the top of my head a friendly kiss before he left me standing on the trail.
Greg and I finished our run in record time. The school was deserted as we jogged through the parking lot. We’d added distance to our runs, pushing ourselves to get qualifying times for districts. Everyone else stuck to the required three miles.
“Keep up that pace and you two could be on your way to State.” Coach Hawkins stood at the locker room and called out as we approached. “Districts only two weeks away and I see both of you winning your races.”
“Thanks coach,” My cheeks ached with a smile that stretched to its limit. Greg and I had worked since our freshman year to make it to State. My dream was to get a scholarship, even though I’d never really expected it to happen.
“State here we come!” Greg picked me up and twirled me around in a tight hug. “Let’s celebrate! Pizza at Orlando’s? Drinks on me. Well only if it’s water.” He set me back on the ground and waited for my answer, his smile matched mine.
“I can’t. I have my date, remember.”
Greg’s shoulders slumped. His smile wavered. “That’s okay. Maybe later.”
“Yeah. Maybe tomorrow.” I tried to sound upbeat but I didn’t look forward to asking Luke if I could celebrate with Greg. He was already irritated about my work-out schedule and how much time I spent away from him.
“Tomorrow then.” Greg gave me a quick pat on the arm before we headed into our separate locker rooms.
I was walking on air when I left the locker room, but stopped when I saw Luke standing casually against my car. Dressed in baggy jeans and a leather jacket, his black hair messy in a stylish way, he looked like he jumped out of a magazine.
“Hey.” Self-conscious of my sweaty t-shirt and ratty sweats, I hesitated. In my hurry I hadn’t taken a shower. I knew I reeked. “You won’t believe what coach just told me. He said Greg and I could make it to State this year…” My voice trailed off. Luke’s expression was tight. I touched his arm. “You surprised me. I thought you were back at The Ridge. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were waiting.”
“What were you doing with Greg?” His voice had a cold edge.
“Running?” Was this a trick question? I had just finished my workout.
Luke’s eyes darted around the parking lot. “Practice has been over for an hour.”
“We run extra. The coach said we…”
The crack of the slap echoed through the empty parking lot. I was knocked to the ground. My face throbbed, the sting of the slap burnt like fire. This time there was no doubt in my mind. He’d hit me and it wasn’t an accident.
Luke knelt beside me and grabbed my arm. “Stay away from him.”
I moved my jaw back and forth, checking if anything was broken. The iron taste of blood filled my mouth.
“Who? Greg? He’s my running partner.” I grabbed the bumper of my car and tried to pull myself up.
“Quit.” His fingers slid into my hair, tugging against the rubber band holding my pony tail. “Quit the team.” My head fell back with the tension.
“I’ve worked the last three years to make state. I can’t quit. We’re going to Districts. Coach thinks I have a chance.” Was he on crack? What the heck was he talking about?
“Don’t be ridiculous. You won’t win.”
His words hit me harder than the slap.
“I might.” My voice was small. Everything I cared about had been taken from me. Running was the only thing I had.
“Greg’s using running to keep you away from me.” He slid his hand to cup my jaw once more. “I’m sorry I hit you. You know my temper. You’re my world Emma. I can’t lose you.” He placed his lips against mine. “I’ll die without you.”
I leaned into his kiss. “I won’t quit.”
He trailed kisses across my tear stained face. He stopped at my ear and whispered, “I’ve search a long time for you. You’ll quit.”