Exausted after being out all night, Ash barely had enough energy to climb back through the window. Once she was back inside, Ash closed the window and crawled into bed. She had just closed her eyes when Gustav threw open the door.
"Git up, jou vorfless vlame trower!"
Ash slowly pushed the blankets back. That wasn't fast enough for Gustav. He quickly strode to her bed and jerked her up by her arm.
Ash twisted around and landed on her knees. "What do you want?"
Gustav jerked Ash to her feet. "Jou are vanted."
Ash glared at him. "For what?"
Gustav laughed. "Vor tezting. Vhat elze vould it be?"
Gustav's grin suggested he had ideas other than testing.
Ash shuddered and jerked her arm away. "Whatever. Let's just get this over with."
Gustav grinned and laughed deep in his throat. "Do not vorry, it vill soon be ohver."
Ash shivered and walked out of her room. Gustav followed. Ash turned down the hallway that led to the usual testing chamber.
"Vhere do jou fink jou are going?"
Ash stopped walking and stood rigidly. "Going to the 'tezting' room."
Gustav jerked Ash back and pulled her towards another hallway. "Today jou go in new room. New tezt, new room."
Ash jerked away and walked down the hallway. Red scorched wallpaper gave way to green. Ash looked around. She could hear voices.
"Diz vun. Diz iz vor jour new tezt." Gustav opened the thick oak door.
Ash cautiously walked in. She was in a bedroom. The tall four-poster bed had an emerald canopy that hung over deep, earth brown sheets. Emerald pillows sat against the headboard. Ash heard the door close behind her. A warning voice, the one she had relyed on since The Fire, rang out in her head.
Something bad has happened in this room, and something bad will happen again.
Ash stood where she was. Ash heard Gustav lock the door. Ash swallowed a lump in her throat and fought the urge to make everything go up in flames. Gustav walked up around her in a circle. Every muscle in Ash's body started trembling. She felt the urge to cough.
Not here! Not now!
Ash tried to swallow the blood she felt rising in her throat. "What test is this?"
Gustav's leer made Ash's suspicions more solid. "Diz iz a tezt not on de chartz. But diz tezt vill zay how much longer jou live."
Ash's trembling got worse. The blood at the back of her throat was thicker.
Ash opened her mouth to spit and a cough racked her body. Blood spewed on Gustav.
The giant laughed. "I vill forgive dat iv jou do vell here."
Ash spat more blood, staining the thick carpet. "I will not do anything here with you. I'd rather be strapped to a table again."
Gustav grinned. "Dat can be arranged."
He walked over to the bed and pulled down the blankets. Thick straps were attatched to the mattress.
Gustav turned back to Ash. "Take jour pick, eivher by choice, or by forze."
Ash spat again, trying to stall for time. "You would rape an innocent girl for pleasure?"
Gustav laughed. "I have no zuch qualmz."
A sudden cramp made Ash double over.
She looked up at Gustav through her hair. "Don't you ever care about the girls you hurt? The lives you ruin?"
Gustav grinned. "I have no heart. It botherz me not."
Gustav lunged at Ash. In fear, she kicked hard and pushed Gustav back. Gustav grinned and laughed. When he came at her again, Ash spat all the blood in her throat at Gustav. The blood caught fire when it hit the air. Gustav's face caught fire. He howled and clawed at his face, stepping back. Gustav tripped and fell to the ground as flames ate at his face. With the sound of flesh crackling in the background, Ash couldn't resist it any longer. She coughed and threw up blood. She didn't pass out after the spell faded. Instead, she laid down on her side, too weak to move. Ash tried calling for help, but her throat was horse and no sound came out. Ash curled up into a ball as her vision went blurry. Succumbing to the waiting darkness, Ash closed her eyes and faded to unconsciousness.
When Ash woke up again, she was laying in a bed. Fear shot through her body. Had Gustav survived and taken his pleasure while she lay unconscious? She quickly sat up.
A soft but firm hand pushed her back down. "Lay down. You are hurt and sick. I will do what I can to cure you."
Ash turned her head towards the voice and saw a girl standing over her. The girl reminded Ash of a pixie, small and petite. The girl had short brown hair cut into choppy layers that hung around her face.
The girl looked up, piercing Ash with vivid green eyes. "What all do you remember?"
Ash closed her eyes. "I remember Gustav coming at me and then his face caught on fire and he fell on the floor."
Ash looked at the girl. The girl looked away.
The girl nodded, a tear trickling down her cheek. "He does it to all the girls here. He says it's a test, and if we pass, then we live longer." The girl looked down. "I was standing outside when I heard him lock the door. I knew what was going to happen. I tried so hard to open the door, but Gustav had it renforced after…"
Ash reached out and put a hand on the girl's shoulder. The girl wiped another tear from her cheek. "After what?"
"After my sister broke the door. Gustav came for me one morning. My sister was watching. She tried to stop him from taking me, but he was too strong. He threw her against the wall outside my room. Gustav thought he had killed her. I thought he had, too. He dragged me kicking and screaming into that room. He ripped my clothes off and strapped me to the bed. I was crying and begging him to stop when the door flew open in a shower of earth. My sister was standing in the doorway, her head at an unnatural angle and blood streaming from cuts in her forehead. She attacked Gustav and he fought back. Gustav got his hands around her neck. I remember her lips turning blue as he crushed her windpipe. She clawed at his hands but he wouldn't let go. I couldn't do anything to help, I felt so powerless. When Gustav finally dropped her to the ground, she was dead. He had strangled her. With blood on his hands, he turned to me. And…"
Ash nodded, knowing what had happened next. "What was your sister's name?"
The girl stifled a sob. "Terra."
Ash blinked. "What was her last name?"
Ash gasped. "She helped me when I was on my own. When I was five. She hid me at your house and helped me until I was stronger. And then one day your parents got too close to finding me. I left that night."
The girl looked up. "You were Terra's stowaway?"
Ash nodded. "I think it was before you were born."
The girl shook her head. "I was two. I vaguely remember another girl in Terra's room. I didn't know it was you."
Ash reached out and grabbed the girl's hand. "What is your name?"
Vale nodded. "Ash, I'm not even supposed to be here. I haven't reached my 'coming of age,' or whatever yet. I can't control the earth at all. That's why I couldn't save Terra."
Ash shook her head, tears starting to form in her own eyes. "Vale, that's not true. Even if you could control the earth, you still wouldn't have been able to save Terra. Gustav is too strong and your sister was half dead when she attacked him."
Vale nodded. "I know. But I feel like it's my fault she's dead." Vale's voice cracked.
Ash blinked away tears. "Vale, that's not true. It's not your fault. There was nothing you could do to save Terra."
Vale looked up. "Ash, you don't understand. It is my fault. If I hadn't made Terra beat up this bully down the street, I wouldn't be here and Terra would still be alive."
Vale looked down. "There was a bully that lived down the street. I begged Terra to beat him up for me, to make him leave me alone. And she did. But when she did, she found her powers. And Blaze was down the street watching. He picked her up and then grabbed me, assuming I had the same powers. And I guess I will one day. Not that it makes any difference, I'm going to die here either way."
Ash reached out and wiped a tear from Vale's cheek. She watched with fascination as the tear stayed liquid for a moment, and then frowned when it turned to steam and drifted away.
"Does water always do that when it touches you?"
Ash nodded. "You don't know how lucky you are to be able to cry. I wish I could. I know it sounds crazy, but I miss being able to feel tears run down my face."
Vale smiled through her tears. "Well I hate crying. I cry so much. Maybe we could trade."
Ash smiled sadly. "Vale, keep crying. You never know how good something like that feels until you can't do it anymore."
Vale smiled and wiped her face. A knock sounded at the door. Ash and Vale turned and looked at the door.
"Vale, it's Will."
Vale ran across the room and let him in. "Will! I'm sorry, I tried to save her, but I was too late and…"
Will put his hand on Vale's shoulder. "It's okay. I know you tried. Is she awake?"
Vale nodded. Will pushed past her and stood by Ash.
She looked at him, confusion and hurt clearly showing in her charcoal orange-gold eyes. "Why do you only care when I get hurt?"
Will sat on the edge of the bed. "Ash, that's not true."
Ash looked away. "Yes it is."
Will reached out and grabbed her hand. "Ash, I always care. You just don't always see me care. But I do."
Ash blinked away tears before they could turn to steam. "You know Will, I've been lied to and used my whole life and I'm tired of it. I'm not an instrument, so don't think you can play me. Love me. Hate me. I don't care. Just stop this stupid flip-flopping! It's worse than knowing how you feel."
Will lowered his eyes. "Ash, there's a reason…"
"Of course there's a reason!" Ash snarled. "There's always a reason someone hurts me. And what's this reason?"
Will's blue eyes bored into Ash's eyes. "Ash, the reason is I'm scared."
Ash laughed. "Scared? Scared of what? Even with all this element junk, if you take everything away, you're just a boy, and I'm just a girl."
Will looked down and pulled his hand away. "I know that. Ash, don't you think I've thought about this? I care about you, I really do. But…"
"But what, Will? What's your excuse?"
Will was silent.
Ash sat up. "Will, what's your reason? I wouldn't be so hurt if you would just tell me," she said in a softer tone.
Ash blinked. When she opened her eyes, she saw Will leaning in for a kiss. Ash closed her eyes as Will pressed his lips against hers. He wrapped his arms tight around her and pressed her tight against him. In that kiss, Ash felt every emotion that Will felt but couldn't say. Will pulled back. Ash opened her eyes. Will looked at Ash one more time and then walked out the door.
Vale walked up and stood next to the bed holding Ash's leather jacket. "So what's going on between you and Will?"
Ash shook her head. "I don't know. I wish I did."