Seven years after the incident at McKenzie Manor, Sapphire Mandalone is beginning her seventh year of Flamerunner training - and under the expertise of her mentor, second-in-command Ember Dupree, everything seems to be going perfectly. But when an accident forces Sapphire to question what her mentor's told her of her origins, she's thrown in a world where secrets, corruption, and betrayal rule - and nothing is ever as it seems. Sequel to my contest entry story, To Burn! Please rate and comment!

Chapter 1

Prologue: Part 1

~July 4, 2012~

"Come on, we can do it!"

I opened my eyes. The corridor - a hallway I'd walked down so many times, a place I knew like the back of my hand - was not as it used to be. Blazing scarlet, yellow, and orange dashed up and down the cranberry walls; sinister light flickered over the floorboards. Every surface radiated heat more intense than I could've ever imagined.
"I don't like this game!" I shrilled, clinging tight to my rescuer. A strand of her soft, wavy hair brushed my face. Red hair. Red like the fire that surrounded us; engulfed us; bathed us in a menacing glow, hot and thick against my skin. I sucked a breath into my burning lungs. The oxygen was sharp and sour with smoke, but something else tinged it - the scent of strawberries; honey; of grass and sunshine. Of joy. Did joy have a fragrance? My muddled comprehension couldn't be sure; couldn't separate fact from fiction or reality from something I'd conjured in my clouded mind. I buried my face deeper in the girl's shoulder. There was no mistaking it - the soothing aroma was clinging to her hair. I inhaled and held the sweet perfume in my lungs for as long as I possibly could.
"Hold on, Sapphire, just hold on!" The voice was unfamiliar and roughened by the smoke. I tilted my head ever so slightly, just to look at her face. Her skin was light; freckles dappled it, and her rust-red eyebrows furrowed over rich green eyes. Waves of that fiery red hair draped her shoulders. I noticed that some of the tips smoked faintly; as if she'd read my thoughts, she distractedly patted out the beginnings of the tiny flames, her eyes frantically sweeping the room. She called for somebody - Mickey? No. Nikki. I stared in mystified awe as a figure leapt from the smoky mist - singed copper hair flying, her raven-dark eyes glinting.
The word 'ember' formed on her fuchsia lips, though I didn't hear it escape. My red-haired rescuer shook her head - coughing, a torn scrap of fabric pressed to her mouth - and seized the newcomer's hand in hers. "Go!" she screeched. "Go!"
She stumbled after the dark-eyed girl - Nikki? - and I recognized the top of the steps. Or what was left of them. Hungry flames clawed at the stairs, streaking across the wooden railing. I coughed, agony rattling in the back of my throat. My nostrils stung as they drew the thickening smoke in and out. In and out.
And then we were tumbling; falling; somersaulting head over heels down the burning staircase, flames branding my skin, the floor groaning and crumbling as we hit it and rolled hard to the floor. 
My rescuer lay still, her arms still tight around me. I blinked. "Em...Ember?" I whispered, my voice soft and childish amidst the roar and crackle of hungry flames. "Ember, get up."
She didn't stir. Her eyelids had fallen over her jade-colored eyes. I squirmed in her iron grasp, whimpering. I sensed the rapid approach of the fire just barely a few feet away, rather than saw it, and I flailed for escape. But her arms stayed locked around my fragile, shivering body.
"Ember!" Nikki came flying over the wreckage of the door. I started to cry as the dark-eyed girl cautiously slid me from her companion's arms, cradling me like a baby. "I'll be right back!" she shouted to the redhead girl's limp, sprawled form. "Hold on, Emmie! Hold on!"
I sobbed, ashy tears slicing the soot on my cheeks, as she bounded forward and we broke into dazzling daylight. I squinted against the blinding whiteness; eventually it separated into colors, shapes. Green grass. Blue sky. Swathes of cottony white clouds.
"Don't move!" Nikki yelled, whirling and running back toward the house. I tried to protest, to beg her to come back, but my muscles were too weak to comply. Instead I slowly stretched out across the grass. It was soft - strangely soft, kissed with a morning dew - and the tears started to dry on my cheeks as it tickled my skin. A balmy breeze laced across my skin and played with the scorched tresses of my hair.
My eyelids suddenly drooped heavily, and I fought to keep them open. Ember - the redhead - she was still in there. I didn't know if she was dead. I didn't know if she was alive. I just knew that she had to be the second option.
The minutes ticked by. The empty doorway remained just that - empty. Flooded with starving flames and billowing smoke.
I only time for one name - little more than a soft breath - to escape my lips before my eyelids fell and I sank into dark, fireless oblivion.

Seven Years Later

There's this feeling I get sometimes. It's hot and cold at the same time; it floods my veins with a satisfying warmth at the same time it sends a chill rippling down my spine, quickening my heartbeat and stealing my breath. It flushes my cheeks; it numbs me to everything - everything except for the whisper of my breath in my ears, the steady thrum of my pulse, and the air around me, bending to my form, brushing my skin like it has a mind of its own. And suddenly - in its embrace - there's nobody in the world but me. I don't have a name for it. I can't describe it in its entirety. All I can do is try to explain, and hope you understand.
But somebody tell me. Have you ever experienced it? Where everything is so wrong and yet so beautifully right, all at once? Where tears prick your eyes but you can't seem to find their origins? Where everything hideous is suddenly magnificent and nothing - nothing at all - is as spectacular as where you are, what's going on, right there, right then, in this magical place that only belongs to you? It's rare, so gorgeously rare. But even if it lasts for only a millisecond, you can't help but want to stay in it forever.
I know I do.
I'd probably felt it before - when I was little, before I could remember - but the first time I was aware of it, really aware of it, was that one July night. The eighteenth, I think; 8:51 pm, in a place I had no name for and at that moment, didn't care. I'd never realized the sheer perfection of that feeling. Not until then.
But more on that later.
Who am I, you're probably asking? My name's Sapphire Mandalone - at least that's what Ember, my mentor, told me when I woke up from a nice, long coma when I was about six, with no memory of who I was or where I'd even come from. She explained my life to me. My parents abandoned me - tiny and helpless - on a south California backstreet; no longer able to care for the demands of their daughter, they dropped that daughter - me - in some forgotten alley and left me for dead. Ember and her best friend - Nikki Necresta - found me there and took me in. Apparently the shock of everything took my memory. For some reason, I feel like that isn't a bad thing.
But I think that's enough on that topic.
So, Sapphire. Interesting name. You can call me Saphie - a lot of people do - or Sapphire's fine by me too. Call me Sappy Saphie, as some not-so-smart people have, and you will end up as a neat little pile of ashes. That's another thing - I'm a Flamerunner. For seven years, I've trained to be a criminal - talented in the art of arson. Soon I'll be released on my first field mission, taking out a rival of our society or somebody even worse than we are. Sounds harsh. It is. But it's all I've ever known - and whenever I fall, taken out by age or illness or even bullets (goodness, how should I know?), it will still be all I've ever known. It's my life. It will never stop being that way.
But however dangerous my profession may be, it makes for a very interesting life story. The tale I'm willing to tell to you now is long and complicated - only for those with a lot of patience, a whole lot more than me. Whether or not it's worth it - well, I can't tell you that. You'll just have to wait, have to listen, and decide for yourself.
If you're ready - keep going. Turn the page. Read on. Learn what brought me here. Learn why I'm sitting here now - in an empty room, on an empty floor, cross-legged with a notepad in my lap, waiting for something, waiting for someone. Waiting a person not so different from you.
But if you're not - leave. Now. I don't bother with those with ignorance; nor anyone arrogant; conceited; deceptive; any or all of the above. If you so much as think that one of those applies to you, then go. This story isn't yours to hear.
But if you fit the first category...
Some might call me a hero; others a failure, a traitor, a nobody. That isn't for me to say. I've been called a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons; none of those may fit you, and it doesn't matter, because that isn't why you're here. You're here because you've felt what I felt the night of July eighteenth. You're looking for answers; for a reason; for a source for why you feel that way. In that way, we're not so different.
Are you sure about this? Are you prepared for the consequences? Are you willing to risk everything you have, if only to read my story?
When you turn the page, there's no going back. You can't stop. You can't turn around. You can't run.
You're still here, so I suppose I have no choice.

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