I clenched my fists, focusing on the feeling of my nails biting into my palm as I tried to steady my breathing and slow my hammering heart. I was sure the others—Genevieve, Mason, Terrence, Mitchell, Flint, and Cora—could hear the blood rushing in my ears. How could they not? It was so loud in my own head that it was hard to believe it was just me. But maybe Genevieve, Mason, and Terrence could hear it, too, inside their own heads. I wasn't he only one feeling this nervous, was I?
I flicked my gaze away from the warehouse ahead of us so I could chance a quick look at the other initiates. Mason was looking just as stoic as Bloodfire's leader, Flint. But Terrence and Genevieve were looking like they might have a little apprehension. Good, I reflected, it wasn't just me that was scared. I was scared that I would fail my initiation, and the Bloodfires wouldn't let me into their gang. And where would I go if I didn't make it in? I couldn't go back to my mother. Even if I could, it was the last thing I wanted to do. I felt my heart grow a little colder at the thought. Joining this gang was my only hope.
"Tell me what your objective is, children," Flint drawled.
I glanced at the other three initiates. They were glancing at me and at each other as well, unsure who was going to say it this time.
"Deirdre," Flint said sharply. "Why don't you enlighten us?"
I forced myself to look up at Flint and meet his eyes. "We have to break into the warehouse and, one by one, walk through it and find the way up to the second floor without getting caught by security. Then we have to climb out the second story window and jump to the roof of the building next door. And then you'll let us officially into the Bloodfires."
"Right," Flint nodded. "Well, Mitchell, you're the boss now." He nodded to Cora, and Flint and Cora slunk off into the darkness.
"Where are they going?" Terrence asked quietly.
"None of your concern," Mitchell answered nonchalantly, sweeping his gaze over the four teenagers in front of him. "This is your initiation, so I'll just be supervising you. You have to decide when to cross the street, and how you're going to get this done."
I exchanged a worried look with Genevieve. We had been tentative friends through the last couple weeks, sharing our stories and making fun of the gang leaders behind their backs to keep our spirits up. I kind of had to admire her, in a way. She had dropped out of high school because of all the bullying she was getting, and then run away from home when her parents tried to convince her to go back. And she had seemed pretty understanding when I told her about my own reasons for leaving home—my mother had remarried after my father died, and my stepfather… well, he'd been unbearably cold and arrogant and condescending, and I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand how my mother could let herself forget about my father and then marry a jerk like my stepfather.
"Come on," Terrence whispered to us, his eyes fixed attentively on the warehouse across the street. He started forward, but Mason threw out his arm.
"Hang on," Mason hissed. "Watch a few minutes—there's got to be a perimeter guard, and we don't know where he is."
"Good idea," Genevieve whispered, going to stand at Mason's side.
Taking a deep breath and steeling myself, I sidled to Terrence's other side, so the four of us stood in a line in the shadows, watching the building silently while Mitchell hovered behind us without offering any advice or guidance.
"There—coming around the corner," I hissed, tension and pride sparking through me as I spotted the figure near the warehouse.
"I see him," Mason muttered. "I told you, Terry."
"Don't call me that," Terrence huffed under his breath.
"What do we do?" Genevieve squeaked.
"Wait a few minutes for him to get to the other side of the building, then make a break for it?" I suggested.
"Yeah, let's do it," Terrence breathed in agreement.
"Why's a bioengineering company have to have security guards around their warehouse, anyway?" Genevieve asked nobody in particular. "What's someone gonna do, steal some new wart remover they're developing?"
"It doesn't matter what they're doing," Mitchell growled behind us. "Who cares what they're doing? We just take you here because they have guards and a security system on the doors you have to outsmart. We're not here to take anything—we're here to see if you've got the guts and brains and skills that the Bloodfires value."
"Yeah, so shut up, Genevieve," I whispered teasingly.
"How about you shut up, Deirdre?" Genevieve shot back through the darkness.
"How about you both shut up so we can get this done?" Mason snapped irritably.
I rolled my eyes and then watched the building across the way, feeling a little warmth in my heart at the gentle teasing. Maybe these guys were all a little rough around the edges, but I was sure I had found a new home for myself in this gang. It was a home that wasn't as cold as the one I had left, and one that was filled with opportunities and people I would never have had the hope of meeting otherwise. This had to be the right decision, getting away from the frozen feeling I had had living with my mom and stepdad.
"Ready to go?" Terrence asked quietly, peering towards the warehouse nervously.
"Let's go," Genevieve said in a hushed voice.
"Alright," Mason agreed, and he leaned forward slightly, rocking on his feet as he hesitated.
"We've got to run," I put in. "Go." Then I burst forward without another word, my sneakers slapping against the asphalt, quickly joined by the sound of the footsteps of the others. I was the first to make it to the building, and I pressed my back against the wall, turning to see the others swiftly join me, pressing themselves against the side of the building. I took a shaky breath in and let it out slowly as I glanced from side to side.
"We should check the windows—the doors will have alarms on them, but the windows might not," Terrence said breathlessly.
"Follow me," Mason said shortly. "We'll go along this wall—it's where the security guard went, so we probably won't run into him if he's circling the warehouse." He led the way, prowling along the wall, and the rest of us trailed after—Mason in the head, Terrence following, me behind him, and Genevieve breathed down the back of my neck while Mitchell took up the rear.
Mason tested each of the windows carefully as we passed them, but we had to go all the way to the corner of the building in the alley, when Mason suddenly let out a grunt of surprise.
"Got it?" I asked eagerly, squinting through the gloom.
"Yeah, we got it," Terrence informed me over his shoulder as he and Mason managed to shove the windowpane sideways and wiggle the wire screen out of place, leaving a gap that led into the interior of the warehouse.
"Check if it's all clear in there," Genevieve advised apprehensively.
There was a moment of silence as Mason ducked his head into the open window and scanned the place for security guards.
"Hurry up," I bounced on the balls of my feet. "We don't know when the other guard will be coming back around…"
Mason's head emerged from the window frame, and his eyes flashed with annoyance at me before he hoisted himself up onto the windowsill and snuck inside.
"I'll take that as an 'all clear,'" Terrence sighed sarcastically and followed Mason.
Soon our entire group of five was standing inside the warehouse, the window we had just entered back in place behind us so that the security guard outside wouldn't see an open window when he made his next round. I bit my lip as I took in my surroundings. The warehouse was huge, stretching out around us in all directions, and it seemed to be filled with identical aisles of wooden crates and glass boxes. The only lights in here were faint, sickly green fluorescents that sent chills up the back of my neck with their eerie glow. And there were probably two or three security guards slinking through the rows of boxes on the search for hoodlums and thieves, just out of our sight and hearing.
"What are we supposed to do now?" Mason whispered uncertainly.
I shot a look at him, raising my eyebrows. He had been the practical and confident leader of the initiates thus far—now he wasn't sure? He was casting wary glances around and shifting his weight from foot to foot uncomfortably. Hmm… So I wasn't the only one that was a little freaked out by this place. Terrence's breath was uneven, and his eyes were wide. Genevieve looked like she was getting the worst of the jitters—she was shivering uncontrollably, her back pressed against the wall. I pressed my hands together. Good; at least I wasn't shivering, too. Chills were running up and down my back and arms, but I wasn't shaking like Genevieve.
Mitchell was the only one who looked unmoved, looking calculatingly at us, as if weighing our reactions to the creepy warehouse and the daunting task ahead. "Now I'm going to send you off one by one to complete the objective. Mason, you can go first. Once you've completed the mission, Mason, I'll send Terrence out."
"How will you know when he's done if he's supposed to finish on the roof of the building next door, and you're waiting here with the other initiates?" Terrence mumbled.
Mitchell didn't answer, but just nodded to Mason. "So you're up. Find your way to the second floor, and then you have to make it to the roof of the building next door."
Mason nodded tersely, his breath quickening, and the rest of us held our breath as he slowly and quietly walked over to a random aisle and walked into it, out of our sight.
"And now we wait," Mitchell murmured to the rest of us.
Several minutes passed as we waited with bated breath, straining our ears to hear an angry security guard's voice or the scuff of footsteps. I tried to imagine what he was doing… trying to find the stairwell that led to the second floor, furtively peeking around each corner and trying to figure out where to go without getting caught without even knowing the routes of the security guards that scouted the warehouse. I wondered how I would find my own way.
Terrence, Genevieve, and I glanced over to Mitchell as he pulled his phone out of his pocket, a pale blue light emanating from the screen as he nodded approvingly. "Terrence, you're up next. Mason has made it."
I gave him an encouraging nod as Terrence squared his shoulders and glanced back and forth before heading off, into the aisles and out of sight. He was alright—I liked him well enough. He kind of reminded me of my brother who I had left at home. I shook the thought away. He had been one of the only sources of warmth in that home full of chill and coldness. But I had had to leave him to find a new home… and hopefully the Bloodfires would be it. It had to be. If they weren't, then I had no home.
Several more minutes ticked by. I couldn't stop my mind from wandering back to my childhood, getting piggyback rides from my father, playing card games with my parents and brother. Why had all of it had to change with that car accident? And why had my mother had to get married again, to a man who showed us no warmth and got no warmth from me in return. My heart had been frozen, and I desperately wanted it to thaw…
Genevieve and I glanced at Mitchell, who nodded grimly. "Terrence has made it, too. Deirdre, you're up."
I shook myself and inconspicuously pinched myself to clear my mind of the misty thoughts. "Okay." My eyes flicked over the several aisles in front of me, the green light glinting off of the metal and glass. The rest of the area was shrouded in shadows. I flexed my fingers. They were shaking now. I forced myself to walk forward, taking my chances on an aisle that neither Terrence nor Mason had gone into.
I made sure to keep my footsteps light, and to breathe through my nose to make my breaths quieter. My eyes travelled up and down the path before me. Alright, where would a flight of stairs be? Most likely somewhere along the perimeter of the warehouse, maybe near the back. If we had come in on the side, then I would have to turn left to head towards the back, and then find the stairs from there.
The sound of blood rushing through my ears was back, louder than ever, drowning out anything else as images flickered through my mind—both imagined and remembered. I edged along the length of a huge wooden crate, lightly trailing my fingers along the surface so I didn't swerve. In my mind, I trailed my fingers along the wall of the hallway in my old house, throwing a resentful glare to my stepfather as he walked past me, flicking a cold, emotionless look at me. I paused as I reached the end of this aisle, and I glanced left and right anxiously, searching for the flashlight of a security guard. I didn't hear any other footsteps, but my heartbeat pounding in my ears made it hard to trust my sense of hearing. I guessed it was clear, so I turned left towards the back of the building. In my mind, I could see the disappointed face of my mother as I turned into my bedroom, avoiding spending any time with the rest of the "new family."
I let out a gasp as my foot caught on something, sending me stumbling forward. My knees and forearms hit the gritty concrete floor as I landed, and I tasted blood in my mouth—I had bit the inside of my lip. For a long moment, I stared at the floor—tinged a dirty green with the light from the dim fluorescents. I didn't dare draw a breath… had I even made a sound as I fell? Had a scream escaped me, or had my gasp been too loud? Were those footsteps running or was that my heartbeat thumping a steady, fast rhythm? It must have been a full minute before I gathered the courage to push myself, trembling, to my feet. Then I shifted myself back to where I had tripped. An extension cord—that was what I had gotten my foot caught on. Shaking my head at my stupidity, I turned away. I was lucky nobody had heard me.
I was fine, I was fine, I was fine. I repeated the mantra over and over in my head as I continued towards the back of the building, ducking once into a side passage when I heard footsteps drawing closer. Nobody came into view, and the footsteps faded away again, and I continued on my way, my eyes constantly darting from side to side and watching to make sure I didn't trip over any extension cords or the crates and glass boxes that occasionally poked out into the walkway. Was I taking a longer time than Terrence and Mason had? Was I doing worse? Better? I had no idea. It seemed to be forever before I found the metal staircase that led up to the second floor.
I let out a breath of relief and threw one more look around before setting my foot on the first stair and made my way up as silently as I could, praying that the metal steps wouldn't creak.
I reached the top of the stairs and looked out over the first floor. The second floor was really more like a catwalk that stretched around the perimeter of the walls, lined with windows and a railing, but nothing else.
I whipped around, clapping my hand over my mouth to stifle a shriek of terror. A dark figure stood in front of me, and I started to leap backwards… my foot slipped off the first step of the stairs, and I began to topple backwards.
A hand seized my arm and hauled me forward, back onto the second floor.
"Hey, none of that—you've made it this far," Flint grunted as he pulled me forward. "In record time, too." He let go of me, and I collapsed against the railing that separated the catwalk from empty air.
"What?" I puffed in confusion, wrapping my fist around the cold steel of the railing. "What are you doing here? I thought you and Cora went somewhere else?"
Flint stood nonchalantly a few feet away, smiling coolly. "I've been up here, observing the initiations, of course. And helping the others get to the roof on the other building. Come on. Have you got your breath back?"
I stared at him blankly for a second. He had been watching the whole time? I glanced backwards at the first floor again. My breath caught in my throat as I realized that I could see the flashlight beams of three security guards patrolling the long aisles of the warehouse. I couldn't see them, but I could see their progress as they marched around. It wouldn't be possible to see someone walking around, but it would still be easy enough to try and monitor an initiation from here. So Flint had been up here doing just that. "Oh…" I breathed. "Well, I… yeah… okay." I straightened and turned back to Flint.
He jerked his head and started to lead the way down the catwalk to a window a ways away. I followed numbly, still feeling a little lost. He led me to the window, and I saw that it was open, and it had a rope stretching out of it across to the roof of the one-story building next door, where I could faintly see three indistinct figures standing around—Cora, Terrence, and Mason.
"You have to climb out using the rope," Flint explained.
I hesitated, assessing the sturdy rope. I would have to either climb like a sloth, using my arms and legs to hang upside-down, or use just my arms, my feet hanging down over the alley between the two buildings.
"You're not too scared, are you?" Flint asked me coldly.
A cold feeling prickled at the back of my neck at his tone, recalling the hostile indifference of my stepfather. I had expected something a bit more helpful or warm from them… "Can I wait until Genevieve finishes, and we can both go across? We're friends."
"You're friends," he repeated.
I nodded quickly. "Yeah. Shouldn't I be waiting up for my friend for support and all that, like a family instead of like rivals?" I reasoned. "She's the last one, anyway."
Flint considered, his face dimly visible in the green half-light, and I could see his skeptical look. "…Sure. I'll let Mitchell know he can send Genevieve." He plucked his phone out of his sweatshirt pocket, and he presumably sent a text to Mitchell to send Genevieve.
I nodded, relieved, and went back towards the stairway, sinking into a crouch as I looked out over the first floor, trying to send good wishes out to Genevieve as she made her trek through the warehouse. She had been the most scared, it had seemed. She needed all the support she could get… my father had been supportive before he died, cheering me on at spelling bees and school plays. My mother had tried to be supportive, but I had been more of a daddy's girl while my brother was a mama's boy. I had just… never been very close to my mother. It had just felt like there was nothing left at my house but a frozen wasteland when my father died, taking all the warmth with him. I missed having something warm in my life.
There was a sudden shattering sound coming from somewhere below, followed by a high-pitched girlish yelp. My eyes widened and my blood ran cold as I saw the faint lights that were the security guards stop in their tracks and start converging towards one place—where Genevieve must be.
I jumped to my feet and immediately started towards the stairs to the first floor, determined to help her.
"Deirdre!" Flint's hand grabbed my arm, holding me in place. "We've got to go." He started towards the open window, but I yanked myself out of his grip as my heart suddenly froze, skipping a beat at his words.
"You want to leave her?" I accused disbelievingly.
Flint shrugged helplessly. "You want to get caught, too? You've already made it up here. We can just climb the rope and get out of here. Genevieve didn't pass."
"But—" I seemed to have lost the ability to form words. My gaze moved back to the first floor, where there were now the sounds of voices as the guards searched for Genevieve. She must be on the move, trying to hide, because they didn't seem to have found her yet. "I can't just be that heartless and cold," I proclaimed, turning back to Flint with an icy glare. Genevieve was down there, scared and alone, and she needed help. Who wouldn't go down and help her? That was what friends did for each other, and Genevieve was my friend.
Flint gave me a long, hard look before he turned away and headed for the window, not saying anything else to me.
I felt sick to my stomach. No… the Bloodfires would not be my new home. They were just as cold and heartless as my stepfather. I had to get to Genevieve. I spun around and flew down the stairs, gasping at the bottom as I strained my ears to hear exactly where Genevieve was. Blindly, I stumbled forward and pressed myself against a tall cardboard box, trying to slow my breathing and keep calm. Once I found her and got her out of here, Genevieve and I could try to find somewhere else, someone else to take us in, some new home with warmth and welcome.
I turned down another aisle, listening to the sound of the heavy footsteps of the guards, straining for the sound of lighter, smaller footsteps. There? I turned down another aisle, then another, and ducked as I heard someone run by—then I saw her, a girl slightly shorter than me with her blonde hair, a dirtier shade than my whitish blonde hair. "Genevieve," I dashed after her.
Genevieve skidded to a halt and spun around, her eyes wild. "Deirdre—"
"Come on," I ordered, beckoning her.
Genevieve glanced between me and the aisle behind me. "But they're—they're coming, and they'll find us—"
"We'll make it," I said determinedly, grabbing my friend's arm and tugging her into another aisle and pulling her into a run. "What happened?" I asked as she hit her stride and I let her arm go.
"I knocked a box over, and it had bottles filled with some kind of acid or something," Genevieve explained breathlessly. "It spilled a little on my shoe, and I screamed when I realized what it was… it didn't get my foot," she added.
"Well, Flint and the others left us," I growled. "So it's just you and me. We'll be okay." I was fighting for breath by the time I finished speaking. Genevieve's skeptical glance threw me off—why did she look like I had just said something odd?
"This way!" a man's voice called from somewhere off to my right.
I slowed down for just a second, half a second's hope making me think it was Mitchell or Flint or Mason coming back for us, but then I saw the flashlight of a security guard bobbing closer.
I swore under my breath, and I started to turn the other way. I had lost all orientation of which way was the front of the warehouse, and where that unlocked window we had entered through was. I glanced worriedly at Genevieve. "Which way…?"
But there was a peculiar look on Genevieve's face. She was glancing between me and the distant flashlight that was growing closer by the second, as if calculating something.
"What?" I asked quietly, a chill running down my back at her expression. "We have to—"
Genevieve suddenly stepped forward and shoved me roughly to the side, and then she broke into a sprint, heading away from me and away from the security guard.
"Hey-!" my cry of protest was cut off as my shoulder crashed into a shelf, and I distinctly heard something break—I felt too numb to know if it was something in my shoulder or something on the shelf. Then I flung out my arms as I tried to catch my balance, but it was too late, and I was falling, grabbing at the shelf as my knees buckled, and I finally fell to the floor.
I screamed as something fell on top of me, and I heard shattering—again, I was too numb to know if it was my bones or something else. I felt something wet seep through my jacket and my pants, and I twisted around to see what it was, my breath coming in short gasps of pain… a puddle of softly glowing blue liquid was puddling around me, along with shattered glass—probably vials that the blue liquid had been held in. It stung… it was so cold it hurt—frigid frozen excruciation trickled onto my skin, sweeping my breath away. It was cold, too cold, colder than anything I had ever known, had to be colder than the lowest Arctic tundra's temperatures. I could feel it invading me somehow, the wintry fire clawing its way through my skin, into my blood and turning it to snow, and transforming my bones into ice. Tiny breaths rattled out from between my lips, and they came out as puffs of mist.
Belatedly, I realized that where my hands rested on the concrete floor, there were vines of frost delicately tracing their way out from my hand. I… I was cold inside. It wasn't just that the glowing blue liquid was cold… it had made me cold. A hazy realization formed in my mind. I was changed. And the icy tendrils that snaked from my hands made me feel… powerful. In control. Content with the subzero temperature my body seemed to have plummeted to. Why had I ever craved the warmth so much if this chill was numbing and comfortable?
I frowned and looked up as there were three pairs of footsteps converging around me. Ah, yeah… those security guards. They thought I was the one they were after. Genevieve had left me to be caught by them, saving herself. Just like Flint and Mitchell and Cora and Mason and Terrence. Just as my old family had made me feel abandoned and alone in the cold. I had wanted warmth. But what was the point of warmth if the cold was just going to sap it out? Why not just… give in?
I pushed myself to my knees and looked around imperiously at the three security guards that circled me, wielding flashlights and Tasers as they looked down at me. They probably thought they had me, thought they had cornered me and therefore captured me to be shipped off to be interrogated and tossed in jail or something equally ridiculous. But they were wrong. I could feel the strength of raging blizzards and stinging hail and piercing icicles at my fingertips.
"Can you stand up, ma'am?" one of them asked warily.
I smiled faintly and took my time getting to my feet, idly brushing shattered glass from my still-wet clothing. The cut of the shards of glass barely registered in my mind. I then looked at the three emotionlessly, waiting for the right moment.
"Why are you here?" another security guard asked as he fumbled for a pair of handcuffs that was attached to his belt.
"Because the world is a cold, cold place," I whispered ominously. "That's why."
There was an uneasy silence from the guards, and they seemed to shift uncomfortably. I smirked more broadly at their fear. I flexed my fingers, wondering what the best way to use this power was… I could feel it, and I was sure I could unleash it simply enough. But I would need practice to master it… I glanced down to see that there were snowflakes floating down gently to the floor from my fingertips. The guards must have noticed, too, because they were staring in what seemed like horror.
"Who are you?" one of them asked hoarsely.
I lifted my eyes back to the guards, and I stood up straight, all traces of amusement leaving my face as I regarded them coolly. My voice held a steely edge as I informed them, "I am Sangfroid."
Then I held up my hand, and there was a blast of white, and the sound of screams.
I was no longer Deirdre: I was Sangfroid. I needed no warmth, and I reveled in the thrill of the cold . Yes, the world was a cold, cold place.