Songbird Trilogy Book 1: The Maze Girl (complete)
Author: Julia R. West

Chapter 19
The Best Birthday Present

I am deathly afraid of the next challenge. The volcano. I am terrible at handling fire. The outfit chosen is black like my other ones. I feel it and I think it's heat-resistant, but I'm not sure.

I get to sleep relatively easily. I figure it's because my mind knows I need sleep for tomorrow. I don't think I toss or turn, and once I'm asleep I don't wake up at all during the night. No matter how much my dreams make me want to.

My dreams are haunted tonight as well, not by Teryn, but by Orion, his son's weapon thrust through him, bleeding to death on the ground. I'd never seen anybody die in real life before that, only in about it in books....heard about tragedies. I can't push the image from my mind. I can't forget the sound, the feeling of Soren's hand as he pulled me on.

Maybe I shouldn't trust a person who would kill his own father. And if I remember correctly, his sister mysteriously disappeared a while back. And that was when his mother went insane. I can't help but wonder how she will take this latest blow.

Thinking about Soren's family makes me think about mine. About dad, leaving early and working late, mom, missing me and crying, holding Lexi's hand. And of course about Lexi, not knowing the whole reason for any of this, her little eight year old eyes crying, her hands wrapped around my mother. She turned eight two days ago and I'm sad I had to leave before then. But when I get back in one piece, that will be the best birthday present I will ever be able to give.




I figured out how to set an alarm on the hotel room clock, and, as I was hoping, it wakes my up at six-thirty. I get ready sleepily, using a cold shower to wake me up, and take the elevator down to the lobby. I'm the first one there this morning, but soon, Rory comes, and finally Soren with red, puffy eyes. I can tell he didn't get much sleep.

I wonder where a volcano is that they can use for this challenge. We board an airplane, rather than a train, but it's a short--and silent--flight. I don't say a word the whole time, and I guess I'm the go-between for Rory and Soren, because I don't recall them ever saying more than a few sentences to each other, but when I'm around, they are both talking. Not to each other, per say, but to me. And I talk to them, but not now, because I'm too scared.

 We land on a flat side of a mountain. I have no idea where we are because air travel messed with my sense of direction. I think we traveled east, but I'm not sure.

The volcano isn't smoking or anything, but I am almost sure they have a way to fix that. A controlled and safe way, I hope. We fly in a much smaller helicopter-like aircraft to the mouth of the volcano. There is a ledge that runs all the way along it, almost like a running track. I'm dangerously close to right with that prediction.

We begin on one side, in a line. We're all standing less than two feet apart as they issue us our earpieces. The directions are pretty much the same as the last two challenges and they give us the cue to begin. First person around all the way wins.

We all take off, thinking it's so simple. It doesn't turn out that way when suddenly, the ground beneath us rumbles like an earthquake. I shriek in surprise and jump as a section of the ledge crumbles down and the chunks splash into the flowing lava below.

Fireballs are spewed from the depths of the sea of orange and yellow that we have to dodge. The rock and sparse plant life around us are alive with fire and boulders tumble from above us.

I can't look down into the pit or around me at the fire burning everywhere. I just keep running. I'm a fast runner, but under these conditions I may as well be walking. In my haste I keep tripping on smaller rocks or diving out of the way of larger ones falling from high above me. It is pure terror.

I'm farther than Rory and Soren. I might, just might be the one to win my own challenge. I press on, coughing from the smoke and wincing as rocks cascade like a waterfall from over my head. I will make it, I tell myself. Then all I will have to do is win the last challenge and I'm free. Free of this constant worry I feel, and I can go home again.

I am halfway around when I fall. I scream "Rory!" almost histerically, but I doubt he can hear me. I feel a burning sensation in my feet and turn around to realize my shoes and partway up my pants are on fire. The pain is agonizing, and it spreads. I try to roll to put it out, I try to stand up and pat it out with the sleeves of my coat, when I realize I can't stand up.

I'm so scared I can't speak to call Rory's name. A pair of hands puts out my clothes and scoops the unhurt parts of me up in his arms softly. I can't open my eyes, move, or protest for him to put me down. I'm not even sure if it is Rory or Soren, but I hope it's Rory.

I don't even know why I hope it's Rory. He loves me. But do I love him? I figure I want his arms around me only because I trust him and Soren...I'm not so sure about. A gentle hand brushes the hair from my face. I wish I could open my eyes, but I can't.

I flutter in and out of consciousness, wishing whoever it was had just let me burn. It wouldn't have been long before I stopped feeling it anyways.


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