“You don’t scorch the earth when you release your power,” he said, the planes of his face a study in pure, implacable will. “You didn’t burn me when you lost control as you came.” He locked his arms around her.
“Let go!” It terrified her that she’d hurt him. “Please!”
His arms were immovable steel. “I trust you. Trust yourself.”
“Hawke!” Energy poured out of her in a screaming rush. Acting on primal instinct, she threw a shield of cold fire around every part of Hawke that touched her a split second before she punched a massive pulse of the same fire into the earth. It rippled in an eerie wave of crimson and gold on the surface before sinking below the forest floor. Beautiful.
Then there was no more thought. Only the brutal cold of an X.
She didn’t know how long the fire burned through her, but she would’ve crumpled to the ground afterward if Hawke hadn’t been holding her up. Shuddering, she leaned against him only for the seconds it took her to get her legs working again. Then she shoved, surprising him into releasing her.
“You bastard! I could’ve killed you!” Shock continued to shudder in her blood, fighting with terror-fueled rage for dominance.
“You’re allowing fear to drive you,” he responded, eyes grim with determination. “Ming’s still in your head, keeping you in a cage. Break out and own your ability.”
“That’s a load of bullshit!” Never before had she screamed at anyone. Never before had she felt such bone-chilling fear. “You don’t know anything about being an X! Have you forgotten I almost killed my own mother?”
“You were a child.”
Her laugh was flavored with bitterness. “You have no idea what I can do.” All this time, she’d been fooling herself that he wanted her despite knowing she was a monster. If he’d understood in truth . . . “You felt the intensity of what I earthed. Yet I can do this.” A single flick of her hand and X-fire encased a forest giant that had stood for centuries.
Ash, fine as dust, rose into the air between one blink and the next.
“Now you know.”
HAWKE gritted his jaw as Sienna swayed on her feet. “That was a singularly stupid thing to do.” Grabbing her in a fireman’s carry, he threw her over his shoulder.
“Put me down.” A weak protest before her body went limp.
Worry tore through his veins, but he could feel her heartbeat, sense her breath. Focusing on that, he strapped her into the passenger seat before digging out his phone. “Sienna’s unconscious,” he said when Judd answered.
The other man took a second to reply. “She’s fine. Her mind is intact.”
Relief was a punch to Hawke’s gut. “I’m going to strip her hide when she wakes up.” Shutting the passenger door, he jogged around to the driver’s side and switched the phone to the hands-free comm mode before beginning the drive back.
“It sounds,” Judd said when Hawke finished relaying what had led to Sienna’s collapse, “like she overloaded her psychic pathways.”
Hawke frowned. “So she does have a safety switch.” He’d gotten the impression that conscious control was so necessary to Sienna because she had no built-in off switch.
Judd didn’t reply long enough that Hawke’s blood went cold. “What aren’t you saying?”
“I think we need to have this discussion after you return.”
Hawke’s patience was nonexistent when it came to Sienna’s well-being, but he saw the lieutenant’s point. “We’ll be there soon.”
Judd met them at the infirmary, where Lara ran a high-tech medical scanner over Sienna and pronounced her in perfect health. Only then did Hawke nod at Judd to follow him out into the corridor. “Tell me.”
“She’s accelerating at an exponential rate,” Judd said, pulling up a chart on the tiny datapad he carried in his pocket. “After she confirmed she’d been purging her power more often of late, I spoke to Walker to see if we could pinpoint any specific times or dates. It took me until just before the South American operation to realize it was Toby we needed to speak to—she allows him closer than anyone else.”
White lines bracketed the former Arrow’s mouth. “He knew before all of us. He’s been making a note in his diary each time he feels she’s about to go critical. Since she hasn’t had any incidents, the logical conclusion is that she instituted a purge in each case.” Judd turned the datapad so Hawke could see the screen.
The pattern was impossible to miss. It had been almost a year between Sienna’s arrival and the first time she earthed herself. The next came after eight months. Then six. The last few had been mere weeks apart. Hawke’s wolf rose to the fore, helping the man think with clear-eyed purpose. “Can it be stopped?”
“No.” An absolute statement. “That’s what makes her an X.”
“Silence”—he forced himself to say that word, to consider that option—“kept her under some kind of containment.”
“Only to an extent. She’s the sole cardinal X ever born, according to our records. Even Ming was playing a game of Russian roulette with her. No one had any idea what would happen as her power matured.”
“Does she know?”
“I think she doesn’t want to know.” Black erased the gold-flecked brown of Judd’s eyes, a rare indication of strong emotion. “The only way she can survive is to believe that she can change the inevitable.”