Other civilizations do exist. Some seek to destroy you. UNITED AS ONE by Pittacus Lore is the epic conclusion to the thrilling, action-packed I Am Number Four book series. The Garde did not start this war, but they will do whatever it takes to end it once and for all…Read the first four chapters and find out what happens next when it’s available on June 28.
The girl stands on a rocky precipice, her toes curled over the edge. A dark chasm opens up in front of her, and a few pebbles dislodge beneath her feet and fall away, disappearing deep, deep down, into the shadows. Something used to be there, a tower or maybe a temple—the girl can’t remember exactly what. She stares down into the bottomless hole before her, and, somehow, she knows this place was once important. A safe place.
She wants to step back from the steep drop-off. It is dangerous, teetering here on the edge of nothingness. Yet she finds herself unable to move. Her feet are rooted to the spot. She feels the rocky ground shifting and crumbling beneath her feet. The pit before her is spreading. Soon, the edge she balances on will break and she’ll fall, swallowed up by the darkness.
Would that be so bad?
The girl’s head hurts. It’s a distant pain, almost like it’s happening to someone else. It’s a dull throb that starts at her forehead, wraps around her temples and down her jawline. She imagines her head like an egg that’s begun to crack, the breaks in the shell fanning out across the entire surface. She rubs her hands over her face and tries to focus.
She vaguely remembers being thrown down on the craggy ground. Over and over again, swung by her ankle with a force too powerful to resist, her head smashing and rattling on the unforgiving rocks. It’s like it happened to someone else, though. The memory, just like the pain, seems so far away.
In the darkness, there’s peace. She won’t have to remember the beating or the ensuing pain or what was lost when this bottomless pit was blasted into the earth. She’ll be able to let go, once and for all, if she just slides the rest of the way over the edge and falls.
Something pulls her back. A knowledge, deep inside herself, that she shouldn’t run from the pain. She should charge back towards it. She needs to keep fighting.
There’s a flicker of cobalt blue in the darkness below her, a solitary ember of light. Her heart flutters at the sight. It reminds her of what she fought to protect and why she’s so hurt. The light begins as just a pinprick, like she’s looking down at the night sky and its solitary star. Soon it expands and zooms upwards, a comet coming right for her. She wavers on the edge of the chasm.
And then he’s floating in front of her, aglow just like the last time she saw him. His curly black hair a perfect mess, his emerald-green eyes fixed on her—he is exactly how she remembers him. He smiles at her, that devil-may-care smile, and holds out a hand.
“It’s okay, Marina,” he says. “You don’t have to fight anymore.”
Her muscles relax at the sound of his voice. The darkness stretching out below her doesn’t seem so ominous anymore. She lets one of her feet dangle over the abyss. The pain inside her head seems even more diminished now. Further away.
“That’s right,” he says. “Come home with me.”
She nearly takes his hand. Something isn’t right, though. She looks away from his eyes, his smile, and sees the scar. A thick band of upraised purple tissue that wraps all the way around his neck. She jerks her hand back and nearly stumbles over the edge.
“This isn’t real!” she yells, finding her voice. She gets both her feet planted firmly on the rocky ground and pushes away from the darkness.
She watches as the curly-haired boy’s smile falters, turns into something cruel and mean, an expression she never saw on his actual face.
“If it isn’t real, why can’t you wake up?” he asks.
She doesn’t know. She’s stuck here, on the edge, in this place in-between with the dark-haired boy—she loved him once, but that’s not really him. It’s the man who put her here, who beat her so badly and then destroyed this place that she loved. And now he’s desecrating her memories. She locks eyes with him.
“Oh, I’m going to wake up, you bastard. And then I will come for you.”
His eyes flash, and he tries to put on an amused expression; but she can tell that he’s angry. His perverse trick didn’t work.
“It would’ve been peaceful, you little fool. You could’ve just slipped down into the darkness. I was offering you mercy.” He begins to recede into the chasm, leaving her alone in this place. His words float back to her. “Now all that awaits you is more pain.”
“So be it,” she says.
The one-eyed boy sits on his backside in his prison of pillows. He hugs himself—not by choice; his arms are secured inside a straitjacket. His one eye stares dully at the white walls, everything padded and soft. The door has no handle, no discernible way to escape. His nose itches, and he buries his face in his shoulder to scratch it.
When he looks up, there’s a shadow on the wall. Someone is standing behind him. The one-eyed boy flinches as two powerful hands set down on his shoulders and squeeze them gently. The deep voice is right in his ear.
“I could forgive you,” says the visitor. “Your failures, your insubordination. It was, in a way, my fault. I should not have sent you to these people to begin with. Asked you to infiltrate them. It’s only natural that you would develop certain . . . sympathies.”
“Beloved Leader,” says the one-eyed boy in a mocking singsong. He strains against the straitjacket. “You’ve come to save me.”
“That’s right,” the man says with a voice like a proud father, ignoring the boy’s sarcastic tone. “It could be like it was before. Like I always promised you. We could rule together. Look at what they’ve done to you, how they treat you. Someone with your power, and you let them lock you away like some kind of animal. . . .”
“I fell asleep, didn’t I?” asks the one-eyed boy flatly. “This is a dream.”
“Yes. But our reconciliation, that will be very real, my boy.” The strong hands fall away from his shoulders and begin to unbuckle the straitjacket. “It is a small thing I want in exchange. A demonstration of your loyalty. Simply tell me where I can find them. Where I can find you. My people—our people—will be there before you even wake up. They will set you free and restore your honor.”
The one-eyed boy doesn’t really listen to the man’s proposal. He feels the straitjacket begin to loosen as the buckles are unsnapped. He concentrates and remembers that this is a dream.
“You tossed me away like garbage,” he says. “Why me? Why now?”
“I’ve come to realize that was an error,” the man says through his teeth. It’s the first time the one-eyed boy has ever heard the man apologize. “You are my right hand. You are strong.”
The one-eyed boy snorts. He knows this is a lie. The man came because he thinks the boy is weak. He manipulates. Probes for weaknesses.
But this is just a dream. The one-eyed boy’s dream. That means his rules.
“What do you say?” the man asks, his breath hot against the one-eyed boy’s ear. “Where did they take you?”
“I don’t know,” the boy answers honestly. He doesn’t know where this padded cell is actually located. The others made sure he couldn’t see. “As for . . . what did you call it? Reconciliation? I have a counteroffer, old man.”
He imagines his favorite weapon, the needle-shaped blade that attaches to the inside of his wrist, and just like that it exists. He pops it, the deadly point punching through the fabric of the straitjacket, and swivels around to stab the blade right at the man’s heart.
But the man is already gone. The one-eyed boy grunts bitterly, disappointed at the lack of satisfaction. He takes a moment to stretch his arms. When he wakes up, he’ll be in this very same place, except his arms will be bound again. He doesn’t mind the padded cell. He’s comfortable, and there’s no one around to bother him. He could stay here for a little while, at least. Do some thinking. Pull himself together.
When he’s ready, though, the one-eyed boy will go ahead and let himself out.
The boy walks across a football field at the beginning of winter. The grass, brittle and brown, crunches beneath his feet. To his left and right, the metal bleachers are completely empty. The air smells like fire, and a gust of wind blows ash against the boy’s cheeks.
He looks at the scoreboard up ahead. The orange bulbs flicker and pop, like the electricity is coming and going.
Beyond the scoreboard, the boy can see the high school, or at least what’s left. The roof has collapsed, blown in by a missile. All the windows are shattered. There are a couple of mangled school desks on the field in front of him, all hurled this way by whatever force destroyed the school, their glossy plastic tops wedged into the ground like tombstones.
He can see it, on the horizon, hovering over the town. The warship. Like a muscular scarab made of cold gray metal, it prowls the skyline.
The boy feels nothing but resignation. He made some good memories in this place, at this school, in this town. He was happy here for a while, before everything went to hell. It doesn’t matter what happens to this place now.
He looks down and realizes that he’s holding a torn scrap from a yearbook in his hand. Her picture. Straight blond hair, perfect cheekbones, those blue eyes. A smile that’s like she’s inviting you in on some private joke. His stomach clenches at the sight of her, at the memory of what happened.
“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
The boy whips around at the sound of the voice—melodic and calming, totally out of place in this burned-out setting. A man walks across the football field towards him. He’s dressed unassumingly, a brown blazer over a sweater, some khaki pants and loafers. He could be a math teacher, except there’s something regal about his posture.
“Who are you?” the boy asks, alarmed.
The man stops a few yards away. He holds up his hands like he doesn’t want any trouble. “That’s my ship back there,” the man says calmly.
The boy clenches his fist. The man doesn’t look like the monster he caught a glimpse of in Mexico, but here, in the dream, he knows that it’s true.
So he charges forward. How many times has he run down this field, an opposing player in his sights? The thrill of sprinting across the dead grass lifts the boy’s spirits. He punches the man, hard, right in the jaw, and rams him with a shoulder tackle on the follow-through.
The man falls to the ground and lies there on his back. The boy looms over him, one fist still balled, the other clutching her picture.
He doesn’t know what to do now. He expected more of a fight.
“I deserved that,” the man says, staring up at the boy with watery eyes. “I know what happened to your friend, and I . . . I am so sorry.”
The boy takes a step back. “You . . . you killed her,” he says. “And you’re sorry?”
“That was never my intention!” the man says pleadingly. “It wasn’t me who put her in harm’s way. But all the same, I’m sorry she was hurt.”
“Killed,” the boy whispers. “Not hurt. Killed.”
“What you consider dead and what I consider dead . . . those are two very different things.”
Now the boy is listening. “What does that mean?”
“All this ugliness and pain, that’s only if we keep fighting. It’s not my way. It’s not what I want.” The man continues. “Did you ever stop to consider what I might want? That it might not be that bad?”
The man hasn’t tried to get up. The boy feels in control. He likes that. And that’s when he notices how the grass is changing. It’s coming back to life, emerald green spreading out from the man. In fact, it seems to the boy that even the sun is starting to shine a little brighter.
“I want our lives—all our lives—to get better. I want us to grow beyond these petty misunderstandings,” the man says. “I’m a scholar, first and foremost. I’ve spent my life studying the miracles of the universe. Surely, they’ve told you about me. Lies, mostly, but it is true that I have lived for centuries. What is death to a man like me? Merely a temporary inconvenience.”
Without realizing it, the boy has begun to nervously rub the scrap of paper he’s holding between his fingers. His thumb brushes across the girl’s jawline. The man smiles and nods at the torn piece of yearbook.
“Why . . . why would I trust you?” the grieving boy manages to ask.
“If we just stop fighting, if you listen for a while, you’ll see.” He sounds so sincere. “We’ll have peace. And you’ll have her back.”
“Have her back?” the boy asks, stunned, a surge of hope rising in his chest.
“I can restore her,” the man says. “The same power that brought your friend Ella back to life, it is now mine. I don’t want to fight anymore, my young friend. Let me bring her back. Let me show them all how I’ve changed.”
The boy glances down at the picture in his hand and finds that it has changed. It’s moving. The blond girl pounds her fists against the inside of the photograph like it’s a glass wall and she’s trapped behind it. The boy can read her lips. She’s pleading for his help.
The man holds out his hand. He wants the boy to help him up.
“What do you say? Shall we end this together?”
This room reminds me of the kind of places that Henri and I used to stay in during the early days. Old roadside motels that the owners hadn’t updated since the seventies. The walls are wood paneled, and the carpet is an olive-green shag, the bed underneath me stiff and musty. A bureau rests against one wall, the drawers filled with a mixture of clothing, different sizes and different genders, all of it generic and dated. The room doesn’t have a TV, but it does have a radio with a clock that uses those old-school paper numbers that flip around, every minute punctuated by a dry slap.
I sit here in the Patience Creek Bed & Breakfast and listen to the time pass by.
On the wall across from my bed, there’s a painting that looks like a window. There aren’t any actual windows, on account of the room being located deep underground, so I suppose the designers did the best they could. The scene in my fake window is bright and sunny, with tall, green grass blowing in the wind and the indistinct shape of a woman in the distance clutching a hat to her head.
I don’t know why they made the room look like this. Maybe it was meant to convey a sense of normalcy. If that’s the case, it isn’t working. Instead, the room seems to magnify every poisonous emotion you’d expect staying in a scuzzy motel by yourself—loneliness, desperation, failure.
I’ve got plenty of those emotions on my own.
Here’s what this room has that some dump off the interstate doesn’t. The painting on the wall? It slides aside, and behind it is a bank of monitors that broadcast security feeds from all around the Patience Creek Bed & Breakfast. There’s a camera pointed at the front door of the quaint cabin that sits above this sprawling underground facility, another pointed at the serendipitously flat meadow with its hard-packed soil and perfectly maintained grass that just happens to be the exact dimensions necessary to land a medium-sized aircraft, and dozens of other feeds surveilling the property and what lies beneath. This place was built by some very paranoid people who were planning for a potential invasion, a doomsday scenario.
They were expecting Russians, not Mogadorians. But even so, I guess their paranoia paid off.
Beneath the unassuming bed-and-breakfast located twenty-five miles south of Detroit, close to the shore of Lake Erie, are four subterranean levels so top secret they have been virtually forgotten. The Patience Creek facility was originally built by the CIA during the Cold War as a place for them to ride out a nuclear winter. It fell into disrepair over the last twenty-five years, and, according to our hosts in the US government, everyone who knew about it is either dead or retired, which means that no one leaked its existence to MogPro. Lucky for us a general named Clarence Lawson came out of retirement when the warships appeared and remembered that this place was down here.
The president of the United States and what’s left of the Joint Chiefs of Staff aren’t here; they’re being kept someplace secure, probably someplace mobile, the location of which they aren’t divulging even to us allied aliens. One of his handlers must have decided it wouldn’t be safe for the president to be around us, so we’re here with General Lawson, who reports only to him. In our conversation, the president told me he wanted to work together, that we had his full support against Setrákus Ra.
He said a lot of things, actually. The details are fuzzy in my memory. I was in shock when we spoke and not really listening. He seemed nice. Whatever.
I just want to finish this.
I’ve been awake since—well, I’m not exactly sure when. I know I should try to sleep, but every time I close my eyes I see Sarah’s face. I see her face back on that first day at Paradise High School, half hidden behind a camera and then smiling as she finishes snapping my photo. And then my imagination takes over, and I see that same beautiful face pale and bloodied, lifeless, the way she must look now. I can’t shake it. I open my eyes and there’s a twisting pain in my gut, and I feel like I’ve got to curl up around the hurt.
Instead, I stay awake. This is what it’s been like for the last few hours, alone in this strange place, trying to wear myself out to the point where I’ll be able to sleep like, well . . . like the dead.
Practice. It’s the only hope I have.
I sit on the bed and look at myself in the mirror that hangs over the bureau. My hair is getting a little long, and there are dark circles around my eyes. These things don’t matter now. I stare at myself . . .
And then I disappear.
Reappear. Take a deep breath.
I go invisible again. This time I hold it for longer. For as long as I can. I stare at the empty space in the mirror where my body should be and listen to the paper numbers on the clock tick by.
With Ximic, I should be able to copy any Legacy that I’ve encountered. It’s just a matter of teaching myself how to use it, which is never easy, even when the Legacy comes naturally. Marina’s healing, Six’s invisibility, Daniela’s stone gaze—these are the abilities I’ve picked up so far. I’m going to learn more, as many as I can. I’m going to train these new Legacies until they come as naturally to me as my Lumen. And then I’m going to repeat the process.
All this power, and only one thing to look forward to.
The destruction of every Mogadorian on Earth. Including and especially Setrákus Ra, if he’s even still alive. Six thinks she might have killed him in Mexico, but I won’t believe that until the Mogs surrender or I see a body. A part of me almost hopes he’s still out there so that I can be the one to end the bastard.
A happy ending? That’s out the window. I was stupid to ever believe in it.
Pittacus Lore, the last one, the one whose body we found hidden in Malcolm Goode’s bunker, he had Ximic, too, but he didn’t do enough. He couldn’t stop the Mogadorian invasion of Lorien. When he had the chance to kill Setrákus Ra all those centuries ago, he couldn’t do that either.
History will not repeat itself.
I hear footsteps in the hallway that stop right outside my door.
Even though they speak softly and even though I’m listening through a reinforced steel door, with my enhanced senses, I can still hear every word Daniela and Sam say.
“Maybe we should just let him rest,” Daniela says. I’m not used to hearing her speak in such a gentle tone. Usually, Daniela’s a mix of abrasive and gung ho. In just a couple of days, she’s completely left behind her old life and joined our war. Although she didn’t have much choice considering the Mogs burned her old life to the ground.
Another human swept up in our war.
“You don’t know him. There’s no way he’s sleeping in there,” Sam replies, his voice hoarse.
Sitting in this stale room, reflecting on the past and the damage I’ve caused, I started to wonder: How would Sam’s life be different if Henri and I had chosen Cleveland or Akron or somewhere else instead of Paradise? Would he still have gotten Legacies? I’d be worse off, maybe dead, without him. That’s for sure.
Sarah would still be alive, though, if we’d never met.
“Uh, okay, I’m not really talking about him getting a good night’s sleep. Dude’s a superhero alien; for all I know he sleeps three hours a night hanging from the ceiling,” Daniela replies to Sam.
“He sleeps same as we do.”
“Whatever. Point is, maybe he needs some space, you know? To work his shit out? And he’ll come to us when he’s ready. When he’s . . .”
“No. He’d want to know,” Sam says, and then knocks softly on my door.
I’m off the bed in a flash to open the door. Sam’s right about me, of course. Whatever’s happening, I want to know. I want to be distracted. I want forward momentum.
Sam blinks when the door opens and stares right through me. “John?”
It takes me a second to realize that I’m still invisible. When I appear from thin air in front of them, Daniela stumbles back a step. “Goddamn.”
Sam barely arches an eyebrow. His eyes are red rimmed. He seems too worn-out to be surprised.
“Sorry,” I say. “Working on my invisibility.”
“The others are about ten minutes out,” Sam tells me. “I knew you would want to be there when they land.”
I nod and close my door behind me.
The illusion of a motel disappears as soon as I’m outside my room. The hallway beyond, more like a tunnel really, is all austere white walls and cold halogen lights. It reminds me of the facility underneath Ashwood Estates, except this place was built by humans.
“I got a VCR in my room,” Daniela says, trying to make conversation as the three of us walk down one of the identical hallways in this mazelike complex. When neither Sam nor me immediately responds, she presses on. “You guys got VCRs? Shit’s crazy, right? I haven’t seen a VCR in years.”
Sam looks at me before answering. “I found a Game Boy wedged under my mattress.”
“Damn! Want to trade?”
“It’s got no batteries.”
I can hear the distant hum of generators, the buzz of tools and the grunts of men working. The one drawback of Patience Creek being so under the radar is that a lot of its systems aren’t what you’d call updated. For security reasons General Lawson had decided they should run a stripped-down operation here. With everything going on, there’s not exactly time to call in civilian contractors. Still, there’s got to be almost a hundred army engineers working around the clock to bring the place up to date. When we arrived late last night, I saw that Sam’s dad, Malcolm, was already here, helping a crew of electricians install some of the Mogadorian tech recovered from Ashwood Estates. As far as the army is concerned, Malcolm’s basically an expert on the extraterrestrial.
Sam and Daniela’s conversation has trailed off, and I quickly realize that it’s because of me. I’m silent, eyes straight ahead, and I’m pretty sure my expression is stuck in neutral. They don’t know how to talk to me anymore.
“John, I—” Sam puts a hand on my shoulder, and I can tell he’s going to say something about Sarah. I know what happened to her hurt him bad, too. They grew up together. But I don’t want to have that conversation right now. I don’t want to give in to grieving until this is over.
I force a halfhearted smile. “Did they give you any tapes for that VCR?” I ask Daniela, clumsily changing the subject.
“WrestleMania III,” she says, and makes a face.
“Hell yeah, I’ll be by to pick that up later, Danny,” Nine says, emerging from one of the many hallways with a grin.
Out of all of us, Nine looks the most rested. It’s only been about a day since he and Five brawled all over New York City. I healed the big goon back in New York, and his own superhuman stamina has apparently done the rest. He pats Sam and me hard on the back and joins our procession down the hallway. Of course, Nine acts like there’s nothing wrong at all, and, honestly, I prefer it that way.
As we pass by, I glance down the hallway Nine came from. There are four heavily armed soldiers there, standing guard.
“Everything squared away?” I ask Nine.
“Yeah, Johnny,” Nine replies. “They got some pretty whacked-out prison cells in this place, including one that’s straight up padded walls. With Chubby tethered to some cushions and strapped into a straitjacket, he ain’t going anywhere.”
“Good,” Sam says.
I nod in agreement. Five is a complete psychopath and deserves to be locked up. But if I’m being brutally practical about winning this war, I’m not sure how long we can afford to keep him in a cage.
We round a corner, and the elevator bank comes into view. Overhead, the halogen lights buzz loudly, and I notice Sam pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Man, do I miss your penthouse, Nine,” Sam says. “Was the only hideout we ever had with mellow lighting.”
“Yeah, I miss it too,” Nine replies, a note of nostalgia creeping into his voice.
“This place is already giving me a serious migraine. Should’ve gotten some dimmer switches to go with those VCRs.”
There’s a crackle of electricity over our heads, and one of the bulbs flickers out. The hallway lighting is suddenly a whole lot more tolerable. Everyone except for me pauses to look up.
“Well, that was weirdly timed,” says Daniela.
“Better, though, isn’t it?” Sam says with a sigh.
I hit the button to call the elevator. The others gather around behind me.
“So, they’re, uh . . . they’re bringing her back here?” Nine asks, his voice lowered, being about as tactful as he can manage.
“Yeah,” I say, thinking about the Loric ship right now descending towards Patience Creek, filled with our friends and allies, and the lost love of my life.
“That’s good,” Nine says, then coughs into his hand. “I mean, not good. But we can, you know, say good-bye.”
“We get it, Nine,” Sam says gently. “He knows what you mean.”
I nod, not prepared to say anything else. The elevator doors open in front of us, and when they do, the words come spilling out.
“This is the last time,” I say, not turning around to face the others. The words feel like ice in my mouth. “I’m done saying good-bye to people we love. I’m done with sentiment. Done with grieving. Starting today, we kill until we win.”
Twisted metal shrieks by overhead. Clumps of dirt and ash batter my face, the wind whips at what feels like one hundred miles per hour, and I throw everything I have into it. Blaster fire sears across my legs. I ignore it. A jagged strut from an exploded Mogadorian Skimmer crashes into the dirt next to me. Only a few feet closer and I would have been impaled.
I ignore that too. I’ll die here, if that’s what it takes.
Across an empty pit where the Sanctuary used to stand, Setrákus Ra staggers up the ramp of his warship. I can’t let him make it back on board the Anubis. I shove out with my telekinesis, and I don’t care about the consequences. I hurl every goddamn thing at him, and he pushes back. I feel his power strain against mine like two invisible tidal waves crashing together, sending up a spray of metal parts and dirt and stone.
“Die, die, die . . .”
Sarah Hart is next to me. She screams something into my ear that I can’t hear over the roar of the battle. She grabs my shoulder and starts to shake me.
“Die, die, die . . .”
I gasp and wake up. It isn’t Sarah shaking my shoulder. It’s Lexa, our pilot, seated behind the controls. Through the windshield, I can barely make out the peaceful countryside zipping by underneath us. In the glow of the control panel, I can see a look of concern on Lexa’s face.
“What is it?” I ask, still groggy as I gently push her hand away.
“You were talking in your sleep,” Lexa replies, and goes back to looking straight ahead, our flight path mapped out on the screen before her.
My feet are up on the dashboard, my knees tucked in close to my chest. My toes are all pins and needles. I set my feet down on the floor and sit up straight, then strain my eyes into the darkness outside. Just as I do, the countryside drops away and is replaced by the blue-black water of Lake Erie.
“How close are we to the coordinates Malcolm sent us?” I ask Lexa.
“Close,” she replies. “About ten minutes out.”
“And you’re sure we lost them?”
“I’m sure, Six. I ditched the last of the Skimmers over Texas. The Anubis broke off before that. Seemed like the warship didn’t want to keep up the chase.”
I rub my hands across my face and through my sticky tangle of hair. The Anubis stopped chasing us. Why? Because they had to rush Setrákus Ra somewhere? Because he was dying? Or maybe already dead?
I know I hurt him. I saw that metal bar pierce that bastard’s chest. Not many could survive that injury. But this is Setrákus Ra. There’s no telling how fast he heals or what technology he’s got at his disposal to nurse him back to health. It went straight into his heart, though. I saw it. I know I got him.
“He has to be dead,” I say quietly. “He has to be.”
I unstrap from the copilot’s seat and stand up. Lexa grabs hold of my forearm before I can leave the cockpit.
“Six, you did what you had to do,” she says firmly. “What you thought was best. No matter what happens, if Setrákus Ra is dead or alive . . .”
“If he’s alive, then Sarah died for nothing,” I reply.
“Not for nothing,” Lexa says. “She pulled you out of there. She saved you.”
“She should’ve saved herself.”
“She didn’t think so. She— Look, I hardly knew the girl. But it seemed to me that she knew what was at stake. She knew that we’re fighting a war. And in war there are sacrifices. Casualties.”
“Easy for us to say. We’re alive.” I bite my lip and pull my arm away from Lexa. “You think— Shit, Lexa. You think any of that cold-ass pragmatic talk is going to make it easier for the others? For John?”
“Has anything ever been easy for any of you?” Lexa asks, looking up at me. “Why would it start now? This is the end, Six. One way or the other, we’re closing in on the end. You do what has to be done, and you feel bad about it later.”
I exit the cockpit with Lexa’s words ringing in my ears. I want to feel anger. Who is she to tell me how to act? The Mogs weren’t hunting her. She hid for years without ever trying to contact us. She only showed up now because she realized how desperate our situation had become, that it was all hands on deck. Telling me what to feel.
Thing is, she’s right. She’s right, because the truth is, I wouldn’t change what I did. I’d take my shot at Setrákus Ra, even knowing what would happen to Sarah. Potentially billions of lives are on the line.
I had to do it.
In the main cabin, someone has used the touch-screen walls to command cots to emerge from the floor. Those are the same cots we slept on all those years ago when we first came to Earth. I carved my number into one of them.
Sarah’s body rests on that one, because the universe has a sick sense of humor.
Mark sits next to Sarah’s cot, chin against his chest, asleep. His face is puffy, and he’s covered in dried blood, like pretty much all of us. He hasn’t left Sarah’s side since it all went down. Frankly, I’m glad he’s finally asleep. I couldn’t handle many more of the accusatory looks the guy has been throwing around. I know he’s angry and hurting, but I can’t wait to get off this cramped ship and away from him.
Bernie Kosar lies on the floor next to Mark. He watches me emerge from the cockpit and quietly stands. The beagle comes over and nuzzles against my leg, whining quietly. I reach down to scratch absently behind his ears.
“Thanks, boy,” I whisper, and BK whines again, softly.
I move farther back. Ella is curled up on one of the cots, her face turned towards the wall. My gaze lingers on her for a second, just long enough to make sure that she’s still breathing. Ella was the first person I watched die yesterday, except she somehow managed to come back to life. When she tossed herself into that pillar of Loric energy at the Sanctuary, she broke the charm that Setrákus Ra had placed on her. Apparently, there are side effects to bathing in a bunch of Loric energy and briefly dying. Ella’s returned to us as . . . well, I’m not entirely sure.
At the very back of the ship, I find Adam sitting on the edge of another cot. Looking at the dark circles around his eyes and his increasingly pale skin, I know for sure that Adam hasn’t slept. Instead, he’s been keeping his eye on Marina. She’s strapped down on the same cot Adam sits on, her eyes closed, her face horribly bruised, blood still crusted around her nostrils. Setrákus Ra smashed her into the ground over and over, and she hasn’t regained consciousness since. She’s holding on, though, and hopefully John will be able to heal whatever’s wrong with her.
Adam manages a weak smile as I sit down across from him. Another one of our wounded friends is bundled in his arms. Dust was nearly killed back at the Sanctuary. Although he’s still twitchy and weak, Dust has regained some of his movement and has at least managed to change his shape into that of a wolf cub. Not exactly ferocious, but a step in the right direction.
“Hey, doc,” I say to Adam, keeping my voice quiet.
He snorts. “You’d be surprised how little practical medical training we Mogadorians receive. It’s not a priority when most of your soldiers are disposable.” Adam turns his head to regard Marina. “Her pulse is strong, though. Even I can tell that.”
I nod. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. I reach across the gap between us and scratch Dust on his nose. One of his back legs starts to pump in response, though I’m not sure if it’s from enjoyment or the lingering effects of his electroshock.
“He’s looking a little better,” I say to Adam.
“Yeah, he’ll be howling at the moon in no time,” Adam replies, looking me over as he does. “What about you? How are you feeling?”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more,” Adam says. When the battle at the Sanctuary came to an end, it was Adam and Mark who got Marina onto Lexa’s ship before Setrákus Ra could finish her off. That’s how it came to be me and Sarah facing Setrákus Ra alone.
“You did enough. You saved Marina. Got her back here. I . . .”
My gaze involuntarily drifts towards Sarah. Adam clears his throat to get my attention back. His eyes lock onto mine, wide and steady.
“That wasn’t your fault,” he says firmly.
“Hearing that doesn’t make it easier.”
“It still needed saying.” Now it’s Adam’s turn to break eye contact. He looks over at Ella’s huddled body and frowns. “I hope you killed him, Six. The thing is, knowing you, if you’d have known the consequences, you would have stopped.”
I don’t interrupt Adam, even though what he’s saying about me might not be true. It’s weird to feel hope that I killed Setrákus Ra at the same time as the guilt for what happened to Sarah, all of it worsened by an undercurrent of dread that I accomplished nothing at all. I’m a mess.
“I respect that about you guys,” Adam continues. “Most of you Garde, it’s like they built strength and compassion into you. It’s the opposite for my people. I . . . I would’ve pressed on no matter what happened.”
Back at the Sanctuary, Adam had a moment when he’d got the drop on Setrákus Ra. This was back before Ella broke the charm that bound her life to her evil great-grandfather’s. Even knowing that it would kill Ella, Adam went right for Setrákus Ra’s jugular.
“Your people,” Adam continues after a moment, “you consider the costs, you mourn your losses, you try to do what’s right. I envy that. The ability to know what’s right without—without having to fight against your nature.”
“You’re more like us than you realize,” I tell him.
“I’d like to think that,” Adam replies. “But sometimes I don’t know.”
“We all regret things,” I say. “It’s not a matter of nature. It’s a matter of moving on and being better.”
Adam opens his mouth to respond, but no words come out. He’s looking past me. A soft blue glow emanates from over my shoulder.
I turn around to see Ella has sat up on her cot. She still crackles with Loric energy, her brown eyes completely replaced by roiling orbs of cobalt blue. When she speaks, her voice has that odd echoing quality, like it did when Legacy was speaking through her.
“You don’t have to feel guilty,” she tells Adam. “I knew what you were going to do as soon as I got off the Anubis. I was rooting for you.”
Adam stares at Ella. “I didn’t—I didn’t even know what I was going to do when you got off the Anubis.”
“Oh, you did.”
Adam looks away, clearly uncomfortable under Ella’s stare. If he’s relieved that Ella let him off the hook for what happened at the Sanctuary, it doesn’t show.
“And Six.” She turns to me now. “As she left this world, Sarah thought about many things. Mostly about John and her family. But also she thought about you, and how she was glad you would be here to take care of John and the rest of us.”
“You were in her head when she died?” I ask Ella, still trying to get a grip on her new and expanded Legacies.
She pinches the bridge of her nose and shuts her eyes, which causes the room to get a little darker. “I’m still getting used to what I can do. It is hard sometimes to . . . tune out.”
“Is that all she was thinking about?”
The question comes from Mark. I’m not sure how long he’s been awake and listening to our conversation. He looks at Ella with desperate hope, and I notice that his lower lip shakes. Ella looks back at him coolly, and I wonder if some emotional wiring got fried during her encounter with Legacy.
“What do you really want to ask me, Mark?” Ella says calmly.
“I . . . nothing. It’s not important,” Mark replies, looking back down at the floor.
“You crossed her mind, too, Mark,” Ella says.
Mark swallows hard when he hears this and nods, trying not to show any emotion. Studying Ella, I’m not sure if she’s telling the truth or just trying to make Mark feel better. Her electric eyes are unreadable.
“We’re here,” Lexa announces over the intercom. “I’m bringing us down.”
Lexa lands the ship in a wide-open field next to a small log cabin. Looking out the window at the place, it’s hard to believe that this is where the government is planning its counterattack against the Mogadorians. I guess that’s sort of the point. With the sun just beginning to rise over Lake Erie, pink flares of light bend across the surface of the water. It’s a tranquil scene and would look totally like some hippie yoga retreat if not for the presence of the armed soldiers and their Humvees camouflaged in the tree line.
There are two groups waiting for us outside the cabin and, even in my rattled state, it’s easy to read the situation based on the distance between the factions. The first group is our people—John, Sam, Nine, Malcolm, and a girl who I recognize from Ella’s telepathic summit but whose name I don’t know. Behind them, separated by about thirty yards, is a contingent of military personnel who watch our ship with keen interest. It seems to me that even though the military is working together with the Garde, they’re still very much keeping an eye on us. Together, but apart.
In that group of soldiers, I recognize Agent Walker. As I watch, she nervously stubs out a cigarette and turns to answer a question posed by the older man standing next to her. He’s clearly in charge. The guy sports a silver buzz cut and a leathery tan, like they just pulled him away from the golf course. He looks like one of those senior citizens who’s still out there running marathons, all rigid posture and stringy muscles. He wears formal military attire covered with a stupid amount of medals. He’s surrounded by a half dozen soldiers with assault rifles—for our protection, I’m sure. Two guys in his retinue stand out; they’re twins if I’m not mistaken, and look to be about my age, too young to really be enlisted soldiers, although they wear the starched light-blue uniforms of cadets.
I observe all this during the few seconds it takes Lexa to extend the exit ramp and power down the ship. Surveying our surroundings is a good distraction, a way to avoid looking at John. His face is a mask, his gaze icy, and I still haven’t figured out what the hell I’m going to say to him.
Our battle-ravaged group slowly walks down the ramp. I hear mutterings from our military observers and can’t help noticing the cringing looks on our friends’ faces. We’re covered in blood and dirt, beat up, exhausted. Plus, Ella is giving off that faint glow of Loric energy. We look like hell.
Malcolm’s got a gurney, and he pushes it across the grass to meet Adam, who is carrying Marina in his arms. It takes me a second to notice that Mark hasn’t gotten off the ship; he’s staying with Sarah’s body.
Before I can stop him, Sam has me wrapped in a hug. Only when his arms are around me do I realize how badly I’m shaking.
“You’re all right now,” he whispers into my tangled mop of hair.
I steel myself, trying not to break down even though I very badly want to, and wiggle out of Sam’s arms. I look towards John, but he’s already standing over Marina, his hands glowing softly as he holds her head. There’s a look of deep concentration on his face as he heals her, and it takes so long that I start to hold my breath, worried that the damage Setrákus Ra inflicted is too great. After a long moment where everyone watches in total silence, John steps back with a drained sigh. Marina shifts a bit on her gurney but doesn’t wake up.
“Is she . . . ?” Adam starts to ask.
“It was bad, but she’ll be okay,” John replies, his voice completely neutral. “She just needs some rest.”
With that, John steps away from the group and walks up the ramp of the ship.
“John, hold on,” I hear myself say, even though I’ve got no idea what my follow-up is going to be.
He pauses and looks over his shoulder at me, although he doesn’t meet my eyes.
“I’m sorry that we couldn’t—that I couldn’t protect her,” I tell him, my voice getting shaky and, even though I’m mortified to hear it, a little desperate. “I swear I killed him, John. I put one right in his goddamn heart.”
John nods, and I can see a vein in his neck twitching, like he’s trying to control himself.
“We aren’t to blame for the actions of our enemies,” John replies to me, and the line sounds canned, practiced, like he knew this conversation was coming. Without another word, he climbs the ramp and disappears into Lexa’s ship.
A somber silence follows. The military personnel return to the cabin, which must have some pretty major underground levels to accommodate them all, and Nine starts to lead our group inside after them. I gaze after John, Sam lingering at my side.
“I’m sorry, Six, but you didn’t.”
It’s Ella. She stands next to me, looking up at me with those eyes empty of everything but swirling Loric energy. I must look shaky again, because Sam puts his arm around me, holding me up.
“Kill him,” Ella replies. “You hurt him bad, but . . . I can still feel him out there. Setrákus Ra is alive.”
As soon as I’m on board the ship, Bernie Kosar steps in front of me. His tail droops between his legs, and he stretches his front paws out, arching his spine low, his head down. It’s like he’s bowing to me, or expecting me to swat him with a rolled-up newspaper. From deep in his belly, he lets out a low, mournful howl.
It takes me a second to realize why he’s doing this. Back in Chicago, the last time I saw Sarah, I’d sent BK with her. I’d told BK to keep her safe.
Oh God, BK, it’s not your fault, I say to him telepathically. I kneel down, put my arm around his furry neck and hug him close. BK slobbers wetly against my cheek and whines. Tears string the corners of my eyes, the first ones that have come since I heard Sarah’s fading voice piped over my satellite phone.
The tears aren’t for me. First Six, now BK—the guilt they’re feeling, it wrecks me. Sarah was their friend, too. They’re feeling this loss just like I am, and it’s compounded by the fact that they both think they let me down, that I’m going to blame them. I should’ve spoken to Six, should’ve said something more, but I just couldn’t find the right words. I should’ve told her that there are only two people I hold responsible for what happened to Sarah.
I’ve never been good at expressing those kinds of feelings, talking about myself, my fears and weaknesses. Really, there’s only one person I’ve ever felt truly comfortable opening up to about that stuff.
I stand up, walk farther into the ship and see her. In the ship’s dim lighting, stretched out on a cot, a sheet pulled up to her chin—she could be sleeping. Her blond hair is fanned out on the pillow beneath her. Her skin is pale, so pale, the color drained from her lips. I walk forward feeling like I’m in a dream.
Mark James is here, too, sitting next to Sarah’s bed. He stands up when I walk forward, and I’m vaguely aware of a murderous look on his face. For a second, I think he might get in my way. Looking at me he must think better of it, because he steps aside in a hurry. The anger in his eyes is replaced by curiosity, like I’m some strange animal.
Or like I’m an alien, capable of things he can’t possibly understand.
He doesn’t say anything when I kneel down next to Sarah. I pull the sheet back from her body, and it sticks to her side where the blood from her wounds has dried. She’s all torn up.
I feel like I should cry. Or scream. But all I feel is empty.
And then my hands reach forward, unthinking, acting on some combination of instinct and desperation. I press down on her wounds, her skin cold beneath my fingertips, and let my healing energy flow into her.
When Sarah and Ella were riddled with blaster fire at Dulce Base, I managed to heal them. They were close to death, and I pulled them back. Maybe . . . maybe there is still hope now.
My hands heat up. They glow. Sarah’s pale skin is suddenly tinged pink, and my heart skips a beat.
It’s a trick of the light. My Legacy isn’t working. There’s no spark in Sarah left to rekindle.
I let the power seep away. Now that I’ve seen Sarah’s wounds firsthand, the horrific visions that haunted me during the hours I’d waited are gone. It’s become reality. With shaking hands, I cover Sarah’s body with the sheet.
The morbid details aren’t what I find myself focusing on. They aren’t what will stick with me. It’s her face—tinted blue in the muted light. She doesn’t look like she’s in any pain; there are no lines creasing the skin and her eyes are closed. Sarah’s lips are forever pursed into an almost-curious smile. I lean down and gently kiss that smile, not surprised by how cold her lips are. Then I put my head down, rest it on her chest. It probably looks like I’m listening for a heartbeat, but I’m just saying good-bye.
I don’t cry. She wouldn’t want me to do that. But the insomnia I was feeling before, it’s gone now. I feel like I could finally rest, right here, with Sarah.
“Is that it?”
Mark. I’d completely forgotten he was in the room with me.
I lift my head and turn around slowly, without standing up. Mark’s head is cocked; he stares at me, his fists clenching and unclenching.
“What?” I ask, surprised by how tired I sound.
“I said, is that it?” he repeats, the words harsher now. “Is that all you’re going to do?”
“There’s nothing else I can do, Mark,” I reply with a sigh. “She’s gone.”
“You can’t bring back the dead?”
“No. I’m not a god.”
Mark shakes his head like he expected that answer and is disappointed all the same. “Shit,” he says to himself, then looks me right in the eye. “What the hell are you good for?”
I’m not going to do this with him. Not here. Not ever. I stand up slowly, take one last look at Sarah and walk wordlessly towards the ship’s exit ramp.
Mark gets in my way.
“I asked you a question,” he says.
For a moment, his tone brings me back to Paradise High. I know this isn’t the same jock who tormented me and Sam—now he’s got a wild and haunted look in his eyes, unkempt hair and filthy clothes that would’ve embarrassed the hell out of the old Mark James. But he’s still a master of that alpha-male voice. It makes him seem bigger than he is in reality.
“Mark,” I say warningly.
“You don’t get to just walk away from this,” he replies.
“Get out of my way.”
He shoves me. The contact actually surprises me and causes me to stumble back a few steps. I stare at him.
“You’re angry; you’re hurting . . . ,” I say to Mark, keeping my voice measured even though I want to scream at him. Like I’m not feeling the same way. Like I don’t want to punch through a wall. “But this—us? Fighting for no reason? That’s not happening.”
“Oh, spare me your bigger-man routine, John,” Mark says. “I was there when she died. Me.Not you. She spent her final moments on the goddamn phone with you, giving you a pep talk. You. The guy who got her killed.”
It stings to hear Mark say what I’d already been thinking.
“We were in love,” I tell him.
Mark rolls his eyes at me. “Maybe. Maybe you really were. But—come on. Mysterious new kid rolls into the small town, and oh, he’s got superpowers. And oh, he’s trying to save the world. What girl wouldn’t fall for that shit, huh? Hell, look at me, standing here. Look at dumb-ass Sam Goode. We all got sucked into your vortex of suffering.”
“She didn’t fall for anything. I didn’t trick her.” My words are sharper now. He’s starting to get under my skin. “We were in love before—before she even knew about me and what I am.”
“But you knew!” Mark yells, taking a step towards me. “You always knew what it meant to be around you and you—you went for her anyway! In all those towns you traveled to before Paradise, how many—how many other girls were there?”
I shake my head, losing the thread of what Mark’s trying to prove. “There weren’t—”
“Exactly! You kept it in your pants because you knew that being around you is a death sentence. Until Sarah. You just couldn’t leave her alone. You got selfish, or lonely, or whatever, and you—you got her killed. She’d be alive and happy if you had just gone to another town, John. Yeah, this whole invasion would still be happening, but I got a feeling the Mogadorian warships are a long way from Paradise. Without you, without your needy bullshit, she at least would’ve had a chance.”
I don’t know how to respond. Part of what Mark’s saying is true, but it ignores so much of what Sarah and I shared. Maybe it was selfish of me to involve her, except that every time I pushed her away she would come back. She made her own decisions. She was strong and made me stronger. And she was the first person on Earth who made it feel like I actually had a chance at a normal life, like there was something more than just endless running and fighting. Sarah gave me hope. But I don’t have the words to explain that to Mark, and I don’t even want to. I don’t need to defend myself.
“You’re right,” I say coldly, hoping that’s enough to end this.
“I’m—I’m right?” Mark asks incredulously, eyes widening. “You think that’s what I want to hear?”
I sigh. “Mark, the truth is, I don’t care what you want. I never have.”
He hits me then. I see the punch coming a mile away, but I don’t bother defending myself. It’s a short uppercut that catches me right in the stomach and causes me to suck in a sharp breath. It’s not the first time that Mark has punched me, and he hits hard—maybe a little harder than I remember. But I’ve taken a lot of shots over the last few months, ones harder than Mark could begin to imagine, and this one I barely feel.
When I don’t react to the first punch, Mark tries another. His heart isn’t in it, though. He throws a haymaker at my head but seems to change his mind at the last moment, and his fist simply glances off the corner of my jaw. The force of his own punch carries Mark to the side, where he stumbles over one of the empty cots, landing in an awkward sitting position.
He stays there, staring at the floor, and takes deep, heaving breaths. I can tell he’s trying not to cry.
“Do you feel better?” I ask, rubbing the middle of my chest.
“No,” he replies. “No, I don’t.”
“What about when we end this war and destroy every Mog that stands in our way? Will you feel better then?”
Marks looks up at me, and what I see on his face surprises me. It’s pity. I realize what I just said wasn’t really a question for him. It’s a question for me. I’m a little afraid to find out the answer.
“That won’t bring her back,” he says.
I don’t respond. I take one last look at Sarah and walk back towards the ship’s exit. In the doorway, I pause and half turn.
“Will you do something for me?” I ask him, my voice low, all the feeling sapped out.
Mark works his thumb across his raw knuckles. “What?”
“I’m going to get our military friends to loan us a vehicle. We’re only a few hours away from Paradise. Would you . . . ?” My voice catches, and I brace one hand on the cool metal of the doorway. “Would you bring her home?”
Mark snorts. When he speaks, that bitterness is back in his voice. “Sure, John. I know you’re busy, so I’ll do the hard part for you. Should I tell her mom you say hi?”
I close my eyes, take a deep breath and let it go.
“Thank you, Mark,” I say without feeling, and then I’m leaving him and Sarah’s body behind. I stride down the ship’s ramp and across the lawn, heading back to the unimposing cabin that currently hides humanity’s best hope for survival. The sun is coming up, a bright orange slash on the horizon, heating the cool blue of the lake. I think of Sarah’s pale face, her icy lips, and then I remember how the sun would filter through her blond hair and she would’ve turned to me during a moment like this and squeezed my hand in that way of hers, and we would’ve shared it together.
I put the memories away. Bury them down somewhere deep. I head inside the cabin with one purpose and one purpose only.
I used to think there could be more for me than running and fighting.
Now all that’s left is killing.
When I wake up, it takes me a moment to realize where the hell I am. Some bad motel art stares down at me from the wood-paneled walls. I’m all tangled up in a scratchy sheet. Must have been tossing and turning like crazy. It feels like I’ve only slept for a few hours.
The Patience Creek Bed & Breakfast. An old spy hangout from the Cold War era. Sam filled me in on the details while he half carried me through the halls. I was so spent and delirious, I’m a little amazed that I retained any of what he’d told me.
He’s next to me. On the other side of the bed. Already awake and sitting up, his feet on the floor, back to me. He hasn’t noticed that I’m stirring yet. Sam scratches his neck and yawns. He took off his shirt to sleep, and I watch him reach out towards the worn gray T-shirt where it hangs over the back of a chair, concentrate and float the shirt towards him with telekinesis.
I smile drowsily. It’s hard to believe this is the same kid who bumbled around the halls of Paradise High School nearly getting himself killed the night we first met. That wasn’t so long ago, but so much has changed. Sam’s still skinny and a little on the gangly side, yet there’s a scrappy layer of muscle on him now. And then there are the scars, fresh pink and upraised on his wrists and forearms, the results of Sam’s time getting tortured by Setrákus Ra.
I put my hand on Sam’s back and trace down the bumps of his spine. He jumps, loses his concentration, and his T-shirt flops out of the air.
“Good morning,” I say quietly. “It is morning, right?”
“Almost noon,” Sam replies as he turns around to look at me with a smile. His eyes linger on me for a moment but then he catches himself, flushes and shyly looks away.
It occurs to me then that I’m not wearing any clothes.
Now I remember what happened. After Ella broke the news to me that I didn’t kill Setrákus Ra, I about broke down. Once Sam got me to his room, he strongly encouraged that I take a shower, and I did, washing off the gray-green dust of what used to be the Sanctuary along with Sarah’s dried blood. I remember very clearly the way that the grime pooled around my toes and circled down the drain. I inhaled steam and pressed my forehead against the cool tiles, let my skin wrinkle and turn bright red from the heat.
And then, at some point, I crawled into bed. Sam had tried to stay awake, I think, but he couldn’t pull it off. He hadn’t left me anything clean to wear, so . . .
“I put some clothes on the desk,” Sam says cautiously.
“Oh, I guess you did,” I say out loud. A loose-fitting flower-print tunic and some jeans that looked dangerously close to bell-bottoms wait for me across the room. I guess we’re picking from whatever leftover garments are floating around the hideout. At least they’re clean.
“I, uh, well, you just kinda fell asleep in here . . . ,” Sam proceeds awkwardly. “I didn’t want to wake you up. Sorry if it’s— Uh, anyway, we can get you your own room. . . .”
“It’s okay, Sam. Relax,” I reply as I sit up, not feeling very modest. I sidle over to him, drape one arm over his shoulder and hook the other around his waist, hugging him close. His skin is warm against mine.
“After what happened, I thought you would . . . I don’t know. Push me away again,” Sam says quietly, half-distracted, probably on account of me kissing the back of his neck.
“Nope,” I reply.
“Good,” he mumbles.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t the most appropriate time. I’ve still got a lot on my mind and on my conscience, but if I learned anything from John and Sarah, it’s that you have to embrace these moments, not run from them. You never know when it might be your last chance.
Of course, we’re interrupted about two minutes later by a knock on the door. Sam leaps off the bed like he’s going to get in trouble, pulls on his shirt and goes to the door. He looks back at me, and I smirk, pulling the sheet up to my chin.
Sam opens the door a crack. I’m surprised to see the young buzz-cut twins who I noticed when we arrived, the ones who were with that General Lawson dude who Sam told me is in charge.
One of them just stares at Sam, completely deadpan. The other, a little friendlier but still economical with his words, announces, “There’s a meeting.”
“All right,” Sam replies. “We’ll be out in a minute.”
The twins raise an eyebrow in unison at Sam’s use of “we.” He shuts the door in their faces.
“Guess we’re on,” he says to me.
“Back to the war,” I reply with a bittersweet smile.
As I begin to get dressed, I nod my head in the direction of the door. There’s a lot about our situation that I still don’t know. Better to get my questions out of the way before we head off to this meeting with the military.
“What’s with the twins?”
“Caleb and Christian.” Sam tells me their names and shrugs. “They’re a couple of military school kids. They’re LANEs.”
“Yeah, they seemed like lames.”
Sam laughs. “No, not ‘lame.’ ‘LANE.’ L-A-N-E. Not sure why I’d expect you to know brand-new acronyms that the government just invented. It means Legacy-Afflicted Native Earthling.”
“Afflicted?” I pause while pulling on my shirt. “They make it sound like a bad thing.”
“Yeah, they use ‘augmented’ instead of ‘afflicted’ when you Garde are around, but my dad saw one of the internal emails.” Sam shrugs apologetically, like he’s the ambassador for all humanity. “I guess the people in charge aren’t entirely sure yet if Legacies are a good thing for a bunch of human teenagers to develop. They’re concerned there could be drawbacks or side effects.”
“Yeah, one of the side effects is that it makes it a lot harder for the Mogs to shoot you in the face.”
“Come on, I know that,” Sam replies. “For your average human, though? This is a lot to take in. I mean, we’ve got two brand-new types of intelligent life to wrap our heads around, and that’s before we even get to how you Loric mutated us.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“Mutated in a good way,” Sam adds.
“So what do those twins do?” I ask, circling back.
He shrugs. “Only telekinesis, as far as I know.”
I’m fully clothed, but I’ve still got more questions. I stand in front of the doorway with my hands on my hips.
“So that Lawson guy. What’s his deal?”
“He was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs back in the nineties, I guess. Retired.”
I give Sam a blank look.
“Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is, like, the highest military posting in America. Reports directly to the president, yadda yadda yadda.” Sam rubs the back of his neck. “I didn’t know what it was either, and I was actually born on this planet.”
“Okay, so what happened to the current chairman?”
“He was MogPro. They brought Lawson back because he’d been retired so long, no one bothered corrupting him. He’s like the human version of this place.”
“Speaking of MogPro, I saw Agent Walker hanging around last night, too,” I say, a little edge to my voice. “You trust her? You trust this Lawson guy?”
“Walker’s all right. She fought alongside us in New York. As for Lawson . . .”
Sam frowns. “I don’t know. Hard for me to trust any kind of organization after MogPro, but they’d have to be crazy to turn on us now—”
While Sam speaks, an old TV set perched on a stand against the far wall suddenly comes to life with a burst of static. We both turn in that direction.
“What the hell?” I ask.
Sam rubs his temples. “This old place is wired weird or something. That TV’s probably filled with spiders.”
“Or hidden cameras.”
Sam smirks at me. “I hope not. Anyway, I don’t think they’re organized enough to be spying on us yet.”
Sam wanders over to the TV and hits the button to turn it off. Nothing happens.
“See? Broken,” he says, before smacking the side of the TV. “Come on!”
When Sam speaks, all the electronics in the room—the TV, the nightstand lamp, the ancient rotary phone—they all flare to life for a second. A burst of static from the TV, a flicker of light from the lamp, a shrill ring from the phone. Sam doesn’t notice. He’s too busy unplugging the TV from the wall, which finally turns it off.
“See? Crazy. Whole place is nuts.”
I stare at him. “Sam, it’s not the wiring. It’s you.”
“You did that just now with the electronics,” I tell him. “I think you’re developing a new Legacy.”
Sam’s eyebrows shoot up, and he looks down at his hands. “What? Already?”
“Yeah, they come on quick once the telekinesis manifests,” I reply. “You saw that kid in Ella’s dream-share thing. The German.”
“Bertrand the Beekeeper,” Sam says, reminding me of his name. “Daniela got one, too. I guess I didn’t think it would happen so soon for me. I’m still getting used to being telekinetic.”
I don’t know who Daniela is, but I nod along anyway. “The Entity knew the world needs protecting in a hurry.”
“Huh,” Sam says, mulling this over. “So, it’s something to do with electronics.”
He turns back to the TV and thrusts his palms at it. He succeeds in emitting a telekinetic burst that knocks the TV off its stand and to the floor with a loud crash.
“Well, you’ve got the telekinesis down at least.”
Sam turns to me. “If you’re right, how do I get it to work?”
Before I can tell Sam that I have no idea, we’re interrupted by another knock on the door. A second later, one of the twins’ muffled voice reaches us.
“Uh, whatever you guys are doing in there, could it wait? General Lawson told us if we didn’t round everyone up by oh-nine-hundred, it’d be our asses.”
I exchange a look with Sam. “We’ll talk about this later,” I say.
He nods, and we open the door to join the two sullen military cadets. As we head down the hallway, Sam stares at every overhead light like an enemy that needs to be conquered.
What did you think of the excerpt of United As One? Tell us your thoughts on the chapters you just read in the comments below! Can’t wait for more? Buy a copy from your favorite indie bookstore or online here!
There’s no such thing as safe.THIS SAVAGE SONG by Victoria Schwab is dark urban fantasy about a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. Read the first three chapters below and then read hte rest when it comes out July 5th!
The night Kate Harker decided to burn down the school chapel, she wasn’t angry or drunk. She was desperate.
Burning down the church was really a last resort; she’d already broken a girl’s nose, smoked in the dormitories, cheated on her first exam, and verbally harassed three of the nuns. But no matter what she did, St. Agnes Academy kept forgiving her. That was the problem with Catholic schools. They saw her as someone to be saved.
But Kate didn’t need salvation; she simply needed out.
It was almost midnight when her shoes hit the grass below the dorm window. The witching hour, people used to call it, that dark time when restless spirits reached for freedom. Restless spirits, and teenage girls trapped in boarding schools too far from home.
She made her way down the manicured stone path that ran from the dormitories to the Chapel of the Cross, a bag slung over her shoulder, bottles inside clinking together like spurs in rhythm with her steps. The bottles had all fit, save for one, a vintage wine from Sister Merilee’s private store that hung from her fingertips.
Bells began to chime the hour, soft and low, but they were coming from the larger Chapel of the Saints on the other side of campus. That one was never fully unattended—Mother Alice, the school’s head-mistress-nun-whatever, slept in a room off the chapel, and even if Kate had wanted to burn down that particular building, she wasn’t stupid enough to add murder to arson. Not when the price for violence was so steep.
The doors to the smaller chapel were kept locked at night, but Kate had pocketed a key earlier that day while enduring one of Sister Merilee’s lectures on finding grace. She let herself in and set the bag down just inside the door. The chapel was darker than she’d ever seen it, the blue stained glass registering black in the moonlight. A dozen pews separated her from the altar, and for a moment she almost felt bad about setting fire to the quaint little place. But it wasn’t the school’s only chapel—it wasn’t even the nicest—and if the nuns at St. Agnes had preached about anything, it was the importance of sacrifice.
Kate had burned through two boarding schools (metaphorically speaking) in her first year of exile, another one in her second, hoping that would be it. But her father was determined (she had to get it from someone) and kept digging up more options. The fourth, a reform school for troubled teens, had stuck it out for almost a year before giving up the ghost. The fifth, an all-boys academy willing to make an exception in exchange for a healthy endowment, lasted only a few short months, but her father must have had this hellish convent of a prep school on speed dial, a place already reserved, because she’d been packed off without so much as a detour back to V-City.
Six schools in five years.
But this was it. It had to be.
Kate crouched on the wooden floor, unzipped the bag, and got to work.
The night was too quiet in the wake of the bells, the chapel eerily still, and she started humming a hymn as she unpacked the duffel: two bottles of jack and almost a full fifth of vodka, both salvaged from a box of confiscated goods, along with three bottles of house red, a decades-old whiskey from Mother Alice’s cabinet, and Sister Merilee’s vintage. She lined the contents up on the back pew before crossing to the prayer candles. Beside the three tiers of shallow glass bowls sat a dish of matches, the old-fashioned kind with long wooden stems.
Still humming, Kate returned to the liquor cabinet on the pew and unscrewed and uncorked the various bottles, anointing the seats, row after row, trying to make the contents last. She saved Mother Alice’s whiskey for the wooden podium at the front. A Bible sat open on top, and in a moment of superstition, Kate spared the book, lobbing it out the open front door and onto the grass. When she stepped back inside, the damp, sweet smell of alcohol assaulted her senses. She coughed and spit the acrid taste from her mouth.
At the far end of the chapel, a massive crucifix hung above the altar, and even in the darkened hall, she could feel the statue’s gaze on her as she lifted the match.
Forgive me father for I have sinned, she thought, striking it against the doorframe.
“Nothing personal,” she added aloud as the match flared to life, sudden and bright. For a long moment Kate watched it burn, fire creeping toward her fingers. And then, just before it got too close, she dropped the match onto the seat of the nearest pew. It caught instantly and spread with an audible whoosh, the fire consuming only the alcohol at first, then taking hold of the wood beneath. In moments, the pews were going up, and then the floor, and at last the altar. The fire grew, and grew, and grew, from a flame the size of her nail to a blaze with a life of its own, and Kate stood, mesmerized, watching it dance and climb and consume inch after inch until the heat and the smoke finally forced her out into the cool night.
Run, said a voice in her head—soft, urgent, instinctual—as the chapel burned.
She resisted the urge and instead sank onto a bench a safe distance from the fire, trailing her shoes back and forth through the late summer grass.
If she squinted, she could see the light of the nearest subcity on the horizon: Des Moines. An old-fashioned name, a relic from the time before the reconstruction. There were half a dozen of them, scattered around Verity’s periphery—but none had more than a million people, their populations locked in, locked down, and none of them held a candle to the capital. That was the idea. No one wanted to attract the monsters. Or Callum Harker.
She drew out her lighter—a beautiful silver thing Mother Alice had confiscated the first week—and turned it over and over in her hands to keep them steady. When that failed, she drew a cigarette from her shirt pocket—another bounty from the confiscation box—and lit it, watching the small blue flame dance before the massive orange blaze.
She took a drag and closed her eyes.
Where are you, Kate? she asked herself.
It was a game she sometimes played, ever since she learned about the theory of infinite parallels, the idea that a person’s path through life wasn’t really a line, but a tree, every decision a divergent branch, resulting in a divergent you. She liked the idea that there were a hundred different Kates, living a hundred different lives.
Maybe in one of them, there were no monsters.
Maybe her family was still whole.
Maybe she and her mother had never left home.
Maybe they’d never come back.
Maybe, maybe, maybe—and if there were a hundred lives, a hundred Kates, then she was only one of them, and that one was exactly who she was supposed to be. And in the end, it was easier to do what she had to if she could believe that somewhere else, another version of her got to make another choice. Got to live a better—or at least simpler—life. Maybe she was even sparing them. Allowing another Kate to stay sane and safe.
Where are you? she wondered.
Lying in a field. Staring up at stars.
The night is warm. The air is clean.
The grass is cool beneath my back.
There are no monsters in the dark.
How nice, thought Kate as, in front of her, the chapel caved in, sending up a wave of embers.
Sirens wailed in the distance, and she straightened up on the bench.
Here we go.
Within minutes girls came pouring out of the dormitories, and Mother Alice appeared in a robe, pale face painted red by the light of the still-burning church. Kate had the pleasure of hearing the prestigious old nun let out a string of colorful words before the fire trucks pulled up and the sirens drowned out everything.
Even Catholic schools had their limits.
An hour later, Kate was sitting in the rear seat of a local patrol car, courtesy of Des Moines, hands cuffed in her lap. The vehicle barreled through the night, across the dark expanse of land that formed the northeast corner of Verity, away from the safety of the periphery, and toward the capital.
Kate shifted in the seat, trying to get more comfortable as the cruiser sped on. Verity was three days across by car, and she figured they were still a good four hours outside the capital, an hour from the edge of the Waste—but there was no way this local officer was taking a vehicle like this through a place like that. The car didn’t have much in the way of reinforcement, only its iron trim and the UVR—ultraviolet-reinforced—high beams tearing crisp lines through the darkness.
The man’s knuckles were white on the wheel.
She thought of telling him not to worry, not yet—they were far enough out; the edges of Verity were still relatively safe, because none of the things that went bump in the capital wanted to cross the Waste to get to them, not when there were still plenty of people to eat closer to V-City. But then he shot her a nasty look and she decided to let him stew.
She rolled her head, good ear against the leather seat as she stared out into the dark.
The road ahead looked empty, the night thick, and she studied her reflection in the window. It was strange, how only the obvious parts showed up against the darkened glass—light hair, sharp jaw, dark eyes—not the scar like a drying tear in the corner of her eye, or the one that traced her hairline from temple to jaw.
Back at St. Agnes, the Chapel of the Cross was probably a charred husk by now.
The growing crowd of girls in their pajamas had crossed themselves at the sight of it (Nicole Teak, whose nose Kate had recently broken, flashed a smug grin, as if Kate was getting what she deserved, as if she hadn’t wanted to get caught), and Mother Alice had said a prayer for her soul as she was escorted off the premises.
Good riddance, St. Agnes.
The cop said something, but the words broke down before they reached her, leaving nothing but muffled sounds.
“What?” she asked, feigning disinterest as she turned her head.
“Almost there,” he muttered, still obviously bitter that someone had forced him to drive her this far instead of dropping her in a cell for the night.
They passed a sign—235 miles to V-City. They were getting closer to the Waste, the buffer that ran between the capital and the rest of Verity. A moat, thought Kate, one with its own monsters. There was no clear border, but you could feel the shift, like a shoreline, the ground sloping away, even though it stayed flat. The last towns gave way to barren fields, and the world went from quiet to empty.
A few more painfully silent miles—the cop refused to turn on the radio—and then a side road broke the monotony of the main stretch, and the patrol car veered onto it, wheels slipping from asphalt to gravel before grumbling to a stop.
Anticipation flickered dully in Kate’s chest as the cop switched on his surrounds, UVR brights that cast an arc of light around the car. They weren’t alone; a black transport vehicle idled on the side of the narrow road, the only signs of life its UVR undercarriage, the red of its brake lights, and the low rumble of its engine. The cop’s circle of light glanced off the transport’s tinted windows and landed on the metal tracery capable of running one hundred thousand volts into anything that got too close. This was a vehicle designed to cross the Waste—and whatever waited in it.
Kate smiled, the same smile Nicole had flashed her outside the church—smug, no teeth. Not a happy smile, but a victorious one. The cop got out, opened her door, and hauled her up off the backseat by her elbow. He unlocked the cuffs, grumbling to himself about politics and privilege while Kate rubbed her wrists.
“Free to go?”
He crossed his arms. She took that as a yes, and started toward the transport, then turned back, and held out her hand. “You have something of mine,” she said.
He didn’t move.
Kate’s eyes narrowed. She snapped her fingers and the man shot a look at the rumbling tank of a car behind her before digging the silver lighter from his pocket.
Her fingers curled around the smooth metal and she turned away, but not before she caught the word bitch in her good ear. She didn’t bother looking back. She climbed into the transport, sank against the leather seat, and listened to the sound of the cop car retreating. Her driver was on the phone. He met her eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Yeah, I’ve got her. Yeah, okay. Here.” He passed the cell back through the partition, and Kate’s pulse quickened as she took it and brought it to her left ear.
“Katherine. Olivia. Harker.”
The voice on the line was low thunder, rumbling earth. Not loud, but forceful, the kind of voice that demanded respect, if not outright fear, the kind of voice Kate had been practicing for years, but it still sent an involuntary shiver through her.
“Hello, Father,” she said, careful to keep her own voice steady.
“Are you proud of yourself, Katherine?”
She studied her nails. “Quite.”
“St. Agnes makes six.”
“Hmm?” she murmured, feigning distraction.
“Six schools. In five years.”
“Well, the nuns said I could do anything if I put my mind to it. Or was that the teachers back at Wild Prior? I’m starting to lose track—”
“Enough.” The word was like a punch to the chest. “You can’t keep doing this.”
“I know,” she said, fighting to be the right Kate, the one she wanted to be around him, the one who deserved to be around him. Not the girl lying in the field or the one crying in a car right before it crashed. The one who wasn’t afraid of anything. Anyone. Not even him. She couldn’t manage that smug smile, but she pictured it, held the image in her head. “I know,” she said again. “And I have to imagine these kinds of stunts are getting hard to cover up. And expensive.”
“You know why, Dad,” she said, cutting him off. “You know what I want.” She listened to him exhale on the other side of the line, and tipped her head back against the leather. The transport’s sky roof was open, and she could see the stars dotting the heavy dark.
“I want to come home.”
It began with a bang.
August read the words for the fifth time without taking them in. He was sitting at the kitchen counter, rolling an apple in circles with one hand and pinning open a book about the universe with the other. Night had swept in beyond the steel-shuttered windows of the compound, and he could feel the city pulling at him through the walls. He checked his watch, the cuff of his shirt inching up to reveal the lowest of the black tally marks. His sister’s voice drifted in from the other room, though the words weren’t meant for him, and from the nineteen floors below he could hear the layered noise of voices, the rhythm of boots, the metallic snap of a gun being loaded, and the thousand other fragmented sounds that formed the music of the Flynn compound. He dragged his attention back to the book.
It began with a bang.
The words reminded him of a T. S. Eliot poem, “The Hollow Men.” Not with a bang but a whimper. Of course, one was talking about the beginning of life and the other about the end, but it still got August thinking: about the universe, about time, about himself. The thoughts fell like dominoes inside his head, one knocking into the next into the next into the—
August’s head flicked up an instant before the steel kitchen door slid open, and Henry came in. Henry Flynn, tall and slim, with a surgeon’s hands. He was dressed in the task force’s standard dark camo, a silver star pinned to his shirt, a star that had been his brother’s once and before that his father’s and before that his great-uncle’s, and on, rolling back fifty years, before the collapse and the reconstruction and the founding of Verity, and probably even before, because a Flynn had always been at the beating heart of this city.
“Hi, Dad,” said August, trying not to sound like he’d been waiting all night for this.
“August,” said Henry, setting an HUV—high-density UV beacon—on the counter. “How’s it going?”
August stopped rolling the apple, closed the book, forced himself to sit still, even though a still body was a busy mind—something to do with the potential and kinetic energy, if he had to guess; all he knew was that he was a body in search of motion.
“You okay?” asked Henry when he didn’t answer.
August swallowed. He couldn’t lie, so why was it so hard to tell the truth?
“I can’t keep doing this,” he said.
Henry eyed the book. “Astronomy?” he said asked with false lightness. “So take a break.”
August looked his father in the eyes. Henry Flynn had kind eyes and a sad mouth, or sad eyes and a kind mouth; he could never keep them straight. Faces had so many features, infinitely divisible, and yet they all added up to single, identifiable expressions like pride, disgust, frustration, fatigue—he was losing his train of thought again. He fought to catch it before it rolled out of reach. “I’m not talking about the book.”
“August . . . ,” started Henry, because he already knew where this was going. “We’re not having this discussion.”
“But if you’d just—”
“The task force is off the table.”
The steel door slid open again and Emily Flynn walked in with a box of supplies and set them on the counter. She was a fraction taller than her husband, her shoulders broader, with dark skin, a halo of short hair, and a holster on her hip. Emily had a soldier’s gait, but she shared Henry’s tired eyes and set jaw. “Not this again,” she said.
“I’m surrounded by the FTF all the time,” protested August. “Whenever I go anywhere, I dress like them. Is it such a step for me to be one of them?”
“Yes,” said Henry.
“It isn’t safe,” added Emily as she started unpacking the food. “Is Ilsa in her room? I thought we could—”
But August wouldn’t let it go. “Nowhere is safe,” he cut in. “That’s the whole point. Your people are out there risking their lives every day against those things, and I’m in here reading about stars, pretending like everything is fine.”
Emily shook her head and drew a knife from a slot on the counter. She started chopping vegetables, creating order of chaos, one slice at a time. “The compound is safe, August. At least safer than the streets right now.”
“Which is why I should be out there helping in the red.”
“You do your part,” said Henry. “That’s—”
“What are you so afraid of?” snapped August.
Emily set the knife down with a click. “Do you even have to ask?”
“You think I’ll get hurt?” And then, before she could answer, August was on his feet. In a single, fluid move he took up the knife and drove it down into his hand. Henry flinched, and Emily sucked in a breath, but the blade glanced off August’s skin as if it were stone, the tip burying in the chopping block beneath. The kitchen went very quiet.
“You act as though I’m made of glass,” he said, letting go of the knife. “But I’m not.” He took her hands, the way he’d seen Henry do so many times. “Em,” he said, softly. “Mom. I’m not fragile. I’m the opposite of fragile.”
“You’re not invincible, either,” she said. “Not—”
“I’m not putting you out there,” Henry cut in. “If Harker’s men catch you—”
“You let Leo lead the entire task force,” countered August. “His face is plastered everywhere, and he is still alive.”
“That’s different,” said Henry and Emily at the same time.
“How?” he challenged.
Emily brought her hands to August’s face, the way she did when he was a child—but that wasn’t the right word. He’d never been a child, not really, children didn’t come together fully formed in the middle of a crime scene. “We just want to protect you. Leo’s been part of the campaign from day one. But that makes him a constant target. And the more ground we gain in this city, the more Harker’s men will try to exploit our weaknesses and steal our strengths.”
“And which am I?” asked August, pulling away. “Your weakness, or your strength?”
Emily’s warm brown eyes went wide and flat as the word spilled out. “Both.”
It was unfair to ask, but the truth still stung.
“Where is this coming from?” asked Henry, rubbing his eyes. “You don’t really want to fight.”
He was right, August didn’t want to fight—not on the streets in the dead of night, and not here with his family—but there was this horrible vibration in his bones, something struggling to get out, a melody getting louder and louder in his head. “No,” he said. “But I want to help.”
“You already do,” insisted Henry. “The task force can only treat the symptoms. You and Ilsa and Leo, you treat the disease. That’s how it works.”
But it’s not working! August wanted to shout. The V-City truce had held for only six years—Harker on one side, and Flynn on the other—and it was already fraying. Everyone knew it wouldn’t hold. Every night, more death crept across the Seam. There were too many monsters, and not enough good men.
“Please,” he said. “I can do more if you let me.”
“August . . . ,” started Henry.
He held up his hand. “Just promise me you’ll think about it.” And with that he backed out of the kitchen before his parents were forced to tell him the truth.
August’s room was an exercise in entropy and order, a kind of contained chaos. It was small and windowless, close in a way that would have been claustrophobic if it weren’t so familiar. Books had long outgrown their shelves and were now stacked in precarious piles on and around his bed, several more open and splayed, pages down, across the sheets. Some people favored a genre or subject; August had little preference, so long as it wasn’t fiction—he wanted to learn everything about the world as it was, had been, could be. As someone who had come quite suddenly into being, like the end of a magic trick, he feared the tenuous nature of his existence, feared that at any moment he might simply cease to be again.
The books were stacked by subject: astronomy, religion, history, philosophy.
He was homeschooled, which really meant he was self-schooled—sometimes Ilsa tried to help, when her mind worked in columns instead of knots, but his brother, Leo, had no patience for books, and Henry and Emily were too busy, so most of the time August was on his own. And most of the time it was okay. Or rather, it used to be okay. He wasn’t sure when exactly the insulation had started to feel like isolation, just that it had.
The only other thing in his room besides furniture and books was a violin. It sat in an open case balanced across two stacks of books, and August drifted instinctively toward it, but resisted the urge to take it up and play. Instead he nudged a copy of Plato off his pillow and slumped down onto the tangled sheets.
The room was stuffy, and he pushed up the sleeves of his shirt, revealing the hundreds of black tallies that started at his left wrist and worked their way up, over elbow and shoulder, around collarbone and rib.
Tonight there were four hundred and twelve.
August pushed the dark hair out of his eyes and listened to Henry and Emily Flynn, still in the kitchen, as they talked on in their soft-spoken way, about him, and the city, and the truce.
What would happen if it actually broke? When. Leo always said when.
August hadn’t been alive to see the territory wars that broke out in the wake of the Phenomenon, had only heard tales of the bloodshed. But he could see the fear in Flynn’s eyes whenever the topic came up—which was more and more often. Leo didn’t seem worried—he claimed that Henry had won the territory war, that whatever happened to cause the truce was their doing, that they could do it again.
“When it comes,” Leo would say, “we will be ready.”
“No,” Flynn would answer, his expression bleak, “no one is ready for that.”
Eventually, the voices in the other room faded, and August was left alone with his thoughts. He closed his eyes, seeking peace, but as soon as the silence settled it was broken, the distant stutter of gunfire echoing against his skull as it always did—the sound invading every quiet moment.
It began with a bang.
He rolled over and dug the music player out from under his pillow, pressing the buds into his ears and hitting play. Classical music flared, loud and bright and wonderful, and he sank back into the melody as numbers wandered through his head.
Twelve. Six. Four.
Twelve years since the Phenomenon, when violence started taking shape, and V-City fell apart.
Six years since the truce that put it back together, not as one city, but two.
And four since the day he woke up in a middle-school cafeteria as it was being cordoned off with crime-scene tape.
“Oh God,” someone had said, taking him by the elbow. “Where did you come from?” And then, shouting to someone else, “I’ve found a boy!” She’d knelt down so she was looking into his face, and he could tell that she was trying to block his view of something. Something terrible. “What’s your name, hon?”
August had looked up at her blankly.
“Must be in shock,” said a man.
“Get him out of here,” said another.
The woman took his hands. “Honey, I want you to close your eyes.” That was when he saw past her. To the black sheets, lined up like tallies on the floor.
The first symphony ended in August’s ears, and a moment later, the second started up. He could pick out every chord, every note; yet if he focused hard enough, he could still hear his father’s murmur, his mother’s pacing. Which is why he had no trouble hearing the triple beep of Henry’s cell. No trouble hearing him answer it or catching the words when his voice dipped lower, threading with concern.
“When? You’re sure? When was she enrolled? No, no, I’m glad you told me. Okay. Yes, I know. I’ll handle it.”
The call ended, and Henry went silent before speaking again, this time with Leo. August had heard everything but his brother’s return. They were talking about him.
He sat up, yanking the buds from his ears.
“Give him what he wants,” Leo was saying in his low, even way. “You treat him more like a pet than a son, when he’s neither. We are soldiers, Flynn. We are holy fire. . . .” August rolled his eyes. He appreciated his brother’s vote of confidence, but could do without the righteousness. “And you’re smothering him.”
That much he agreed with.
Emily joined in. “We’re trying to—”
“To protect him?” chided Leo. “When the truce falls apart, this compound will not keep him safe.”
“We’re not sending him behind enemy lines.”
“You’ve been given an opportunity. I simply suggest you use it. . . .”
“Is not that great, as long as he’s careful. And the advantage—”
August was sick of being talked about as if he weren’t there, as if he couldn’t hear, so he shoved to his feet, upsetting a tower of books on his way past. He was too late—the conversation was over by the time he opened his door. Leo was gone, and his father was reaching out, as if about to knock.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Henry didn’t try to hold back the truth. “You were right,” he said. “You deserve the chance to help. And I think I’ve found a way.”
August broke into a smile.
“Whatever it is,” he said, “I’m in.”
MONSTER, MAY I?
This was not what August had in mind.
The schoolbag sagged open on the bed, spilling supplies—and the uniform was way too tight. Emily claimed that was the style, but August felt like the clothes were trying to strangle him. The Flynn Task Force outfits were flexible, designed for combat, but the Colton Academy uniform was stiff, suffocating. His shirtsleeves came to rest just above his wrist bones, and the lowest of the black tallies on his forearm—now four hundred and eighteen—showed every time he crooked his elbow. August growled and tugged the fabric down again. He ran a comb through his hair, which didn’t really stop the black curls from falling into his pale eyes, but at least he tried.
He straightened and found his gaze in the mirror, but his expression stared back with a vacancy that made him shudder. On Leo, the expressionless planes of his face registered as confidence. On Ilsa, the evenness read as serenity. But August just looked lost. He’d studied Henry and Emily and everyone else he came across, from the FTF cadets to the sinners, tried to memorize the way their features lit up with excitement, twisted with anger or guilt. He spent hours in front of the mirror, trying to master the nuances and re-create those faces, while Leo looked on with his flat black stare.
“You’re wasting your time,” his brother would say.
But Leo was wrong; those hours were going to pay off. August blinked—another natural act that felt unnatural, affected—managed a tiny, thoughtful crease between his brows, and recited the words he’d practiced.
“My name is—Freddie Gallagher.” There was a slight hitch before the F, as the words scratched his throat. It wasn’t a lie, not really—it was a borrowed name, just like August. He didn’t have one of his own. Henry had chosen the name August and now August chose the name Freddie, and they both belonged to him, just as neither did. That’s what he told himself, over and over and over until he believed it, because truth wasn’t the same thing as fact. It was personal. He swallowed, tried the second line, the one meant only for him. “I am not a . . .”
But his throat closed up. The words got stuck.
I am not a monster, that’s what he wanted to say, but he couldn’t. He hadn’t found a way to make it true.
“Don’t you look handsome,” came a voice from the door.
August’s gaze traveled up a fraction in the mirror to see his sister, Ilsa, leaning in the doorway, wearing the barest hint of a smile. She was older than August, but she looked like a doll, her long, strawberry-blond hair pulled up in its usual messy nest, and her large blue eyes feverish, as if she hadn’t slept (she rarely did).
“Handsome,” she said, pushing off the door, “but not happy.” Ilsa padded forward into the room, her bare feet moving effortlessly around the books, though she never looked down. “You should be happy, little brother. Isn’t this what you wanted?”
Was it? August had always imagined himself in FTF fatigues, guarding the Seam and protecting South City. Like Leo. He heard the troops talk about his brother as if he were a god, keeping the darkness at bay with nothing but the piece of music in his head. Feared. Worshiped. August straightened his collar, which made his sleeves ride up again. He tugged them down as Ilsa snaked her arms around his shoulders. He stilled. Leo refused such contact, and August didn’t know what to make of it—too often touching was a part of taking—but Ilsa had always been like this, tactile, and he reached up and touched her arm.
Where his skin was marked with short black lines, hers was covered in stars. A whole sky’s worth, or so he thought. August had never seen more than a handful of real stars on nights when the grid went down. But he’d heard about places where the city lights didn’t reach, where there were so many stars you could see by them, even on a moonless night.
“You’re dreaming,” said Ilsa in her singsong way. She rested her chin on top of his shoulder, and squinted. “What is that in your eyes?”
“That speck. Right there. Is it fear?”
He found her gaze in the mirror. “Maybe,” he admitted. He hadn’t set foot in a school, not since the day of his catalyst, and nerves rang like bells behind his ribs. But there was something else, too, a strange excitement at the idea of playing normal, and every time he tried to untangle how he felt, he just ended up in knots.
“They’re setting you free,” said Ilsa. She spun him around and leaned in until her face was barely an inch from his. Mint. She always smelled like mint. “Be happy, little brother.” But then the joy fell out of her voice, and her blue eyes darkened, sliding from noon blue to twilight without a blink between. “And be careful.”
August managed a ghost of a smile for her. “I’m always careful, Ilsa.”
But she didn’t seem to hear. She was shaking her head now, a slow, side-to-side motion that didn’t stop when it should. Ilsa got tangled up so easily, sometimes for a few moments, sometimes a few days.
“It’s okay,” he said gently, trying to draw her back.
“The city is such a big place,” she said, her voice tight as strings. “It’s full of holes. Don’t fall in.”
Ilsa hadn’t left the Flynn compound in six years. Not since the day of the truce. August didn’t know the details, not all of them, but he knew his sister stayed inside, no matter what.
“I’ll watch my step,” he said.
Her fingers tightened on his arms. And then her eyes lightened and she was there again. “Of course you will,” she said, all sunshine.
She kissed the top of his head, and he ducked out of her arms and went to his bed, where his violin case sat open, the beautiful instrument waiting inside. August wanted to play—the desire a hollow weight in his chest, like hunger—but he only let himself run his fingers over the wood before snapping the case shut.
He checked his watch as he moved through the dark apartment. 6:15. Even here, twenty stories up, at the top of the Flynn compound, the first morning light was still buried behind the sprawl of buildings to the east.
In the kitchen he found a black lunch bag with a note pinned to the front:
Have a great first day.
I hope you don’t mind, I took a bite.
When August opened the bag, he saw that everything inside, from the sandwich to the candy bar, was already half-eaten. It was a sweet gesture, really. Emily hadn’t just packed him a lunch. She’d packed an excuse. If anyone bothered to ask, he could say he’d already eaten.
Only a green apple sat, untouched, in the bottom of the bag.
The kitchen lights came on as he was shoving the lunch sack in his bag, and Henry wandered in, nursing a cup of coffee. He still looked tired. He always looked tired.
“August,” he said with a yawn.
“Dad. You’re up early.”
Henry was practically nocturnal. He had a saying—the monsters hunt at night, and so must we—but lately his nights had gotten even longer. August tried to imagine what he must have been like, back before the Phenomenon—before violence gave way to the Corsai and the Malchai and the Sunai, before the anarchy, the closed borders, the infighting, the chaos. Before Henry lost his parents, his brothers, his first wife. Before he became the Flynn the city turned to, the only Flynn it had. The creator of the FTF, and the only man willing to stand up to a glorified criminal and fight.
August had seen photos, but the man in them had bright eyes and an easy smile. He looked like he belonged in a different world. A different life.
“Big day.” Henry yawned again. “I wanted to see you off.”
It was the truth, but not the whole truth. “You’re worried,” observed August.
“Of course I am.” Henry clutched his coffee cup. “Do we need to go over the rules again?”
“No,” answered August, but Henry kept talking anyway.
“You go straight to Colton. You come straight home. If the route falls through, you call. If security’s too tight, you call. If there’s any trouble—anything at all—even a bad feeling, August—”
Henry’s brow creased, and August straightened. “It’s going to be fine.” They’d gone through the plan a hundred times in the last week, making sure everything was in order. He checked his watch. Again the tallies showed. Again he covered them. He didn’t know why he bothered. “I better get going.”
Henry nodded. “I know this isn’t what you wanted, and I hope it proves unnecessary, but—”
August frowned. “Do you really think the truce will break?” He tried to picture V-City as it must have been, two halves at war along a bloody center. In North City, Harker. In South City, Flynn. Those wanting to pay for their safety against those willing to fight for it. Die for it.
Henry rubbed his eyes. “I hope it holds,” he said, “for all our sakes.” It was a deflection, but August let it go.
“Get some rest, Dad.”
Henry smiled grimly and shook his head. “No rest for the wicked,” he said, and August knew he wasn’t referring to himself.
He headed for the elevators, but someone was already there, his shape silhouetted by the light of the open doors.
The voice was low and smooth, almost hypnotizing, and a second later the shadow shifted and stepped forward, resolving into a man with broad shoulders and a wiry form, all lean muscle and long bone. The FTF fatigues fit him perfectly, and beneath his rolled sleeves, small black crosses circled both forearms. Above a chiseled jaw, fair hair swept down into eyes as black as pitch. The only imperfection was a small scar running through his left eyebrow—a relic from his first years—but despite the mark, Leo Flynn looked more god than monster.
August felt himself standing taller, trying to mirror his brother’s posture before he remembered that it was too rigid for a student. He slouched again, only this time too far, and then couldn’t remember what normal looked like. All the while, Leo’s black eyes hovered on him, unblinking. Even when he was flesh and blood, he didn’t quite pass for human.
“The young Sunai, off to school.” There was no uptick in his voice, no question.
“Let me guess,” said August, managing a crooked grin, “you wanted to see me off as well? Tell me to have fun?”
Leo cocked his head. He’d never been very good at sarcasm—none of them were, really, but August had picked up scraps from the guys in the FTF.
“Your enjoyment is hardly my concern,” said Leo. “But your focus is. Not even out the door, August, and you’ve already forgotten something.”
He lobbed an object through the air and August caught it, cringing at the contact. It was a North City medallion, embossed with a V on one side and a series of numbers on the other. Made of iron, the medal prickled unpleasantly against his palm. Pure metal repelled monsters: Corsai and Malchai couldn’t touch the stuff; Sunai simply didn’t like to (all the FTF uniforms were traced with it, but his and Leo’s had been woven with an alloy).
“Do I really have to wear this?” he asked. The prolonged contact was already making him nauseous.
“If you want to pass for one of them,” said Leo simply. “If you want to get caught and slaughtered, then by all means, leave it off.” August swallowed, and slid the pendant over his head. “It’s a solid forgery,” continued his brother. “It’ll pass a cursory inspection by any human eye, but don’t be caught north of the Seam after dark. I wouldn’t test it against anything that actually comes to heel at Harker’s side.”
Of course, it wasn’t the metal alone that kept the monsters at bay. It was Harker’s sigil. His law.
August settled the medallion against his shirt, zipping up the FTF-issued jacket over it. But as he moved to step into the elevator, Leo barred his path. “Have you eaten recently?”
He swallowed, but the words were already rising in his throat. There was a difference between the inability to lie and the need to speak the truth, but silent omission was a luxury he didn’t have when it came to his brother. When a Sunai asked a question, he commanded an answer. “I’m not hungry.”
“August,” chided Leo. “You’re always hungry.”
He flinched. “I’ll eat later.”
Leo didn’t respond, only watched him, black eyes narrowed, and before he could say anything else—or make August say anything else—August pushed past him. Or at least, he tried to. He was halfway to the elevator when Leo’s hand snapped out and closed over his. The one holding his violin case.
“Then you don’t need this.”
August went stiff. In four years, he’d never left the compound without the instrument. The thought made him dizzy.
“What if something happens?” he asked, panic climbing.
A ghost of amusement rippled through Leo’s features. “Then you’ll just have to get your hands dirty.” With that, he pulled the case from August’s grip and nudged him into the elevator. August stumbled, then turned back, his hands prickling with the sudden absence of the violin.
“Good-bye, brother,” said Leo, punching the button for the lobby.
“Have fun at school,” he added as the doors slid shut.
August shoved his hands into his pockets as the elevator plunged twenty floors. The compound was part skyscraper, part base of operations, all fortress. A concrete beast, steel, barbed wire, and Plexiglas, most of it dedicated to barracks housing members of the task force. The vast majority of the FTF’s sixty thousand officers were housed in other barracks across the city, but the nearly a thousand stationed at the compound served as camouflage as much as anything. The fewer people coming in and out of the building, the more each one stood out. And if you were Harker, trying to ferret out Flynn’s three Sunai, his secret weapons, you were keeping track of every face. It wasn’t so much a problem for Leo, since he was the face of the FTF, or Ilsa, since she never left the compound, but Henry was determined to keep August’s identity a secret.
On the ground floor, people were already streaming in and out of the building (with the night curfew as it was, days started early), and August moved with them, as if he were one of them, across the concrete lobby and through the guarded doors and onto the street. The morning washed over him, warm and bright and tarnished only by the disk of metal scratching against his skin and the absence of his violin.
Sunlight seeped between the buildings, and August took a deep breath and looked up at the Flynn compound looming overhead. Four years of hardly ever going out, and even then, almost always at night. Now here he was. Outside. Alone. Twenty-four million people in this supercity at last count, and he was only one of them, just another face in the morning commute. For one, dazzling, infinite moment, August felt like he was standing on a precipice, the end of one world and the beginning of another, a whisper and a bang.
And then his watch beeped, dragging him back from the edge, and he set off.
The black sedan cut through the city like a knife.
Kate watched as it carved down streets, across bridges, the traffic splitting like flesh as the car sliced its way through North City. Outside, the morning was loud and bright, but from within, it looked like an old movie, all the color leeched out by the tinted windows. Classical music piped through the radio, soft but steady, reinforcing the illusion of calm that most people bought into so willingly. When she asked the driver, a stone-faced man named Marcus, to change the station, and he ignored the request, she put her left earbud in and hit play. Her world became a heavy beat, a rhythm, an angry voice, as she leaned back into the leather bench of the backseat and let the city slide past. From here, it looked almost normal.
V-City was a place Kate knew only in glimpses, snapshots, time-lapse moments strung together with years of space between each one. She’d been sent away once for her own safety, stolen a second time in the dead of night, and banished a third for her mother’s crimes. But she was finally back where she belonged. In her father’s city. At her father’s side.
And this time, she wasn’t going anywhere.
Kate fiddled with her lighter as she studied the tablet propped in her lap, a map of V-City filling the screen. At first glance, it looked like every other supercity—a high-density center trailing off at the edges—but when she tapped the screen with a metallic nail, a new layer of information appeared.
A black line cut across the image from left to right, bisecting the city. The Seam. In reality, it wasn’t a straight line, but it was a hard one, carving V-City in two. Stand on the North side, and you were in Callum Harker’s territory. Stand on the South side, and you were in Henry Flynn’s. Such a simplistic solution to six messy, brutal years of fighting, of sabotage and murder and monsters. Draw a line in the sand. Stay on your half. No wonder it wasn’t holding up.
Flynn was an idealist, and it was well and good to talk of justice, to have a “cause,” but at the end of the day his people were dying. Flesh and bone versus tooth and claw.
V-City didn’t need a moral code. It needed someone willing to take control. Someone willing to get his hands dirty. It needed Harker. Kate had no pretentions—she knew her father was a bad man—but this city didn’t need a good one.
Good and bad were weak words. Monsters didn’t care about intentions or ideals. The facts were simple. The South was chaos. The North was order. It was an order bought and paid for with blood and fear, but order all the same.
Kate traced her finger along the Seam, over the grayed square that marked the Barren.
Why had her father settled for only half the city? Why did he let Flynn hide behind his wall, just because he had a few strange monsters on a leash?
She chewed her lip, tapped the map again, and a third layer of information appeared.
Three concentric circles—like a bull’s-eye—ghosted over the top of the map. It was the risk grid, designed to show the increase in monsters and the need for vigilance as one traveled in toward the center of the city. A band of green formed the outer ring, followed by yellow, and red at the center. Most people didn’t pay attention to the zones during the day, but everyone knew the boundaries, the place where the violent red gave way to the vigilant yellow before bleeding into the relative safety of the green. Of course, for those with her father’s protection, the risk dropped to almost zero . . . so long as you stayed within the North City limits. Go past the green and you hit the Waste, where North and South didn’t matter, because it was every man for himself.
Go far enough and you eventually found safe ground again; out near the borders where monsters were still rare, the population kept low. Out where supercity people weren’t welcome in case they brought the darkness with them like a plague. Where a girl might burn down a chapel, or lie in a field of grass beside her mom and learn the summer stars . . .
Somewhere, a horn, and Kate looked up, the house in the country dissolving back into the city streets. She stared past the partition and the driver and the front window, at the silver gargoyle on the hood. The car had originally come with an angel ornament, arms and wings flung back by some invisible wind, but Harker had broken it off and replaced it with the beast, hunched forward, tiny claws curling around the front lip of the grill.
“This is a city of monsters,” he’d said, tossing the angel in the trash.
Her father was right about that. But monsters—real monsters—didn’t look like the stupid little hood ornament. No, real monsters were much worse.
August tipped his face toward the sun, savoring the late summer morning as he walked, letting his body move and his mind go blissfully still. It was amazing how easy it was to think in straight lines when he was in motion, even without the violin. He made his way down cracked sidewalks, past buildings with boarded windows. Half the structures were burned-out husks, abandoned and gutted, any useful materials scraped out to fortify other buildings. South V-City still looked like a ravaged corpse, but it was rebuilding. FTF were everywhere, standing on rooftops, patrolling the streets, radio signals crackling from the handhelds on their uniforms. At night, they hunted monsters, but during the day, they tried to stop new ones from being made. Crime. That was the cause. Corsai, Malchai, Sunai–they were the effect.
August blended in with the heavy foot traffic as he made his way north, the noise of the city like music around him, full of harmony and dissonance, rhythm and clash. It layered and layered until the melody tipped into discord, the wonder turning to distress, and he had to fight to focus on the path instead of everything in it. The path itself was easy, four blocks straight up Center Ave.
A beeline to the Seam.
August’s steps slowed as it came into sight.
The a three-story barricade cutting east to west through the downtown, warded with stripes of pure metal and studded with cameras. The wall was the result of six years of territory war, each act of violence, each human death, ushering more Corsai and Malchai into the world, all because the Flynns had the city, and Harker wanted it.
Two blocks to the west sat the Barren—a ruined block of scorched earth, a reminder to both sides. It had been a plaza once, a piece of green at the heart of the city, but now there was nothing. Some people said you could see the outlines of the dead still ghosted on the pavement. Most of the FTF said that Henry Flynn had detonated a weapon there on the last day of the territory wars, something bad enough to scrub every sign of life. August didn’t believe that—didn’t want to believe it—but whatever happened that day, the threat of an encore was enough to make Harker call terms, agree to cut V-City in two.
By day, the capital was still unified, at least in theory. Three gates were punched out of the Seam to let people through, but they were monitored by armed men and the ever-watchful red eyes of the moving cameras, and everyone who passed through had to show identification while the scanning cameras verified them as human.
Which was a problem.
August turned down a narrow half-ruined street that ran parallel to the Seam until he reached an office building, its windows replaced by sheets of steel, a pair of FTF flanking the door. The woman at the front desk offered him a short nod as he passed through security and down a separate elevator to the basement. Small dots of neon paint on the wall marked the path and he followed them through a web of dank hallways to a wall. Or what looked like a wall. Metal sheeting pushed aside to reveal a tunnel, and August made his way along until he reached a matching false wall on the other end. He slid it open, and stepped out into the cellar of a ground floor apartment.
It was quiet here, and he paused, hating how relieved he felt to be alone again so soon. He gave himself ten seconds, waiting for his heart to slow and his nerves to settle, before he dusted himself off, and climbed the stairs.
Paris was chain-smoking and cooking breakfast.
She didn’t even startle when August appeared in the kitchen behind her.
“Morning, doll,” she called, her iron medallion dangling dangerously close to her omelet. Allies on the North side were rare, and extremely expensive, and even then they were risky, but Henry and Paris were old friends, and she’d passed Leo’s inspection. August looked around. Her apartment was . . . cozy, like pictures he’d seen in magazines from before the Phenomenon. Tile and wood and window glass. “Subway pass is on the table.”
“Thanks, Paris,” he said, unzipping his FTF jacket and hanging it on a hook by the door. His shirtsleeves had ridden up again, and two rows of black tallies were now showing. He pulled the material down, even though Paris couldn’t see the marks. Couldn’t see anything, for that matter.
Paris might be blind, but her other senses were sharp. Sharp enough to notice the absence of his violin, the barely audible vibration of its strings within the case. She blew a thoughtful puff of smoke.
“No concert today?” she asked, dripping ash into her eggs.
August’s fingers curled the way they always did around the case’s handle but found only air. “No,” he said, digging the Colton Academy blazer from his bag and shrugging it on before the hall mirror. He was surprised to see his features crinkle, almost automatically, into a frown.
“Flynn told me about your music,” mumbled Paris, to herself, and he knew by her tone that when she said your, she meant all three of them. “Always wondered what it sounds like . . . .”
August buttoned the blazer. “I hope you never know,” he said, heading for the door. “I’ll be back before dark.”
“Have a good day at school,” she called as it closed behind him, and unlike Leo, she actually sounded like she meant it.
August stepped onto the street and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the Seam safely at his back. And then he turned north, and his eyes widened. He’d braced himself, but the difference between the two sides of V-City still caught him in the chest. North City wasn’t a bombed-out shell. Whatever scars it had, they’d all been covered up, painted over. Here the buildings glittered, all metal, stone, and glass, the streets dotted with slick cars and people in nice clothes—if Harker had enforcers on the street, they blended in. A shop window was filled with fruit so colorful it made August want to try it, even though he knew it would taste like ash.
Anger flared through him at the sight—the illusion—of this safe, clean city, and the tallies across his skin prickled in warning, their warmth countered by the sickly cool weight of the medallion against his chest. Focus, focus.
The nearest subway station sat a block away. South City had shut down the subways—it was too dangerous, what with the Corsai flocking to the dark—and boarded up the passages as best they could, even though August knew the FTF still used the tunnels when they had to.
He took the stairs two at a time. He’d read somewhere that V-City had grown up as much as out, that the buildings were actually built on top of the old grid, the subways where the original streets used to be. He didn’t know if it was true, but the subway station below was as clean as the roads above, buffed white stone and, somewhere underneath the sounds of foot traffic, a strain of classical music. A piano concerto. No signs of struggle or suffering, no remnant of the terrors that came out at night. It was a trick, meant to lure South siders over and remind North siders why they paid the price.
August got to the platform just in time to miss the train. He slumped back against a post to wait for the next one, his attention wandering from a couple kissing farther down the line to a busker playing guitar before it finally settled on a small girl in front of him, clutching a woman’s hand. She looked over at him, and August stared back, fascinated by the sight of such a young child. There were so few children in the compound, so few in South City for that matter. The girl broke into a toothy grin, and August found himself smiling back.
And then she starting singing.
“Monsters, monsters, big and small,” she sang cheerfully. “They’re gonna come and eat you all.”
A shiver ran through him.
“Corsai, Corsai, tooth and claw,
Shadow and bone will eat you raw.
Malchai, Malchai, sharp and sly,
Smile and bite and drink you dry.”
August swallowed hard, knowing what came next.
“Sunai, Sunai, eyes like coal,
Sing you a song and steal your soul.”
The little girl’s smile grew even wider.
“Monsters, monsters, big and small,
They’re gonna come and eat you all!”
She gave a small, delighted squeal, and August felt ill and took a step away.
When the train pulled into the station, he chose another car.