The dream always started with running and a countdown.
Heart pounding, legs churning, I raced to escape.
Only twenty strides to go.
But no matter how fast I ran, he always stopped me. I could feel the heat of his gaze on the nape of my neck.
Five more steps until the treeline. Mum was maybe a handful of yards beyond that. If I called out, she would hear me. But I didn’t yell her name. Instead, I counted aloud as my feet whisked me away from him.
“Four, three, two—”
“Why are you counting?”
At the boy’s voice, always startling in its familiarity, I skidded to a halt. Drew in a tight breath. Slowly turned. And there he was, all gangly limbs, wildly unkempt hair, and golden eyes. Shorter than me, he stared, curious but sad.
I shrugged my bony shoulders and answered him despite the incessant need to run. “Counting distracts my mind. Sometimes my thoughts drown me, and I have to escape them. So I run away before they swallow me whole.”
His eyebrows scrunched together. My fingers twitched. I wanted to smooth the puckered skin but didn’t move. I knew I should, though—not toward him but away. Every time I lingered and talked to him, my chest started to ache.
Run, my mind demanded.
But it was too late. I couldn’t run. My feet were rooted in place. His eyes. Gold. Piercing. Haunting. I couldn’t look away from them.
Run! He’s misery and pain. Heartache and betrayal. A lie. He’ll destroy you.
Did I really believe that, though?
Then the tears came. They always did, because my body knew what I was going to do next. I backed away. “One.” Just one more step and a tree would separate us. Hide me. Free me from this inexplicable agony puncturing my heart. I slid backward . . .
Panic flared in his golden eyes. “Don’t go. Please.” He reached for me. “Lune, I need you.”
I need you.
Why did guilt writhe in my stomach every time he said those words?
Why did I feel like screaming, crying, punching the tree that I was inching behind? I was leaving again. Why was I leaving? No. Stop. He needed me. But my body wasn’t my own. It was moving farther away, forcing me to lose sight of the boy.
“Lune,” he pleaded. Begged. “Lune!”
“I’m sorry,” I whimpered, letting the tears fall unchecked. “I’m so sorry.”
“I—” My voice gave out as I choked on a sob.
The trees swallowed me whole. Suffocated me. Stole my vision.
My heart pounded fiercely.
“LuLu, wake up. It’s just a dream.”
I bolted upright, the boy’s name bursting from my lips. “Bren!”
“Shhh,” my mum whispered, smoothing my hair back as I gulped in cool night air. I blinked away the moisture from my eyes and took in my surroundings. Moonlight illuminated the black bars on the windows. A pale, threadbare blanket covered my legs. Cast in shadow, a face I knew well—and yet didn’t—lingered beside me. She smiled softly. “You’ll alert the men.”
It wasn’t the warning that made my breath hitch but the fact that my mum, my mother was here, comforting me as only she could. When I lay back down, she guided my head to her lap, stroking my hair some more. I’d yearned for this very thing ever since the day I’d been stolen from her, but now that I knew, now that I understood what she went through this past decade, it felt odd. Like being touched by a stranger.
I caused this.
When I’d followed Bren into the woods all those years ago, the Recruiter Clan had found her, too. Had kidnapped her. Brought her to Asheville. My mother had been less than a day’s journey from me for the past eleven years and I never knew. Never knew that Iris had been raised here. Never knew that I had not one sister, but two. And a brother.
All because of me.
Something in my mind had unraveled the day Bren was shot by Skervvy. Having my memories restored, leaving my friends back at Blue Ridge Sector, enduring Ryker’s ultimate betrayal, being reunited with Mum and learning what she’d suffered through—too much. My unbreakable brain fractured. I couldn’t use my Visionary ability, couldn’t form a mental tether with Bren to see if he was still alive. The only time I ever saw him was in my subconscious—in my dreams. Even then, I only saw younger versions of him begging me to stay.
And I never once did.
I always ran. I knew now that I was running from the guilt and accompanying pain. But no matter how fast I ran, I could never escape my mind. It cast judgment on me in the form of nightmares, reminding me again and again of my failures.
Thirteen days. Almost two weeks of not knowing what happened to him. Each minute of unknowing was a lifetime. A knife to the heart. A pulsing ache.
But it was my own fault.
If I hadn’t fled The Ridge with Ryker, he wouldn’t have used me to distract Bren, then sell him out to the Recruiter Clan. I should’ve stayed under the mountain like Bren wanted me to. I could’ve watched over him from afar, using my abilities—safe, where I wasn’t a distraction. And now . . .
Now I was broken. And numb to what awaited me. I would endure the same fate as my mother and every other woman here.
To be implanted with mutated DNA.
My second day here, Mum had explained what females were required to do if they wanted to be fed. Any resistance was met with a swift trip to “The Cells.” I had asked what happened there, but no one would tell me, not even Mum. The mere mention of The Cells struck fear into the hearts of these women.
But what they did talk about was their duties. If their assigned chores were completed by sundown, they earned a warm shower and hot dinner. And with most of them pregnant, they would do practically anything for those two commodities.
Thankfully, the clansmen didn’t touch the women—not in that way. It was the only mercy in this screwed-up breeding operation. An injection was all it took to impregnate the captive women over the age of eighteen, to keep them from running away. For what mother would leave her child behind, test tube baby or no? At least, that’s what my mum believed.
Iris. Sweet Iris.
She was one of them—a DNA experiment.
The numbness lifted, enough for a solid weight to smother my attempts at breathing.
Don’t think about it. Don’t think about anything. Block out thought.
Feel, don’t think.
Feeling made me think of Iris locked away in a cell, alone and terrified.
Feeling made me imagine a bullet ripping through Bren’s body. Made me see him fall. Was he dead or alive? Unknown.
“I can’t,” I gasped, clutching at the bear tooth necklace Bren had given me—a familiar comfort. If I used my Visionary ability and found nothing, if I searched for them and they no longer existed . . .
“Can’t what, LuLu?”
I looked up into hazel green eyes identical to mine. Identical to Iris’s. I hadn’t told her that Iris was being held and possibly tortured by the man who called himself my father. I hadn’t explained my countless scars. I hadn’t confessed that I fell in love with the very same boy who kidnapped me eleven years ago. I couldn’t. Not now. Maybe not for a long time.
It was too much. Too much everything.
And so I whispered, “Nothing.”
Because I could do nothing for myself or anyone else.
Block out feeling. Just exist. You are nothing.
Where was the girl who fashioned sticks into swords? Where was the girl who plunged into lakes to slay water dragons?
I felt the warning nudge but didn’t bother looking up. I flipped another page and burrowed my nose even deeper into the book, my dark red hair a curtain around me. Nothing, nothing would distract me from this story I’d thoroughly lost myself in—a world filled with pirates and sword fights and a swoon-worthy love interest.
For the first time since childhood, I was reading a book. Actually, this was my second book in a week—the other one took me a total of forty hours to get through since my reading skills were still weak. But once I started, I couldn’t stop.
Binge-reading, my mum called it. I smuggled the book with me everywhere, even into the communal bathroom. Sleep became an afterthought—I only succumbed to exhaustion when the moon vanished over the old correctional center’s rooftop, making words on a page impossible to see.
Books offered me something I’d only ever dreamt about: freedom. Not physical freedom, but freedom of the mind, which was something I desperately needed. Books allowed me to escape reality and immerse myself into a world unbound by chains. In fact, the main character of my current read captained her own ship on the high seas where the only walls were the quarters she slept in at night. Endless possibilities filled her horizon and I marveled at the unwavering way she steered her destiny.
Adria, my bunkmate—my very pregnant bunkmate—nudged me again, a quick elbow jab to the ribs. “Skervvy’s coming,” she hissed, forcing me back to the real world. I avoided looking at her distended stomach, or acknowledging that she was only a year older than me. “Remember what he did last time?”
My upper lip curled as I recalled the altercation. He had slammed me up against a wall in the mess hall, saying I should watch my surroundings and not the waste of paper in front of my face. A guard had stopped him from harassing me further, but I’d seen the look in his eyes.
He wasn’t finished with me yet.
He blamed me for the death of his partner, Thane—the creep who’d felt me up more than once during their attempts to capture me. Maybe I should feel a touch remorseful for the bloody, grisly way he died, but I didn’t. Not when Bear, the loyal wolf dog who’d trailed me up and down the mountain, had been a casualty. Not when Skervvy had taken out his vengeance on Bren.
Crap. I was thinking about him again. And thoughts bred feelings. Before I could shut down the emotions, tears clogged my windpipe, cutting off my air supply.
“Is the book that good, or is my nearness causing the abrupt mood shift I’m sensing from you?” a male’s voice crooned in my ear. I stiffened as Skervvy’s nose rubbed against my exposed neck. Every cell in my body shrieked at the invasion, at the show of dominance. He didn’t want to violate me like Thane had, but he waited with bated breath for me to react.
If I did, he’d release his need to inflict pain. My upper arm was still recovering from the throwing knife he’d sunk into it two weeks ago.
I didn’t reply, which I knew aggravated him. These days, it was the only form of rebellion I could muster. Somewhere inside of me, the desire to unleash myself on him for all he’d done, all he’d stolen, simmered hotly. But that would require energy—and emotion. And I had none to spare. Staying on my own two feet while I performed the daily tasks required of me took all the stamina I had.
Just yesterday, as we’d stood side-by-side folding laundry, I’d confessed to Mum, “I should feel happy being reunited with you. I’ve thought of little else for over a decade. But I—I just feel . . . empty.”
She had smiled sadly in understanding. “You are grieving. Grief is like a sandpit with no bottom. It’ll swallow you whole if you don’t fight the pull. Escaping reality through books will provide some relief, but don’t forget to live, LuLu, no matter how bleak things are.”
In response, I’d picked up my book and burrowed into it again so she couldn’t see the spark of anger on my face. Shouldn’t mothers make everything better? Couldn’t she distract me? Or reassure me that she had a plan to escape this prison where women were forced to pop out mutated babies?
Apparently, she was retired from baby-making and had been appointed to den mother, meaning she looked after the needs of the children and pregnant women. The role was only given to women of exemplary behavior, Adria had told me, which meant that my mother had willingly submitted to the men ruling over her.
I wanted to hate her for it, but I couldn’t. Iris was a lot like her: kind and gentle, docile and naturally subservient. There was strength in kindness, but I’d rather be vicious if it meant freedom from those who dared oppress me.
Which was why I refused to play Skervvy’s game. The more I could aggravate him, the more he’d reveal his weaknesses to me. I may be numb with grief, but I wouldn’t let this place bury me. Soon, I would figure out how to escape, and how to get help freeing the others imprisoned here. There was no other option.
“Soon,” I whispered.
“What was that, girly? You mouthing off to me?” Before I could reply, Skervvy ripped the book from my grasp. I shot up from the rusted bench Adria and I had settled onto for recreational hour, squinting as the sun above Skervvy’s head struck my eyes. My hands curled into fists when I caught sight of his wicked smirk. A taunt. A challenge.
Don’t do it, don’t do it. Don’t react.
His dark gaze flicked to the book, then returned to mine. I could practically see the dusty wheels inside his empty brain turning, somehow formulating an idea. “Beats me why the boss allows you women to have these books. If it were up to me, I’d destroy them all. Starting”—without taking his eyes off me, he cracked open the book—“with”—his hands gripped the two halves—“this one.”
Crap. Crap! I lunged for him, but it was too late. The sickening sound of paper ripping tore through the afternoon air as he severed the spine in two. My numb state of mind vanished as shock jolted through me. Rage quickly followed, loosening my tongue. “You son of a—!” I swung my fist at his jaw. The fleshy impact sent pain streaking along my knuckles and up my arm.
Stars, I wanted to do it again. And again.
A feral grin pulled at my mouth. It faltered a second later when Skervvy returned the look, silently gloating that he’d won. I immediately straightened and neutralized my expression, but the damage was done. I had played right into his hands like the complete reactionary fool that I was. And now, I would face the consequences.
Skervvy spread his arms wide and slowly turned in a circle. “You all saw it.” His voice rang across the small courtyard, no doubt to gain the guard’s attention. From the corner of my eye, I saw my mum slowly rise to her feet. “She acted in violence without cause and must be disciplined.”
Without waiting for the guard’s approval, he snagged my upper arm and hauled me against him. As my chest bumped into his, I stiffened, preparing to pry myself loose, but his fingers dug into my arm and squeezed. I clenched my teeth, refusing to cry out.
Push past the pain. Push past the—
He tossed my destroyed book to the ground and intentionally stepped on it, tearing pages free. They scattered over the dirt yard. I had to look away, had to blink several times so tears wouldn’t escape. The courtyard was eerily silent as Skervvy dragged me toward the only exit, which led into the bowels of the correctional center.
I didn’t dare look at my mum as we passed by her. Our captors probably didn’t know that she was my mother, and it needed to stay that way. Connections were dangerous in a world bent on exploiting people.
“Before the Silent War, this place used to hold criminals,” my mum had explained to me my first day here. “And now, the criminals are holding this country’s next generation. I fear for our future, LuLu.”
And fear has a tendency to turn into violence, wouldn’t you agree?
I understood the point Dr. Moore had been making now that my memories were back. Fear, if left unchecked, was the path to insanity. Renold had told me over and over that fear was weakness, yet he’d raised me to be afraid, to react to every little threat. But what purpose did my fear serve? If he really was planning on using me as a weapon, wouldn’t my out-of-control emotions be a hindrance?
While Skervvy pulled me around a corner and proceeded down a flight of stairs, I let myself think of Iris. She was so shy and timid. I couldn’t envision her as a weapon. But myself? Yes. I was reckless and stubborn, which oftentimes made me stupidly brave. And I did things—unforgivable things—when I was backed into a corner. What scared me most was what I would do under the right pressure.
Because deep down, I knew . . .
I knew I was capable of becoming a monster.
You adapted to a harsh environment in order to survive. It’s why you’re here today. Don’t be afraid of who you were, who you still are, Lune.
But would Bren have said that if he’d known the full extent of my mission, that I was meant to kill him if he failed to do his? A part of me had considered that outcome in order to protect Iris. I knew now I never could have gone through with it, but there was still that dark, desperate corner of my mind willing to do horrible deeds.
I would snap Skervvy’s neck if it meant freeing my mum from this hell.
What did that make me?
A murderer, I could practically hear Catanna mock in my ear. But you always knew the price of freedom, didn’t you? Death to innocence, death to ideals. Death to love.
Because I had sacrificed love for freedom more than once. Not allowing myself close relationships in Tatum City, pushing Bren away again and again, fleeing Blue Ridge Sector at the first available opportunity—all good things that I had destroyed. And for what? All I’d ever received in return was more shackles.
Maybe I was going about this freedom thing all wrong. Maybe I had to accept that one girl couldn’t accomplish the impossible—on her own, anyway. I needed help, but I’d betrayed the only people capable of providing it. And Bren . . . Bren wouldn’t come for me. Because he was . . . he was . . .
I zeroed in on Skervvy’s floppy brown hair as anger twitched through my muscles. He shot Bren. The urge to shove him down the remaining stairs couldn’t be suppressed. I reached out and—
He whipped around, the abrupt action foiling my aim. I pitched forward and would have tumbled down the steps if he hadn’t jerked me to a halt by my arm. His maniacal laughter echoed in the stairwell as I righted myself. “I knew there was still a little spitfire inside you. But losing your cool over a book?” He made a disgusted noise. “Doesn’t matter. You snapped. Now you’ll get to see what happens to insubordinate females.”
“Insubordinate is a big word,” I mused aloud, ignoring my brain when it told me to shut up. “I’m surprised your tiny mouth could handle—”
The sharp sound registered; the pain didn’t.
And then it did with a vengeance, streaking across my cheek where Skervvy had backhanded me.
“Fight me all you want,” he said with a hard edge I’d never heard before, “but I won’t abide a sassy-mouthed woman.”
I didn’t respond, though words pooled on my tongue. I didn’t touch my cheek, though it throbbed like a second heartbeat. He yanked on my arm and we continued down another flight of stairs, then a dank hallway half-lit by flickering bare bulbs and lined with steel doors. This must be The Cells. When we reached the end and he unlocked one of the doors, I remained silent. When he shoved me inside and darkness enveloped me, I didn’t fight.
Because he’d revealed his weakness to me.
And when the time was right, I would exploit it.
The steel door slammed shut.
“Enjoy your new home, girly,” Skervvy singsonged from the other side. “This one’s specially reserved for feisty, non-pregnant females such as yourself. I’m afraid there are no books to keep you company, but you will have visitors. Many of them.”
It was his words, not the cackling laughter as he departed, that sent chills down my spine.
Days without food, bedding, and light weren’t what unraveled my sanity.
It was my many promised visitors.
And not just any rats. Giant mutated rats called vorax that feasted on dead flesh. The problem was, they didn’t seem to care that I wasn’t dead yet.
They nibbled on my pants and hair, sometimes on my fingers when I fell asleep. I would wake up, screaming from nightmares of rodents the size of saber cats gnawing off my hands. So I stopped sleeping.
I knew what they, the Recruiter Clan, were doing. Breaking my spirit. My will to fight back. But they didn’t know about my time with Renold, how he would whip and beat me with sticks, plunge needles into my flesh, tear down my self-esteem with a single word. I had years of abuse, years of conditioning under my belt.
And yet, even the sub-basement of Tatum House had been clean. Renold wouldn’t have allowed rats and mold to fester inside his prized dwelling place. Here, the air reeked of rat poop and stagnant dirt. The moist earth I sat on had seeped through my pants and was caked under my fingernails from when I’d taken care of my . . . needs. So, I essentially wallowed in crap, animal and human alike.
These conditions were degrading. Inhumane.
But it was the constant scuttling and scratching and squeaks of hunger that slowly tipped me over the edge.
A few rats won’t be the end of you, Lune Avery, I scolded myself.
Unfortunately, there were more than a few. I couldn’t see them but it felt like there were at least a dozen—close enough to detect, far enough to avoid my boots. For once, I welcomed the company of my thoughts and the torture they brought. Better than dwelling on how big my furry guests were.
I thought of Mum. Was this how they broke her into submission? Isolated, starved, driven to madness.
I thought of Bren, but the pain was still too sharp, like a shard of ice wedged between my ribs. I blocked out his memory with vindictive thoughts of Ryker instead. First, he’d been a mystery, then a pain in my butt, then a friend. Now he was enemy number one. If I ever got out of here, I’d hunt him down with my Visionary ability and make him pay. He was probably tucked inside Tatum City, taking over my Elite Guardian duties. I wondered what story he’d told Renold to explain the failed missions.
Stars, what if this outcome had been his mission from the start? Anything was possible.
Bang, bang, bang.
“You alive in there?”
The rats scampered off as I flinched at the too-loud noise. Even if I’d wanted to respond to Skervvy’s flippant question, I couldn’t. My tongue was swollen and plastered to the roof of my mouth from lack of water. Never in my life had I felt thirst and hunger like this, so intense that my stomach was trying to flip itself inside out. A fresh wave of cramps grabbed me. I curled into a tighter ball, slowly breathing through the pain.
“Ahh, are you hungry? That’s the price you pay for insubordination,” Skervvy mocked. “Here, I can at least give you some water.”
I swiftly raised my head in anticipation of cool liquid coating my parched throat. My eyes willed the door to open, to allow me a glimpse of light. Maybe I’d be gifted with a whiff of damp air unsullied by feces, too.
But I waited. And waited. I knew Skervvy was still there—he was muttering curses and smacking something against what sounded like his palm. I attempted to swallow. And failed. My hands shook with the need to hold the perspiring cup of life-giving water. My chapped lips trembled as I imagined pressing the cup’s rim to them.
A crackling noise reached my ears, then . . .
“Hey, Axe, water in cell fourteen.” Pause. “Yeah, the works. She hasn’t been properly initiated yet.”
I held my breath, too focused on the word water to care about who he was talking to or what else he was saying.
Clear, perfect, quenching—
The room erupted.
I instinctively squeezed my eyes shut as slivers of ice pelted me. Hissing, I lurched into motion and blindly crawled toward the steel door. The hail, or whatever it was, stung my exposed skin. I scrambled faster until both palms were flattened against the door. I hauled myself upright on unsteady legs, pushing and pounding. My weak cries were lost in the explosion of sound destroying my cell.
“Skerv . . . open . . . door!”
“What?” he yelled, mere inches from my face yet so far away. “. . . said . . . wanted . . . water!”
I stopped pounding as the words sunk in. As I became fully aware of what was happening. Freezing cold water was raining down on me with such force, it felt like needles stabbing my flesh. I renewed my assault on the door, screaming at him to let me out as the deluge continued without end, bruising my skin, seeping inside of me until I knew nothing but water.
But water is my friend, not my enemy.
It was all I had left.
When the downpour finally ceased minutes, hours, or maybe days later, I was still on my feet. Still pressed to the door. My knuckles were bloodied and my throat scraped raw. My body was limp and shivering uncontrollably. But I was still standing. Still fighting. A sense of purpose burned hotly within me, something that had been missing since arriving here.
Because Skervvy made a mistake.
He chose the wrong tool to break me.
Time bled into countless streaks of pain.
The vorax came back after the water switched off, more active than ever. In fact, they seemed excited that I was half-drowned. It meant I was that much closer to death, my pruned body slowly being prepped for a grand feast. One managed to bite through the pant material right above my boot before I could kick it away. With a shriek of rage, I sent the rodent soaring so far that it smacked into the wall. His buddies then proceeded to tear into him as he lay stunned in the squelching muck that was now my cell floor.
An indefinite amount of time later, Skervvy returned. “You still alive?” he yelled.
I stayed silent. Mute. Like I did all those years in Tatum City to survive. I would use his weakness against him soon enough, but I didn’t have the strength for a confrontation at the moment. I knew what he wanted though. Knew because I had been raised by a man just as sadistic as he was. Their torture methods may not be the same, and their temperaments were different, but they both sought one thing.
They wanted me to beg.
I wouldn’t. Ever. I would rather die in this putrid hole.
“I can hear you breathing,” Skervvy cut through my thoughts. “Did the vorax chew off your tongue?” Cackling laughter. “Here, let me get rid of them for you since I’m such a nice guy.” Beep. “Axe, let ‘er rip!”
I braced for the stinging rain. None came. Instead, white hot light tore across my vision. I slammed my eyes shut and raised trembling hands to shield them. A multitude of squeaks rose to a feverish pitch. I couldn’t help but open my eyes. I needed to see what those disgusting rodents were up to now. As soon as I did, I wished to the sun and moon and a billion stars that I hadn’t.
They were everywhere. And huge. The size of small cats. Blinded by the lights, they rammed themselves into the walls, frantically clawing their way to a thin grate. As they squeezed through the metal bars, patches of matted fur and pink skin glistened under the fluorescents. Saliva rushed into my mouth. I gagged, unable to vomit with an empty stomach.
Another feeling rose right behind my tongue. A ball of panic. It grew and hardened until the only thing left to do was scream.
And pound on the door.
And scream some more. I broke my fingernails in an attempt to pry my way out.
Now I was crying, prepared to spill traitorous words from my lips. Pleading words. Weak words. No. You are not weak, you are not weak! I bit my tongue until I tasted blood.
Even after the last rat left my cell, tears rolled down my face. I resorted to silence once more, resting my forehead against the cool metal door. I expected to be plunged into darkness now that Skervvy was finished with his fun. The burning light remained. It stayed on for hours. Maybe days. A pulsing headache formed. Sucking my energy. Stealing my sleep.
Time bled into more pain and suffering.
Never in my life had I craved darkness as I did now.
I jerked awake as pain lanced up my arm. Noting that I’d slid into the sludge once again, I glanced at my throbbing hand. Blood dribbled from a puncture wound on the fleshy part of my palm. And there, inches away, was a vorax about to take another bite.
At the sight of its long, yellow teeth, something inside my brain flipped. Adrenaline surged through me and I lunged for the creature. As I wrapped a hand around its bulbous belly, the animal shrieked and promptly bit me again. The thought of rabies flitted through my mind, but I was too far gone to care. Gripping its neck, I squeezed.
I knew that I was beyond weak. Knew that I was acting crazy. But I’d had enough.
“Die, you disgusting vermin,” I growled, exhausting the final dredges of my strength on obliterating the creature. When it finally stopped moving, I studied the deep scratches on both my forearms. I couldn’t feel them. Maybe I was in shock. Or maybe my overpowering hunger consumed every other feeling, including remorse at having killed an innocent being.
I paused, staring at the limp rat in my hands. Laughter bubbled out of my chest. This grotesque thing was far from innocent. It wanted to eat me. And now, I was going to eat it. I laughed harder. The creature was probably full of disease. One bite and I might not make it through the night. Or maybe it was already night. I had no way of knowing.
Tears joined my giggling fit. I had never felt this kind of desperation before—a gnawing need to survive, no matter what. There were too many things left unfinished. Too many people I wanted to help. If that meant eating raw rat meat to keep me alive for another day, then so be it.
Before I could muster up the courage, the door behind me screeched open. I tipped over, landing flat on my back. Above me, a shadowed form blocked the hallway’s dim lighting. My brain expected to hear Skervvy’s snide tenor, so I didn’t react when a deeper male voice said, “What are you doing?”
I didn’t blink. Didn’t even breathe when he crouched beside me. Familiar features slid into place: heavy brows, short black hair, a moon and claw tattoo on a pale neck. Blue eyes edged in obsidian scanned my body several times. He reached down, resting a hand on mine. I remained frozen. But when he started to pry the vorax from my grip—to steal my food from me—I snapped.
“It’s mine!” I snarled. The sound was so feral, my eyes widened. His did, too.
He pulled his fingers away, watching me warily. “Lune.”
Startled at the soft tone, I sucked in a breath. Then ground my teeth together. “Don’t. Say. My name.”
The man who betrayed me—who betrayed Bren and caused all of this misery—sighed in exasperation. “You need help.”
“Not from you,” I bit out. When he continued to assess me with that heavy-lidded, bored look of his, I hissed, “Traitor.” Not good enough. “Backstabber.” Better, but the words needed more color. “You lying piece of—”
“Ryker Jones,” a new voice said, interrupting my verbal assault. “Why am I not surprised to see you here, playing with my conquest?” I tried to stop it, but a shudder ripped through me at the sound of Skervvy’s manic cackle.
A muscle jumped in Ryker’s jaw. He studied me a moment more before smoothly rising to his feet. “We both know you stole her from me, Skervlong, so stop pretending otherwise.”
Conquest? Stole me?
I was going to puke, then twist off their manly jewels and shove them down their throats for treating me like a possession. After I regained my strength first. As the men continued to bicker, I tested my muscles, surprised that they actually responded to my commands. It must be the lingering adrenaline over seeing Ryker again—my friend turned enemy. Rage blanketed the hurt trying to curl itself around me.
I’m no one’s friend, was the last thing he said the day he’d left me tied to a tree. Then why was he here now, trying to help me? It had to be a trick, another way to break my will. Unless he still planned on re-entering Tatum City and couldn’t do so without me.
A pawn. That’s all I was to him. Well, I wasn’t going to helplessly lie here and wait for him to make his next move.
While the men argued, I slowly rolled over and crawled into the corridor’s shadows—still holding the vorax. It was the only weapon I had. Plus, if they were both Sensors, the darkness wouldn’t stop them from finding me. I was maybe a handful of yards down the hallway when I heard the scrape of boots, then fingers tangled in my hair and yanked my head back. “Where do you think you’re going, girly?”
I did the very first thing I could think of. I twisted, ignoring the pull on my hair as I shoved the dead vorax into Skervvy’s face. “Watch out!” I screamed, shaking the furry body before throwing it at him.
It worked. With a yelp and a curse, he scrambled back, releasing his hold on me. I bounded to my feet and ran. Then promptly smacked into a wall as my legs buckled. No! My body was failing me at the worst possible moment. My jagged nails scraped and snagged on the cement blocks as I fought to regain my footing, but I was trembling too hard. The lack of food and sleep—such simple yet vital things—would cost me my chance at escape.
An arm snaked around my neck and jerked me upright. I fell back against Skervvy who quickly wrapped me up in a chokehold I had no way of breaking. “You’re speaking my love language, girly,” he crooned in my ear as I struggled for breath. “Pranks are my specialty. The dirtier the better. But that was especially dirty. And, flipping phlegm wad, you smell awful.”
For a second, I thought he’d release me, but he simply cackled. Of course he did. Secretly, he probably liked the smell. “Are you sure,” I wheezed, fruitlessly prying at his arm to acquire more air, “that it’s not you?”
Bad timing, bad timing. I shouldn’t have preyed on his weakness while in such a vulnerable position. Sure enough, his hold tightened. I choked and was just about to claw at any piece of Skervvy flesh I could reach when I heard, “Release her.”
My sight wavered, making the image of Ryker impossible to see. Then came a metallic click.
“You won’t shoot,” Skervvy replied in a stupidly amused tone. Was he really that dumb? “Boss’s orders.”
“The boss ordered me to remove Lune from solitary confinement and have her cleaned up. He wants to see her. Now.”
“I’ll do it. I’m the one who brought her in. I’ve got visiting privileges.”
“Not anymore. She’s being transferred into my care, and if you don’t let her go in three seconds, I’ll have no choice but to report you.”
Skervvy snarled. His forearm flexed against my windpipe and I saw stars.
I couldn’t breathe at all now. My eyes widened, but I couldn’t see.
A loud rush filled my ears.
Everything fell away. The arms. The support. The ground. Pain spiked through my hip bone and shoulder as I reconnected with earth. I dragged in air to avoid passing out. My ears were still ringing, my eyes watery as someone began lifting me up. I threw an elbow back, which did absolutely nothing. My body was weaker than it had ever been before.
But I could still speak. So I proceeded to do what I did best. “Put me down, you spineless, dumber-than-wood slimeball.” I paused to assess the insult. I could do better. “I’d rather be kissed by a vorax than breathe the same air as you.”
I left the ground anyway as either Skervvy or Ryker swung me into his arms. At this point, I didn’t know which was worse. “When you least expect it,” I continued, “I’m going to find something pointy and skewer your—”
“Shut up, Lune.”
“Don’t tell me to shut up,” I growled, rather weakly. To compensate, I added, “Jerkwad.”
“I don’t have to be,” I shot back, blinking until his stupid chin swam into view. “Apparently the only thing I have to do now is pop out a litter of babies.”
Every inch of his body that was pressed against mine hardened. “That’s not going to happen.”
Relief and hope tripped over themselves in my stomach. I hated how quickly my body wanted to believe his words. I knew better though. “What are you going to do? Carry me out of here and all the way back to Tatum City?” Acid dripped from my syrupy sweet tone.
He glanced down at me with a frown. “Not exactly. I need you for something first.”
I gaped for several seconds, unsure whether to laugh at him for thinking I’d actually help him or scream in his face for acting so calm after what he’d done to Bren. I settled on hissing, “Whatever you have planned, you can shove it. I’m done following you, listening to you, and helping you. Anything you command me to do, I’ll do the opposite.”
“Not if you want to see him again.”
It was as if he’d dropped me.
My body fell, fell, fell and wouldn’t stop. My brain spun but couldn’t grasp the words. Their meaning. The implications. The emotions that I should be feeling. None of it was registering. I couldn’t think or breathe. My chest began to burn, but not from lack of air. No, it was anger. And hatred. Because this was the cruelest thing he’d ever done to me.
“You’re lying.” I had meant to coat the statement in venom, not floundering hope. A stupid, foolish hope that he was telling the truth. That Bren was still alive.
“I’m not lying.”
Stars, the fire in my chest was too much.
I struggled, albeit weakly, against his grip. “Put me down.”
And, surprisingly, he did. As soon as my feet touched solid ground, my knees wobbled. I crumpled into a heap. I didn’t care. The floor was a whole lot cleaner than what I’d just left behind. I stared at the chipped, yellowed tiles, unable to place where I was—still not caring.
“You’re lying,” I whispered again, but with even less conviction. I wanted his words to be true too much.
A metallic clank reached my ears a second before water burst over me. My heart lurched into my throat. I instinctively flinched, expecting another stinging deluge. Awareness returned as the steady downpour warmed comfortably. The communal showers. I glared up at Ryker anyway, but didn’t find a smug expression or even a blank one. He was . . . he looked . . .
Screw your fake sympathy, you backstabber.
His face settled into neutrality a moment later. “He’s alive.”
My teeth chattered, but not from the cold. My adrenaline had come back. The urge to use it, to plunge into my ability and find Bren for myself—to make absolutely certain that he was alive—trembled through me. I hugged my knees to my chest in an attempt to keep myself from floating away. I didn’t trust Ryker to watch over my body while I searched, not as I had with Bren.
Inhaling slowly, I straightened my spine and stared holes into Ryker. “Prove it.”
His lips twitched as he crossed his arms. “I will. After you help me with something.”
“How do I know this isn’t a trick?”
Without warning, he tossed a small object at me. Wary, I almost batted it away, but my hand reflexively reached up and caught it. Heavier than I expected, I examined the metal object more closely. Copper. Round. Half the length of my thumb.
“That was in Bren’s back. I took it from beside his living, breathing body while the clan’s doctor wasn’t looking.”
I dropped it.
The bullet rolled toward the shower drain.
I slammed my palm on top of it. Why, I had no idea. This thing had been in Bren’s body, damaging precious parts of him. It was evil. Destructive. I hated it.
But it was a piece of him.
I carefully closed a fist around the bullet and cradled it to my chest.
“This doesn’t prove anything,” I managed to croak.
“It’s the best I can do for the time being. But I promise that you’ll see him if you agree to a task.”
My eyes narrowed suspiciously as I looked up at him again. “What task?”
Ryker glanced away, which was surprising enough. But when he violently shoved his hands into his pants pockets, his next words became that much more ominous. “You won’t like it, but it’s the only way you’re getting out of here.”
Preorder now! https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08297TBZP