CRY OF THE PHOENIX
Amber Hills, Mountain Wolf State
30 years ago
THE CHURCH BELLS CHIME MIDNIGHT, signaling the start of the Watchmen’s shift. No one else is allowed out after dark; no one else dares. Night is for the creatures that live beyond the wall. The ones lurking in the shadows of the forest. The ones that are watching me now.
A whisper of wind, as cold as winter’s breath, chills the back of my neck. I lift up the collar of my woolen jacket as I patrol the Boundary Wall that encases our compound. What the hell was I thinking of when I volunteered to do this? Well, it’s obvious who I was thinking of: Catherine. Maybe now that I’m a Watchman, she’ll stop seeing me as Best Friend Edmund and more as Potential Boyfriend Edmund.
I’m surprised the Guild allowed me to take the job—it usually goes to the hunters, not the eighteen-year-old grandson of the town minister—but I’m good with a gun . . . well, pellet gun. I can shoot a rat in the eye from thirty yards away. I weigh the rifle in my hands. It’s heavier but not too dissimilar.
Somewhere in the blackness beyond the wall a Lupine howls, the sound echoing across the night. I shiver. Their howls don’t bother me so much during the day, when the sun is high and there are hundreds of people milling about, but it’s altogether a different matter when you’re up on the wall, with nothing but darkness all around you. This was a really bad idea.
“All clear,” Mr. Kent’s gruff voice calls from farther down the wall. He’s one of the four Watchmen on duty tonight, including me. He’s far enough away that I can only make out his shadowy figure moving about in the night.
I scan the tree line, searching for the Lupine. From my vantage point on the thirty-foot-high wall, I can see right across the Forest of Shadows toward the volcano, Mount Alba, known locally as the Claw because of its talon-shaped peak. I squint at the trees. Their gnarled branches are like witches’ fingers, ready to snatch anyone who dares enter the forest.
“All clear,” I call back. “No Howlers here.”
We nickname them Howlers because of the noise they make when they call to each other. I shiver again. This is going to be a long night.
I whip around, gun raised, ready to shoot the frightened brown-haired girl peering at me from the top of the ladder. Catherine! A thrill of nervous excitement rushes through me.
“Fragging hell, Caterpillar. Don’t sneak up on a guy when he’s carrying a gun,” I say, lowering the weapon.
“‘Hello’ to you too,” she says, pouting. “And don’t call me that. You know I hate it.”
She climbs up the rest of the ladder and joins me on the wall. Tucked underneath her arm is a blanket. She’s wearing a long red cape over a simple cotton nightdress, which clings to the swells and dips of her newly developed curves. She’s no longer plain, skinny Caterpillar, who would happily wrestle with me in the dirt. When she turned seventeen this summer, she started wearing makeup and doing her hair, and now looks like an actual girl girl—something all the boys in town have noticed, including me.
She’s not the only one who’s changed; in the past few months I’ve shot up another four inches and fill out my clothes much better. I even have a smattering of dark stubble across my jawline, which helps cover some of the scars on my face, so I don’t look half bad now. Not great but not completely vomit-worthy either.
“What are you doing here?” I say. “Not that I’m complaining, but you know it’s after curfew, right?” I glance along the wall, making sure Mr. Kent can’t see us. He’s walking toward the east corner of the wall. We’re safe.
She rolls her eyes. “Since when do you care about curfews? Besides, what sort of friend would I be if I didn’t come and celebrate your first night as Watchman?”
“A terrible one,” I tease.
“The worst,” she agrees, laying the blanket on the stone walkway that runs along the top of the wall. Folded inside the gingham blanket are two red apples and a blue-veined cheese. “I thought you might be hungry.”
I catch a whiff of the stinking cheese, and my stomach knots.
Catherine frowns, noticing my reaction. “It’s all I could take from the store without my parents noticing.”
“It’s great, Cater—Catherine, thanks.” I join her on the scratchy blanket, sitting close enough to smell her perfume: orange blossom and honey. I lean against the stone turrets and rake a hand through my stubborn black hair. “Pass me an apple, then.”
Our fingertips touch as she hands me the apple. Desire aches through me.
“Do you remember that time we snuck up here as kids?” she asks.
When I was twelve and Catherine eleven, we crept up here after curfew to look at the lights coming from Gray Wolf, the city closest to our secluded compound. I remember seeing them glittering in the distance, brighter than any star. Catherine had cried, saying they made her sad. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized how trapped we were here.
Neither of us has left the safe confines of our town, Amber Hills—a walled commune built a hundred years ago by the Guild, to allow us to live away from the sins of modern life. “The world may have fallen to sin, but we don’t have to,” Catherine’s father, Mr. Langdon, is keen to remind us whenever we step out of line. I don’t usually agree with him, but on this one point we see eye to eye. We all know what’s out there. Demons. I briefly grip the circle pendant around my neck—a symbol of our religion. Our faith keeps us protected from them. Well, that and this great big wall. Catherine’s wearing a similar pendant, although hers is gold, whereas mine is wood.
“I recall your dad sending out a search party for you,” I say. And the beating he gave me afterward, before Grandfather stepped in.
She frowns, clearly remembering that too. “He’s so overprotective; it drives me crazy sometimes. He thinks just because he’s the head of the Guild, it somehow gives him the right to control every aspect of my life too.”
“I think that’s just what dads do,” I say, half smiling, although I wouldn’t know. I never knew my father.
“I guess,” she says, nibbling on her apple. “So how are you finding your first night as Watchman?”
I shrug. “I don’t know why everyone keeps making such a fuss about it. It’s not that scary out here,” I lie.
Another Lupine barks, closer this time. Catherine lets out a squeak of fright and throws her arms around my neck. The scent of orange blossom fills my nostrils. I try not to smile.
“Nothing’s going to hurt you when I’m on watch,” I say. “I can take on a few Howlers. I’m a good shot.”
“It’s not just them I’m frightened of,” she says, pulling away from me. “Patrick says there’s”—she lowers her voice—“Darklings in the woods.”
“Oh, well, if your brother says it, then it must be true.”
Catherine scowls at me. “He hunts in those woods all the time with Harriet and Drew.”
“Did he see one?”
“Well, no,” Catherine admits. “He found a deer with two puncture wounds in its neck.”
“Any number of wild animals could’ve made that wound,” I reply. “Besides, have you ever seen a Dark? Has anyone, in all the years we’ve been alive?”
She shakes her head, giving a little shudder. “No, praise be. They scare me more than all those other demons put together.”
“Why? A Lupine can tear you to shreds just as easily,” I say. “And a Bastet’s venom can rot the flesh from your bones.”
“I know,” she says. “But the Darklings are different. They don’t just kill you, they play with you first. They drug you, make you think you’re in love with them, so you willingly let them feed on you, until there’s nothing left of you but an empty shell. It’s sick.”
I roll the apple over in my hand. “Well, you don’t need to worry. The nippers are long gone,” I say, taking a bite. “There’s nothing in that forest but man-eating Lupines.”
“That makes me feel so much better.”
I smirk. “I aim to please.”
Shadowy rainclouds slowly blanket the sky, blinking out the stars one by one. It begins to drizzle, but thankfully Catherine makes no attempt to leave—in fact she edges closer to me, causing her nightdress to ride up her legs a little. There’s a tiny freckle above her left ankle, and another one higher up her calf muscle. I wonder if there are any more hidden underneath the cotton—
“You’re staring at me, Edmund,” she says.
I clear my throat, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
We’re silent for a long moment, letting the sounds of the night fill in the blanks: the rustle of the trees, the hoot of Phantom owls, the steady plip-plip-plip of rain splashing against the wall. I absentmindedly run my tongue over my top teeth, a habit I formed as a kid.
“I got a new dress for the dance tomorrow night,” Catherine says.
My stomach flips. The dance has been on everyone’s lips all week. It’s been eighteen years since we united with the Lupines and forced the Darklings out of the forest, bringing an end to a period of conflict known as the Misery, and each year the Guild throws a dance for the townsfolk to celebrate. We’ve had a shaky truce with the Lupines ever since, neither side wanting a return to the violence, but over the past six weeks they’ve been breaking into the compound, snatching people, and we don’t know why. They’ve already taken three victims, including my predecessor, Mr. Smyth, which is why I’m up here tonight, guarding the wall.
“Are you going with anyone?” I say as casually as possible.
“No.” She sighs heavily. “I’d sort of hoped Eric Cranfield would ask me, but I think Patrick scared him off.”
My mouth twitches at the thought of Catherine’s brother. He’s made it his mission in life to make mine hell. Still, I’m glad he’s frightened off the competition. I might stand a chance with Catherine now.
“It’s so frustrating. Patrick’s worse than Father. He thinks he owns me,” she continues. “Are you taking anyone?”
“Sure, because all girls are desperate to date the village freak,” I mumble.
“Don’t call yourself that,” she says.
“Why not? Everyone else does.”
“You’re an attractive guy, Edmund.” Catherine lightly rests her hand on my leg. A whirlpool swirls in my stomach. “Any girl who can’t see that needs her head examined.”
I look down. “We . . . er . . . we could go to the dance together, you know, since we’re both free?”
“Sure,” she says, removing her hand from my thigh.
I grin. “Really?”
“Why not? It’ll be fun,” she says. “We can go with Harriet and Drew.”
I’d rather poke out my own eyeballs—I hate those two almost as much as I do Patrick—but I won’t let them ruin the night.
“It’s a date th— Gah!” I grasp my chest as a burning sensation rips through it.
“Are you okay?” Catherine asks, alarmed.
“Yeah.” I rub my aching chest, waiting for the pain to subside. What in His Mighty’s name was that? “It was just a cramp.”
“In your chest?” she says.
I shrug, unable to come up with another explanation. Whatever it was, it’s gone now. It’s nothing to get worked up about.
There’s a sudden roll of thunder in the distance. The vibrations sweep across the sky, shaking the swollen clouds so that they release all the rain at once. It’s like someone tipped a bucket of ice water over us, soaking our clothes in an instant. We hurriedly roll the remaining food up in the gingham blanket.
“I’ll walk you home,” I say. I’m forbidden to leave my post, but I’ll be gone only a minute. I toss the bundled blanket over the side of the wall, and it falls to the ground thirty feet below us, hitting the dirt with a soft thud. We head down the ladder, taking it slow, not wanting to lose our footing on the slippery rungs.
My feet eventually touch the wet ground, and I help Catherine down the rest of the way. My hands slide over her trim waist, and I hold on to her for a fraction longer than I should before releasing my grip. Her cheeks turn pink.
A lightning bolt flashes overhead. I glance up. For a split second a shadow cuts across the bleached sky—a Phantom owl? It’s impossible to tell in the sleeting rain—before we’re plunged into darkness again. Another burst of pain blooms in my chest and I gasp, falling back against the wall, and clutch a hand to my rib cage. What the hell?
“Edmund! Are you okay?” Catherine asks as fire rips around my heart.
“I . . . I don’t know,” I say through clenched teeth. “I’m not feeling so great.”
A moment later there’s a second flash of lightning, and whatever I saw before has gone. It must’ve been a Phantom owl. There are hundreds of them living in the forest. I lower my hand, the fire in my chest extinguishing as quickly as it came. I straighten up, feeling better.
“Maybe you should ask Mr. Kent if you can go home if you’re unwell,” she suggests.
“No, I’m fine,” I say, which is true. I’m not sick; it just feels like a bad cramp or perhaps a serious case of heartburn. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
We rush through the village, our boots slapping through the rapidly forming puddles. The cobbled streets are empty, apart from the occasional cat slinking between the thatched cottages. We run past Mrs. Hope’s house, a ramshackle building with a green door and circular windows, which are always shut no matter what time of year it is. The old lady is on her porch, watering the already sodden flowers, seemingly unaware there’s a thunderstorm. She’s tiny—barely five feet tall, with a stooped back, coarse gray hair, and a flowing white nightdress that hangs off her bony frame.
“What is that daft old crone doing?” I mutter.
Catherine slaps my arm. “Be nice, Edmund. You know she hasn’t been the same since Dr. Hope died last year. Someone should get her inside.” She looks pointedly at me.
I sigh and jog over to the porch, while Catherine waits nearby on the street. Mrs. Hope looks bewilderedly at me when I take the watering can from her, placing it on the ground.
“You need to get out of the rain,” I say loudly to her.
Mrs. Hope squints at me with milky eyes. “You’re Minister Hector’s son, aren’t you?”
I nod, although Hector’s my grandfather, not my dad.
“I didn’t see your sister at church today,” the old lady continues. “Is Cassie unwell?”
“She’s dead,” I say sharply. “She’s been dead for almost eighteen years, and Cassie was my mother, not my sister.”
“Oh . . . yes,” Mrs. Hope murmurs as I usher her inside the cottage. “Yes, that’s right. She hanged herself, after dropping that poor little baby into a tub of scalding water . . .”
I stop dead. “What was that?”
She brings her fingers to her lips, like she’s trying to remember what she was saying.
She gives me a weak smile. “You’re Minister Hector’s boy, aren’t you?”
I roll my eyes, slamming the door behind her. Crazy old bat.
Catherine looks curiously at me when I join her. “I thought your mother fell down the stairs and broke her neck.”
“She did,” I say. Shortly after I was born, my mom accidentally dropped me into a bath of hot water. In her hurry to fetch the doctor, she tripped down the stairs and snapped her neck. At least, that’s what my grandfather told me happened. I glance back at Mrs. Hope’s house. Her husband used to be the town doctor and would have been the first person on the scene after the incident. Does she know something I don’t?
Catherine takes my gloved hand, drawing me out of my thoughts. We quicken our pace through the dark streets, although we’re both already soaked to the bone. At the center of the town is Langdon Square, named after Catherine’s family, who run the butchery, general store and boutique. We pass the chapel, where I live. During the day, the spire casts a long shadow across Amber Hills, a reminder that wherever we are, we’re always under the watchful eye of my grandfather and the Guild. We pause outside Langdon and Son’s General Store, where her family is asleep upstairs, both of us breathless from running.
“Well, good night, Edmund,” Catherine says, giving me a shy smile.
“Night, Caterpillar.” I hold her gaze, wanting to kiss her. Just do it! I lean toward her.
Her hazel eyes widen. “Edmu—”
Her words get lost in my kiss. Her soft lips taste of apples and rain.
“What in His Mighty’s name are you doing with my sister?”
I jump at the sound of Patrick’s voice, breaking the kiss. He glowers at us from the doorway, his arms angrily folded across his broad chest. I’m usually taller than Patrick, but he’s standing on the step, so we’re eye to glaring eye. He’s the complete opposite of Catherine. Where she’s dark haired and petite, he’s blond, blue eyed and built like a bear. He’s the kind of guy who would’ve made a great Watchman, but Catherine told me he’s afraid of heights.
“He wasn’t doing anything,” Catherine says.
“He was kissing you,” Patrick says furiously.
“That was just a good-night kiss, between friends,” she says, looking uncertainly at me. “Right, Edmund?”
I wince at the word. Friends. But then realize that of course she’s going to say that in front of her brother; she doesn’t want him scaring me away like he did Eric and all the others.
“Right,” I say.
Patrick drags her inside and then turns to look at me.
“I have a good mind to report you for leaving your post,” Patrick says.
“And get your sister in trouble for being out after curfew?” I say. “I don’t think so.”
“Stay away from her, freak,” he snarls. “Or else.”
“Or else, what?”
That was a mistake. Patrick shoves me and I hit the ground, getting mud all over my woolen pants. I catch Catherine’s eye just as Patrick slams the door. They’re filled with pity. I furiously pick up the rifle and clamber to my feet, roughly brushing the mud off my pants, my mind racing with a million ways to get back at Patrick. I trudge through the town to resume my post on the wall, my head bowed against the lashing rain.
Something flashes across the path in front of me.
What was that? My hand twitches over my rifle. If a Howler’s gotten inside the compound, I’m in big trouble. Nearby is Mrs. Hope’s cottage. Her bedroom window is wide open, the long metal latch clanking against the wall. Oh no! I enter the cottage without knocking.
“Mrs. Hope, it’s Edmund,” I say, my voice cracking a little.
All the lights in the cottage are off, apart from a single candle that illuminates the hallway. Rows of medical books line one side of the wall. A clock ticks at the far end.
There’s a creak of floorboards from the room overhead.
I walk up the rickety staircase, gun raised. Every instinct screams at me to run, but a strange tugging sensation compels me forward, like someone is pulling on a gossamer thread woven to my chest, drawing me farther up the stairs.
I lick my dry lips. “Whoever’s here, I’ve got a gun, so you’d best leave now!”
A dull pain begins to ball up inside my rib cage as I softly tread toward the bedroom.
I open the door.
“Mrs. Ho—” My words get lost in my throat. The old lady is in front of the window, floating several feet above the ground, her long white nightdress billowing in the breeze. A pale arm is hooked around her waist—someone is lifting her out of the window! I take a step toward them, and pain explodes in my chest. I fall to my knees, dropping the gun.
“Help me!” Mrs. Hope cries.
I struggle to my feet and stagger over to the old woman just as she’s dragged out of the window. She stretches out her hand, our fingertips touch, and then—
“I DON’T SEE ANY OTHER OPTION. I’m going to steal a Transporter and find Ash myself,” I say to Elijah, or more accurately, to his backside. He’s currently knelt in the dirt in front of me, pulling up carrots from the vegetable patch. His catlike tail sways happily as he works.
We’re in the UG—an enormous subterranean greenhouse lit by ultraviolet strip-lights, thus its imaginatively titled name, Ultraviolet Greenhouse, or UG for short. It’s unlike any hothouse I’ve been in before—equal parts farm, fruit orchard and garden, complete with outbuildings and a water tower. We’re gathering supplies for lunch. Well, Elijah is. I’m “supervising” from my spot on the rockery beside him. Colorful primroses jut between the stones, sweetening the recycled air with their perfume.
The UG is definitely my favorite place in the Sentry rebel stronghold—a secret military base that runs under the city of Gallium, the capital of the Copper State—but its beauty is lost on me right now. It’s been nine days since Rafe Garrick and his Lupine pack brought us to the compound, and my patience is wearing thin. Ash is somewhere out there, and I’m stuck down here just waiting for any news of him. A radio crackles in my pocket as if to remind me of this point. I have it constantly tuned to Firebird, a pirate radio station run by Humans for Unity, listening for any mention of Ash—thankfully we’re able to get a signal down here because of the complex’s booster system—but so far there’s been no word on Phoenix, the name by which he’s commonly known these days.
“That’s a great idea, pretty girl,” Elijah says, tossing a bunch of carrots into the basket by my feet. “Except for the bit about you flying a Transporter, of course.”
I frown. He has a point. I have no pilot training.
“Okay, I’ll kidnap Garrick and force him to fly it,” I say.
Elijah quirks an eyebrow at me.
“All right, bad idea.” I pick up a garden knife lying on the dirt and twirl it between my fingers. “Why did my parents leave Ash behind? If they’d just brought him with us, none of this would be an issue.”
“You know why,” Elijah says patiently. “They thought you’d be better off without him.”
I let out an angry sigh, still mad at my parents. I sort of understand their reasoning—they wanted to bring me and my sister, Polly, to the compound so we could be a family again, but there was no place for Ash in their plan. When I pushed them for an explanation, my mother threw up her hands and finally admitted the truth. “That boy is a bad influence, Natalie. A drug dealer and a wanted criminal, and he’s caused you nothing but trouble since you’ve been together. He’s torn this family apart! I don’t like the hold he has over you,” she’d said. “It’s not healthy. My God, you’re just seventeen and you’re already talking marriage.”
I turned to my father for support, but he just shook his head slightly. “We only have your best interests at heart, Talie,” he said.
My grip tightens around the knife in my hand, frustrated with them. It’s always been this way with my parents. They controlled my life as a child and they’re still doing it now. I stab the blade into a patch of primroses, beheading a few of the flowers. One of the female gardeners—a pretty brunette named Josie, who always has a smudge of dirt on her nose—gives me a frosty look. I blush. Unlike Elijah, I haven’t exactly made a good impression around here, after the “incident” in the Mess Hall.
Shortly after I arrived at the compound, I set fire to the canteen when my father refused my umpteenth request to retrieve Ash. It worked. He sent Beta Squad to Viridis, but by the time they arrived, Ash and two of Elijah’s half brothers—Acelot and Marcel—had vanished and Purian Rose’s troops were swarming all over the place. Beta Squad barely made it back alive. After that disaster, and two more failed missions to look for Ash in Thrace and our rendezvous point in Centrum, my father was ordered not to send out any more rescue teams. “I’m sorry, but those are the Commander’s instructions. It’s out of my hands now,” he said.
Although my father runs the compound, he isn’t the man spearheading the Sentry rebellion. That person is some rich benefactor, known only as the Commander, who has been funding this operation for years, and he’s the one who makes all the decisions around here. I don’t know his real name, as it’s a closely guarded secret to protect his identity.
I sink my chin into my hands, wondering what to do about Ash, while Elijah continues to work. The gold bands on his wrists glint as he heaves three bags of fertilizer over his muscular shoulders and carries them back to the vegetable patch. He grabs a fork and begins to shovel the fertilizer over the earth. He briefly pauses to mop his brow, smearing dirt over his face in the process. The effect somehow manages to make him look even more gorgeous. A group of nearby women cast appreciative glances his way.
I roll my eyes, laughing. “God, they’re shameless.” Elijah lifts a brow, and I nod toward the ogling women. “They’re old enough to be your mother.”
A flash of pain crosses his features.
“Oh, Elijah, I’m so sorry,” I stammer. “I didn’t think . . .”
“It’s okay,” he says quietly.
His mother, Yolanda, went missing a month ago, along with Ash’s aunt, Lucinda Coombs, and their childhood friend Kieran. They were all members of a terrorist group known as the Four Kingdoms, whose goal was to unite the four races by any means necessary. Before they disappeared, the trio were searching for the Ora—a powerful weapon believed to be weaponized yellowpox, which targets only those with the V-gene, namely the Sentry. Ash, Elijah and I had been on a mission to find them and retrieve the Ora, before we got separated in Viridis.
“We’ll find her,” I say gently. “Garrick’s put the word out in Gray Wolf to look for them. Hopefully his men will turn up something soon.”
“Yeah, hopefully,” Elijah says, unconvinced. “I wish Esme had been able to give us more details before she was killed.”
Esme was Kieran’s wife, whom we met in Thrace. She’d told us that the trio had contacted her from Gray Wolf, saying they were heading to a nearby mountain called the Claw, to retrieve the Ora. That was the last any of us heard of them. Before we could question Esme further, we were attacked by Sentry guards and Esme was shot. We’ve tried to figure out which mountain the Claw is, but it’s not on any map that we can find. I thought it might be a nickname, like how Crimson Mountain is also known as the Devil’s Fork because of its twin peaks, but the closest mountain to Gray Wolf is Mount Alba, but that has a caldron-shaped crator, so that can’t be it, as it doesn’t match the description of a claw. So we’re back at square one.
My antique watch beeps and I sigh, getting up. It’s time for my daily appointment with Dr. Craven Eden. Without needing to be asked, Elijah starts packing away our things. He brings the basket of carrots over to Josie.
“Thanks, kitten,” she says, smiling flirtatiously.
He flushes, mumbling, “No worries. Always happy to help out.”
I smirk at him when he returns. “Kitten?”
He turns a deeper shade of red. This sweet, blushing version of Elijah is so unlike the arrogant, strutting boy from a few weeks ago—that boy’s favorite pastime was flirting with girls, and he wouldn’t lift a finger to help out—but then again he was impersonating his spoiled half brother Marcel, so I’m only just starting to know the real Elijah. I pull the wood-handled knife out of the murdered primroses and tuck it into my pocket, intending to return it to the toolshed.
We stroll through the tranquil garden toward the exit, taking our time. I’m in no hurry to become Dr. Craven’s human pincushion. On top of my heart condition—I had a heart transplant when I was eight—I recently contracted the Wrath virus, after an infected Darkling boy bit me. Since my arrival at the rebel base, the Sentry doctors have been trying to cure me, injecting me with experimental vaccines and drugs. Until I came here, I’d made my peace with dying, but now that there’s hope I can get better, I’m terrified the treatment won’t work.
Elijah thrusts his hands into his pockets as he walks beside me, the sleeves of his jumpsuit rolled up to reveal the leopardlike spots on his arms. The metal bands around his wrists glimmer in the fake sunlight. Looking at them, you’d think they’re just pretty pieces of jewelry, but I know what they really are: shackles. They denote his status as a slave to the Bastet Consul, who also happened to be his father. Elijah’s relationship with his father is complicated to say the least. Or was complicated, I correct. The Bastet Consul was murdered nine days ago, along with Elijah’s half brother Donatien.
“How are you coping?” I say gently.
Elijah shrugs, knowing what I’m talking about. “Fine. Terrible. I miss them, despite everything.” He lowers his gaze. “I can’t help but feel my dad got what he deserved, though.” His topaz eyes flick up to meet mine.
I don’t say anything, but deep down I agree with him. The Bastet Consul used Elijah to lure me and Ash to Viridis, under the pretense that they wanted to join the rebellion. However, it was just a ruse to get us to Viridis so they could hand us over to Purian Rose’s forces. The plan backfired, as the Sentry double-crossed the Bastets, and his father was killed in the ensuing fight. We only just escaped with our lives.
I should be mad at Elijah for his part in the conspiracy—I was angry at him for a few days—but he was only following his father’s orders. Besides, when Garrick kidnapped me in Viridis, Elijah risked his life by coming after me. Neither of us knew at the time that Garrick was working for my father, so it was a brave thing for him to do. And now he’s a “permanent guest” here, forbidden to leave the compound in case he tells someone about the Sentry rebels. Elijah won’t be seeing the surface for a while, at least until I’m able to persuade my father to stop being so ridiculous and let him go. I think that’s why he volunteered to work in the UG. It’s the next best thing to the outside world.
We pass a bush of bright yellow Pollyanna lilies, and I brush my fingers over the flowers. Orange pollen bursts into the air.
“My sister was named after this flower,” I say.
A sad smile passes over Elijah’s lips. Polly was murdered a month ago by my former bodyguard and boyfriend, Sebastian Eden, on Purian Rose’s orders. Elijah was with me when I found her body. Grief tightens around my throat like a vine, threatening to strangle me.
I slip my fingers into my pocket and find the blade concealed there. I’d made a promise to my sister that day. I told her I wouldn’t stop fighting until Centrum was nothing but burning rubble around Purian Rose’s feet. And when that moment came, I was going to stride up to that son of a bitch and drive a dagger straight through his black heart. We approach the toolshed and I walk past it, my hand still clutched around the knife.
THE HOSPITAL IS A LEVEL UP from the UG, next to the main entrance, and by the time we reach it, I’m out of breath. I pause outside the glass doors, steeling myself for what’s to come—an intravenous drip to help with the anemia, plus a cocktail of antiviral drugs followed by several excruciatingly painful injections. We’ve been following this procedure every day since I got here, and although I’m grateful for the treatment, I hate every second of it.
I glance up at Elijah. His Adam’s apple nervously bobs up and down in his throat as he stares at the doors leading into the hospital. I gently take his hand.
“You don’t have to come in with me,” I say. “I know you hate these places.”
My mother and Dr. Craven held Elijah hostage in their laboratory in Black City and experimented on him. It was his venom they used to create the Golden Haze, which killed several teenagers in Black City and resulted in my mother being sent to prison, so obviously Elijah’s not a big fan of hospitals. Or Dr. Craven. Or my mother.
His gaze drops to my hand, which is still holding on to his. “Anything for you.”
Guilt coils up inside me, and I move my hand away. Hurt flickers across his face. Elijah confessed he had feelings for me a few weeks ago, when we were traveling to Thrace, and we’ve both tried to pretend like he never said anything, but it’s always lurking in the corners of our friendship. He holds the glass door open for me, and I enter the hospital.
Everything inside the ward is clinical and white, apart from the green door at the end of the room, which leads into Dr. Craven’s laboratory. The ward is filled with all sorts of machines that whir and beep, and whose sole purpose, I’m certain, is to give me a migraine. Rows of metal beds line both sides of the room. Standing by one of them are my parents, who are in the middle of an argument.
“I’m not going to discuss this again, Jonathan,” Mother says tersely. She’s painfully thin, with sharp cheekbones, pale skin, and black hair that is neatly pinned up into a chignon.
“She was my daughter too,” Father says in the stiff I’m-trying-not-to-shout voice that he uses when he’s really mad. “I raised her as if she were my own flesh and blood.”
I’m still caught off guard by the sight of my father. Until nine days ago I thought he was dead, so it’s taking a little getting used to, having him back in my life, especially since the man standing here now isn’t the one I remembered. Father used to be classically handsome, like a movie star from the old films my sister and I used to watch, with a strong chin, mischievous blue eyes and an easy smile. He never smiles now, although it’s probably not easy for him to do after the Wrath mauled his face.
I was with him when he was attacked, and his wounds were so severe that it seemed impossible Dr. Craven would be able to save him. So when my mother told me Father died, I’d believed her. I didn’t even question her when she refused my request to see his body, saying it would be too traumatic, or why she demanded a closed casket at his funeral. I’d just assumed she didn’t want people looking at his mutilated face. In reality, my father had been stabilized by Dr. Craven, and then secretly transferred to this facility to be nursed back to health, while we buried an empty coffin.
It hurts that my parents kept this enormous secret from me, but I understand why they did it. My father was considered a traitor of the state, so it was safer for all of us if he just stayed “dead” while my mother continued working for Purian Rose as if her loyalties were still with him. To a point, they were; I know she agrees with his segregation laws. But my mother’s first loyalty is to this family, as I came to realize months ago when she confessed she only agreed to Purian Rose’s plan to infect Darklings in Black City with the Wrath virus, because he threatened Polly and me. She’d ally with whoever is most convenient to us at the time. Right now, that’s the Sentry rebels.
“Siobhan, we can’t keep putting this off. She’s not coming back,” Father says.
To my surprise, Mother lets out a pained sob and crumples against my father.
“I can’t do it, Jonathan, I just can’t,” Mother gasps between sobs.
Father wraps his arms around her. I’m stunned at how broken my mother looks. I’ve only ever seen her like this once before, on the day she was sent to prison. She hasn’t spoken to me about what they did to her there, but I’ve heard the rumors: torture, sleep deprivation, starvation, drugs—all designed to break a prisoner’s spirit.
The door at the end of the ward opens and Dr. Craven enters the room, clipboard in hand. He’s a tall, middle-aged man with vivid green eyes, wiry bronze hair, and half-moon spectacles perched on the end of his long nose. He’s wearing a pristine white lab coat over his bottle-green jumpsuit. For twelve years, Dr. Craven worked for my mother in Black City, as the head of the Anti-Darkling Science and Technologies Department. He’s also been our family’s personal physician for almost two decades—he was the one who performed my heart transplant when I was younger.
Dr. Craven engineered the C18 “Wrath” virus, which was designed as a biological weapon against the Darklings, so he’s my best hope of getting cured. My father mercifully didn’t contract the disease after he was attacked by an infected Darkling, but I wasn’t so fortunate. Perhaps it’s because I have a Darkling heart inside me? Or my father’s just immune? We’re still trying to work it out.
“Hello, pumpkin,” Dr. Craven says.
My parents pull apart, and Mother quickly dabs her eyes.
“Hey, Dr. Craven,” I say, taking a seat on the edge of my bed. “Long time, no see.”
He smirks a little. I’ve spent most of my time at the hospital since I got here.
The pager on my mother’s belt beeps and she checks it. She turns to my father. “It’s the Commander. He wants me to call him right away.” My dad runs the military operations here, but as the highest-ranking government official in the compound, my mother is technically his boss. She looks at me, uncertain.
“That’s fine. You should go!” I say, a little too enthusiastically. I love my mother, but we can’t spend more than ten minutes together before we end up bickering.
Elijah gives her a cold look as she walks past. When she’s gone, Father plucks a book from his pocket: The Adventures of Captain Redbeard. My heart sinks. That’s definitely more my dad’s taste than mine.
“You don’t have to stay here; I know you’re busy.”
“I’m never too busy for my little girl.”
I cringe slightly. That’s still how he sees me—as his little girl. Father squashes beside me on the narrow bed, stretching his legs out in front of him, while Elijah sits cross-legged on the bed next to us. They take turns reading the dialogue, putting on stupid voices and making me giggle—Elijah’s damsel in distress is hilarious. It’s a welcome distraction as Dr. Craven inserts the IV line into my hand and starts the treatment.
Thankfully for me, Dr. Craven is a very cautious man and has been working on an antidote to the Wrath virus since he first engineered it several years ago, on the off chance it might jump species. He was right to be concerned—I’m the living (well, possibly dying) proof of that. But the antiviral drugs have never been tested on humans before, as he didn’t get a chance to complete his trials before having to go into hiding after the Golden Haze scandal, so we have no idea if this is going to work.
I try to focus on the story as Dr. Craven draws my blood before starting the intravenous drip. He takes the sample to the lab to run some tests to see if the treatment’s having any effect. I’m not optimistic; the last eight results have all come back showing there’s been no change in my condition.
“What were you and Mother arguing about?” I ask my father.
Father puts his arm around me. “We were discussing Polly’s memorial service. I thought it was time we had one, but your mother doesn’t agree. She’s not ready for it.”
I picture how broken my mom looked earlier, and understand what my father means.
“Do you miss her?” I whisper.
Father gives a curt nod, his jaw clenching. He loved Polly deeply, despite the fact that she wasn’t his biological daughter. Her real dad was Purian Rose. My mom had an affair with him early on in her marriage to my father and got pregnant with Polly.
“Why did you stay with Mom when you found out Polly wasn’t yours?” I say.
Father glances at Elijah. He pretends to read the book, politely ignoring us.
“I didn’t,” Father says. “When I discovered the truth, I left her.”
I sit upright, surprised. “I had no idea.” Although Mother deserved it, I can’t help but feel sorry for her. “Why did you come back?”
“Your mother was truly sorry for what she did,” Father says. “And I had to accept some responsibility for what happened. My work took me away from her for months at a time. It didn’t help that we’d been trying for a family, but it just wasn’t happening.” His thin mouth sets in a grim line. “It caused a lot of strain between us, and I wasn’t there for Siobhan when she needed me,” he continues. “So she found comfort in another man.”
“Purian Rose,” I mutter. Gross.
“Was it wrong of her? Yes. But is she totally to blame? No,” Father continues. “We saw this as our second chance to be a family, Talie. It wasn’t easy, but over time I forgave her. And I’m so glad I did, because we had Polly and then two years later we were blessed with you.” He kisses my forehead. “I love your mother. I have no regrets.”
I peer down at my engagement ring, thinking about Ash. We’ve overcome plenty of trials, so I can sort of understand how my father managed to forgive her.
“Dad, I was wondering—”
“We’re not discussing this again, Talie,” he says, cutting me off.
“You didn’t even know what I was going to say,” I reply.
“You were going to ask me to send out a search party for Ash,” he says.
“If you’d just let me speak to the Commander—”
“He’s been very explicit with his orders,” Father says, using the curt voice he usually saves for his lieutenants. “He feels we’ve done enough. We can’t spare any more resources on this, Natalie. We have our own priorities.”
“And he should be one of them.” I stand up and yank the IV line out of my hand. “Ash is a vital part in the war against Purian Rose. He’s Phoenix, for heaven’s sake! Doesn’t that mean anything to you people?”
Father leaps to his feet. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To Viridis,” I say. “Maybe Beta Squad missed something. Someone there might know where Ash and the others went.” I turn to Elijah. “Are you coming?”
He nods, getting up.
“Sit down!” Father commands.
Elijah immediately sits.
“You don’t have to listen to him,” I say to Elijah, then to my father: “You have no right to keep him prisoner here. We’re going.”
“And how precisely are you getting to Viridis, hmm?” Father says.
“Stow away on a train, steal a truck, whatever it takes,” I say. It’s a risky journey through enemy territory, which is why I’ve been reluctant to try it, given my already ill health, but my father’s left me with no other option.
He blocks our path. “You’re not leaving this compound.”
“You can’t order me about. I’m not one of your lieutenants,” I say.
“No, I’m your father,” he snaps. “I understand you think you love that boy—”
“I don’t just love him, I’m connected to him.” I press a hand to my chest. “When you took me away, you wounded Ash in a way you will never understand. He’s hurting, Dad. I can feel it.”
“Natalie . . . ,” Father says, his voice softening.
“Ash deserves better than this,” I continue. “He sacrificed himself for me. He took the blame for a murder that I did, and he was literally crucified for it! And this is how you repay him?” My blood boils, furious with my father and the Commander. I’m tired of trying to persuade them to find Ash; it’s obviously not going to happen and every day he’s out there, he’s in danger. If I want this done, I have to do it myself. “I’m going to find him, and nothing you can say will stop me.”
I push past my father, and Elijah follows.
“What about your treatment?” Father says.
I hesitate. I haven’t thought this through. How long can I survive without my injections? Will it be enough time to find Ash and bring him back here before I get too sick? I’m not so sure.
“Don’t do this, Natalie, please,” Father pleads. “Your mother and I have been through enough. We can’t lose you, and from everything you’ve told me about Ash, he wouldn’t want you to die for him either.”
I stop. That did it.
Elijah looks at me. “We’re not going, are we?” he says quietly.
I shake my head and return to my bed, defeated.
Just then, Dr. Craven returns from his laboratory, his eyebrows drawn together as he studies the results of my latest blood test on his clipboard. My stomach lurches, sensing something is up. Elijah’s fingers slip through mine. His hand is slightly calloused and warm. Comforting.
“So, what’s the news, Doc?” I try to sound casual, my fingers tightening around Elijah’s.
“Well, I’m sorry to say you’re still infected with the Wrath,” Craven says, and my stomach twists. “So we’ll have to continue with the course of injections—”
“Am I going to die?” I blurt out.
My father and Elijah look at Dr. Craven expectantly. We all hold our breath. It’s so silent, I can hear my blood swooshing in my ears. He takes off his glasses.
“No, pumpkin,” Dr. Craven says. “Although you’re not cured, it looks like the virus is going into remission. The treatment’s working.” He smiles at me. “You’re going to live.”
MY FATHER AND CRAVEN discuss my results—apparently if we continue with the injections for the next few months, there’s a good possibility the virus could go into complete remission—but I’m finding it hard to concentrate. A sound between a laugh and a sob escapes my lips. I’m going to live.
Elijah engulfs me in his arms. “I knew you’d be okay, pretty girl.” I lean against him, grateful for the support, although a small part of me wishes that it were Ash’s shoulder I was resting my head on now. “We should celebrate.”
I glance hopefully at my father. “Can we go to the surface?”
He gives me stern look. “No, of course not. We’ve just been over this.”
“Alpha Squad can escort us, so you don’t need to worry about us running off,” I continue. “We’re just asking to go to the surface for a few hours, Dad. It’s not an unreasonable request. We’ve been cooped up here for more than a week; it can’t be good for my health.”
“A little bit of sunlight might do her some good, Jonathan,” Dr. Craven agrees.
I flash a grateful smile at him and he winks at me.
“What if you get spotted?” Father says.
“We’ll wear disguises.”
He sighs, his resistance melting. “Alpha Squad should be in command central.”
• • •
As its name suggests, command central is in the heart of the compound, at the junction between the hospital, admin offices and Mess Hall. Every minute or so a subway train swooshes past us as we wander down Main Street. The soldiers use the trains to navigate the city-sized military complex, but after what happened the last time Elijah and I were on a train—we were attacked by a gang of Wraths—we opt to walk. The amount of time and money that went into building the compound still astonishes me. I’m even more surprised that Purian Rose knows nothing about it, but it turns out there are more traitors in his administration than he realizes.
The secret compound was built during the first war as a refuge for a bunch of paranoid government officials, who planned to hide here if the Darklings won the war. The Darklings lost, but those same government officials, headed by Emissary Vincent—the former leader of the Copper State, before she was assassinated a few weeks ago—continued to use the base to build an army against Rose, with the support of the Commander. They believed Rose was leading the country into social and economic ruin because of his obsession with the Darklings. It was time for a change. Those officials are here in the base, although I barely ever see them. They prefer to keep their luxury quarters away from the “riffraff.”
Soldiers in rust-colored jumpsuits immediately stop what they’re doing and salute my father as he walks past. Even though he’s dressed the same as them, he exudes authority. He nods at a few of the soldiers, even attempts the occasional smile with his scarred lips, but there’s a cool air around him. The soldiers keep a respectful distance.
Dr. Craven chuckles as Elijah grabs my hand and twirls me all the way down Main Street, both of us laughing. We earn a few odd looks from the passing soldiers, but I don’t care. It’s nice to have a bit of good news after so much heartache recently. We’ve all lost people close to us, including Dr. Craven, whose son Sebastian is missing along with Ash and Elijah’s half brothers. It’s hard to care about Sebastian when he raped and murdered my sister, but he’s still Dr. Craven’s son; I understand why the doctor is worried about him. Still, the doctor’s not going to get any sympathy from anyone around here. If Sebastian turned up right now, he’d be executed on the spot, and Dr. Craven knows it. It might be best for him to stay lost.
There’s a lot of hubbub as we enter command central—a circular room filled with military-grade com-desks and glass walls covered in digital screens, which stream live updates of the Sentry rebels’ military operations. The soldiers manning the com-desks salute my father as we stroll through the room. On one screen I notice Zeta Squad entering a munitions factory, and on another, Omicron have just destroyed a bridge. They plant a cerulean blue and black flag at the scene—the very flag that Ash designed for Humans for Unity. I furrow my brow. Elijah looks quizzically at me.
“What are they doing?” he says.
I turn to my father. “Are you pinning these attacks on Humans for Unity?”
He nods. “Why draw attention to ourselves if we don’t need to? Humans for Unity are the perfect cover.” He smiles, pleased with himself. “I was worried they’d get in our way, but they’ve proved most useful, keeping Rose distracted while we undertake our own missions.”
“We’ve been doing more than keeping Rose ‘distracted,’” I say through gritted teeth. Even though I’m technically a Sentry, I see myself as a member of Humans for Unity first and foremost. “We liberated Thrace two weeks ago.”
“And you did a fine job, Natalie,” Father says, patting my shoulder. “But we need to focus our efforts on strategic targets. Things that might actually help us win this war.”
My lips pinch together, annoyed by his patronizing tone. Did he really just say that? Father strolls over to the com-desk while I turn back to the digital screens, needing a moment to calm down before I say something I regret. One of the monitors is broadcasting the latest news from SBN, the government-owned network. A glamorous blond reporter with sea-green eyes, February Fields, is reading the news.
“And today’s main story: Darkling Ambassador Sigur Marwick has been found guilty on charges of terrorism, for his role in the Black City bombings in which twenty Sentry guards lost their lives and hundreds of others were injured.”
The shot cuts to Sigur as he’s being led out of court. He looks malnourished and gaunt, with dark shadows under his eyes. One eye is milky white after he was blinded in it, the other a sparkling orange. He’s wearing a gray prison jumpsuit, which hangs off his slim frame, and his rippling ice-white hair twists and swirls around his angular face, sensing the air around him for blood. I knew Sigur would be found guilty, but even so, the news rattles me.
February Fields returns to the screen. “The ambassador’s execution has been scheduled for two days’ time. In other news, preparations have begun in every city across the USS for the nationwide Cleansing ceremony next week, the largest of its kind ever to be broadcast live on television. Sentry officials are expecting upward of eighty million Pilgrims to attend the public ceremonies, where Puri—”
“Turn that crap off, will you?” Garrick says from the com-desk in the center of the room. The Lupine is enormous—over seven feet tall—every inch of that packed with thick muscle. He has a mottled gray mane that has been styled into a shark’s fin down the center of his head.
Next to him is another Lupine, Sasha, who has a dyed pink mane that matches her neon lipstick. She’s got a chunky metal belt around the waist of her jumpsuit, which has been unbuttoned to reveal the top of her cleavage. The Lupines make up two-thirds of Alpha Squad. The final member is Destiny Vincent, a stunning black woman in her early twenties with long cornrows that have been tied back into a neat bun.
Nearly all the men in the base have a crush on Destiny because of her model-good looks—she used to regularly grace the covers of Sentry Youth Monthly when she was my age—but underneath that pretty exterior is a woman not to be messed with. She knocked Private Jones out last week during a card game when he accused her of cheating. She was, but that wasn’t the point.
She catches my eye and winks. Destiny and I hit it off immediately, as we have a lot in common. We’re both from high-profile Sentry families—her aunt was Emissary Vincent—and we mingled in the same social circles growing up, so we have plenty to gossip about.
At the head of the com-desk is my mother. She’s deep in concentration as she gazes at the screen, which casts a bluish glow over her pale skin. Projected onto the screen is a map of Centrum. Five glowing orange dots move about the map. A male voice crackles over the com-desk’s speakers.
“This is Omega. We’re in position,” he says.
Mother lifts her eyes as we approach the com-desk. They widen as she notices the grins on all our faces. She looks hopefully at Dr. Craven.
“The treatment’s working,” he says.
Mother grips the com-desk, like she might fall over, and lets out a shuddering breath. She doesn’t make any move to hug me, but she’s not one for public displays of affection. “That’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful.”
“Natalie and Elijah would like to go to the surface,” Father says. “I told them it was okay. Alpha Squad can escort them.”
Garrick and Sasha shoot annoyed looks at each other, while Destiny beams. Obviously I’m not the only one who is desperate to get out of here. I grin at Mother.
She sighs, nodding. “All right. Just be back in time for lunch.”
Destiny, Garrick and Sasha each collect a gun from the weapons locker and join us by the doorway. Elijah turns to Garrick.
“Has there been any update on my mom?” Elijah asks.
Garrick shakes his head. “Sorry it’s taking so long, but Gray Wolf is swarming with Sentry guards right now, as it’s the closest city to the Tenth, so my guys are having to keep a low profile.” He clamps a hand on Elijah’s shoulder. “We’ll find them.”
Elijah frowns, unconvinced.
The investigation into Yolanda, Lucinda and Kieran’s whereabouts would move faster if the Commander would offer some assistance, but he ordered my father not to waste any resources looking for them or the Ora, neither of which he considers of “stategic importance” to the Sentry rebels. Luckily for us, Garrick’s pack is based near Gray Wolf, so as a personal favor to us, he asked them to investigate.
Just as we’re leaving, Father grips Garrick’s arm, holding him back. As I walk off, I hear my father say, “If that Bastet tries to escape, shoot him.” A shiver trickles down my spine at my father’s chilling words and I hurry after Elijah.
• • •
An hour later we’re chugging down the river in the Fogger—a covered steamboat, with paint peeling off its metal bodywork and a rusting chimney that spews clouds of soot into the resin-brown skies. The Fogger’s ugly, but we blend in perfectly with all the other boats on the busy waterway. I gaze down at the river, which is a vivid orange color—a by-product of decades of pollution being dumped into the water by the munitions factories.
The river cuts through the heart of Gallium and is the best way to get around the crowded city. We sail past towering skyscrapers. Their façades are covered in sheets of tarnished metal, creating a patchwork of dirty bronze, verdigris green and gunmetal gray, reminding me of a famous cubist painting that I once saw at Emissary Bradshaw’s home in Centrum. The cool spring air whips through the Fogger’s windows, and I hug my jacket closer around myself as I sit down on the long wooden seat.
Like many people in Gallium, I’m wearing a respirator mask, which covers my nose and mouth, obscuring the lower part of my face. As well as being a handy disguise, it’s also protecting my lungs from the noxious fumes belching out of the munitions factories all around the city. The fumes won’t kill you, but I’d still rather not breathe them in, as the air stinks. The mask is rather claustrophobic, though, and I adjust the strap, loosening it a little. In addition to the mask, I’m dressed in black leather slacks, with a tight gray vest and hooded tailcoat, which is hiding the gun holstered around my shoulder. Destiny and Elijah are similarly dressed, although his jacket is longer than ours, to conceal his tail.