"Utterly unique and absolutely riveting—I couldn't put it down! What a marvelously cool world."—New York Times bestselling author Sarah J. Maas
From the author of the New York Times bestselling White Rabbit Chronicles series comes the first book of a series in which life as we know it is merely a dress rehearsal, and real life begins after death.
Tenley "Ten" Lockwood is an average seventeen-year-old girl…who has spent the past thirteen months locked inside the Prynne Asylum. The reason? Not her obsession with numbers, but her refusal to let her parents choose where she'll live—after she dies.
There is an eternal truth most of the world has come to accept: Firstlife is merely a dress rehearsal, and real life begins after death.
In the Everlife, two realms are in power: Troika and Myriad, longtime enemies and deadly rivals. Both will do anything to recruit Ten, including sending their top Laborers to lure her to their side. Soon, Ten finds herself on the run, caught in a wild tug-of-war between the two realms who will do anything to win the right to her soul. Who can she trust? And what if the realm she's drawn to isn't where the boy she's falling for lives? She just has to stay alive long enough to make a decision…
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"You are better off Unsigned than a slave to Troikan law."Myriad I've been locked inside the Prynne Asylumwhere happiness comes to diefor three hundred and seventy-eight days. (Or nine thousand and seventy-two hours.) I know the exact time frame, not because I watched the sun rise and set in the sky, but because I mark my walls in blood every time the lights in the good-girls-gone-bad wing of the facility turn on.
There are no windows in the building. At least, none that I've found. And I've never been allowed outside. None of the inmates have. To be honest, I don't even know what country we're in, or if we're buried far underground. Before being flown, driven, shipped or dropped here, we were heavily sedated. Wherever we are, though, it's bone-deep cold beyond the walls. Every day, hour, second, our air is heated.
I've heard friends and enemies alike ask the staff for details, but the response has always been the same. Answers have to be earned.
No, thanks. For me, the pricecooperationis simply too high.
With a wince, I rise from bed and make my way to the far corner of my cell. Every step is agony. My back hates me, but the muscles are too sore to go on strike. Last night I was caned just because.
I stop in front of my pride and joy. My calendar. A new day means a new mark.
I have no chalk, no pen or marker, so I drive the tip of an index finger over a jagged stone protruding from the floor, slicing through the flesh and drawing a well of blood.
I hate the sting, but if I'm honest, I'll love the scar it leaves behind. My scars give me something to count.
Counting is my passion, and numerology my favorite addiction. Maybe because every breath we take is another tick on our clock, putting us one step closer to death and a new beginning. Maybe because my name is TenleyTen to my friends.
Ten, a representation of completion.
We have ten fingers and ten toes. Ten is the standard beginning for any countdown.
I was born on the tenth day of the tenth month at 10:10 a.m. And, okay. All right. Maybe I'm obsessed with numbers because they always tell a story and unlike people, they never lie.
Here's my story in a nutshell:
Seventeenthe number of years I've existed. In my case, lived is too strong a word.
Onethe number of boys I've dated.
Twothe number of friends I've made and lost since my incarceration.
Twothe number of lives I'll live. The number of lives we'll all live.
Our Firstlife, then our Everlife.
Twothe number of choices I have for my eternal future.
(1) Do as my parents command or (2) suffer. I've chosen to suffer.
I use the blood to create another mark on the stones. Satisfied, I head to the "bathroom." There are no doors to provide even a modicum of privacy, just a small, open shower stall next to a toilet. For our safety, we're told. For the amusement of others, I suspect. All cells are monitored 24/7, which means at any given time during any given day, staff members are allowed and even encouraged to watch live camera feed.
Dr. Vans, the head of the asylum, likes to taunt us. I see and know everything.
A good portion of teachers scold us. Time waster!
Orderlies belittle us. Put on a little weight, haven't we?
Most of the guards leer at us. They hail from all over the world, and though their language varies, their sentiment is always the same. You are begging for it and one day I'll give it.
Just some of the many perks offered chez Prynne.
Not everyone is horrible, I admit. A small handful even strive to keep the others from going too far. But it's no secret every staff member is paid to make us hate our stay, to make us want to leave more than anything. Because, the more we want to leave, the more likely we are to do whatever our parents sent us here to do.
My friend Marlowe dared to pawn her mother's jewelry to buy groceries, and she needed help with her "kleptomania." My friend Clay, a drug addict, needed to get clean.
The institution failed them both. A few months ago, Marlowe killed herself, and Clay I don't know what happened to him. He planned an escape, and I haven't heard from him since.
I miss them both. Every. Single. Day.
I begged Clay not to risk a breakout. I tried to leave once, and I had help. My boyfriend, James, a guard high on the totem, arranged for cameras to be shut down, certain doors to be unlocked and other guards to sleep on the job. Still I proved unsuccessful.
For his efforts, James was shot in the head. While I watched.
Hot tears well in my eyes and trickle down my cheeks as I slowly strip out of my jumpsuit. Every motion comes with another blast of agony. When finally I'm naked, I step under a tepid spray of water. Modesty has long since been beaten out of meliterally!but I wash as fast as I can. We're given a small ration of water a day. If we run out, we run out. Too bad, so sad. Something we're never given? Razors. I keep my legs and underarms smooth with threads I've pulled from old uniforms. I already feel like an animal; there's no reason to resemble one, too.
Not that a well-groomed appearance matters. While we're allowed to socialize with the opposite sex during mealtimes, I'd rather dig my heart out of my chest with a rusty spoon than date again. Yes, the rewards are tremendous, but the risks are more so. When everything comes crashing downand it willI'll be shattered into a million pieces. I'll have to rebuild. Again.
I should have resisted James's pursuit of me, but I'd been at a low point, desperate for any show of affection. He'd risked his job every time he'd disabled the cameras to sneak inside my room. He snuck in so many times, in fact, his memory still lives here. Every night when I climb into my twin-size bed, I'm reminded of the way he teased me out of my initial shyness. Of the way he cleaned my wounds whenever I was hurt. Of the way he held me in his arms, offering comfort and kisses. He'd wanted to do more. I hadn't. Not here. Not with a potential audience.
Forget the past. Concentrate on the present. Right.
I shut off the water and towel dry as best I can. I step into a clean, peed-in-the-snow-yellow jumpsuit, but only manage to bring the material to my waist, my arms refusing to work properly, my shoulder muscles giving up.
What am I going to do? I can't leave my cell like this.
The door suddenly slides open with a quiet snick. My blood flashes ice-cold as two guards march inside my cell, a flailing girl between them.
I gasp, my surprise giving me the strength I need to lift my hands and cover my breasts.
No, I'm not modest, but this is a special kind of humiliating.
The guards release the girl and push her in my direction. The first thing I notice about her? She has unevenly cropped pink hair.
"New roomie," one of them says to me. When he notices my partial state of undress, he grins. "Well, well. Vhat we have here?"
His Russian accent is as thick as ever, one of the many reasons I refer to him as Comrade Douche. Though my cheeks burn, I strive for a confident tone. "Vhat we have here is an underage girl who, upon her release, will ensure you rot in prison."
His grin only widens as he takes a step toward me. The pink-haired girl kicks him in the stomach, surprising me.
He focuses on her, raising his hand to deliver a strike. "Sukal"
Bitch in Russian. A word that's been thrown at me, as well.
She smiles and crooks her fingers at him, the universal sign for bring it.
The other guard grabs Comrade Douche by the arm and drags him into the hallway. Both men frown at me as the door slides shut.
Without missing a beat, the girl waves at me, looking almost giddy. I blink in confusion. She's happy rather than scared? Really?
"Hello," she says, and I detect a slight British accent. "I'm Bow, your new best friend."
She's crazy. Got it. "I'm not in the market for a new friend." I hoped I'd remain solo. I don't like sleeping in front of another person but I have to steal catnaps to function. My last roommate told me I toss and turn, screaming about the torture I've endured or singing a number song my aunt taught me as a child.
Ten tears fall, and I call nine hundred trees, but only one is for me. Eight
Oh, no. I'm not getting lost in my head right now.
"Here." Bow stalks toward me, her stride long and strong. Up close, I can tell her eyes are the color of freshly polished pennies. They're odd yet captivating, smoldering with an intensity that should be too much to contain. "Let me help you."
Out of habit, I step out of range when she reaches for me. But zero! My favorite four-letter curse word. I don't think I can finish getting dressed without her.
She cups her breasts in a mimic of me and beams. "Boobs are awesome, yeah? Literal fun-bags. I don't know what you girls are always complaining about."
"Don't you mean us girls?"
Her hands fall away from her fun-bags. "Dude. There's nothing wrong with enjoying the equipment and getting a little some-some of my own goods and services. Seriously. I'm so hot even I want a piece of me."
Hot? Debatable. Bizarre, narcissistic and pervy? Unquestionably. She's the trifecta. In other words, I hit the probably-gonna-get-murdered jackpot this go-round. Yay, me.
"I'd rather not talk about your goods and services, thanks." Slowly I pivot, placing her at my back. This is a rarity for me. A low point, a moment of utter desperation. If she attempts a hit-and-run or a grab-and-stabanything dirtyI'll make sure she regrets it.
She inhales sharply, and I assume she's studying the wealth of bruises I'm sporting.
"Sometime today," I snap, horrified by the perceived weakness.
She gently works my arms through the sleeves. "I hope you're prepared for the Everlife. Another beating like this could kill you."
Doubtful. Dr. Vans has the torture thing nailed. He knows when he's about to push a body too far. "Trust me. Death isn't the worst thing that can happen to me."
"Of course it isn't. If you haven't made the right plans for the Unending, you'll wish you ceased to exist."
The Unending, where Myriad and Troikathe two realms in power in the afterlife aka the Everlifeare located. Where "real" life is said to begin.
Over the years, the world has been divided into two factions. Those who support Myriad, and those who support Troika. No one ever supports both. How can they? The realms are too fundamentally opposedabout everything!
Myriad boasts about autonomy bliss indulgence. To them, Firstlife is merely a stepping stone into the Everlife, everything happens for a fated reason and, when we experience Second-deathdeath in the Everlifeour spirit returns to Earth, the Land of the Harvest, to Fuse with anotherbrand-newspirit.
They are willing to negotiate covenant terms to win over a human.
Troika, on the other hand, is known for structure constant study absolute conformity. To them, Firstlife matters just as much as Everlife, fate is a myth and, when we experience Second-death, we enter into the Rest, never to be seen by human or spirit again.
Troikans refuse to negotiate covenant terms, offering the same benefits to everyone everywhere without exception. The same laws, too. To them, what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong, for one and for all. Everyone on equal footing.
If one realm says the sky is cloudless, the other will say a storm is brewing.
They've been at war for centuries, the other's destruction the ultimate goal. That's why they fight so hard to win souls. That's also why picking the right side is so important. Someday, someone is going to lose.
Here on Earth, the Myriad and Troika supporters aren't segregated exactly. They try to coexist, but it's in imperfect harmony and there's always an underlying hum of tension.
Sometimes riots break out, and the government is forced to execute martial law to prevent an all-out brawl.
A rare few people, like me, have no idea which side to back. We see merits to both sets of beliefs. We also see downsides.
We are called the Unsigned.
For us, there are rumors of a third spirit realm, the place we'll end up after Firstdeath. My parents used to tell me horror stories about it, stories whispered in the dark of night. The Realm of Many Ends, where nightmares come to life.
I've often wondered Is Many Ends a made-up place intended to scare kids straight?
"Do you?" Bow asks as she zips up my jumpsuit. "Have plans for the Unending, I mean?"
"I'm not talking Everlife with you."
Her features scrunch with disappointment. "Why not?"
"I'll be here another three hundred and fifty-two days."
3 + 5 + 2 = 10
And she will leave sooner rather than later. I recognize her type. Extremely optimistic until something goes wrong. After her first beating, she'll cave and do whatever her parents want, guaranteed.
"Forget the next life. What about this one? Tell me why you're here." I motion to our illustrious cell with a tilt of my chin.
"My guardian sent me." She strides to the second twin bed and sits, and there's nothing graceful or feminine about her. "Told me to be a light."
Ugh. What I hear? Absolute conformity. "You signed with Troika, then." Not a question.
Her nod contains a thread of pride. "I did."
We're going to clash so hard. "What is light, exactly?" What's she going to be pushing on me?
"Whatever is needed to help someone find a way out of darkness."
Darkness. "Meaning Myriad."
She ignores my dry tone. "Meaning a problem, any problem."
Well, I've got plenty of thosethough I tell myself this situation is fertilizer, and something good must grow from it.
"Why are you here?" she asks me.
"I refuse to make covenant with Myriad." Covenantthe equivalent of signing a contract in blood.
Sometimes, in an attempt to convince me to sign away my rights, I'm pampered. Isn't this nice? This is what awaits you in Myriad. Most times I'm tortured. This is only the beginning of what you'll endure in Many Ends. Not knowing what awaits me is the worst.