Authors: Jaye Wells
As if his words conjured it, pain shot through the back of my neck. I reached to touch it and my finger encountered a badge over what felt like a burn. “Ow.”
Saga looked me over through a monocle. His brows lowered into a frown and he smacked his lips in disgust, as if the fact I could feel pain made him doubt my ability to carry out the mission.
“Well?” I asked. “What’s the verdict?”
“You look like hell,” Dare said.
She was trying to get a rise out of me, but I wasn’t mad. As it happened, I believed she came up with the perfect solution for the problem of my face being so recognizable. But I was in an incredible amount of pain and didn’t relish facing down the Troika when I felt like a mass of nerves and bruises.
“Relax,” Dare said, misunderstanding my expression. “Even your own mother wouldn’t recognize you now.”
“I’m so relieved.” My sarcastic tone was muddled by my swollen lips.
Saga pulled back and dropped the monocle. “This might just work.”
I crossed my arms. The move helped me realize that Dare had been surgical in her attack—only striking my face and not my torso or limbs. The effect left me looking like I’d survived an epic ass-kicking, but really she’d just punched me a few times.
Icarus had been quietly watching from the sidelines ever since I woke up. Now he stepped forward. “Whether they’ll recognize her will be a moot point if we can’t get them inside the prison.”
“That’s the easy part.” Saga looked way too pleased with himself for my comfort.
Icarus finally lost his patience. “How can you say that? I planned my escape for months and barely made it out alive.” He waved his scarred arm.
“Relax, my boy,” Saga said. “Escaping prisons is supposed to be hard.” He turned and removed a book from the shelf.
“It’s almost impossible to bust out of a prison camp, but no one ever expects anyone to break
fter Meridian Six
left the room, I followed her down the corridor. When I called her name, she didn’t stop at first. I jogged to catch up, finally reaching her at the door to her room.
I touched her arm, only to have my hand violently knocked away. “Sorry,” I said, backing up.
“What do you want?”
Squaring my shoulders, I met her eyes. “I’m going with you.”
She laughed and looked at me with pity. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re just a kid.”
I’d made a horrible mistake asking these people for help. Anger and frustration warred in my gut, but I was determined to make this shitty situation work. It had to, or I’d lose Bravo and Mica forever. “I’m nineteen. You can’t be much older. How long you been living away from the luxury of the Prime’s palace?”
Her eyes shied away, but not before I saw the truth.
“I’ve heard the rumors about you,” I said, stepping closer. “Meridian Six, savior of the human race, blew up some horrible place the Troika built near the city. As impressive as that is, those rumors started less than six months ago. Forgive me, sweetheart, but I’ve been surviving in the Badlands going on a decade. Call me a kid if you want, but I’m a kid who’s survived and managed to keep a lot of other people alive in the process. Between the two of us, I have the longer track record of success.”
Her chin rose. “Would those two the Troika took three days ago agree with that track record?”
Anger made the muscles in my fist contract. She was baiting me. Trying to get me to lose my cool so she’d have an excuse to cut me out of the mission. “Bait me all you want, but you need me.”
“How you figure?”
“I heard what the old man said yesterday. About killing Dr. Death.”
Her right eyelid twitched. Clearly she and the others had thought I was out of earshot when they had talked about their true plans. I enjoyed surprising her, but I was looking forward to playing the ace up my sleeve. “Back before the war, my family lived in the mountains around southern Pennsylvania.”
“So,” I said slowly, “my daddy was in the mining business. If the war hadn’t happened and forced us to migrate for survival, I would have been a miner too.”
“What does that—”
“What it means,” I spoke over her, “is I know about explosives. Your plan is to blow up Dr. Death when you light up the lab, right? Kill two birds with one stick of dynamite?”
“Killing Dr. Death can be accomplished without explosives. As for the labs, all I need is a match.”
“Or we could make your own explosives once we’re inside. Icarus said the main labor at the camp is mining coal. If they don’t have explosives there, they’ll for sure have the makings of them.”
Her mask of indifference slipped a couple of inches. “You know how to make them?”
I nodded with a smile and delivered my knockout. “Besides that, Bravo won’t follow your lead unless I’m there.”
This was a lie. If things were as bad at the camp as I was expecting, Bravo would do just about anything to protect Mica. But I couldn’t afford to let Meridian know that. Truth was, I didn’t quite trust her. Saga seemed to think she was the great hope of humanity, but I hadn’t seen much yet to prove him right. If the choice came down between rescue or destroying the Troika power source, she’d abandon Bravo and the others in a heartbeat. I needed to be there to be sure that choice wasn’t made.
When she finally spoke, she looked less defeated than resigned. “I’ll have to talk to the others.”
I crossed my arms. “You have to get their permission, you mean.”
Ever since I’d arrived, I’d heard a lot of talk about Meridian being the savior, but I’d yet to see her make a decision without Saga’s or Icarus’s go ahead. She might have what it took to lead, but I hadn’t seen evidence of that beyond propaganda. Yet another reason to ensure I went with her. Every mission needed a leader. I couldn’t chance so much on someone who was little more than a puppet for an old man and a bitter cripple.
Her eyes narrowed and she stepped into my space. “Watch yourself. You came to us for help, remember?” She pursed her lips and looked me over, as if weighing my potential as a partner in crime. “Don’t you worry about Saga. I’ll convince him you need to come. Do not make me regret this.”
I nodded, but I couldn’t shake the feel that I’d be the one with the regrets.
woke in a dark room
. My eyes stung despite the deep shadows and my brain felt like it was trying to crack through my skull. A groan escaped my mouth before I could stop it. If one of those asshole vampires was watching me, I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of hearing my pain.
But it wasn’t a vampire who answered.
“Didn’t I tell you not to be a hero?”
Matri. Not happy at all.
Luckily, I was already lying on my side, because a wave of nausea rose. I angled my head over the side of the cot and threw up the potatoes I’d eaten earlier. Once my stomach was empty, I actually felt a little better. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I looked up.
A scrap of damp cloth appeared in my immediate vision, and just beyond that, Matri’s stern face. Snatching the cloth with a mumbled “thanks” I made quick work of cleaning myself. When done, I pushed myself into a seated position, but instantly regretted it as the pounding behind my eyes intensified.
“Probably a concussion.”
I wasn’t interested in discussing my health. “You were there.”
She looked away.
“You were standing there, watching, while they drained those children.”
“I was.” That was it. No denial. No excuses.
I spat on the floor to clear the taste of bile from my tongue. “Does that happen to all the children you
?” I put mocking emphasis on the last two words.
“Yes, Bravo, it does.”
Her refusal to apologize or rise to my bait enraged me. “How can you do that to them? They trust you.”
She pressed her lips together and looked at me with patient pity. “They trust me to keep them alive. That is exactly what I’m doing.”
“By draining them?” My raised voice ricocheted around inside my head like a bullet.
“Before I convinced the guards to use the current setup, they would snatch children from their beds and drain them dead.”
My mouth fell open, but she wasn’t done.
“Before I came along and convinced the camp director that he’d have an easier time meeting his quotas with more order, this place was an all-you-can-eat buffet for the guards. A slaughterhouse.” She sat on the cot next to me. I scooted as far away as I could get, still unconvinced she didn’t deserve a beating for her collusion with the guards. “I know what you saw was upsetting, but I assure you it’s ten times more humane than what would have occurred a few years ago.”
“You expect me to thank you for that?”
“No, I expect you to work with me to make sure no children ever have to be drained again.”
She grabbed my hand and squeezed it until I stopped struggling to pull it back. “Did you wonder why I had you assigned to help me?”
I shrugged. “I gave up trying to understand your motivations around the time I saw you watching innocent children get drained.”
Her hand contracted painfully on mine. “Watch yourself. You’ve been in this camp for a few days. I’ve been here for ten years. You don’t know what I’ve seen. What I and the others have had to do to survive.”
The ferocity in her tone gave me pause. I’d had to do some unsavory things, too, but if what she said about the state of life in the camp was true, then I couldn’t begin to imagine what sort of terrible choices she’d had to make.
Once she saw that I got it, she continued. “When you arrived, you seemed convinced that someone was coming to save you.”
I nodded. “Zed. He’s coming.”
“You’re the first new arrival in years. Most of the rebel groups that get raided now are small groups of high bloods that band together. If they’re caught, they’re sent directly to the blood camps or to the Troika headquarters. We haven’t had anyone with allies on the outside come in a long time.”
She stopped and sighed. “I guess what I’m saying is, we haven’t had a reason to hope for a long time. Not since Icarus escaped.”
“He was one of us. A leader in the camp. He made a plan to escape, go get help, and come rescue the rest of us.”
“So what happened to him?”
“He escaped all right, but he never came back for us.” The pain in her voice was palpable, like acid on the ears.
We were silent for a long, heavy moment. Matri seemed lost in bitter memories, but I was busy worrying about the future. Zed would come, right? He had to.
Finally, she cleared her throat. “After Icarus left, I waited for a long time for him to come rescue us. At that point, I still had faith in him, and my goal was just to keep as many of us alive as possible until he came back. But the longer it took, the more my goal became to just stay alive, period. I knew eventually something would happen that would give us new hope. That’s why I finagled my way into being in charge of the children. I figured if I could train them to be survivors then at least a few of us might be alive once hope arrived.” She looked up and squeezed my hand. “And now it has.”
I blew out a long, slow breath. “Look, I want nothing more than to have Zed bust down those gates and free all of us. But I have no idea how long it will take him to rally the help he’ll need.”
She frowned. “You mean this Zed doesn’t have his own army?”
I froze. “Of course not. It was just him and me and the children.”
Matri withdrew her hand and made a disgusted sound. “You’re putting all your faith in your
?” She spat the words out like venom.
“He’s not my boyfriend. He’s my friend. And yes, I have every faith he will come rescue us.”
She crossed her arms over her flat chest. “How can you be so sure he’ll come?”
“Because we’re his family,” I said simply. “Besides, Zed is the most pig-headed person in history. If he decides he’s going to save us, he will fight until his dying breath to make it happen.”
The anger in her eyes dissipated and was replaced by a small spark. “Oh, to be young and dumb again.”
She patted my hand. “Sorry, dear, but it’s true. It’s nice you have so much faith in your friend, but it’s going to take a lot more than wishes to free you from this hell.”
I rose and paced away from the cot. Her words had sparked a black flame of doubt in my belly. It burned away some of the hope I’d been nurturing and left me unsure. If I didn’t move, I’d cry, and I refused to give in that easily. “He’ll come, and when he does, the Troika won’t know what hit them.”
“You said he doesn’t have an army,” she pointed out, her voice not as unkind as it was before.
“If I know Zed, he’ll go to the Scribe.”
Her brows rose. “You know Saga?”
I shook my head. “Never met him, but Zed told me lots of stories about the man in Book Mountain. If I had money, I’d bet it all on that being his first move.”
Matri laughed. “And he’ll find nothing. The Scribe is a myth created by the rebels. Just like that Meridian Six bitch.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know who that is, but I know Zed. He’s coming.”
She rose and sucked at the few teeth remaining in her mouth. Finally, she pursed her lips and tilted her head at me. “Then it will be up to you and me to make sure that when they arrive, the people are ready.”
She came forward, spat in her palm, and held it out to me. I stared at the leathery skin for a moment, but then something happened. That black flame of doubt snuffed out and the bright light of hope exploded in my gut. I had no idea how or when Zed would arrive, but I knew that the woman standing in front of me was the right person to help me prepare for him. I spat in my palm and slapped it into hers. “Deal.”
Then we sat down and began mapping out our plans.