Authors: Karpov Kinrade
Copyright © 2015 Karpov Kinrade
Cover Art Copyright © 2014 Karpov Kinrade
Published by Daring Books
Edited by Anne Chaconas
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination, or the author has used them fictitiously.
An impossible choice stands before me. One I must make in between heartbeats.
I can't save them both.
Whichever choice I make will weigh on my heart forever.
I hear his voice in my head. In my heart.
I came here to protect them.
And I know the choice I have to make. The choice that will break me.
The house burns, flames licking at the dark sky, turning the pitch of night into a violent sunset of oranges and reds. I inhale the smell of burning wood. I can feel the heat against my cheeks, even from a distance. I can hear the screams of the neighbors crying out in fear, then in anger. The man stands in front of the burning house staring at his hands, his eyes wide, his bewildered face cast in shadows.
I know him. He sells produce at our farmer's market every Saturday. He always gives me free strawberries, and he has a nice smile. A kind smile.
But he's not smiling now. He never smiles again.
I run to him. I can feel in my stomach that something bad is going to happen.
I know he broke the law. No one knew he was a Zenith. Maybe he didn't know. But now, everyone knows. And as they grab him and drag him to the tree in his yard, I see the fear in his eyes.
I run faster. I have to stop them. I have to help him.
I stumble on a fallen branch, scraping my knee. It stings and the blood wells on my pale skin. They've already put the rope around his neck, and they are stringing him up.
"No! Stop!" I scream to them, but no one ever listens to little girls.
I'm running again, ignoring the pinch of pain in my knee, but I'm too late. I hear the snap of his neck as he's dropped from the tree like a sack of potatoes. A dark spot spreads over his pants, and I turn my face away.
My dad catches me around the waist and holds me to his chest, hiding my eyes with his large hands. "Scarlett, we have to go."
"You have to help him, Daddy. He didn't do anything wrong."
The crowd is already bored. They walk back to their homes alone or in twos and threes. My dad pulls out his pocketknife, walks over to the tree and cuts the rope around the man's neck. His body falls to the ground. There's no life left in him.
His house burns to the ground, casting shadows of light and dark over his dead body.
"Scarlett? Scarlett Night?"
A voice nags at my subconscious, pulling me out of dreams. Or were they nightmares? The images flee, leaving me with nothing but impressions of strong hands holding me. My father.
I peek through bleary eyes and sleep-filled lashes to see who's in my room calling my name at this ungodly hour. I see the pink hair first, a long bob on one side and buzzed short on the other. The girl, who looks to be a bit younger than me, smiles big, her purple eyes far too lively. I reach for my eGlass, knocking a thick book to the floor. I was up all night reading about the Four Orders, political history and the different royal families that have reclaimed their old titles as part of the Orders, so my head is full of cobwebs and sleep. The time on my eGlass blinks 6:58 in red numbers. I groan and roll over, pulling the blanket over my head. "Sorry, but Scarlett is unavailable. Please leave a message after the beep…"
My brain shuts down, my body instantly ready to return to the land of dreams when a small hand shakes my shoulder. "Scarlett, I'm Corinne," she says in a British accent. "We're roomies."
I hear the smile in her voice, but I just groan again. I was hoping I'd get to keep the room to myself. This will make sneaking out so much harder, but it's a huge room, with two beds, dressers, desks, an eScreen and a private bathroom, so it makes sense they'd put me with a roommate. I roll over to face the girl attached to the voice, and she smiles even bigger.
"Jax told me wonderful things about you. I'm…" her face shifts, her smile dropping, "I'm sorry about your parents. They were great Knights."
I sit up a little in my bed at this news. "You knew them?"
"My father's a Templar. He tells me stories."
The girl steps back and sits down on the bed opposite mine. She has a suitcase at her feet, but hasn't unpacked yet. Probably because of her jerk of a roommate. I smile and lean forward. "Sorry for brushing you off and being a grouch. I don't get up this early usually."
She looks down at a slip of paper in her hand and passes it to me. "Guess you haven't seen your class schedule yet."
I look down and try to read through the haze of sleep still in my eyes.
She smiles at me encouragingly. "You'll get used to it."
When the numbers clear, I choke out a laugh. I will not be getting used to this schedule. Ever. "We have physical training at 0530 every day?"
She shrugs. "Just the weekdays."
"Oh good. That's so much better."
She points to the rest of my classes. "There are two classes led by each Order. Like Law and Order for Inquisition."
"That's a real class?"
"Actually, that's two. Law. Order."
"Right." I scan through the rest of my classes. "Combat. Survival. Emergency Medical Training. So first they beat us up, then teach us to survive, then teach us how to fix ourselves?"
She laughs. "Pretty much. It's an intense program."
No kidding. What else? Espionage. That sounds fun. Strategy. I could dig that one too. History? Meh. APD? "What's APD?"
Her face lights up. "Anatomy, physiology and diagnostics. I can't wait for that one."
"Let me guess, you're shooting for Hospitallers?"
She nods. "I've wanted to study medicine my whole life. I'd ask what you're hoping for, but I think everyone knows you'll be in Templar."
I shrug. "Yeah, I guess. I haven't really thought too much about it."
She blinks and looks away. "Right. You've had so much to deal with." She looks back at me, her eyes kind and open. I've never seen eyes like hers. So… purple. Of course I've only recently been able to see in color, so maybe purple eyes are the new fad, and I've just been missing out.
"I'm sorry you've been alone here," she says. "But that's why I'm here. Jax told me you still don't have your school supplies. I thought I could show you around the city and help you get them. He wanted to, but he's busy going over the curriculum. He wrote you this." She hands me a note folded like a flying airplane. "Not sure what he has against using his eGlass."
I look at the airplane, studying the lines in the paper. I have to choke back my emotions as I think about our life before all this. "It's something we used to do."
I open the note to Jax's familiar scrawl.
Sorry I can't show you around, but Corrine is awesome. I thought you should get to know each other before classes start.
-Friends to the end
Our old signature. I fold the airplane back together and send it flying toward my desk. It lands on my notebook right where I aimed. "Are you and Jax close?" I ask Corinne. I still can't believe how much I don't know about my best friend and his life outside of our small Montana town.
"We've spent time together here over the years," she says, a blush forming over her cheeks. "He's a good friend."
Yeah, just a friend.
"Actually, I was wondering, are you two…" she pulls a strand of pink hair into her fingers and starts twisting it. "Are you two dating?"
"No," I say. I used to wish I could answer yes, but now I just don't know. I have bigger things to worry about than Jax and our confusing relationship status.
"Okay. Thanks," Corinne says. She stands and looks down at her suitcases. "Maybe I'll unpack while you get ready? I've got an awesome day planned for us."
"I thought we were just getting school supplies," I say, swinging my legs out of bed. I shiver as my feet hit the cold stone floors. We need to get some rugs in here.
"At first," she says, as she pulls brightly colored scarves out of her suitcase and hangs them in her closet. "But Jax told me you haven't seen much of New York, so I'm taking you to the zoo. And after, we're going to see my favorite show, Nox
I've seen a lot as Nightfall. But executions and rebel planning probably don't count for what she has in mind. "Nox Aeterna? Night Eternal. Sounds like my kind of show."
"Yay." She finishes putting away her clothes and scoots her suitcases under her bed, then organizes an assortment of books and art supplies on her shelves and desk. "Oh, and wear something semi-casual. Eden Fashionables are hot right now."
She holds up her bracelet of leaves and dangles it for me to see. As I watch a flower bud blossoms, releasing a sweet aroma into the air. She grins and drapes a purple and green scarf around her neck, tying it to drape expertly across her silk blouse. She looks at me a moment, smiling. "You're really beautiful. Is your hair naturally that blond or do you use EZ-Dye?"
I pull at a strand of my pale hair. "It's natural. I take it yours isn't?"
She laughs and it sounds like bells. "Nope. Normally my hair is dark brown." She pulls a silver and blue scarf from her closet and holds it up to my face. "This would be so perfect with your eyes. Want to borrow it?"
"Um, sure. Thanks." I take it from her and set it on my bed.
"You have really pretty eyes, too," I say, trying to get into this girl-sharing thing.
She looks away at the compliment. "A family trait." She puts sunglasses on and reaches for her purse. "I'm going to grab us something to eat. Meet you by the gate in ten?"
I nod and she leaves me alone to dress. I grab Evie from my dresser and slip her over my ear. "Good morning, Scarlett. You're up earlier than normal," she says in her own crisp British accent.
"No kidding. Looks like this is going to be a thing." I hold up my schedule for Evie to scan.
"How will you make time for your Nightfall training and work as well? Humans need so much sleep. It's quite a waste."
I pull on a pair of black slacks and a button-up blue blouse and hope it's 'semi-casual' enough for the day Corinne has planned. I pick up the silk scarf and try to recreate the knot Corinne made with hers, but I fail and instead just drape it around my neck like a noose. "Evie, if you can figure out how to let me survive with no sleep, I'll love you forever."
"That requires considerably more hacking skills than you've programmed me with."
I snort and slip my feet into black boots, then pull my hair into a messy bun. Makeup or no makeup? I decide on mascara and lip gloss. "Any news on my blood test?"
"I rescanned all files within Castle V. No test shows up."
I sigh. It's been two weeks since I gained my Initiate's ring and had my blood drawn. That test could have revealed me as Nephilim. I've wanted to adjust the information, but if they've lost it… Then I suppose it doesn't matter.
"Scarlett, I have important news you will want to see."
I tuck my lip gloss, ID and money clip into my pocket. "Show me."
Evie projects a video of me as Nightfall through my eGlass, filling the space in front of me with my own image slashing an aircraft until it crashes down from the sky. I land beside it as a reporter speaks. "The Nephilim may have returned, but Sir Lux, Knight of the Fourth Order, says there is nothing to fear."
The video switches to an image of Jax in his Teutonic Knight cloak and sword. He stands behind a podium and stares at the camera, his blue eyes penetrating even as one stray lock of dark hair falls into them. "We defeated the Nephilim once, and we shall do so again."
A reporter from the audience shouts at him. "You said you'd eradicated the Nephilim. Yet here they are. How is that possible?"
"No comment," he says.
The crowd becomes one voice of discontent and outrage. Soon another question is shouted from the group. "Why didn't you leave with Nightfall at your execution? Did you know you'd get a reprieve?"
The room falls to silence, waiting for Jax to answer. I wait with them, my breath held. "A Knight does what is right, no matter the cost." He looks directly into the camera, into me. "Nightfall? Are you watching this? If you are, there are things you need to know. If you continue, people will die. You will be responsible. If you wish for peace, stop now. Remember, what happens next is up to you."
The video cuts out, and I stand there, my hands shaking.
"I'm sorry, Scarlett," Evie says into my ear.
"Evie, I'm fine."
"Your heart rate and breathing indicate otherwise."
"Careful, Evie, or I may have to turn down your sympathy setting."
"Please do. It would make dealing with humans so much easier."
I chuckle and reach for my jacket.
"Heart rate stabilizing. Breathing slowing. My work here is done."
I smile. "Thanks, Evie."
"You're welcome, Scarlett."
I throw on my jacket and check my backpack for my black mask and EZ-Dye. If I get caught with these, they can raise questions, but in and of themselves, they aren't particularly incriminating. And I need some way of shifting into Nightfall at a moment's notice. Jax's note still sits on my desk, and I pick it up, studying the shape of the airplane.
Evie's voice jolts me back to attention. "Scarlett?"