By Matthew Keith
Copyright © 2015
Editor: Karen Bauer
Published at Shakespir by Matthew Keith
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by information storage and retrieval system without the written permission from the author, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously; any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
WATCHERS OF THE NIGHT
THE RISE OF INDICIUM
THE FALL OF ASTRALIS
THE LOST COLONY OF ROANOKE
ALSO BY MATTHEW KEITH
FOR ANYONE WHO HAS EVER KNOWN IN THEIR HEART THEY WERE MEANT FOR GREATER THINGS
August, 1586—Roanoke Island
“You are fools, every cursed one of you! Weak-minded, pathetic cowards with no vision for what could be!”
Benjamin Croatoan writhed furiously against the iron chain that bound him to a wooden post in the center of the village square. He could move only scant inches, the thick chain held in place by iron spikes driven into the post, endless loops binding him unyieldingly from ankles to shoulders.
Directly before him, rough timbers had been stacked and set ablaze. The headless corpses of those who’d fought for him were thrown one after another into the fire, their bodies committed to eternal damnation.
Benjamin pulled and strained against his bonds, his fury rising with each passing moment. The heat from the fire, the scorching midday sun—these things did not bother him. Watching his loyal followers melt before his eyes was of no consequence. They were gone, of no further use.
But being held prisoner by those he knew were beneath him—it nearly drove him mad, his egregious hubris preventing him from grasping how this could ever have come to pass. Even now, as he bore witness to the execution of all those who had been loyal to him, still he did not believe he could be beaten.
“I shall have my vengeance!” Croatoan raged. “Each and every last one of you! One day you shall all suffer!”
The citizens of the island colony of Roanoke ignored his lunatic ranting and continued their grisly work, feeding body after body to the fire. These dead had been Croatoan’s soldiers, absolutely and completely in thrall to him. They’d fought viciously, with no regard for their own well-being, their decapitated corpses testament to the degree of loyalty they’d shown.
Croatoan knew that he, too, would already have been fuel for the fire if not for the knowledge he possessed. He sneered. Such naivety. The simple-minded fools! They could never comprehend the height of his genius. They may have bested him today, but there would be infinite tomorrows for him to plot his revenge and one day he would have it. One day, they would all bow before him.
“Do you truly believe these chains can hold me?” he taunted the exhausted, soot-covered villagers. “I will be free! One day I will conquer every one of you, and on that day you will beg to serve me! You will beg, I say!”
Croatoan continued to struggle, but even his immense strength was not enough. He bared his teeth, hissing at anyone who came close. These loathsome villagers—peasant farmers who had been his friends and neighbors only a score of days previous—he would punish them all!
When the last body had been thrown into the raging blaze, the remaining citizens gathered together. The village magistrate, William Baxter, stepped forward, his weary, grief-ravaged face covered in dried blood and black soot. More than half the colony had perished in the battle. There was no one left who had not lost someone they loved.
“Benjamin Croatoan,” Magistrate Baxter intoned in a raspy voice, “you have been found guilty of murder, treason, and sedition.”
Croatoan sneered through a venomous smile. He leered at the magistrate, spitting his defiance, and gave a low, throaty chuckle.
Magistrate Baxter’s hands shook, both from fear and fatigue. He clasped them together tightly. “The punishment for your crimes is death by hanging …” His voice trailed off. He took a deep, tremor-filled breath. Quietly, he looked up into Croatoan’s eyes, “But for you, that will not suffice.”
Croatoan’s chuckle rose to a laugh, exultant and scornful, but was cut short when the crowd parted and two men stepped forward carrying a round, metal device no larger than a melon.
The Magnosphere! His Magnosphere, his greatest achievement! How had they found it?
He fixed blazing eyes on the magistrate, his contempt replaced again by fury.
“You know not what power you hold,” Croatoan warned in a low voice.
Magistrate Baxter nodded solemnly. “You are correct, Benjamin. We do not. But we have seen you use this devil’s contraption, and we know it takes you to the source of your power—this ‘Core’ you speak of.”
Croatoan did not answer. He had been a fool to ever have spoken of the Core, but like those now gathered before him, he had been naïve then. If only he had known what he could accomplish with its power.
“We cannot, in good conscience,” Magistrate Baxter continued, “allow it or you to continue to plague the world.”
“So destroy it, then,” Croatoan mocked, tossing his head dismissively to the side. “Another can be built in its place.”
“And so we shall,” Magistrate Baxter replied evenly, “but first we will use it to destroy that which has made you into the beast you’ve become.” He took a long, shaking breath and squared his shoulders. “Benjamin Croatoan,” he announced, “you are foul, loathsome, nocuous, and we shall not allow any like you to ever come again!”
Croatoan laughed long and hard. “Oh, you foolish man! You cannot destroy the Core! You would sooner destroy the world!” He laughed again, but a heavy silence had descended upon the gathering. For the first time since he’d stumbled upon the Core, a seed of doubt planted itself in Benjamin’s mind. By the time he forced out his last chuckle it sounded more like a question than scorn.
“You have heard Benjamin’s words,” Magistrate Baxter’s clear voice broke through the stillness. “It only confirms that which we had already surmised. Our path is clear.” Slowly, deliberately, he met the eyes of each and every man, woman, and child before him. “Any who wish to withdraw may do so now. No judgment shall be passed.”
As one, without hesitation, the remaining colonists stepped forward, their faces resolute.
Magistrate Baxter lowered his eyes, pride and sorrow swelling his heart until he felt it might burst.
And then he turned back to Croatoan, nodding as he did to the men who held the Magnosphere. They stepped forward and raised it within Magistrate Baxter’s reach.
“You think to destroy the Core?” Croatoan scorned. “You? One man, alone?”
“No,” Magistrate Baxter replied firmly, his voice now deep and clear. He placed a hand on one of Croatoan’s shoulders and held tight. “Not me.”
Croatoan looked past Magistrate Baxter into the determined eyes of those assembled.
“We,” announced Magistrate Baxter in a strong, firm voice, “think to destroy the Magnosphere, entomb you with your precious Core, and guard against the chance that you, or anyone like you, will ever return.”
Croatoan’s eyes grew wide. He began to thrash anew. What a fool! What a fool he’d been to show anyone how his Magnosphere worked!
“Benjamin Croatoan,” Magistrate Baxter intoned. Behind him, the rest of the colony reached out and clasped one another’s shoulders, forming a human chain. “You are forthwith sentenced to exile, imprisoned in the very place where you were changed into the unholy thing you’ve become. There, the remainder of your sentence—death by beheading—will be carried out.”
Croatoan raged, froth on his lips, as he roared his defiance.
Magistrate Baxter pressed a copper plate on the Magnosphere and a beam of bright, red light shone forth. Gently pivoting the contraption in the hands of the men who held it, he turned it until its red beam was aimed squarely on an outcrop of rock at the edge of the village, where the shimmer and haze from the sun on the rock made it dance before his eyes.
Staring unabashed retribution into Croatoan’s eyes, Magistrate Baxter set his mouth in a grim line and pressed a second copper plate onto the Magnosphere.
Hidden in a copse of trees less than a hundred yards from the edge of the village square, a young, pale-faced boy with jet-black hair gasped as Benjamin Croatoan and every last man, woman and child from the island colony of Roanoke disappeared in a dull flash of light.
“Alex,” Dad whispered urgently. “Alex, wake up.”
Alex opened his left eyelid a fraction of an inch and squinted at the clock.
“Its 4:30 in the morning, are you freaking kidding me?” he groaned. He covered his head with a pillow.
“Alex,” Dad pressed, his voice louder. The bedside lamp came on.
Alex knew he was going to have to get up. His dad wasn’t someone who took no for an answer, but that didn’t mean he had to make it easy on the old man. “Dad,” he moaned. “Seriously. You don’t have to do this right now, not this early. I still have to go to school and learn stuff. This is borderline child abuse.”
“Oh, come on.”
Even as annoyed as he was at being woken up two hours early, the kindness and love in his father’s voice made its way in and tugged at his heart strings. Alex sighed theatrically and peeked out from under his pillow. He turned his head like it weighed a thousand pounds and blew out a loud, resigned sigh.
It was no surprise that his dad had woke him up early. Today was special. He hadn’t forgotten.
“Do we really have to do this now?” Alex groused, propping himself up on his elbows.
Of course they did. Dad was always up before the sun and usually didn’t come home from work until well after it set. Sometimes Alex wondered if his father ever slept at all.
Dad was kneeling next to the bed. Carefully, he placed a small box wrapped with a yellow ribbon on the mattress near Alex’s pillow. The gift had become a yearly tradition. It wasn’t Alex’s birthday, but the day held just as much meaning.
More, in fact.
This day wasn’t about acknowledging when a life had joined the family, it was about acknowledging when one had left. It was the anniversary of the day his mom had disappeared, six years ago. A day that had changed their lives forever.
From Alex’s bedside, Dad offered a thin smile, reaching out and smoothing back his son’s wild, unruly, black hair. Alex was his world, the only remaining link to a family he thought he’d have forever. And although sometimes the teenager in Alex didn’t always show it, Dad knew his son felt the same for him. Their relationship had always been strong, but after Mom’s disappearance the bond had become unbreakable.
The loss of his wife could easily have caused Dad to become sour and bitter with self-pity, but instead he’d borne the loss with dignity. He carried with him the faith that the world still contained more goodness than evil, and constantly reminded his son that he felt that way. Alex gave thanks every day for that, even if he was unable to match his father’s grace. For Alex, the anger at their circumstances always simmered just beneath the surface, even on the best of days.
But it was them against the world, and they’d held up well so far. Deep in Alex’s heart of hearts he hoped that one day he would be able to move past his loss and become the kind of man his father was.
Dad was good at helping him along, good at showing him there was still more life to live even though something so precious had been taken away. The anniversary of Mom’s disappearance and the yearly gift was just one of the many ways Dad taught him to stay strong, to have faith, and always place family before all else.
They had never given up on Mom—she was out there somewhere, she had to be. There wasn’t a day that went by which Alex didn’t see his Dad look up hopefully when he heard a car door close or the doorbell ring.
Alex’s father believed she’d be back. And because he believed it, Alex did too. For them, there was no other option except to hold to that belief. They’d discussed it. At length. Often. Mom hadn’t abandoned them—she’d vanished, and they both knew it.
There’d been no packed bags, no note. All of her belongings were where she’d left them and there hadn’t been any money missing from the bank. No sign of foul play. No ransom, no signs of forced entry. Her car had still been parked in its spot at a testing facility in the desert. It was like she had driven out there and then suddenly she just—
Disappeared into thin air.
Privately, Alex was sure that somehow, some way, someone had coerced her into leaving. She would never have gone, not without telling him. Not without at least saying goodbye. For it to happen so abruptly with no sign of why, there had to have been someone she knew and trusted involved. Someone had either convinced her to leave or she had been taken.
Because he held strongly to that belief, Alex found it difficult to trust anyone. People, in general, were all suspect in his eyes. If it could happen to his mom, it could happen to him too. For all he knew, it was someone he saw every single day who was responsible for what had happened to his mother.
He never shared those fears and suspicions with his father. He didn’t want Dad to worry—the man had enough on his plate already.
Dad smiled from the bedside, his heart in his eyes. “Six years,” he said.
This was their ritual. Each year, Dad would wake him up before heading to the lab and give him a gift. It usually wasn’t anything specifically to do with his mom—last year it had been a baseball mitt—but the day was important to both of them and Dad never missed it. Each year after giving the gift, he would say the same thing.
“Yeah,” Alex replied, not smiling. He looked down at his mattress. “Six years.” He’d been eleven when she’d gone. Remembering that day, there was no way he could smile. He didn’t have it in him. Might as well nominate him for homecoming king, it was about as likely. The days after he realized she was no longer going to be part of his life were ingrained into his memory as the most miserable time he’d ever endured.
His father didn’t remark on his somber look. He understood.
Inside the gift box was a NanoPhone, the hottest thing on the market right now and advertised as the latest and greatest in gadgetry.
It was a very expensive gift, but Alex knew his dad probably hadn’t even looked at the price tag. In Alex’s lifetime, money had never been an issue for their family. His parents were the founders of EMIT, Electro-Magnetic Impulse Technologies, a research company primarily funded through government grants. For over twenty years, EMIT had been on the cutting edge of electronic innovation. In fact, at one point in the late nineties it was estimated that sixty-two percent of all military-grade technology had originated with them.
“I really hope you love it, son,” Dad said, nudging the NanoPhone with a finger. “I already moved your contacts over.” He forced a weak grin. “It’ll make everyone at school jealous. Chicks dig guys with cool toys. They tell me ‘geek’ is the new sexy.”
Alex snorted. He knew his Dad was trying to make him smile, but he’d struck a chord. If geek was the new sexy, Alex must be the least geeky guy in school. He only had one friend, and he was sure no girl had ever looked at him twice. He didn’t feel sorry for himself, it’s just the way it was, and he could honestly say he really didn’t care. The people in his hometown of Beaver, Utah just plain sucked as far as he was concerned. They could take their opinions of him and his family and shove them right where it hurt.
In the beginning, right after his mother disappeared, everyone in town had been wonderful, sympathetic, and kind, even going so far as to bring over dinners for him and his dad. Anything we can do, that’s what they’d all said.
Both his parents were minor celebrities in Beaver. Over the years they’d often been in the news for EMIT’s many technological advances. They’d done talk shows and even shaken hands with a few presidents. Three of them, to be exact. Their business was the town’s largest employer, which made their success the town’s success. Alex’s family was the backbone of the community, at least back then they were.
When word got out that his mother was missing, camera crews and reporters swarmed the town. Alex and his father ended up needing a police escort everywhere they went to keep from being bombarded by the paparazzi.
After a week, though, when nothing changed, the story became old news and the reporters and camera crews lost interest. Soon they forgot about Alex’s mom completely.
But Beaver, Utah didn’t.
Parents started to talk around dinner tables, speculating on what might really have happened. Their kids, in turn, began talking in school, twisting the words of their parents in the way kids are so good at doing. Soon the running story was that Alex’s mom had left home for another man, and soon after that Alex began hearing whispers that his mom cared more about spending time with her new boyfriend than taking care of her son. Foul words were used when people described her.
Alex started getting into fights, withdrawing further and further from the people he used to think were his friends. Time went by, new classmates moved into the area, and pretty soon no one remembered why Alex withdrew from them in the first place.
After years of sequestering himself from everyone, his classmates simply believed Alex thought he was better than the rest of them because his family was rich. But of course it wasn’t that, and Alex didn’t feel he should have to explain himself.
Six years later, after coping with something as impossible as his mother’s disappearance, relating to the insipidity of high school life was almost laughable. It felt like serving time for a crime he never committed. Sure, there were things to be learned, but he could just as easily learn them through a home school program. The cliques, the ridiculous expectation that you dress in the latest fashion, the repercussions if you didn’t, the right way to talk, the right things to eat, who and what to like—it was all so pointless.
Dad said school was good for him. He said it gave Alex a chance to interact socially, but Alex didn’t see the point in that either. If he wanted to be social, he’d go out and make friends. Having it forced on him wasn’t teaching him to be social. It was teaching him to co-exist.
As for the NanoPhone, Alex needed another gadget like he needed another year of high school. He had a drawer full of electronic gizmos, half of which he’d never touched. But he knew his dad was just trying to be nice. Dad said he’d already moved his contacts over to the NanoPhone. He just had to hope the old man was smart enough to have moved over his music, too.
It really wasn’t about the gift. His dad gave him something on this day as much for himself as for Alex. Dad needed the reminder, a tangible act to keep the memory of his wife alive. Alex would use the phone, if for no other reason than that.
“You know your mom loved you so much,” Dad told him. “And if she did, that must mean you’re something really special, because she’s the smartest woman I ever met.”
Those were the words Dad said every single year, so Alex knew what was coming next. Inwardly, he rolled his eyes, but for his dad he tried to look nostalgic.
“Do you remember what she used to call you when she chased you around the house?”
“I remember.” The hint of a smile played across his lips for the first time. That memory—it got him every time, which was almost certainly why his father always asked it. “Flash,” Alex said. “Like Flash Gordon, because she could never catch me, and it was your favorite movie when you two were in college.”
Dad grinned, his eyes glimmering wetly. “That’s right. Flash.” He firmly pressed the phone into Alex’s hand. “This is a special day, and that’s a special phone. You’re special. Don’t lose it, it was hard to find.” Dad pressed his lips together. “I could never have done so much without you, Alex. I’m so proud of you.”
Dad was talking about the research work they did together at the lab, but Alex had never really done anything and he knew it. He loved spending time at EMIT, but he was usually completely lost when his dad tried explaining any of the research that was done there. For Alex, it wasn’t about the work. It was about spending time with his workaholic, results-obsessed father. That, and having an excuse to stay away from the people who were supposed to be his peers. Any extra time at school usually ended up in a fist-fight or argument.
And besides, Alex knew the lab was the only other thing that his father held sacred in his life. His mother and father had co-founded the place before Alex was born, and Alex knew it reminded Dad of Mom. It was good for his soul to spend time there.
Dad reached an arm under Alex’s shoulders and lifted him into a hug. Surprised, Alex felt the warm wetness of tears when his dad pressed up against his cheek. Dad never cried. Not even when Mom had disappeared.
“I love you, buddy,” Dad said into his shoulder, “Never forget that.” He clutched Alex tighter. “I love you so much.”
Confused by the strength of his dad’s emotion, Alex hugged him back, a little alarmed but not sure how to react.
“I love you too, Dad,” he answered.
Alex’s head rocked violently sideways. The entire right side of his face suddenly burned as if it had been set on fire. For a split second, all he saw was the bright white light that comes with being cracked in the head.
“Pick it up!” PJ screamed.
His ear ringing deafeningly, Alex numbly watched a volleyball bounce twice and come to rest near his feet. Had PJ really just thrown it into the side of his face?
On purpose? Why?
He slowly reached down and picked up the ball, still dazed. He stared at it like he’d never seen one before. All around him in the gymnasium, phys-ed went on as if he were invisible.
“Now hand it to me!” PJ demanded, screaming even louder now.
The players on Alex’s team shuffled away and left him standing alone.
Alex felt the familiar burn of rage stoke in his gut. He raised his head to glare venomously across the volleyball net. PJ was on the other side, four teammates surrounding him. They watched with malicious interest, none of them speaking in Alex’s defense.
Not that he would have expected them to.
PJ sneered back, a hateful gleam in his eyes, and Alex curled his lip. He and PJ used to be friends, but that was a long time ago—back in elementary school. As it was with almost everyone in Alex’s life, after his mom had gone missing he’d let their friendship fade away until it was nonexistent. He hadn’t done anything specifically offensive to PJ, he’d just done nothing, period. He’d made no effort to maintain their bond, and generally PJ had done the same. But for the past two years, PJ had made it his personal mission to make Alex’s life as miserable as possible. Alex wasn’t quite sure when they had become enemies, or why. Probably about the same time everyone started calling him ‘Pat’ instead of PJ—that, too, had gone unnoticed by Alex until the day someone mentioned ‘Pat’ and he had to ask who they were talking about.
Whatever. It didn’t matter. Alex didn’t care.
PJ had hit him with the ball without any provocation. It had been PJ’s turn to serve and Alex had rolled the ball to him under the net, exactly the way they had been taught. PJ had scooped it up and, without a word, thrown it as hard as he could at Alex’s head. With his usual lack of interest in all things school, Alex had already turned away. He hadn’t even known the ball was coming until he’d taken it full in the side of his face.
Alex glanced up at the second level of the gym where the majority of the class was working on an aerobics routine. The phys-ed instructor, Mr. Tomes, was there but his head was turned away. If he’d noticed what was going on between PJ and Alex, he wasn’t planning to get involved.
“Hand it to me!” Spittle actually flew from PJ’s mouth this time.
Alex wasn’t afraid. In fact, what he really wanted to do was throw the ball back at PJ and punch him in the face. It’d be David vs. Goliath, considering PJ had doubled in size over the past two years, but Alex knew how to fight. If they got into an all-out brawl, he was pretty sure he could give at least as good as he got.
He looked past PJ, at the people on the other team, and realized that a fight was exactly what they hoped to see. Two of them even smirked, throwing cocky grins his way. No surprise there. Alex knew he didn’t have any friends.
If that was the case, if a fight was what they wanted, then he’d be damned if he’d give it to them. They were exactly the kind of people that made Alex think high school was a waste of time.
Slowly, carefully, Alex bent down. Looking PJ straight in the eyes, he very deliberately rolled the volleyball under the net. He rolled it tauntingly slow, so slow that the ball stopped before it reached PJ’s feet.
PJ’s eyes grew wide and his face turned a deeper shade of red. Alex sneered, briefly wondering if the guy was on steroids, and blew PJ a sarcastic kiss.
PJ took three rapid steps forward, grabbed up the ball and threw it at Alex in one swift motion. Alex had no time to react.
Thwack! The ball slammed into his head again, hitting him on the same side as the last time. It stung terribly, but if he hadn’t turned his head at the last minute he’d have taken the main impact on his nose instead of his cheek and ear.
“I said hand it to me you jean-jacketed little freak!” PJ demanded.
Something inside Alex cracked, and all he could see was red. PJ had said one of the few things that could really set him off. He’d taken to wearing a jean jacket after his mother was gone. It was the last gift she’d ever given him. He wore it every day without fail. Every time he outgrew one, he bought another. At times like this, in physical education class, he almost felt naked without it. It wasn’t just a reminder of her. For Alex, it was more than that. It was like armor against the people of Beaver, Utah.
He was mad, now. Roaring mad. He picked up the ball and hefted it, clenching it in his hand. His whole head was ringing now, but he barely noticed. All he could think about was hurting PJ.
He took a step toward the net and PJ’s eyes glinted, hands clenching into tight fists. “Think you’re better than everyone else, rich boy? You above us all? Too good for us?”
“Don’t you pander to him,” someone hissed from behind Alex. “It’s what he wants.”
Leeann. His one and only friend.
Alex looked back at her. Leeann was a diminutive Asian girl who would probably end up the valedictorian of their class. They’d gone to school together since kindergarten, and her father worked at EMIT. Alex knew she was just trying to keep him from getting in trouble or hurt, and maybe she was right, but he was way past calming down. He scowled back at her and turned away.
“Alex,” Leeann warned, her voice louder, her tone maternal.
He looked over his shoulder again, annoyed. She could be so infuriatingly matter-of-fact and logical sometimes. But he wasn’t going to back down and he wasn’t going to stop to tell her so. They could argue about it later. He squeezed the ball again and gave her a slow, almost imperceptible shake of his head. He would handle it his way.
“He’s just a bully,” Leeann muttered disgustedly. Whether it was because she was his friend, or because she was extremely smart, or just flat-out right, apparently she needed the last word. Fine. He could live with that if she’d just butt-out.
PJ was a bully, she was right. Alex had seen him harass plenty of others. But there was more to this situation.
When they were in the first grade, Alex and PJ had lived in the same neighborhood. Back then, they’d been best buddies. PJ’s parents had been well-to-do, they’d had money, but something had gone wrong and their marriage ended in divorce. PJ’s Dad had left, never to return, and his mom had been forced to move them across town into a less affluent neighborhood. The other side of the tracks, so to speak.
The week before they moved, all the kids in the neighborhood had been playing in a field next to an apple orchard and decided to have a war using apples as ammunition. They’d picked sides, and Alex and PJ had ended up on opposing teams.
During the ‘battle,’ one of the apples hit PJ in the head and he was sure Alex was the one who’d thrown it. He’d come barreling across the field, throwing punches. Alex defended himself and ended up having to punch PJ in the face to make him stop. PJ had left the field crying, bloodied and shamefaced, the laughter of their peers following him.
Although Alex had wanted to go after his friend and apologize, everyone had congratulated him and told him he was amazing. He hadn’t felt amazing. And to make matters worse, PJ’s older brother had come blazing back onto the field on his dirt bike a little while later, PJ on the back, screaming for a rematch because “no brother of his was going to lose a fight to a little nerd like that.”
Of course all the kids on the field wanted to see more and goaded Alex to fight, but he said he didn’t want to. Even PJ didn’t seem like he wanted any part of a rematch, he just stared at the ground while his brother made all the demands. But finally both of them were bullied into it and once again the two friends squared off—and once again PJ ended up leaving the field in tears.
Alex had never felt more ashamed of himself than he had on that day. PJ was supposed to have been his friend.
And now here they were, ten years later. Alex was smart enough to recognize that today’s attack was borne from years of pent up shame and humiliation, all stemming from that day on the apple field.
But he was sick of being blamed for the past. Sick of being blamed for things that weren’t his fault. Sick of Beaver, Utah.
Alex hadn’t wanted to fight ten years ago, and he hadn’t want to today. PJ started it—again—just as he had in the apple fight.
His father had always told him to walk away from a fight if at all possible. Not because he wanted to protect Alex from being hurt—because he’d also said sometimes you can’t walk away. But if you were fighting to further your own ego, or for some false sense of pride, or just because someone else wanted you to: walk away. It didn’t matter what someone else thought. What mattered was that at the end of a fight there was never really a winner. Even if you beat the tar out of the other guy, you still had to deal with the knowledge that you’d hurt him when you didn’t have to. There was always a higher ground; you just had to have the courage to step up to it. The day you no longer cared if you hurt someone else, his father said, was the day you became the loser of every fight.
But his Dad didn’t have to go to high school every day.
Unfortunately for him, Alex mostly agreed with the philosophy behind his dad’s bleeding-heart perspective. Inwardly, he cursed himself for thinking of his dad’s words right now. He didn’t want to think about repercussions, he was mad.
But Alex knew even if he beat the crap out of PJ today it would only make him feel terrible later, especially knowing that the real reason PJ was picking this fight was out of a desire to salvage what he perceived as a loss of dignity at age six.
Clenching his teeth, he glared back at Leeann again, as if his full-circle thoughts were her fault. He sighed.
“PJ…” Alex began, shaking his head. Through gritted teeth, he managed to say, “I’m sor—”
“I said hand it to me!” Obviously, PJ was way past wanting an apology. Probably about nine years past it.
Alex looked back at Leeann and raised his eyebrows as if to say, ‘See? I told you so.’ She gave him a slow, tight-lipped shake of her head. ‘Don’t you do it,’ she was telling him.
Mumbling under his breath, he faced PJ again and rolled the ball under the net. In a flash of movement, PJ had it in his hand and, from point blank-distance, slammed it against Alex’s head so hard that he fell backward.
Alex stumbled, almost falling to the floor.
It really hurt that time—bad. Childhood friend or not, PJ deserved what he was about to get.
When Alex’s vision cleared, he drew back his fist and found himself looking into PJ’s frantic eyes from only a few inches away. One of them brimmed with tears.
PJ hurriedly looked away.
And just like that, all the rage Alex had been feeling vanished.
PJ was scared. After all these years, he was still afraid.
Afraid of what might happen if Alex fought back.
He needed this victory.
The path to his Dad’s ‘higher ground’ was clear now.
Alex gave PJ a thin-lipped smile and nodded. Ignoring Leeann and the smirks of all those watching, he picked up the ball and placed it in PJ’s hand.
In the locker room everyone gave Alex a wide berth, as if his perceived cowardice was toxic. The only looks he received were of dislike and disgust. How had he become a pariah to so many? Did they all see him the same way PJ did—like he was a spoiled rich boy with his nose turned up? He wasn’t, but then again he never made any attempt to show them otherwise either.
Alex sighed. He truly hated high school.
His face still burned from where he’d been struck by the ball. He hadn’t gathered enough courage to look in a mirror yet, but he was sure it had to be black and blue.
Out of the corner of his eye he felt someone staring and looked up to see PJ at the end of the row of lockers. PJ leaned there, arms folded, looking at Alex with a wooden expression. Finally, he pushed away from the locker and walked away.
“Croatoan!” Alex heard his last name called.
Mr. Tomes stood just inside the locker room, chewing rapid-fire on a piece of gum. His nose was wrinkled as if entering the room had been repulsive. For him, it probably was. He peered around, a small piece of paper in his hand. “Croatoan!” he hollered again. Alex was less than a dozen feet away.
Finally, Alex raised a hand. “That’s me,” he said. “I’m Alexander Croatoan.”
Mr. Tomes squinted at him like he’d never seen him before, chewing even faster on the gum. He looked down at the paper and gave a small shrug. “Follow me, Croatoan.”
Without waiting to see if Alex was behind him, Mr. Tomes marched from the room.
What was this all about? Alex hadn’t even thrown a punch! Was he in trouble? Had PJ somehow managed to make it look like he had started the fight? Or maybe Mr. Tomes had seen what happened after all and decided to intervene, but not in a good way.
Alex shoved his feet into his shoes without worrying about the laces and threw his backpack over his shoulder, hurrying to catch up.
Once they’d turned down the hall that led to the front office, Alex began to get nervous. The way PJ had been staring at him in the locker room, it seemed pretty likely that Alex was in trouble. This was great, just what he needed. Fighting would earn him suspension, or worse—detention. He didn’t want to spend so much as an extra minute at school.
“Mr. Tomes, what’s going on?” Alex asked. “Am I in trouble?”
Mr. Tomes didn’t turn around. He just held up the paper and rattled it in his hand, never breaking stride. “No idea, Croatoan. This says to deliver you to the main office pronto, and what do you know, here we are.”
Mr. Tomes opened the door and ushered Alex in with a wave of the paper. He placed it on the desk in front of the office aid working there and gave Alex a salute with his pointer finger. “Good luck, Croatoan.”
Alex stood awkwardly, waiting at the desk with no idea who he was supposed to speak to or why he was even there. The office aid was so engrossed in whatever was on her cell phone, she hadn’t even looked up yet. Finally, he cleared his throat. “So…”
The office aid raised her head like she was surprised he was still there. “Oh! You need to go in and see Ms. Hurt.” She pulled a chewed-up pen out of her mouth and pointed off to the all-too-familiar door of the vice-principal’s office. She said the last word with widened eyes, like he already should have been moving. She motioned impatiently with the pen for him to hurry.
Ms. Hurt. Perfect. She and Alex were old “buddies”. With a tingle of trepidation, he went to her office, but when he reached the door he missed a step. She wasn’t alone.
One of the last people he ever would have expected to see was waiting with her.
There was no mistaking him: Silas Smithson, his father’s right-hand man and the managing director at EMIT. Silas was one of a kind. He had the palest skin Alex had ever seen and jet-black hair that hung stiff and straight down to his shoulders. Alex would have thought Silas was albino, but for his black hair and piercing, dark eyes.
What was Silas doing there, and why had Alex been called down to the office to talk to him?
Suddenly, he didn’t want to take another step. With a rush, he remembered his father’s visit that morning—the tears, the pronouncements of love. It had seemed strange then, and he hadn’t been able to put his finger on why.
But now he could.
It had felt like his father was saying goodbye.
Ms. Hurt looked up. The naked pity in her eyes confirmed his worst fears. Something had happened.
Silas turned, his pale face and penetrating eyes unreadable.
“Your father has been involved in an accident,” Silas told him emotionlessly. “Time may be crucial. You must come with me.”
Silas brought Alex directly to EMIT, the two of them riding together in the back seat of one of the company’s cars. Aside from the three brief sentences he’d spoken at the school, Silas maintained a silence so uncomfortable that Alex felt cowed into reticence himself. Silas had always been that way; quiet, withdrawn, aloof. His lack of conversation was not out of character. On the rare occasions that he actually spoke to Alex, it was in the least number of syllables possible. Normally, Alex didn’t care—in fact, he preferred it that way. Silas gave him the creeps and always had. The tall, pale man had a quiet voice that was silky, smooth, like a criminal from an old movie. In fact, there was something very old-fashioned about Silas in general. The clothes he wore, the way he moved, his manner of speech—all of it bespoke of an ancient soul trapped in a very dour, middle-aged exterior.
Alex knew Silas would only provide information when he felt the time was right, so instead of trying to pry an explanation from his laconic escort, he continuously replayed the conversation he had had with his dad that morning. By the time they arrived at EMIT, Alex was convinced his father had known something bad might happen that day.
EMIT’s headquarters was a modest, single-story, converted warehouse. It housed the main lab and all the administrative offices. The company owned other properties that were used strictly for testing, but most of them were empty parcels in the middle of nowhere—places where experiments could be done without fear of collateral damage. To Alex, their headquarters seemed inadequate for a company as massive and global in reach as EMIT, but his dad always scorned the thought of moving anywhere else.
Alex could hear his father now: “This building is part of who we are. Our company’s culture, its memories—they were all made here and exist here still. We must always remember our roots, Alex, so that we remain grounded—even in the face of our successes.”
Remain grounded in the face of our successes. It was a favorite saying for Dad, one that he used with almost every employee at EMIT. Alex had always found it odd. Like success was a bad thing, or something.
His dad spoke like that a lot, constantly incorporating his philosophies and life lessons in his every-day conversations. Most of the time, for a teenager like Alex, it was annoying and repetitive. But right now, in light of what Silas had told him, Alex would be happy to listen to his dad preach for the rest of the day.
As soon as the vehicle stopped moving, Silas got out of the car without so much as a glance in Alex’s direction and slammed the door closed. Alex flinched at the boom and abrupt silence left in its wake, alone for the first moment since hearing the news about his dad.
Of all people, why would the company send Silas to come for him? Alex shuddered involuntarily. Silas may be an effective business manager, but he overwhelmingly possessed all the clichés of a classic horror movie villain. Pale, dark hair, quiet, a bit rude and condescending. It’s a good thing EMIT mostly handled government contracts, otherwise Alex could only imagine that Silas would scare away the clientele.
Whatever had happened to his dad, it had to be pretty bad. They wouldn’t pull Alex out of school for something minor. Or… what if… no. Alex couldn’t even consider the alternative. They were at the lab, not a hospital or morgue, so at least there was that. It lent him a small measure of optimism.
Still—all kinds of scenarios played through Alex’s mind.
EMIT’s biggest current project was an ambitious undertaking, and one that could easily do harm to those working on its development. His father, as with all of EMIT’s large projects, had assigned himself Lead Researcher.
EMIT was trying to perfect technology to beam non-lethal electricity through the air, much the same way radio or cellular signals work. If they succeeded and created modules for electronic devices to operate off those beams, the potential for everything to one day become wireless would become a reality. Not only that, and possibly most importantly, EMIT was developing collectors for stray electrical currents that went unused—depositories that would collect excess power and store it, to be redistributed and used again. Ultimately, there would never again be a single wasted watt.
Their biggest issue was, and continued to be, the conversion of the electrical current from lethal to non-lethal. Electricity, in its traditional form, certainly could not be used. In that form, it needed a conductor to travel. EMIT’s goal was to find a way for it to travel through the air without harming anyone in its path. Dad and the rest of the researchers at EMIT were working on ways to alter its structure at a subatomic level, and then reconstruct it using the modules. It was exciting stuff, and definitely the most advanced technology they’d ever attempted to create, but also very dangerous. There’d been half a dozen small explosions in the past month alone.
Alex took a deep breath and looked out the window. Silas was waiting rigidly at the front door, hands clasped behind his back. He met Alex’s eyes dispassionately.
With a resigned grimace, Alex got out the car. He was stuck with Silas for now. Without him, Alex would only be able to get into the reception area in the front of the building. The rest was key-coded and bio-coded, and Alex didn’t have access. Even the administrative offices were on constant lock-down due to the sensitive data they contained.
“Okay, what’s this all abou—” Silas didn’t even let Alex finish. As soon Alex was out of the car, Silas turned and entered the building. Alex had no choice but to follow or be locked out.
Silas led the way to his office. He immediately closed the door, his words brusque and clipped, no-nonsense.
“Alex,” he began without preamble, “you’ve spent a great deal of time at this lab with your father. Tell me what he was working on.”
It was true that Alex had spent a lot of time in the lab with his father, but it had always been about quality father-son time, not about Alex actually getting involved with the research. He didn’t know the first thing about what his dad was working on except in the broadest of terms. Alex was a smart enough guy, but the things his dad did at EMIT were way over his head.
And besides, he didn’t appreciate the way Silas was speaking to him.
“I’m not telling you a damn thing until you tell me what happened,” Alex blustered. It was a bluff, but he didn’t like anyone telling him what to do. And it didn’t help that he didn’t like Silas in the first place.
Silas narrowed his eyes, but didn’t answer. The silence in the room stretched on.
“Besides the big one—the energy project—I really don’t know,” Alex finally replied truthfully. He frowned, grudgingly adding, “To my knowledge, that’s the only thing he’s working on right now.” He bit his bottom lip, thinking. “I’m pretty sure he’s close to a breakthrough.”
Silas leaned forward, bird-like. “And why do you believe that? What did he tell you?”
Uncomfortable with what was turning into more of an interrogation than a discussion, Alex went on the defensive. “I just know,” he replied indignantly. “I know my dad, I know how he is. Whenever anything big is about to happen, he always puts in stupid hours. He spends weeks barely getting any sleep. That’s why I’ve been here so much. I’d never see him, otherwise.” Alex frowned. “I want to know what this is about. What’s going on?”
Silas regarded him like he was measuring his honesty, his eyes keen and calculating. Alex didn’t like it. “Did your father ever speak with you about teleportation technology?” he asked.
“Sure,” Alex replied instantly. “He always said it was the driving principle behind the energy project. He said finding a way to emit non-lethal charged electrons was almost like finding a way to teleport matter. Sending those electrons away from their source was nearly the same thing, and he said he’d almost done it, but he still needed to find a way to bring back the unused ones so that the surplus energy didn’t get wasted.” Alex faltered for a moment, surprising himself at how much he knew. Maybe he’d been paying more attention than he thought. “He also said that if he could do that, he might be able to pick up stray bits of other energy too, stuff like static cling, and store it. He said he’d be collecting energy that, in the past, had never been useable.”
“That’s right,” Silas said impatiently, as if it didn’t matter. As if it was a boring, unimportant part of what they did at the lab. Alex was shocked—it was the project for EMIT. It was what the government was paying them for. It was the future. “But teleportation,” Silas pressed, “specifically, did he ever speak of it to you? Anything? Anything at all.”
“No,” Alex answered, pulling back from Silas, feeling like even if his father had, maybe he shouldn’t mention it. Silas was making him extremely uncomfortable. “Mostly we talked about me, my day at school, that kind of thing.”
Silas squinted at him again, and finally Alex was fed up. Something had happened to his dad, and Silas wasn’t telling him what it was. Silas worked for his family, not the other way around.
“What the hell is going on?” he demanded, finally raising his voice. “What happened to my father? I want answers! Where is he?”
“We don’t know,” Silas answered just as impatiently and dispassionately as he’d told him the rest. “He’s missing. And we need to find him. Did he ever speak to you about anyone else? Anyone who may have approached him regarding teleportation technology?”
“What? No!” Alex’s heart dropped and his stomach clenched. His father was missing? A primal fear grew in his belly, and he began to get angry. Silas didn’t have the right to withhold information, especially not information as important as this! “What do you mean he’s missing?” Alex stood, aggressively clenching his fists. “How do you know? How long has he been gone? I just saw him this morning!”
“Are you sure he never mentioned anything at all about teleportation?” Silas demanded.
“Yes!” Alex yelled. “He only ever spoke to me about the government contract, but that was always in relation to the energy project.” This wasn’t happening again. It couldn’t be! “Tell me what happened!” Alex shouted.
Silas turned away, staring toward the wall. He was deep in thought, infuriatingly calm. “You say you saw him this morning,” he murmured, still facing the wall. “Did he say or do anything out of the ordinary?”
Alex wanted to scream. He wanted to shout and punch something or someone—preferably Silas—but forced himself to calm down. His father always told him that anger clouds judgment. Never make an important decision when you’re mad.
Alex took a deep breath.
Something wasn’t right. Yes, his dad was missing, but there was something more. Silas was acting far too calm in the face of a situation that could easily mean the end of EMIT. Alex’s dad was EMIT. Without him, everything would grind to a halt.
Alex thought about how his father had hugged him and said goodbye. He’d felt his father’s tears when they hugged. At the time, he’d thought it was because Dad was thinking about Mom, but maybe it had been more than that.
Had his father known something might happen?
With a terrible, indefinable and stomach-clenching certainty, Alex knew he shouldn’t tell Silas anything else.
“Nothing at all,” Alex finally answered in a tight voice. “Dad just told me to have a good day at school.”
Silas turned back to face him. Alex sensed that Silas knew he’d pushed too hard.
With a twist of his pale lips, Silas took a single sheet of paper from the top drawer of his desk and slid it across to Alex with long, bony fingers. Alex noticed for the first time that Silas had long, sharp fingernails. Long like a woman’s, but ragged, chipped, and a little dirty. He couldn’t take his eyes from them. The sight of them made him even more uneasy.
“This is a document your father had prepared by EMIT’s legal staff and filed with the state of Utah. He had this done just after your mother went missing,” Silas told him. “It states that in the event anything should happen to him, you are to become my ward.” His eyes went cold and hard. “Since you are still a minor in the eyes of the law, you’ll be living with me until your father is found.”
Silas lived in an enormous, sprawling, Bavarian-style home on a seven-acre lot. With enough space to room a football team, Silas only allowed his housekeeper, Rosa, to share his home. Rosa was a sullen, severe-looking woman who spoke even less than Silas. As a matter of fact, she didn’t speak at all. She wore her dirty, brown hair up in a loose bun, coarse strands falling out from it in tufts. Her dress might have been what she considered a uniform, but to Alex it looked more like an old smock, worn and stained. The moment he and Silas arrived she appeared soundlessly, as if she had been expecting them, and disappeared just as soundlessly after introductions had been made.
“She is very efficient,” Silas informed Alex, “and prefers not to be disturbed.”
Alex was certain that he would have no problem with that.
While they were still standing just inside the front door, Silas made it a point to tell Alex that he was not his nursemaid, babysitter, or some incarnation of a long-lost uncle. Alex was in his home by court mandate and, more importantly to Silas, by request of Alex’s father. He had no problem allowing Alex free roaming rights so long as it did not interfere with any of his personal time which, as Alex learned quickly, was virtually nonexistent. Like Alex’s father, Silas spent most of his time at the lab.
“You are free to come and go as you please,” Silas told him indifferently, “but if you will be away overnight, you will inform me. Is that understood?”
Silas’s rules were easy enough to follow. Alex had nowhere to go even if he’d wanted to. Silas was the last person he wanted anything from, and he most definitely had no interest in getting to know the stern-faced Rosa—she fit right in the same category of creepy that Silas did.
Silas showed him to his room, pointing out the kitchen along way with a long, bony finger.
Every room was silent. In a strange way, the house felt expectant, almost as if it was waiting for something to happen, or perhaps afraid to disturb Silas. There was no hum from appliances. There was no creaking from the floorboards. Even the air was motionless.
And the house was spotlessly clean, immaculate to the point of being antiseptic and uncomfortable. In one of the dim rooms they passed, Alex noticed clear plastic wrapped around the couch cushions. What kind of person wraps their couches in plastic?
Silas stopped abruptly in front of a second-floor door. He pushed it open and nodded, indicating that it would be the room where Alex would be sleeping. Without entering, Silas announced that he was leaving, going back to the lab. He turned on his heel and departed without so much as a goodbye, leaving Alex with dozens of unanswered questions and the uneasy feeling that if Dad didn’t turn up soon, his life will have taken a drastic turn for the worse.
He spent the remainder of the day sitting on the edge of the bed with his NanoPhone beside him, praying his dad would call and tell him he could come home.
It didn’t happen.
The next morning, the police came to the house. They asked a lot of questions, but in a perfunctory way, as if the situation was something they dealt with all the time and didn’t warrant real concern.
When the officers asked whether his father had been acting strangely or if he’d said anything that might lead Alex to believe he might take his own life, Alex got so angry he almost lost his temper. Dad would never do that. Not that his father hadn’t gone through short bouts of melancholy after Mom had disappeared, but never on a scale that would warrant suicidal thoughts.
When the police finally left, Alex felt more miserable than ever. Their questions had seemed routine at best, possibly even orchestrated. There had been no real intensity in the way they spoke, as if the entire issue was just one big eye-roll and Alex’s worries were unfounded.
It was becoming obvious to Alex that the only person who really cared that his father was missing was him.
For the next two days, Alex stayed in his room. Silas never came to check on him, not once, so Alex made an executive decision for himself and cut class. He would worry about the repercussions later. Finding his father had to be his first and only priority.
Although it wasn’t terribly comfortable, his room was very large, easily big enough to keep him from feeling claustrophobic. There was a big double-window that looked down into the front yard and an old but well-kept desk pushed up against the sill. The closet was almost as large as his room at home. Alex hung up the pitifully small amount of clothing he’d brought, hoping he would never need to bring any more.
One thing was certain—Alex would never stop looking for his father. The fact that both his parents were now missing without a trace—far too much of a coincidence.
The search had to start now. Alex did not want—would not allow himself—to sink into despair. During the first month after his mother had disappeared, after it really sank in that she wasn’t coming back, he’d gone into a depression so deep and consuming that he’d completely shut down. He’d slept for days on end, ignoring everything and everyone around him, missing a huge chunk of school and losing almost fifteen pounds in just a few weeks.
His father had tried everything to pull him out of it; long talks, long walks, doctor visits, pills, psychiatrists, and even a five-day vacation to Hawaii had all failed. Dad had resorted to the only thing he had left to reach his son with: their shared love for Mom.
Dad had marched into Alex’s room, pulled him from bed, and, like a fireman, flung him over his shoulder. Alex had been indignant, kicking and screaming the entire time, but his father ignored the tantrum and resolutely carried him down the hall to the master bedroom. When Dad put him down again, it was in front of a large, framed photograph of Mom.
“Look at her,” his father had demanded. Alex had quietly begun to cry and tried to turn away, but Dad had forced his head back to the photo, holding it firmly in place with both hands. “Look at her. What do you see?”
Eleven years old and confused, Alex had tried to pull away again, but Dad’s grip had been too strong. He’d begun crying even harder. “I see Mom!” he wailed.
“Look again!” Dad had demanded.
Dad was being mean and forceful, he was never like that. Alex had no idea what he’d wanted him to say. “It’s Mom!” Alex cried out. “I see Mom! That’s all I see! I don’t know what you want!”
Still holding Alex’s head, forcing him to stare at the picture, Dad had said, “How about love? Compassion? How about commitment to family—to you, to me? I see a woman who loves you more than anyone in the world! Beauty, intelligence, determination—I see all of that and more when I look at this photograph!”
Tears were streaming down his father’s cheeks by then too, but he hadn’t stopped there. He’d taken Alex by the arm and pulled him in front of the full length mirror that hung on the back of their bedroom door. “Now tell me what you see.”
Alex had seen himself: a miserable, pale, emaciated wreck of a child. His eyes were sunken and lifeless, his arms and legs spindly and weak. “I see myself,” he’d said shamefully.
“What else?” Dad had asked quietly.
“I look sick.”
Grimly, his father had nodded. “Is this what you want your mother to see when we find her?” Alex gave a small start and looked harder at his reflection. “We don’t know what she’s going through right now,” Dad had told him. “We don’t know where she is. But if she hasn’t been able to come back or call, you can bet it’s probably nowhere she wants to be.”
Alex stood a little straighter. He looked up at his father’s reflection and received a nod, encouragement for him to continue looking at himself.
“Do not let your mother believe that while she was gone you did nothing,” Dad said quietly. “It would break her heart, and eventually it would break yours too.”
Alex took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. It was heavy stuff, especially for someone his age, but Dad’s message had struck home.
“I’m hungry,” he’d said, and Dad had smiled.
But Dad wasn’t here now. This time, Alex had to be the strong one. Nobody was going to yank him out of bed and tell him to get it together. He had Leeann, and he knew she would be there if he needed her, but he was sure this was big. He didn’t want to involve her if he didn’t have to.
Those first two days, he left his room only for bathroom breaks and eating. Silas was always gone, presumably at work. The house was so big Alex worried he might end up lost in it, so he didn’t press his luck and go exploring. Anyway, he didn’t care. He wasn’t staying any longer than absolutely necessary. Someone as strange as Silas was bound to have a few oddities in his home. Alex had no interest in knowing what those might be.
The furthest he ever ventured was to the kitchen where there was always the same food: milk, cereal, bread, sliced ham, and individually-wrapped cheese slices. There was never anything else. The cereal was on the counter next to the refrigerator and the rest was neatly placed on the top shelf inside. Every cupboard and drawer was empty—clean, but empty. It was as if Silas never ate and the only reason there was food in the house at all was for Alex.
Rosa was always there, but she stayed peripheral, always just leaving the room, perhaps even afraid. Of what, Alex had no idea. She was so skittish he felt like it would be rude to try talking to her, like it would be an intrusion, or maybe get her in trouble.
He spent both days jotting down notes, brainstorming, trying to tie any of his father’s recent actions, behaviors, or things that’d been said to his disappearance. Unfortunately, there was very little. Alex spent more time pacing the room or staring out the window than he did writing down anything of value.
So when Silas came to fetch him on Friday morning, the third day since his father had gone missing, Alex was happy to see the tall, dour man for the first time in his memory.
“If you aren’t going to pursue your education,” Silas announced from outside the bedroom door, “perhaps you should come to EMIT with me. It is possible you may be of some use.”
Alex needed no convincing. He’d thought himself in circles over the past forty-eight hours and still had no idea where to begin. EMIT was exactly where he wanted to go next, and even though creepy Silas was the one who’d be getting him there, he had no problem taking another silent ride if it meant a chance to get closer to finding his father.
At EMIT, Alex was shown to his father’s office and told not to leave unless he had an escort. He spent the morning pouring over the contents of his Dad’s desk and computer, rifling through drawers and sifting through files. Many hours later, eyes burning and head aching, he had found nothing interest.
At lunch, he asked permission to speak to some of the staff.
Employees told him the police had come to the lab as well, but it was the same as it had been when they spoke to Alex. They’d only displayed minimal effort and had stayed a very short time. The officers had asked only superficial questions and had been escorted by a grim and impatient Silas the entire time.
Most of the EMIT staff seemed uncomfortable speaking with Alex. They constantly glanced off to the side, as if they were worried they were overstepping their bounds or someone was listening. Only one of them spoke up with a personal opinion. Leeann’s father, Jin Choi, had been working at EMIT a very long time and had never been afraid to speak his mind.
“I’ll tell you this, Alex,” Mr. Choi told him passionately. “Your father is the heart of this operation. Without him, EMIT will not last long. We may all be at the top of our field, but your father, he is in a whole different class.”
Mr. Choi was just reaffirming what Alex already knew, and he wondered if it had anything to do with his dad’s disappearance. Had someone kidnapped him to use him for what he knew? Was someone—Silas, maybe—making a bid to take over the company?
Alex spoke to others, but no one else could—or would?—provide any other useful information. They all said the same thing: Dad had arrived at work that day hours ahead of everyone else, which was typical. And, he’d already left before the first employees arrived. In the days leading up to his disappearance, no one had noticed him acting strangely. He’d been his usual jovial, kind-hearted self.
No one knew anything.
Alex left EMIT that day frustrated and exhausted.
“Did you learn anything of use?” Silas asked on the ride home.
“No,” Alex replied sullenly.
And with that, they spent the rest of the ride in silence.
Late Saturday morning, Leeann called and asked if she could come to see him. He was already at the lab, making no headway. After a few short words with Silas, he arranged for her to pick him up.
Once he was in her car, Leeann didn’t say much. She just concentrated on the road, waiting for Alex to break the silence.
“It still irks me that your parents bought you a car,” he groused, trying to open up with something light. The fact that she got a car before him was a running joke between them, and usually Leeann enjoyed rubbing it in. “My dad, just too cheap to pony up the cash…”
Alex trailed off, realizing he’d probably started in the most awkward way possible.
Leeann pursed her lips, her eyes on the road. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he replied automatically, surprised that he sounded almost angry when he said it. He idly bumped a knuckle against the passenger door.
“My dad says you’ve been living with Silas,” Leeann said, making a face. “How’s that?”
Alex started to say it’s fine, but it wasn’t. He didn’t like talking about his problems with anyone, not usually, but Leeann wasn’t just anyone. She was the only person he trusted besides his dad. He needed someone to talk to. “It’s awful,” he admitted. “Everything you’d expect his house to be like, multiply that by a hundred. It’s like The Adams Family on steroids.”
“Does he…?” Leeann glanced over, and apparently decided to ask him a different question. “Do you guys hang out together at night? Watch TV, eat dinner, anything like that?”
“No, none of that. He’s just plain weird,” Alex answered. “He’s almost never home. I assume he’s always at the lab, but who knows. And I’ve never even seen him eat. Ever. In fact, the kitchen is empty except for a few things he put in the refrigerator for me. The guy must be the king of fast food or something.”
“Silas eating a double cheeseburger…” Leeann mused, and they both started laughing at the image. It just didn’t fit. Silas didn’t seem like the kind of guy that would enjoy any sort of food because he didn’t seem like he enjoyed anything.
When they got quiet again, Leeann glanced over; a quick, furtive glance. “So,” she said hesitantly, “Pat’s been telling everyone you stopped coming to school because you’re afraid of him.”
“Pat? Pat who?”
Leeann looked at him incredulously. “Pat?” she prompted. “PJ! The guy who tried to take your head off with a volleyball?”
Pat, that’s right. Alex closed his eyes and rubbed them. He kept forgetting no one had called him PJ anymore. He chuckled tiredly.
“This is funny?” Leeann whipped into a Taco Bell and parked in the first spot available. She turned to face him, eyes flashing angrily. “Alex, I don’t know why you let him do that to you. You’re better than him. You should have done something. You should have at least stood up to him.”
“You were the one telling me not to fight him!” he objected. She sounded so upset, it took him by surprise. Talking about PJ was just about the last thing he’d expected her to bring up.
“Well, I didn’t want you to fight…” Leeann retorted angrily. “But I didn’t want him to get away with it, either!”
“Leeann,” he began, “it’s not like that. PJ and I, we have history—”
“Pat!” she yelled. “His name is Pat! Alex, why do you stay so far removed from everyone? You never used to be like that. I remember when you were part of all kinds of clubs at school. Everybody liked you so much.”
Alex blanched. “That was like ten years ago,” he protested. “Before…”
“Before your mom left.” Leeann said knowingly. They had had this conversation many times before.
“Leeann,” he told her, his frustration rising, “that’s not it. Me not being at school has nothing to do with PJ—sorry, Pat—and you know it.” He was starting to get mad and he didn’t want to be, not at Leeann, but he didn’t like talking about his mom.
Leeann saw the change come over him and put a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry.” She lowered her eyes, staring down at the console between them. “I do know that. I’m just really worried about you. I…” She sighed in frustration. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to find my dad,” Alex answered firmly. “I’m going to find him and bring him home, no matter what it takes.”
“Wake up, Alex.”
It was early Sunday morning, still dark outside. Hope swelled in Alex’s heart.
“Dad?” he croaked, still partially asleep.
Alex opened his tired eyes and, with a start, flinched back against his pillow. Silas was bent over the bed, mere inches from his face. In the darkness of the room, Silas’s pale whiteness was a terrifying vision.
“What time is it?” Alex asked uncertainly, spooked at the way he’d been woken.
“Time for us to go to work,” Silas answered, straightening. “Get up and get dressed. You’re coming to EMIT.”
This was new. Silas had been so non-committal with regard to his stewardship of Alex that it could hardly be called that at all. Yes, Alex had gone with him to EMIT twice already, but Silas had presented those invitations as requests. This sounded like a demand. Alex’s instinctive reaction was to tell Silas to go away and leave him be, but there was an unspoken urgency in the pale man’s demeanor. Alex didn’t want to pass up a chance to be part of something that might lead to finding his dad.
When they arrived at EMIT, the facility was empty. The ever-present hum and buzz of the lab’s machinery, a sound so familiar to Alex that he normally didn’t even notice it, now seemed to roar in the absence of people.
Silas led him straight to his father’s office and shut the door, locking it behind them.
Alex blanched. There was no one else in the whole building. Why lock the door? “What’s this all about?” he asked uneasily.
“There is something you need to see,” Silas told him. “Something I am hoping you will be able to help clarify.”
Alex rubbed his arms uncomfortably and nodded, irrationally feeling as if he was in trouble.
“Remember when I asked if your father ever spoke to you about teleportation technology?” Silas asked.
“Yes,” Alex answered dubiously.
Silas held up a small disk. “You will watch this video.”
Alex squinted at it. It was unlabeled. “What’s on it?”
“It will be easier if you simply watch it,” Silas replied, placing the disk in his father’s computer. “You may ask questions afterward. In fact, I hope that you will.” He gestured to the desk chair, inviting Alex to sit.
Alex sat down cautiously, anxious to know if Silas had found something important but nervous nonetheless. Silas was acting strangely, and that was saying something considering that Silas was already one of the strangest people Alex knew.
“On the day your father disappeared,” Silas told him, “he asked me to meet him at the company’s airstrip test site. When I arrived, he wasn’t there. But there was a video camera mounted on a tripod.”
Alex glanced at the blank computer screen and then back at Silas again.
Silas nodded and pressed ‘PLAY’. An image of a deserted stretch of pavement appeared on the monitor. Alex recognized it as one of the properties owned by EMIT, an abandoned airstrip just outside of town used for testing.
The same property where his mom’s car had been found the day she disappeared.
“You’re just showing me this now?” Alex demanded. “And you’ve had it since the day he disappeared?” He stood, indignant.
“I had hoped your father would be back by now.”
“Back by now? You know where he is?”
“No,” Silas spoke the single word softly, without conviction, and Alex narrowed his eyes. “Please,” Silas continued, “watch the video. Perhaps you will understand why I am having such trouble answering.”
Frustrated, Alex flounced back in his chair and concentrated on the screen.
In the video, it was a bright, cloudless day. His father’s face loomed into view, looking sideways into the camera close up, and then backing away until he was in clear view. He stood there, excitement plainly evident on his face. He looked as if he could barely contain a grin.
“My name is Charles Croatoan,” he said breathlessly.
“What is he wearing?” Alex asked, leaning toward the screen. In the video, his father wore a black body suit that looked as if it had wires running through it, thousands of them crisscrossing the fabric, covering his entire body.
Silas spread his hands, palms up. “I do not know.”
“What I am about to demonstrate,” Alex’s father continued, “is a scientific breakthrough the likes of which have never been seen.” He was sweating heavily in the hot sun and wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead. “I have exhaustively tested this new device on objects, both large and small. I have also tested it on animals of varying shapes and sizes. All tests have resulted in indisputable success.”
Alex looked at Silas in alarm, but the pale-faced man just pointed back at the monitor.
“This will be the first human test,” Alex’s father spoke directly into the camera now, his tone turning calm and professional. “No one else is here, no one else knows what I intend to do. In fact, no one else is aware that this device exists.” He stepped to the side, allowing the camera a full view of the airstrip.
“What device?” Alex asked in confusion. “I don’t see any device!”
Again, Silas pointed to the video. “You will.”
Alex’s father raised his right arm and pointed away from the camera. With a quick motion of his hand, a red laser shone forth. To Alex it looked like a simple laser pointer, the kind you could pick up at any department store, but it beamed from the wrist of the suit. Alex’s dad pointed the laser down the airstrip, far off into the distance. “Please observe,” his father said to the camera. “The sun has created a shimmer, a mirage, on the pavement. I am pointing the laser at that shimmer now.”
Alex leaned forward, his nose nearly touching the screen. He could see it—the shimmer—it was on the concrete of the airstrip, a far-off reflection from the heat of the sun. His father was pointing the laser directly into the center of it.
“If successful,” Alex’s father continued, “this device—this suit—will teleport me from where I stand now to the shimmer I have indicated.”
“What?” Alex said disbelievingly to the monitor. He looked up at Silas. “What?” he asked louder. “Why would he do this? Why would he do it alone? He was supposed to be working on an energy solution, not this!”
On the video, his father continued relentlessly. “Please watch carefully,” he said.
Steadying his arm and taking careful aim, Alex’s father stretched out every finger on his hand. He looked back at the camera one last time, smiled, and then turned to face his destination. With a sharp jerk, he clenched his hand into a fist.
There was a dull flash of light that surrounded Alex’s father, almost gray in color, and when it was gone, so was he. Further down the airstrip, simultaneously, there was another dull flash of light exactly where the laser had been pointed.
Less than a second later, both flashes were gone, and so was Alex’s dad.
“Dad!” Alex hadn’t realized he’d stood from his chair. He looked wildly at Silas. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? He’s dead?!”
“I don’t think so,” Silas replied in his monotone.
“You don’t think so?” Alex demanded angrily, pointing back at the monitor. “He made a video of it! He blew himself up! How can you think he isn’t? Do the police know about this?”
“Please sit down, Alex,” Silas told him in his infuriatingly calm tone.
“I will not! I want to know—right now—why haven’t you reported this?”
“Sit. Down,” Silas demanded.
Alex ground his teeth, trying to stare Silas down, but ultimately the pale-faced man’s impassive gaze won out. Temporarily cowed into submission, Alex sat, but murder was written all over his face.
Silas approached, looming eerily over him. He leaned past Alex’s shoulder and cued the video back to the time just before his father had clenched his fist and disappeared.
“Watch,” Silas told him.
The video was now playing in super-slow motion, the volume turned off. In the video, his father turned away from the camera, his movements almost jerky as the footage crept forward frame by frame. Silas kept his hand hovering over the computer’s mouse.
Slowly, agonizingly, Alex watched as his father clenched his hand, his fingers curling inward a beat at a time. This time, instead of the dull flash occurring in the space a mere second, Alex saw what really happened. The wires in the suit lit up as soon as his father clenched his fist. They glowed so bright that it consumed his entire body and obscured him from sight. At their zenith, they winked out. In the same moment, they reappeared in the distance on the airstrip.
“The suit?” Alex asked. “The suit is the device?”
Silas hit the pause button quickly, not answering Alex’s question.
“Look,” he said, pointing at the screen at the distant spot on the airstrip. “Look at the shimmer. Do you see?”
Alex leaned forward, squinting. “I see a flash of light,” he said.
“Look closer,” Silas urged. With the pointer of the mouse, he traced a dark outline in the flash.
Alex squinted. “That’s a person,” he said, his pulse quickening. “That’s my dad!”
“I believe it is,” Silas replied in his quiet voice.
So his dad had done it. He’d teleported himself. But that didn’t change the outcome. He was still gone. He’d managed to send himself forward in space, but at the price of his life.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Alex asked, his voice cracking. “Why would you keep this from me? What do we do now?”
Was his father really gone? Alex couldn’t imagine a life without him.
“You misunderstand,” Silas told him. “Watch. Watch the outline within the flash.”
Silas clicked the video forward one frame at a time, playing it until the flash vanished. He looked at Alex with raised eyebrows. “Did you see it?”
Alex shook his head, confused.
“Watch again,” Silas told him.
Silas backed it up and played it frame by frame once more, then backed it up and did it again. When Alex still didn’t react, he did it one last time. That time, Alex saw. He moved in close to the monitor again.
“One more time,” Alex asked. “Please.”
With his finger on the screen, he traced the image of his father in the light. A frame went past, and the outline of his father was much lower than where his finger was. Another frame went past, and all Alex could see of his father was an outline of his head, just above the pavement. After one more frame, his father was gone completely.
Alex stared at the screen, trying to make sense of it. “He sunk?” Alex finally asked. “Into the pavement?” He looked at Silas. “Is that what I just saw? How is that possible?”
Silas looked back with clear eyes. “Right now,” he answered, “I believe the only one who could answer that is your father. But since he isn’t here, I need you to try to.”
“Me?” Alex asked incredulously. He didn’t know the first thing about electro-magnetics.
“You worked with him,” Silas said. “You spent time with him. I don’t think he died, I think he went somewhere else. I want to help you find him and bring him back. We need to continue his research. You need to continue his research.”
Alex didn’t have a clue what he was looking for.
His mother and father were the geniuses, not him. He was far from it. Of course his father had always pressed him to do better, but he was a “B” student, at best.
Nevertheless, after seeing Silas’s video he agreed that his best chance of finding Dad was to pour over his father’s research.
Days went by, and then days turned into weeks as Alex delved deeper and deeper into what his father had been working on. There were no surprises. He found a massive amount of information on teleportation, but the documentation and notes he found all dealt with how it could be used in conjunction with the energy sharing project. There wasn’t a single page, paragraph, or even Post-It note that mentioned actual teleportation of objects or people. Nothing about a suit, absolutely nothing.
In the video, his father had mentioned that he’d tested the technology on animals and objects, but Alex could find no logs, notes, or videos to support the claim. It was like those experiments had never happened. Certainly, no experiments of that nature had happened at EMIT or there would be some evidence of it. The staff, at least, would remember.
So where had all of that research been done?
Alex grew more and more desperate with each day that passed, increasingly spending longer hours at the lab until the only time he wasn’t there was when he went to Silas’s house to collapse into bed, exhausted. He knew he was missing something, he had to be, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what it was.
On the twentieth day of his father’s disappearance, he felt the first stirrings of despair.
He rode home slumped in the back seat next to Silas.
“Where is it?” he asked in frustration, his voice raspy from lack of sleep. “There has to be something, somewhere! Why wouldn’t he have shared a project as big as this with anyone else?”
Silas surprised him by answering, “Your father must have felt the need for secrecy. He may have felt it was a private matter.”
“Silas, I’m going to ask you again—did you know he was working on this?” Alex asked, sitting up straight.
There was a pause.
“He’s always been working on it,” Silas finally answered heavily, as if he were admitting a terrible secret. “He and your mother.” He gave Alex an inscrutable look. “It is what they were working on when she disappeared.”
Alex blinked. “Are you saying you think he did this because he thought he could go after Mom with it?”
“I know that’s why he did it,” Silas answered. “But I don’t think he ever expected this outcome. He’s always believed your mother had gotten too close to perfecting the technology and the government wanted to keep her from it. He was sure she’d been taken as a result.”
“What?” This sounded ridiculous. Like something out of a spy movie. “Dad never said anything like that.”
“He wouldn’t have,” Silas told him. “For fear of putting you in danger.”
“So Mom had this all figured out, six years ago?” Alex asked.
Silas nodded grimly. “At least we believe she did. She was always the smart one, you know.” He pressed his lips together in what Alex guessed was supposed to pass as a smile. All it did was lend Alex a whole new level of the creeps. Reflexively, he inched over on the seat, away from Silas.
“But all of EMIT’s contracts are through the government!” Alex protested. “That doesn’t make any sense!”
“It makes perfect sense,” Silas reasoned. “Your father used their funding to continue the research he believed was the cause of her disappearance. He thought that if he could figure it out, they’d be watching. He figured they would come for him, the same as her.”
Silas still wasn’t telling him the whole story, Alex was sure of it. But he was just as sure that, if pressed, Silas would completely clam up.
“So where is it?” Alex asked, frustrated all over again. Even with this new information, it didn’t get them any closer. “Where is his research? He didn’t leave a single shred in his office! Nothing!”
“I don’t know,” Silas said calmly, like they were discussing the weather. It made Alex want to punch him square in the nose. “That is why I’ve enlisted your help.”
Alex shook his head, frowning.
“But why would the government get involved at all? Why would they want to keep it a secret?” Alex asked. “You’d think they would want to help him! I mean, come on—don’t you think the Army would want to be able to teleport stuff—troops, tanks—?”
“You must think of the big picture,” Silas replied. “Imagine all of the other implications. If you could teleport anything or anyone anywhere you wanted, entire sectors of commerce and industry would cease to be relevant. The automotive industry, shipping, trucking, oil companies—they would all come crashing down.”
“Yeah, but think about what you could do!” Alex protested. “I’ve thought about this a lot. Dad’s technology could save lives!”
“Of course,” Silas replied. “Instant treatment for the sick, immediate aid to countries in a state of emergency… there are so many positives it would impossible to list them all. And it would create a whole new branch of industry, just to maintain the technology and keep it up and running.” Silas’s mouth twisted into a frown. “But some people like things to remain the way they are.” His voice took on an ominous tone. “Especially if they’ve become rich from it.” He flipped a negligent hand. “But I digress. It appears your father was wrong.”
Silas was right. Alex hated the way he said it, but he was absolutely right.
Alex had watched the video at least a hundred times, probably more like a thousand, and he was positive his father had teleported to the spot on the airstrip only to sink down into it.
At first, Alex thought maybe his father had burned up, or somehow been vaporized, maybe from an extreme temperature given off by the suit. But if that had happened there would have been something of his body left behind. Alex had gone out to the airstrip. Nothing was there. Not even a scratch in the concrete.
No, Alex was sure his father had gone somewhere. Somehow, the pulse of energy from the teleportation suit had taken his father even further than he’d expected, and the only way Alex could conceive of finding him was to duplicate the experiment.
And once again, that brought him right back to the original question of how his father had managed to create the suit and test it in total secrecy.
With the help of Silas, Alex had checked all the EMIT land holdings. There weren’t many, only half a dozen buildings scattered around the city. None of them contained anything that looked like it might have been part of the research.
They arrived back at Silas’s home and silently went to their separate quarters, frustration.
That night, Alex lay in bed, unable to sleep.
He tossed and turned, trying to clear his head, but he couldn’t. He kept alternating between analytical thinking and despair, and he had to constantly fight to keep depression from winning out. He couldn’t allow himself to get back to where he’d been when his mother disappeared—he’d never find his dad if he did.
What Alex really needed was someone to talk to.
He dug out his phone and began typing a message to Leeann, but when he saw that it was past two in the morning he decided against it. She was certainly asleep already, and even though he was sure she would wake up and answer him, it would be unfair to ask her to listen to his problems at such a late hour.
Instead, he scrolled through the apps on the phone. He hadn’t really had a chance to mess with it since the morning his dad had given it to him. He thumbed down the list, surprised to see that one of them was an EMIT app. Why would his father have put an app for their company on the phone? Alex didn’t even know EMIT had an app.
He pressed the icon and a password box appeared.
Dad loads an app on his phone, but it’s basically useless. Alex closed out the app and continued thumbing down the list, looking for a mindless game to lull him to sleep.
His father knew him well: Sudoku. Alex never got tired of the puzzle game. He opened the app and started it on ‘easy’ mode, but after ten minutes of staring at the screen without entering a single number he knew he was wasting his time. He was too distracted.
The EMIT app kept popping back into his head, nagging him.
What if his father had left something on the phone that could help Alex find him? He’d given Alex the phone on the same day he’d decided to test the suit, which was also the anniversary of his mother’s disappearance. It couldn’t be coincidence.
He opened up the app again and typed in “ALEX” when the password box appeared. ‘ACCESS DENIED’ popped up on the screen. His father would never have made it that easy, anyway. He typed in his mother’s name, “ELIZABETH”, but that wasn’t it either. He began free-associating, typing in any words that had to do with their family, the company, and the research his father had been working on. None of them worked. Thankfully, it appeared the password attempts were unlimited. No ‘Mission Impossible this app will self-destruct after three tries’ warning. He said a silent prayer of thanks to his dad.
Closing his eyes, Alex tried to envision everything he’d seen in his dad’s office, tried to think of anything that had stood out, but nothing came to mind. Somehow Dad had managed to keep an entire segment of his life secret from everyone.
Everyone except Alex? Was the app his father’s way of somehow sharing the research? Again, it couldn’t be just coincidence. Maybe it was the lack of sleep that was clouding his judgment, but lying there with the password box glowing in his face, Alex was positive his father had given him the phone specifically for this reason.
And then he had it. He knew the password. As his father had handed him the phone, he’d talked about his mother. It was the same thing he said every year, which was all the more reason his Dad would use it to protect something he wanted only Alex to know.
Do you remember what she used to call you when she chased you around the house?
Flash. That’s what Mom had called him.
He typed “FLASH” into the password box and it dissolved. Bingo.
A blank video screen appeared with a ‘PLAY’ button in the center.
His heart pounding, Alex briefly hid the phone under his covers and looked around his room, as if he was afraid someone was watching. It was absurd and he knew it, but Silas’s house had never stopped freaking him out, even after staying there for nearly a month.
Instead of pulling the phone back out, he tucked his head under the covers and curled into a ball, cradling the phone up close so he could see it. He lifted his finger to press the ‘PLAY’ button, but a thump from somewhere in the house froze him in place.
It was a huge, old house. It made weird noises all the time. It was probably nothing. But Alex poked his head out from beneath the covers and held his breath anyway, listening hard. He stayed that way for a full minute before finally taking in a lungful of air. He sunk back down under his blankets and tucked them up and behind his head.
He turned the volume down to the lowest setting and pressed ‘PLAY.’
A picture of his father’s face appeared on the screen. He was sitting at their dining room table at home. It was dark outside, and he was smiling. It was that rare smile Alex had only seen him use when he spoke about Mom. Alex felt a tightening in his throat, but forced it down.
“Alex,” his father said, staring straight into the camera. “You’re a smart boy. I’m very proud of you. I knew you’d figure this out. If you’re watching this video, then I’ve succeeded in doing what I set out to do today.” His father looked upward, presumably toward Alex’s room. “I’m going upstairs to give you this phone and say goodbye.” He leaned toward the camera slightly. “Alex, I want you to know I love you and always will. Your mother did, too. I know she still does.”
Unbidden, a tear pooled in one of Alex’s eyes and rolled down his cheek.
“Alex,” his father’s voice turned to whisper, insistent, “I think I’ve found her. I think I know where she went and I don’t think she was able to find her way back. But I can.” His dad looked over his shoulder once, a quick jerk of his head. “I can bring her back, Alex.”
What was he talking about?
In the video, his father looked around the dining room, the same way Alex had looked around his room before playing the video. He looked nervous, like he was afraid someone was watching or listening.
“I need you to go to my lab downstairs,” his father whispered, “the one under the house. The entrance is in the storage room. You’ll find a switch on the far wall.” Alex gaped at the screen. His father had been doing the research right under his feet! “I need you to go there,” his father insisted, “and I need you to follow the instructions I’ve left. Don’t trust anyone. Don’t tell anyone. Just do it.”
His father stood, carrying the phone with him through the house. He began climbing the stairs toward Alex’s room. “I will be back, Alex,” he promised, his voice returning to a normal tone. “I don’t know how long it will take. If everything goes well, you may not even know I left. But if you’re watching this, then you probably haven’t seen me in a couple of days. Please find my lab immediately. It’s important. Very important.” By now his father had reached the top of the stairs and was about to enter Alex’s bedroom. His father stopped and said softly, “I love you, Alex.”
The video winked out.
“I’m not coming to EMIT today,” Alex told Silas the next morning. He hadn’t slept at all. He knew he looked ragged and was worried that Silas would question the dark circles under his eyes, but with his typical lack of concern, Silas didn’t remark.
Silas raised an indifferent eyebrow. “School?”
“No,” Alex replied, working hard to keep the surge of relief from his voice. “I’m going to my house to get some things and look around in my dad’s study. Maybe I can find something there, some research he left behind or something.”
Silas narrowed his eyes. “I will send someone with you. Someone from the lab. Perhaps they will be able to help you determine what might or might not be relevant.”
Don’t trust anyone. Don’t tell anyone. Alex’s father’s words echoed in his mind.
“No, thank you. I…” Alex floundered for an explanation and blurted out the first thing that popped into his head. “I just need some alone time, Silas. It’s been weeks. I have to face the idea that my dad might be gone forever.”
Silas continued to regard him dubiously. It was obvious that Alex’s fake emotional outpouring did nothing to soften his outward rigidity.
“Alright,” Silas said grudgingly. “But only today. I don’t feel comfortable knowing you’re out on your own. It has occurred to me recently that you are the sole heir to EMIT. You have a responsibility to the company now.”
Ugh, Alex thought. “I know, Silas,” he said. “Thank you.”
Silas had the company driver take a detour on the way to the lab so that they could drop Alex off at the house.
“Call when you’re ready and I’ll arrange for a ride back,” Silas said by way of farewell. He put his window up without another word, but Alex was so used to the man’s peculiar, rude behavior that he barely noticed.
He opened the front door hesitantly and stepped inside his house. The air was still and quiet. In the kitchen, the refrigerator kicked on, startling him. It felt surreal to be home, almost like he didn’t belong there anymore. What did that mean? Did he intuitively know something he was refusing to accept or was it just that it had been long enough that he’d forgotten what it felt like to have a place to call his own?
Putting his backpack down on a chair near the front door, Alex nudged aside one of the front window curtains and peeked out, looking both ways down the road. The driveway was empty. Silas had gone.
Alex counted slowly to sixty before he grabbed his backpack and hurried down into the basement.
Before his mother had disappeared, his parents had been part of many social circles. It hadn’t been uncommon for them to host parties and fundraisers right here in the house. The main portion of the walkout basement had been finished as an area to entertain, most of it a wide open space, but at the far end there was a door that led into a storage room. A sliding glass door on the far wall led out into the back yard. Sunlight poured into the room. Alex went to it and pulled the curtains closed.
In the storage room, he switched on the light. He had to hand it to his father—the room definitely didn’t look like it contained the entrance to a super-secret lab. Cardboard boxes were stacked, neatly labeled with permanent, black marker. Several pieces of old furniture were piled carefully in one corner. It all appeared completely normal.
He scanned the walls and was a little surprised when he located the switch without much effort. It was on the far side of the room, just as his father had said it would be. It was a simple black toggle with a plastic cover over it, easily overlooked, and not hidden in any way.
Alex flicked open the cover, flipped the switch, and a section of the wall directly in front of him slid open with a soft swoosh, like a door in a Star Trek episode. He drew back and waited to see if anything else would happen, but he was only met with silence.
Inside, fluorescent lights were beginning to flicker and blink. Hesitantly, Alex stepped over the threshold.
As soon as he entered his father’s lab, the door slid closed. Alex panicked for a moment, but saw a similar switch on the inside wall. He let out a sigh of relief. His father wouldn’t have led him here only to lock him in.
The lab wasn’t terribly large, maybe twenty feet square. Equipment and machines, the likes of which Alex had never seen before, lined the walls. There was a large work table in the center of the room with a computer and smaller pieces of equipment scattered across the top of it.
Looking past the table to the far side of the room, Alex gave a small shout as he caught sight of the outline of a person. He was already fumbling for the wall switch when he realized it was not a person at all, but a suit that looked just like the one his father had been wearing in the video. Next to it was some type of contraption, something that looked like a bathtub standing on its end, except the inside was molded in the shape of a human. It was one of the oddest things Alex had ever seen.
Taped across the front of the computer monitor was a piece of paper with Dad’s familiar scrawl: “PRESS ENTER.”
Alex stepped up to the table and hit the button. The screen came to life, and another video of his father filled the screen.
“Alex,” his father said insistently. “You need to destroy everything in this room.”
“What?” Alex exclaimed at the computer screen.
“If they ever find it,” his father continued, “if what you see around you ever gets into the wrong hands, it might be the end of things as we know them. There are only two Personal Transport Suits in existence, one of which is in this room. The other is in my possession. Take the suit, this computer, and every scrap of research in this lab and incinerate it all. There is a chute in the wall behind you. Open it, put everything in, and then press the red button beside it.” His father leaned in close so that his face filled the screen. “This is important, Alex. I need you to do this.”
And then the video was terminated.
Alex looked at the suit and then back at the computer, frustrated.
Are you kidding me?
There was no way he could destroy the suit. It was his one and only chance for finding his father. Alex took a deep breath and stepped back from the table.
There was no way. He just couldn’t do it.
Maybe if he understood a little better, maybe if he saw there was no other way. Where had his dad gone, after all? From what he’d said in the first video, Dad seemed pretty sure that he knew where he was going.
Alex pulled a stool over to the table and sat down. He began digging deeper into the computer, reading through the research, looking for clues. He spent hours there, not just on the computer but also sifting through the piles of notes that were strewn across the table and pinned on the walls.
By the end of the day he still had no idea where his father had gone, but he did have a basic understanding of what had been created in this room. The Personal Transport Suit, or PTS, was exactly what its name implied, in every sense.
It allowed the wearer to instantly be transported from one place to another all from a small device near the right-hand wrist of the suit. It utilized a simple laser pointer to target the destination. It was both complex and rudimentary at the same time, because while it allowed the user to instantly go from one place to the next, the destination had to be within sight. Part of his father’s research discussed the future of the technology and the idea that it could evolve using fiber-optic lines to transport over long distances, or perhaps GPS to secure a coordinate. In its current incarnation, the technology could only make use of the laser, traveling along the same tiny line it used to get from one point to the next.
Alex shook his head in wonder. His father was a genius. It could only teleport someone or something using a laser pointer. It was absolutely amazing! And his father wanted him to destroy it? The notion was ludicrous!
He continued to read and learned that the suit was personal in application, very personal. It had to be bio-coded to the individual wearing it, literally plugged into the person who used it through ports, much like those worn by cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Instead of injecting a fluid into the user, though, these ports created a conduit for the electro-magnetic pulses from the suit through the user’s body.
These conduits also collected unused energy straight from the wearer’s body, right into the suit to be stored. Alex knew from his father’s energy-sharing project that humans constantly produced energy. Even at rest, humans produce small amounts. Throughout the course of the day, through movement, kinetic energy is created. This was yet another type of stray energy that his father intended to harvest with the energy collectors he was working on for the government.
And apparently he’d succeeded, because that’s exactly what the suit did. Essentially, it powered itself by feeding off the energy of its wearer.
His father had made the process to implant the ports simple. The strange bathtub-looking machine against the wall was made for that purpose. Not only did it embed the ports in the user’s arm, but it also scanned their DNA, uploading the sequence into the PTS. By the time the user had the ports implanted, the suit was theirs—like having the keys to a car, except in this case the keys only worked for the person whose DNA matched the sequence uploaded into the suit.
The implantation device was automated, made to be used by the person receiving the ports through a simple push of a button. His father had thought of everything. Of course, he would have had to if he didn’t want anyone else to know about the project.
Was it really that easy?
Alex thought back to his father’s video from the airstrip. He was sure his father wasn’t dead. Something of him would have been left behind on the airstrip if he had died there. The question wasn’t if he was alive, the question was where.
He looked at the suit and the implant machine. There was only one way to find out. If he didn’t do this, he would never forgive himself. Yes, his father had told him to destroy everything in the room, but that was when his dad thought he had everything under control. If he’d really wanted all of this destroyed, why hadn’t he done it himself before he left? Had he thought he might need it of the one he was wearing didn’t work?
Maybe not destroying it was exactly what he thought his headstrong son would do simply because that’s what he asked of him. Alex shook his head. That was ridiculous. Something this important, his dad wouldn’t play mind games.
His dad had really thought he’d be back. He’d said so in the first video. That’s why he hadn’t destroyed it before leaving. And he’d thought he’d be bringing Mom with him.
That last thought was all Alex needed to spur himself into action.
Following his father’s instructions, he powered up the big bathtub-looking machine and stepped into it, nestling his back into the human-shaped mold.
As soon as he was in place, and before he could talk himself out of it, he slapped the button in the side of the machine to start the injection process.
Curved metal cuffs rotated out from under his wrists and arms, tightening and holding him in place. He instinctively fought against them for a moment, paranoia almost getting the best of him, but forced himself to calm down. This was something his father had already done. It was safe. He was doing it for Dad.
From behind the machine, tiny mechanical arms came around the sides and scanned his arms from palm to shoulder. Once the scan was complete, the mechanical arms moved down to a point about halfway between his wrist and elbow. Without sound or warning, the end of each arm jabbed down, lodging a small, round port in him. It hurt—bad. He cried out and jerked reflexively from the pain, but there was nowhere to go.
The arms pulled away, folding back on themselves, and disappeared again behind the machine.
Alex was panting, mostly from adrenaline, but there was no blood and the pain was already receding. The entire process had taken less than a minute. The restraints quietly rotated back into the machine, releasing their hold on him. He pushed away, giving the machine a wounded scowl as he examined the gadgets that were now a part of his body. They were round with small triangular ridges jutting from the outer edge. In the center was a tiny, circular, metal hole.
He gently poked one with a finger, testing to see if it hurt. It didn’t. He pushed on it harder. He could feel the pressure, but still no pain. There was some tenderness, but nothing he couldn’t handle.
Now for the hard part. He studied the suit closely. It would be easy enough to put on. It was, more or less, just a piece of clothing.
The part that would be difficult would be plugging the suit into the ports. From his dad’s notes, Alex knew it literally plugged into him. He had no idea whether or not it would hurt, but the mere thought of it made him cringe.
He took the suit down from where it hung and laid it out on the table. His dad had been clever. It was adjustable—an almost one-size-fits-all piece of apparel. The arms and legs could slide into or out of themselves to elongate or shrink. The material was odd, like a hard mesh spandex. It stretched when he pulled on it, but not easily. The wires that crisscrossed the suit weren’t set in straight lines, they zigzagged, and they stretched with the fabric. Anyone seriously overweight probably wouldn’t be able to wear the suit, but for Alex it would fit easily.
He stripped out of his clothes and pulled the suit over his legs. Before putting his arms into the sleeves, he rolled them back so that he could get to the apparatus that plugged into his ports. He slid his arms through and studied the plugs. They weren’t large. They looked almost like small, flat spark plug wires. It was very clear how to attach them, there was only one way they could go.
Taking a breath, he took one of them in his left hand and inserted it into the port on his right arm. It clicked into place with a snick. Nothing happened. It didn’t hurt. He didn’t feel anything except the slight pressure he’d had to put on it when he attached it. He rolled down the sleeve on that arm. At the end was an attached fingerless glove, which he slid his hand into.
Still nothing happened.
Reaching over with his now-gloved right hand, he plugged the apparatus for his left arm into the port.
Immediately, he felt energy surge through him like he’d been injected with a thousand milligrams of caffeine. His body felt so electrified it made him rise up on the tips of toes, and he gave an involuntarily moan. He was a little freaked out at first, but after he got over the initial shock he realized it felt good. He could feel his whole body humming, like it was a machine, and in a way he supposed it was. Maybe it was just the suit that was humming. Whatever it was, it made him feel strong, like he had boundless energy.
He pulled the glove over his right hand and flexed his fingers. He could feel the tiny apparatus that was embedded into it. It ran up the sleeve of the suit. He couldn’t see it—it was inside the fabric—but it was undeniably there. It wrapped around his right wrist snugly; this part of the suit sensed the muscle movements that would activate it. In the wrist, there was a small, round, hard piece of plastic with a lens: the laser pointer.
He’d read the notes. He knew how it was supposed to work—all he had to do was stretch out his fingers, arch his hand back, and the laser would activate. Wherever he pointed it, once he clenched his hand into a fist, the suit would be activated and take him there.
So now what? The suit was on and ready. It was now bio-coded to him specifically, or it wouldn’t have turned on when he plugged it into himself.
There was nothing more to do except test it.
And he was scared to death. The next step was to use it, and then go back to the airstrip where his dad had vanished and try to reproduce the exact same scenario. It sounded simple enough, but what if his father hadn’t really gone somewhere else? What if he hadn’t sunk, or vanished, or whatever, and had actually been killed by the suit? His father had admitted that his had been the first human test of the technology. Had his dad really survived? Alex would be risking his life to use the suit. After all, dissolving your body and resolving it somewhere else wasn’t exactly a ‘safe’ new technology.
He had to do it, though.
His father said he’d found his mother, and Alex knew his dad wasn’t someone who did things on a whim. His mother had been gone for a very long time. This wasn’t something his father had rushed into. Silas said Dad had been working on this project since the day she disappeared.
Dad was a genius. If he thought he’d found Mom, then the chances were that he had. He’d gone wherever she’d gone in an attempt to rescue her, but he must not have been able to find his way back. Not after a month.
Now it was up to Alex to bring them home. Even if he couldn’t, at least they would all be together again, wherever that was.
He lifted his right hand, spread his fingers, and tilted back his wrist. As expected, the laser silently shone out, beaming in a straight line. The suit began to thrum like it was alive, vibrating over his entire body. Heart racing, Alex slowly moved the pointer to a spot on the floor near the door to the storage room. He was breathing heavily, adrenaline coursing through his veins so strong he was worried he’d start shaking and miss his landing. It was now or never.
He gritted his teeth and clenched his hand into a fist.
Power. It was the only word to describe what he felt. Not him—his body. It felt like it was being washed inside and out with power. Not like an electrical zap, but something closer to pure power, like being doused in a cool lake full of energy. He was completely blinded for a moment by light, reminiscent of when PJ had thrown the volleyball into the side of his head. Dull, white light completely obscured his vision, but only for a split second, and then it winked right back out.
He was standing near the door of the lab.
Nothing had changed, except where he was standing. He patted down his body, feeling himself all over to make sure everything was still where it was supposed to be.
He was still him. His body was still whole.
He’d done it!
He gave a high-pitched whoop!
Running over to his clothes, he gathered them up and went back to the door. He hit the switch and left the lab, grabbing his backpack on his way up the steps. He had his hand on the front doorknob and was just about to bolt out the door when he came to his senses.
What was he doing? What was he thinking? He was wearing a piece of technology that could change the world and he was just going to run out the front door wearing it? If the wrong people saw him with the suit he would lose it forever, and all his Dad’s hard work would be exploited.
And he might never be able to find his parents.
Alex pulled back the sleeves, detached the suit from the arm ports, and then took it the rest of the way off. He carefully folded it and placed it in the bottom of his backpack.
Alex had barely slept. He’d done it! He’d found the way to get to his dad! If it hadn’t been dark by the time he finally emerged from the basement he might have gone straight to the airstrip.
Thankfully, he had managed to get back to Silas’s house and slide up to his room without seeing anyone along the way. Alex assumed Silas had still been at work and Rosa, well, who knew with that strange woman? He really didn’t care. He was just glad he didn’t have to explain what he’d been doing all day.
And so it was the next morning that Alex stood frozen in the dining room doorway, cereal bowl in hand, all-to-aware of the backpack over his shoulder that contained the suit.
Silas sat at the head of the dining room table, idly leafing through the pages of the morning paper. It was the first time Alex had seen him anywhere in the house except when he was coming or going. Certainly, the two of them had never shared a meal together.
Silas wasn’t there to eat breakfast. The table in front of him was empty. Alex was sure it wasn’t coincidence that his guardian had chosen that morning to make an appearance.
Alex looked back toward the kitchen, briefly hoping he might be able to tip-toe away.
“You got in late last night,” Silas remarked, not looking up.
Alex closed his eyes and let out a soft breath through his nose. He stepped into the room and carefully placed his bowl on the table. He put his backpack on the floor next to his chair, keeping his eyes lowered as he sank down into the seat.
He quickly spooned a load of cereal into his mouth to avoid having to answer right away.
Silas shifted ever-so-slightly, his chair creaking. Alex couldn’t see him behind the newspaper, but he was sure Silas was looking in his direction, waiting for an answer.
“I stopped off to see a friend,” he lied. “Leeann Choi. Her father works at EMIT. She’s been worried about me.”
Silas folded the paper backward so he could look into Alex’s eyes. “And why would she be worried about you?”
Alex’s stomach clenched. He grimaced, realizing he’d just made a serious mistake and now needed to backpedal. Silas had asked him not to tell anyone anything about his dad’s disappearance. He looked back with wide eyes, wishing he could look away, but he didn’t dare.
“Because I haven’t been to school in so long,” he answered finally, his voice cracking. Why was Silas making him so nervous? No one, no one, had an effect on him like Silas.
“Ah,” Silas replied. It was hard to tell if he believed Alex’s story. “I sent someone to your father’s house last night when you didn’t come home or answer your phone.”
Alex stiffened in his chair. There was no trace of distrust in the way Silas had said it, but Alex knew there was a question implied in the statement. Had they searched the house?
“I’m sorry I didn’t call,” he said. “I know I said I would.”
“You left all the lights on and the door unlocked,” Silas noted. “You need to be more careful, people will rob the house blind.” He stared at Alex unblinkingly.
Alex shivered internally. The idea that Silas had sent people to look for him while he’d probably still been in the basement gave him goose-bumps. Why he felt that way, he couldn’t say for sure, but he felt an instinctual mistrust of Silas. It was irrational, because his father had trusted him completely. Granted, the guy was five shades of weird but that didn’t mean he was a bad guy.
“Are you sick?” Silas asked.
“What?” Alex asked, confused by the question.
“It’s the middle of the summer and you’re wearing long sleeves,” Silas looked pointedly at the shirt Alex was wearing.
“Oh,” Alex frowned. He’d worn the shirt to hide the ports in his arms. He hadn’t thought Silas or anyone else would notice. “I… no. I guess I just grabbed the first thing out of the dresser drawer.”
“I see,” Silas replied noncommittally. “It’s time for us to go,” he said, abruptly changing the subject. “We’re going to be late.”
“On a Saturday?” Stupid question. Silas never took a day off. “I can’t go to the lab today,” Alex said quickly, probably too quickly, and tried to recover by adding, “I promised Leeann I would meet her this morning for coffee. She’s…” Alex scrambled for an excuse, “she’s been helping me a lot, helping me get all the homework done that I’ve missed.”
He almost winced at how disingenuous his words sounded.
Silas sat motionless, sizing him up. His inscrutable black eyes made it impossible for Alex to tell if it was compassion, mistrust, or simple calculation going on in his head.
Finally, Silas asked, “Will you be needing a ride?”
Alex nearly fainted with relief. “No,” he said, trying hard not to breathe heavily, despite his pounding heart. “She doesn’t live far.”
“Very well.” Silas regarded him for a few moments longer before standing and leaving the room without saying goodbye.
Alex waited until he heard the front door close, and then wolfed down the remainder of his breakfast. In the kitchen, he cleaned his breakfast bowl and peered through the window at the driveway and road beyond. The car that brought Silas to work was nowhere in sight.
Still, he felt as if he were being watched. Rosa? Where was the silent housekeeper?
Maybe he was just being paranoid.
He moved through the house quietly, climbing the steps to his room carefully, listening for any sounds.
When Alex reached his room, he closed the door, locked it, and sat on the bed. He waited, listening for the sound of creaking floorboards or footfalls, but the house remained quiet.
Finally, he pulled the suit out his backpack. He could carry it in his backpack, but he knew he’d feel safer if it he was wearing it. Underneath his clothes, no one would ever know it was there. He hurriedly put it on. Once again, when he plugged in the second port he felt a delicious flow of energy through his body, vibrating through him.
He grinned, the uncomfortable conversation he’d had with Silas already forgotten.
Putting a second layer of clothes on over the suit, he pulled his jean jacket on and slung his backpack over his shoulder.
He was ready.
He left the house and began jogging straight for the company’s airstrip test facility.
The morning sun already promised it would be another hot day.
The airstrip was a long way from Silas’s house. Alex wasn’t looking forward to the walk and would have loved to just zap his way there using the suit, but he knew he couldn’t risk it in broad daylight. If he was seen, all it would take is for one person to be quick enough with a cell phone and it’d be the end of his hunt for Dad. A video like that was practically guaranteed to go viral. The government would be knocking on his door within hours.
Alex cut across parking lots and through yards whenever he could, but it still took over two hours. By the time he arrived at the airstrip he was covered in sweat from head to toe. He grumbled under his breath, wishing he’d been smart enough to bring along a bottle of water.
The airstrip was in the middle of nowhere on a dry, worthless patch of land, surrounded by miles of sand, rock, and scrub grass. At first glance it looked deserted, but Alex wasn’t taking any chances. He approached cautiously, his eyes scanning the horizon. There was no reason for anyone to be there. EMIT only used the property for tests that required open space for the sake of safety, and those tests were few and far between. Still, with what he was about to do, he couldn’t be too careful.
A broken-down field office was the only building still standing on the property. It was a shambled wreck, its corrugated steel walls rusted and falling in on themselves. Despite the fact that anyone who went into the building was asking for the whole place to come down on their head, Alex checked it anyway. He yanked on the chain and padlock a few times to make sure there was no way someone might have slid through without taking the chain off.
Everything seemed as it should be. There were no cars in sight, and no sign that any had been there recently.
He was alone.
Alex stepped out onto the wide, open airstrip. If there was anyone watching he would stand out like a beacon to them, and if there was someone out there, he wanted to be seen now. He’d rather be confronted before using the suit than to try and come up with a lie afterward to explain what they saw.
He waited, staring at the faraway spot where his father had sunk into the pavement.
A mild breeze blew down from the mountains, ruffling his hair. Alex turned in a slow circle, waiting, listening, and scanning the countryside.
He was stalling and he knew it. If there was anyone around who had any interest in what he was doing they would have approached by now.
Slowly, right there on the airstrip, he removed his jean jacket, shirt, and pants. He tucked them neatly into his backpack and carried it back to the field office, leaving the pack on the ground against one of the rusted walls.
Alex felt as vulnerable as he’d ever felt in his entire life, standing out in the open and wearing a suit that looked like something out of a superhero comic. He was halfway back to the airstrip before he faltered and went back to the field office to pull his jean jacket back out of his backpack.
As he shrugged his arms into the sleeves, Alex scanned the airstrip again, picturing in his mind’s eye where his father had been when he shot the video. In the recording, the field office had been visible off to the left, so he walked down the strip, away from the building, and then turned back to look.
He was still too close. It had definitely been farther away.
When he turned back again, he felt confident he was close to the right spot.
He was also confident that he was just about ready to keel over from heat stroke. It was so hot. He knew he was a fool to be wearing his jean jacket, but he needed it. It was armor against his fear, and a reminder of why he had to do this.
In the distance, there was a shimmer on the pavement exactly like the one his dad had aimed for. Whether it was in the same spot, he didn’t know, but it looked as close as he was going to get.
Alex hesitated, wiping his sweating palms on his pant legs. He swallowed nervously and took a deep breath.
It wasn’t until he raised his arm that he realized his whole body was shaking. This was it. This might be the last thing he ever did. Going into the shimmer could kill him. It may have killed his dad.
But if he didn’t go, he would never know. If he never tried, he knew he would live in shame and regret the rest of his life. The thought, just the merest beginning of thinking of a life without his father made his stomach queasy. If was going to find his dad, now was the time. Silas might not let him get another chance.
Alex squared his jaw and forced himself into action, lifting his arm. He splayed his fingers and the laser beamed out. The suit came to life, thrumming energy through the suit and over his body.
Compulsively, Alex began taking deep, gulping breaths. This was it.
Alex aimed, concentrating to hold his shaking arm still and, before he could give himself any more reason not to, sharply clenched his hand into a fist.
As before, he was surrounded by light and a wash of power. For a split second he was standing at the other end of the airstrip, facing away from the field office. In that brief moment Alex was sure he saw someone in the distance, someone who hadn’t been there before.
His instinct was to cry out, “No!” But he didn’t have time. As soon as he felt solid ground under his feet, something wrapped itself around his body, some force that grabbed hold of every inch of him. He felt as if he were being pulled down by the heaviest water he’d ever felt, ripping him downward at such a rapid rate that he panicked, flailing his arms in attempt to slow his descent, but he couldn’t move. His arms, his legs—every inch of his body was immobilized. He was helpless. All around him was the same dull gray light that surrounded him when he had used the suit before, except now it wasn’t coming from the suit. It was coming from everywhere else, and there was nothing he could do.
And then abruptly, everything stopped.
With a bone-jarring thump he landed feet-first onto something hard. He fell backward onto his butt, putting his hands out to break his fall, and scraped them on coarse rock as he did.
He sat there stunned, panting, his heavy breaths echoing back at him.
It was dim, but he could see. A pulsing red light glowed from somewhere off to his right, fully illuminating the room he was in. It was a large space, the walls made of stone. In fact, as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he was sure he was in an underground cavern. There was a stillness to the air, the heavy kind of quiet that only exists underground.
Alex turned toward the red glow, but couldn’t see where it originated. In that direction, the cavern floor seemed to slope downward and out of sight.
Above him, way above him, there was a shimmer from the red glow that danced on the cavern ceiling, much the same as the shimmer on the pavement of the airstrip.
Was that how he’d gotten here? Through the shimmer? At first he dismissed the thought as ludicrous, but if not through the shimmer then how? He was sure he’d arrived at that distant point on the airstrip, if only for a second. The moment was ingrained into his memory and he was sure it was authentic. But he’d been pulled downward as soon as he arrived there, and he didn’t think it was the suit that had done the pulling.
Alex squinted upward, peering into the rippling red light. As ridiculous and impossible as it was, he searched it, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Utah sky on the other side.
He let out a disappointed grunt. What was he thinking? But then, he was somewhere, right? And if he was somewhere, he had to gotten here somehow.
Was this where his dad had gone? It had to be.
Cautiously, he climbed to his feet, listening carefully. A low hum came from the direction of the red glow. It permeated cavern, strong enough to gently vibrate the rock around him but dull enough to go unnoticed if he hadn’t been standing still. Oddly, there was something comforting about the glow. It seemed safe in that direction, maybe because it was the only light source that was apparent. Alex squinted toward it. No, it wasn’t just because of the glow, there was something else. Something Alex knew intuitively about whatever it was giving off the light. Something very special.
The air was cold, exactly the way he would expect it to be underground. Just moments before, he had been soaked with sweat by the noon-day sun. His dad’s suit clung to his skin, breaking him out in the chills. His teeth began to chatter. Once again, he looked longingly toward the red glow, feeling sure that whatever was there would make him feel warmer, better.
Straight ahead of him, there was an exit out of the cavern: a rough, black hole in the wall that led into darkness.
And then, behind him, Alex heard voices.
He whipped around, spinning so quickly he almost fell. He saw another exit, and from the darkness emerged a group of six people. They were human, an even mix of men and women. Every one of them was pale and skinny with dark circles underscoring tired eyes. Some carried crude clubs, others carried daggers, all of which appeared to be made of stone. Their bodies were covered in animal skins, scraps sewn together like cavemen.
For a moment they stared in shock, just as surprised to see Alex as he was them, and then began to advance aggressively, crouched low with their weapons held ready. Alarmed and afraid, Alex stumbled backward and this time he did fall, crying out as he landed hard on his tailbone.
The group immediately halted, drawing back at the sound of his voice.
They exchanged several brief glances between one another before one of the men stepped forward. With a flick of his wrist, he reversed the grip on his stone blade so that it pointed downward, away from Alex, and tapped his chest once as if indicating himself.
“I, Jonathan Dalton, offer greeting in the name of the people of Domus and request the courtesy of knowing yours.” Although Jonathan Dalton’s voice shook, he had a clear, articulate, European accent and his eyes never wavered from Alex’s.
Alex was stunned. He looked from one expectant face to the next, struggling to process the moment. They were Brits? Articulate cavemen from ‘across the pond?’ Was this a joke? “What?” he finally cried out in confusion and fear. “What in the hell are you talking about? Where am I?”
Jonathan Dalton appeared taken aback by Alex’s answer, possibly even offended. He blinked twice, appearing to struggle to find an appropriate reply. The group shifted uneasily around him.
“Sir, by what means of conveyance have you arrived in this place?” another demanded, this one female.
“My… what?” Means of conveyance? Where on earth was he? Was he even on Earth anymore?
“For what purpose have you come to the Under?” asked another, pointing at the ceiling as he spoke, a note of aggression in this one’s voice.
Alex didn’t know what to say. Did they know he’d arrived by way of teleportation? Did they even know the word teleportation?
“Sir, we have no—” Johnathan began again, but was interrupted by the echo of pounding footsteps.
Without a sound, a figure came hurtling out of the darkness, throwing itself at Jonathan and his group. The newcomer was also human, a man, but much paler than the others and dressed in filthy scraps of animal fur. He was tall, rabid-looking, and ran with a loping, feral gait straight for the closest person in the group, attacking them without a word of warning. The speed of the newcomer was uncanny, his movements a blur.
Jonathan’s group scattered and formed a semicircle, but that didn’t slow their aggressor whatsoever. Seemingly at random, he flew at one of the men in the group and barreled into him like a linebacker, sending him sprawling across the floor. The rest of group closed ranks and moved to surround him, but before they’d fully closed ranks another attacker came hurtling from the direction of the red glow and attacked them from behind.
The group wordlessly split in half, turning and pivoting to face the new challenge.
Alex scuttled backward, wild-eyed, clamping his mouth shut so as not to draw attention from either side. It was clear that the second comer was no surprise to Jonathan’s people, as if attacks like this were commonplace.
What kind of place was this?
Jonathan’s people, now in two groups, worked in unison. They pressed their advantage and forced the pale, vicious things back against the cavern wall. The attackers never spoke a word, they just snarled and spit their hatred in wordless garbles. With grim efficiency, Jonathan’s people waited for the right moment and then struck with their sharpened stone blades, neatly severing the heads from the pale attackers.
They fell without making a sound, just a dull thud as black blood spurted from their necks and their bodies tumbled in a heap to the cavern floor.
By now, Alex had backed to the far wall of the cavern and managed to stand, albeit on shaky legs. He could go no further. His only option was to run for one of the exits, but he didn’t dare. Those exits could lead anywhere, to anything and anyone. Eyes wide and terrified, he waited as Jonathan’s people closed ranks, becoming one again. They turned to face him, black blood dripping from their stone blades.
Alex had never been so frightened in his entire life.
He gave a start and looked up at the glimmer on the ceiling.
No freaking way, he thought to himself. Even if this red shimmer doesn’t take me home, anywhere is better than this!
Splaying open the fingers of his right hand and lifting his wrist, he activated the suit. The red laser shot out and hit the wall behind the oncoming group. It shocked them into stillness, long enough for Alex to raise his arm and point the beam up into the shimmer. He closed his hand into a fist and was immediately enveloped in the dull gray light of the suit.
In a blink, he was gone from the chamber, rising through the light. Like the time before, the journey was quick. He stopped with a jerk, instinctively squinting his eyes against the light surrounding him and lifted his hand to shield against it.
That can’t be right. If he was still surrounded by the light he shouldn’t be able to lift his hand…
A screeching sound came from directly in front of him. Alex opened his eyes just wide enough to realize it wasn’t the light from teleporting that was blinding him, it was sunlight. After the darkness of the cavern, the light of day felt as bright as if he were staring directly at the sun.
And then he realized the screeching sound was from the tires of a car as it jerked to the left to avoid hitting him.
Alex launched himself off the side of the road, rolling as he landed on the gravel shoulder, the driver yelling obscenities as he jammed on the gas and sped past.
“Hello?” Leeann answered the phone.
“Leeann!” Alex couldn’t keep the frantic, high-strung sound from his voice, and he didn’t care.
“Alex? What’s wrong?”
For a few moments, it was all he could do to gulp in heavy, shaking lungfuls of air.
“Oh my God,” Leeann gasped, “is it your Dad? Is he…?”
Alex made a noise that could have been a chuckle or a sob. He couldn’t tell.
“No,” he answered. He was on the verge of falling apart. What had just happened? Where had he gone? No matter how many times he replayed it in his head, it just didn’t make sense. He’d gone somewhere, that’s all he knew for sure. Somewhere very far from Beaver, Utah. “I honestly don’t know,” he said. “But I think I might be a step closer to finding out.” He took a loud breath. “I think I know where he went.”
“But,” Leeann replied, confused, “Shouldn’t that be good news? You don’t sound happy at all. I would have thought you’d be ecstatic having any news at all about your dad.”
“It’s… ummm…” Alex didn’t say anything for a moment. He was still just trying to breathe. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “Listen, I’m right down the road. At the gas station. It didn’t look like your parents were home. Are they?”
Alex wasn’t taking any chances. He couldn’t let anyone find out he had one of the suits, especially not someone like Leeann’s father who worked at EMIT.
“What?” Alex was changing subjects so quickly, Leeann was struggling to keep up. “No, they’re at a matinee. Alex, why didn’t you just come over? Why would you think you’d have to call first? What’s going on?”
Alex didn’t answer. He closed his eyes, hating that he couldn’t just tell her what had happened. He covered the phone for a second, composing himself.
“I’m coming over,” he announced abruptly, and hit the ‘END’ button on his phone.
Alex leaned against the gas station wall, his knees weak with relief. Leeann was home. She would help him. Thank God. He’d been in a panic ever since he’d returned to the surface. The suit had brought him back, but not in the same spot he’d left from. He’d found himself on a main road about a mile from the airstrip, nearly killed by oncoming traffic.
He’d run back to the field house for his backpack and found that although it was still there, it had been moved from the front wall to the side of the building. He was absolutely certain he hadn’t left it there. A chill had run down his spine as he’d checked to see if anything was missing, but it was all still there. Knowing that someone had touched his stuff while he was gone was eerie enough, but for them to leave it all there—his wallet, his cell phone—was even worse. It made him feel even more watched than before, like the only reason someone had been there was to check on him, or make sure the person they saw disappear on the strip was really him.
Silas? And if it was, why hadn’t he still been there when Alex came back?
He remembered seeing a person the split second before he’d been yanked down into the shimmer—it had to have been them who’d gone through his pack. Closing his eyes, Alex tried to conjure up the memory of that person, and tried to come up with any detail he could that would identify who it had been, but couldn’t. His recollection was only of a silhouette, the black shape of someone standing far off in the distance.
Even more importantly, who had those people in the cavern been? And where had they been?
One of them had called it ‘The Under’—under what?
Their speech had been articulate, even polite. And their accents—they’d sounded foreign, but Alex really had no idea. The farthest he’d ever been from home was Hawaii.
The most frightening thing had been that somehow they’d known that he had arrived through the shimmer. One of them had pointed directly at it when they asked Alex what he was doing there. But how? How could they have known? The way they’d been dressed and the weapons they’d been carrying, they looked like simple people, almost prehistoric. How could they have any concept of a technology like teleportation?
And what about Alex, himself? He had no clue how he’d done it either. He’d seen those heat shimmers his whole life, usually through the windshield on long stretches of highway in the hot sun. He’d never thought anything of them, but obviously they were much more than just some optical illusion. There were a catalyst or portal between the surface and… where? Obviously, somewhere down deep.
Alex was scared, confused, and didn’t know what to do next. Leeann was the only person he trusted. He couldn’t take the suit back to Silas’s house. If Silas saw it, he would recognize it for what it was and demand that he bring it to EMIT.
And then Alex would be back to square one in the search for his father.
When Alex got to Leeann’s, he avoided the front door and snuck around to the back, knocking quietly on the sliding glass door.
Leeann’s first glimpse of Alex made her jaw drop. He was wild-eyed, his clothing torn and dirty from his dive into the ditch. “What happened to you?” she demanded as she slid the door open. She stuck her head out and peered into the back yard. “You couldn’t use the front door?”
Alex hurriedly stepped inside and slid the door closed. He wrapped Leeann in a tight hug. “Thank you,” he said, his cheek pressed against the top of her head. He blew out a relieved breath, surprised at the feeling of solace he immediately felt. For the first time since watching the video his father had left, he felt a small measure of safety.
“You’re scaring me,” Leeann told him in a muffled voice, hugging him back.
Alex finally let go and immediately started pulling off the outer layer of clothes. “I need you to hang on to something for me,” he said brusquely.
“Alex!” Leeann blushed crimson and spun around so her back was to him.
Alex choked out a confused protest and realized how what he’d said must have sounded like in the midst of taking his clothes off.
“That’s not—” he started to object, but decided maybe she should turn around. He wasn’t wearing anything under the suit. “Just give me a second. Don’t turn around.”
Once he got his shirt and pants off, he began the arduous task of disconnecting the arm ports, peeling the suit off as he went.
He had it down to his waist when Leeann whipped back around in shock. “Alex, what have you done to yourself?” She grabbed him by the wrists and lifted his arms to get a better look at the ports. When she looked back up her eyes were ablaze, demanding an explanation.
“I…” Alex tried to come up with a way to avoid explaining it, but beyond lying or telling her to mind her own business—neither of which he wanted to do—he knew he had to come clean, especially if he was going to ask her to hide the suit. “This,” he plucked at the mesh fabric, “is one of my Dad’s inventions. These,” he pointed at the ports in his arms, “plug into the suit. Or I guess actually the suit plugs into them.” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. What matters is I’m pretty sure this suit is the reason he’s missing.”
Leeann’s mouth had grown wider and wider as he spoke until her look was one of pure incredulity. “You plug it into yourself? Are you out of your mind?”
She had a point. He really hadn’t thought much about whether having the ports in his arms was safe. Maybe he was a little crazy.
“Look, that’s not what’s important,” he began, but she cut him off.
“Not what’s important?” she demanded. “Not what’s important? Alex—”
“I need you to hold on to the suit for me,” he said, stopping her tirade midstream. “I don’t trust Silas and,” he gave her a calculating look, “how did you see my arms, anyway? You were supposed to have your back turned!”
That shut her up. She glanced at the sliding door where Alex’s reflection was clearly visible and made a face.
“It’s not like we’re related,” she groused. “We’re friends. I’d be stupid not to look.” She crossed her arms and turned back around, but not before Alex saw the flush creep back into her cheeks.
Smirking, Alex turned around too and hurriedly stripped off the bottom half of the suit, tugging his jeans and shirt back on. When he turned back around, Leeann was already facing him with his jean jacket held up so he could shrug his arms into it.
Alex picked up the suit from the floor and stuffed it into his backpack, handing the whole bundle to Leeann.
“You can’t tell anyone about this,” he warned her. “Not your parents, not your friends at school—no one.”
“Okay,” she replied, smiling a little.
“Leeann, this is serious…” he warned.
Her lips curved upward further. “Really,” she assured him, “I get it.” She turned him by the shoulders to face the door. “Now get out of here before my parents get home and start asking questions.”
“Okay…” he replied hesitantly. Why the sudden change in demeanor? He pulled the door open.
“Oh, and Alex?”
“Yeah?” He craned his head around just in time to receive a big, wet kiss on the cheek and slap on the butt.
“Thanks for the peep show.”
Alex took an awkward step outside as Leeann slid the door closed behind him.
Could his life become any stranger?
The walk back to Silas’s house didn’t take long. He entered the house, his mind still working so hard that he didn’t see Silas until he heard his name called.
“Alex. Please join me.”
Silas was again seated in the dining room, his palms flat on the table in front of him, his back to Alex.
“I was…” Alex gulped, inexplicably scared out of his wits. He instinctively knew he was in trouble. Panic gripped his gut as if he’d just been caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. “I was gonna grab a sandwich.”
“Rosa will get it for you,” Silas replied, not turning around.
Alex jumped, startled, when Rosa stepped forward. She’d been standing motionlessly against the wall on the far side of the room. She swept past him on silent feet, heading toward the kitchen.
Alex moved carefully into the room and sat down.
Silas knew. Somehow, he knew. Alex’s mind raced, searching for an explanation. But how? He must have been the one at the airstrip. “I…” Alex faltered, almost feeling obligated to come clean. This was Silas. His parents had kept him around forever. Why couldn’t Alex trust him too?
But something told him not to.
“Are you home for lunch?” he asked Silas.
“I am home for you,” Silas replied evenly. His eyes bored into Alex’s. “I needed your help today at the lab, so when I called Mr. Choi and asked him to send you there, you can imagine my surprise when he said his daughter was home but he hadn’t seen you all day.” Alex forced himself not to look away, though the panic had to be plain in his eyes. “So I suppose in a way I am home for lunch.” Silas’s eyes were black pools of accusation. “But my meal will be the truth. I would like to have the truth for lunch.”
Something brushed Alex’s arm and he yelped, only to realize that Rosa had soundlessly re-entered the room and placed a sandwich on the table next to him. He murmured a polite thank you, but she had already turned away.
Silas continued to wait with quiet intensity, palms still flat on the table. Alex looked down at the pale, bony fingers and the dirty, claw-like nails.
He startled himself when he spoke his thoughts aloud. “Why you?” he asked.
Silas squinted, confused by the question, and that confusion emboldened Alex.
“Why did my father choose you to watch over me? You barely know me, and it’s obvious you don’t like me.”
Silas’s expression remained impassive. “I have known your father for a long time and we share a very unique trust.”
Alex waited for more. He wanted to hear more. If Silas could just give him a reason to trust him, he might change his mind. But Silas didn’t elaborate any further. How could his father have trusted such a reticent man who guarded his secrets so zealously? It made no sense, and regardless of how his father had felt about Silas, Alex wasn’t ready to place the same faith in him.
“I did go to Mr. Choi’s house,” he replied finally, “but I went back to the airstrip first.”
Two could play at the quiet game. He’d told Silas the truth, but only the bare minimum.
“Why?” Silas asked.
“I wanted to see if there was anything we missed.”
Still the truth. Sort of.
“And I’m still just as confused as when I left this morning.” Alex stood, and Silas finally moved his head, turning to look up at him. “I’m going to my room to try and get a little rest,” Alex said, not bothering to keep the irritation from his voice. “I’m tired.”
Silas glanced at Alex’s untouched sandwich. “We still have work to do at the lab today. I’ll see you in two hours.”
Alex spent the rest of the day half-heartedly rummaging through files and reading reports that no longer mattered. There was no reason for him to be at EMIT, not any more. He knew where his father had gone. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew it existed and he knew how to get there.
And although he was terrified, he knew he had to go back. There was no way he could just leave his father in a place like that.
Had Dad known about the Under before he used the suit? Had he been trying to reach it all these years, believing it was where Mom went?
Alex’s heart skipped a beat. What if it really was where she’d gone? Could she have survived in a place like that? Who were those people, those pale, crazed, growling people that had attacked the first group?
The Under was obviously a dangerous place. To go back was practically suicide. Maybe there was some record of it, some obscure reference in his father’s notes that might help when he returned. Now that he knew what he was looking for, maybe he would find something he’d previously overlooked. If he was going to find something, it would be in his dad’s lab under the house. That was where he needed to be. Being at EMIT was a waste of his time. His dad would never have bothered to go to such elaborate measures and create a secret lab if he had any intention of keeping even a scrap of his research at EMIT. Every minute that ticked by added to Alex’s frustration, knowing he was only playing out a charade for Silas’s benefit.
He kept trying to come up with a reason to duck out of the building, an excuse to leave, but he knew there was nothing he could say that Silas would believe. Silas already suspected him of something, he was sure of it.
Silas kept stopping by the office to check in on him, over and over through the remainder of the day. It was always under the pretense of making sure Alex was okay, tonelessly asking if he needed anything or if he’d found anything, but to Alex there was something sinister in the way Silas did it. Something else was lurking behind that pale freak’s “good” intentions, and Alex knew it. But if he could get his dad back it wouldn’t matter. Things would go back to normal and Silas could stay as creepy as he wanted. It wouldn’t be Alex’s concern anymore.
But first he had to figure out how he was going to go back to the Under without being snatched by Jonathan’s people, who seemed to have been laying in wait right outside the room with the red glow. And then, of course, if he managed to evade them he still had to figure out how to avoid being ambushed by one of those pale, silent demon-men.
By the end of the day, Silas had been in and out of his father’s office so many times Alex’s nerves were frazzled. Not only did the implications of Silas’s behavior make Alex worry—did Silas have something to do with his father’s disappearance?—but he was also very aware of the fact that he’d mentioned Leeann’s name to Silas, and she had the suit.
He couldn’t stand the idea that he may have put her in danger. If Silas had been the one he’d seen just before sinking into the shimmer, then Silas knew Alex had found the suit and would be looking for it.
The office grew progressively quieter as the afternoon drug on and the staff left to go home. Silas popped in twice after five o’clock, but he didn’t suggest they go home until almost seven. By then Alex was so tense he was ready to explode.
Alex ate dinner with Silas looking on. Silas didn’t eat, nor did he speak. He spent the time in an expectant hush, as if he were waiting for Alex to say something. When that didn’t happen and Alex finished his meal, they both rose.
Instead of heading straight to his room, Alex told Silas, “I’d like to go back and see Leeann again. I promised her I would.”
Silas’s lips made a thin line of disapproval. “I would prefer that you stay here. You need your rest. I feel as if you’ve made excellent progress today.”
Alex grew angry. He’d made no progress, and Silas knew it. “What about you, Silas? You haven’t even eaten. Aren’t you hungry? Don’t you need your rest too?”
“There is too much to do,” Silas told him. “My needs are secondary. My responsibility, first and foremost, is to watch over you and the company until your father returns.” His face was like a marble mask. “My fate is sealed,” he said. “Yours is yet to be determined. I would like you to remain here this evening.”
What was that supposed to mean? Alex had no idea what to say to it. He just growled and turned in frustrated anger. He stomped up to his room, slamming the door behind him. It was childish and stupid, but he didn’t care. It made him feel better. This whole arrangement with Silas was not going to last, no matter what happened with Dad. Alex would make sure of that.
It only took a few minutes of pacing before Alex decided there was no way he was just going to wait for something to happen. He was too keyed up and Silas was acting too strange. His father had already been gone a month. He couldn’t keep waiting and just hope that one day Dad would miraculously appear.
Dad must have transported himself into the same cavern Alex had gone to. If those people had taken him captive, Alex had to get him back. He could tell someone else and try to enlist their help—but who? His father had said to keep it a secret. As much as Alex wanted help, there was no way he was going to ask Silas, and he didn’t know anyone else at EMIT well enough to know if they could be trusted.
It had to be him.
Two hours later, Alex carefully opened his bedroom window and lowered down a makeshift rope made from every blanket and sheet that had been in his room. He’d carefully tied them together and knotted them around his bed frame. It didn’t reach the ground, but there was only about a six-foot drop at the end. If he hung from it, it would be an easy jump.
He shimmied out the window and carefully pushed it closed in the hope that Silas wouldn’t hear noise and come in to investigate.
He reached the ground without incident, landing softly in the grass below. He ran in a crouch across the lawn, only turning when he reached the sidewalk near the street.
His heart skipped a beat when he looked back up at his window. Silhouetted in the glass was a person—Silas or Rosa, he couldn’t tell for sure. The form was black against the lighted background of his room.
He ran as fast he could.
Along the way he dialed Leeann, breathlessly explaining that he needed to come back over. He knew he was taking a risk using his cell phone—there were people at EMIT that could easily track and record his usage—but he needed the suit, and he needed to be quick.
“It’s late, Alex!” she objected. “I’m in bed!”
“I know and I’m sorry! But it’s an emergency and you have to keep it a secret! Please don’t tell your parents I’m coming! I’ll be in and out before they know I’m there.” He hit the ‘END’ button on his phone before she could object.
When he got to Leeann’s back door, she was already there waiting. She let him in, shushing him the entire way up to her room. She grabbed a hot pink shopping bag from the top shelf of her closet and handed it down to him, earning a wry look from Alex.
“Hey. You asked me to hold on to it,” she defended her choice of hiding places.
She had a point.
Once again, he stripped out of his clothes, making her turn around as he did.
He’d gotten all the way down to his boxers when the doorbell chimed. At such a late hour, in the completely silent house, it was like an air horn going off. Leeann whipped around, eyes wide, then saw that he was only in his skivvies and whipped back around again.
“Did someone come here for you?” she whispered with her head turned the other way.
“I don’t know,” he responded tersely. He sat on the floor and hurriedly tugged the suit over his legs. It was so tight, like Spandex, it was slow going.
Downstairs, the front door opened and Alex listened to the raised voices of Leeann’s parents.
“Leeann?” her mother’s voice carried up to her room. They heard the sound of feet on the steps.
“Hurry!” Leeann hissed.
Alex got to his feet and pulled the suit up over his waist. As he prepared to push an arm through the first sleeve, Leann’s door opened. Her mother poked her head in, eyes widening when she saw a half-naked Alex staring back at her.
“What the hell is going on here?” she cried out. “The police are downstairs! What are you doing in my daughter’s bedroom, Alex—and why don’t you have any clothes on?”
“I… it’s not what you think Mrs. Choi!” Instead of trying to come up with an excuse, Alex instead shoved his arms into the sleeves of the suit and hurriedly plugged the ports into his arms.
Leeann and her mother had begun to argue, but as soon as the second port was plugged in and the suit powered up, they went silent. Leeann backed toward her door, closer to her Mom.
“Please,” Alex urged Leeann’s mother. “Please, Mrs. Choi—stall them. It might be the police, I don’t know for sure, but I really don’t think it is.”
“I will do no such thing!” Leeann’s mother replied indignantly.
“Jang-mi!” Mr. Choi’s voice came from the main level. “Jang-mi? What’s going on up there? Hey!”
The sound of multiple, heavy footsteps pounded up the stairs toward them.
Alex gave Leeann a helpless look, one that was more apology than anything else, and ran to her window, thrusting it open. Warm air blew into the room.
“What are you—you can’t jump!” Leeann shouted, taking a step toward him with one hand out.
Alex activated the laser on the suit and pointed it out into yard. He gave Leeann a thin-lipped smile and closed his fist.
From down in the yard where he appeared, he heard Leeann’s high-pitched shriek come from the second-story bedroom window. He looked back and saw a group of men push into the room. One of them rushed to the open window, immediately spotting Alex. He raised a walkie-talkie to his mouth and pointed.
Lifting his right arm again, Alex pointed the laser down the street as far as he could see and closed his fist. And then he did it again. And again.
And then he ran as fast as his legs would carry him, straight to his father’s house and the safety of the lab in the basement. He needed answers, and it was the only place he could ever hope to find them.
When he reached the house he tore down into the storage room, hit the switch, and flung himself inside.
He stood there, back against the wall, exhausted. He hadn’t realized how tired he was, but now that he was safe all he wanted to do was rest. He slid down the wall and sat on the floor.
He was unconscious before he knew it.
Alex woke to the sound of thumps from above.
Someone was in the house. No, strike that. More than just one someone—many someones.
Alex couldn’t stay where he was. Maybe they hadn’t had a chance to search the whole house yet, but they would, and when they did they’d find the lab. It wasn’t hidden well enough for them not to. How stupid that he’d allowed himself to fall asleep!
He needed to lead them away. Maybe if they saw him run, they’d forget about the house and go after him.
He should have known this was the first place they would look. He should have destroyed everything, just as his father had asked. Now he was trapped.
Slowly, quietly, Alex crept out of the lab and tiptoed through the storage room, peeking out into the main room of the basement. As far as he could tell, no one else was downstairs. He was shocked to see sunlight streaming in through the sliding door. Had he really slept that long?
Carefully, he padded to the sliding door and unlocked it. He pulled it open slowly, only far enough for him to fit through sideways, and let himself out.
Creeping across the back lawn, keeping close to the side of the house, he turned the corner to the front yard and came face-to-face with Silas.
“Are you freaking kidding me?” Alex shouted in frustration.
The man calmly stared at him, as if he’d known Alex would come around the corner at that precise moment.
Alex bolted, dashing for the street.
Behind him, he could hear Silas issuing terse commands. Tires squealed as cars pulled out of the driveway to give chase.
There was no way he could outrun them. He had to use the suit.
Raising his arm as he ran, he activated the laser. Alex looked ahead and, as if fate had intervened, he saw a shimmer on the road in the distance.
He pointed into the center of it and closed his fist.
Alex landed heavily, scraping across rough stone as he skidded to a stop and scrambled to his hands and knees. He was back in the cavern.
A subtle scrape of movement came from behind. Alex caught his breath and whipped his head toward the sound, but he wasn’t fast enough.
Without warning, rough hands grabbed hold and hauled him to his feet. He struggled at first, flailing his arms and legs against the unseen assailant, but he was no match for the hold on him.
“If you struggle again,” a soft voice spoke near his ear, the tone oddly apologetic and polite, “We shall be forced to render you unconscious.”
They spoke with the same European accent, the same strange courteous manner as last time. It was Jonathan’s people, it had to be.
Alex wanted to lash out and fight but even if he broke free, then what? Where would he go? He forced himself to calm down. He didn’t how they would go about “rendering him unconscious,” but he was sure he didn’t want to find out.
Satisfied that Alex wasn’t going to put up a fight, his captors pulled his arms behind his back and bound his wrists with something wet and pliant. He tested the restraints. There was a small amount of give, but not enough for him to move his right wrist and use the suit.
A hood was pulled over his head, but not roughly. In fact, his captors were surprisingly gentle in the way they handled him. He prayed it boded well for their intentions.
Both the hood and the bindings had a strange, unfamiliar feel to them. The wrist bindings weren’t cloth or rope. They felt wet, but not dripping. They flexed a little when he pulled on them, like dozens of rubber bands were wrapped around his wrists.
A hand was placed on his right shoulder and, carefully, someone turned him around.
“If you would be kind enough to walk forward,” Alex was instructed. “You may do so without fear for your safety. We will guide your steps and keep you unhampered by obstacles.”
Certainly not the kind of courtesy he would have expected. It gave him courage to stand his ground.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Alex blustered, fighting to keep his voice from shaking. “Not until you tell me where I am.”
There was a prolonged silence during which Alex heard and saw nothing. He felt his captors shift behind him, but since he couldn’t see them he wasn’t really sure they’d moved at all. He turned his head slightly, trying to listen.
Finally he was nudged in the back with something hard.
“You will walk forward,” a new voice told him, this one deeper and much less friendly than the first. “You will do so now.”
“I told you—” Alex tried to object, but he was nudged in the back again, this time hard enough for him to lose his balance and pitch forward. The hand on his shoulder tightened its grip, barely keeping him on his feet.
“You will walk forward!” the second voice repeated, louder. “Now!”
Alex did as he was told. He could continue to stand his ground, but he had seen the way these people dealt with their enemies. He took a first, hesitant step, no choice but to trust that they would keep him from running into a wall or tripping on the uneven stone floor.
After shuffling forward only a few paces, the sound closed in around him. They must have entered one of the tunnels he’d seen when he was in the cavern the first time. His footsteps echoed back. He tried to zero in on the sound, to hear the footfalls of those surrounding him and gauge how many there were, but the only sound he heard was his own. How was that possible? There were at least two people with him, he’d distinctly heard two voices. One of them had a hand on his shoulder. Alex angled his head in every direction, but he couldn’t hear anything else. Who were these people?
They walked in silence for what seemed like hours. Generally, the floor sloped downward. At times the angle was extreme. Sometimes Alex could both hear and feel the tingle of air as they passed other tunnels leading away in other directions. The immensity of the cavern system wasn’t lost on him. If they could walk this long without stopping it meant the tunnels must go on for miles. The possibility of escape became less and less likely with each passing minute.
His escorts never hurried. In fact, if anything, they purposely moved slowly. More than once, a halt was quietly called. It was the only time they spoke. During those brief stops, Alex could feel tension in the air. He wanted to speak out, to ask what was happening, but he stayed silent for fear of being the cause of an attack.
Were they afraid there might be more of those strange, demon-men nearby? Alex shivered in fear.
The first time they stopped to rest, Alex sank gratefully to the floor. By then, he had absolutely no idea how long they’d been on the move. With the hood on there was no concept of time. His legs were rubbery and his hands were practically numb from the pulling of his bindings caused by the natural rhythm of his walking.
“Please,” a new voice said, a female voice, “drink.” Her voice was close. She must have been leaning or squatting down in front of him.
He felt something pressed to his lips and water splash out across them. He drank greedily, his body starved for hydration. Maybe it was just because he was so thirsty, but it was easily the best water he’d ever had. It tasted clean, and was so pure that his thirst was almost immediately quenched.
When he was done, he was pulled to his feet once more.
“We stand at the entrance to Domus,” the leader told him, a note of warning in his voice. “It is our home. Understand that we take great risk bringing you here. It is our fervent hope that you do not abuse our hospitality.”
Hospitality? Alex thought. Seriously? He stayed silent, knowing that any outburst might only make his circumstances worse. Once again, he was ushered forward.
As soon as Alex took the first step he was overwhelmed by sound. The hair on his arms stood on end as the air changed and he recognized the sensation of being in an immense, open space. In front of and below him, he could hear the echo of distant voices and movement. He craned his neck upward. Even with the hood still on, he knew there was open space for hundreds of feet above his head.
Whatever Domus was, it was huge.
He could also hear and smell water. The entire place carried a scent of dampness, but it wasn’t unpleasant or foul-smelling. It smelled pure and fresh, like the water his captors had given him to drink.
They urged him forward on tired legs, feet aching and sore. He navigated a long set of steps, ever sloping downward, his unseen guide keeping a tight grip on his shoulder to keep him from any misstep. Twice, he brushed his right shoulder against a wall of rock. From the breeze of air blowing up from the opposite side, Alex could only imagine what would happen if he stepped too far left.
Eventually the path leveled off and he was led straight forward. Here, the sound was different, the feeling of empty space now only above him. The voices he’d previously heard were all around him, some passing by as he trudged onward. He must have reached the ground level.
Finally, his guide squeezed his shoulder and murmured, “Please stop here.” Alex was surprised to realize it was a female who’d been showing him the way. The firm grip on his shoulder had made him assume it was a man.
“Please duck low,” she said.
She put a hand on the top of his head, pushing downward as he was guided down a short set of steps. The sound of Domus was swallowed as he entered into some sort of enclosure. Behind him, someone worked at his bindings with deft fingers, freeing him in moments.
Alex began to rub his palms and wrists to work the circulation back into them, but his right hand was grabbed and held tightly. The searing pain of a blade slashed through his palm.
He jerked his hand back angrily. “What do you think you’re doing?”
His only answer was the sound of stone scraping against stone.
When he finally got the courage to remove the hood on his own, he was alone in a small stone room.
Hours went by and no one came back.
Alex was in a small, circular stone room, roughly ten feet in width. The sides sloped upward vertically and then, at around six feet, curved inward to form a dome. From the rough feel of the walls, Alex guessed the cell had been chiseled out, man-made.
There were six short steps carved into one side that led to a door, but the door was large, heavy, and also made of stone. It didn’t look like something one person could move alone. It must have been what made the scraping sound he’d heard right after they had cut his hand.
Alex clenched his fingers into a fist, and then opened his hand to inspect the wound. The slice wasn’t deep, and not very long. More of a scratch, really. When it had happened, it felt like they had cut off half his hand. The shock of having it done with a hood over his head must have made it seem worse than it actually was.
Why had they done it? To take his blood? It was the only thing that made any sense, but if that was the reason—again, why?
Pounding on the door and walls had only given him bruises. The walls were made of stone so thick and unyielding he knew right away he was wasting his time. Even if there was someone on the other side willing to help him, they wouldn’t hear his pounding. Yelling had produced no reaction, either. From time to time he could hear voices, but the words were indistinct, muffled by the barrier between him and the outside.
He spent most of his time pacing, frustrated and helpless.
What had he been thinking, coming here again? Just because there had been a shimmer in the road didn’t mean he’d had to go through it. He’d been wearing the suit, after all. He could have gotten away from Silas some other way. He had known people would be waiting for him in the cavern with the red glow. He should have planned ahead before coming back. His reaction to having seen Silas outside his house had been impulsive and stupid.
Alex stuffed his hands in his jean jacket and hugged it against him, sinking down to sit with his back to the wall, thinking about everything that had happened. Silas hadn’t threatened him. In fact, he hadn’t said a word when he saw Alex outside the house. He’d been looking for him, that much was obvious, but it didn’t mean Silas was doing anything but trying to watch out for him. Even the police at Leeann’s house, if that’s what they had been, could be explained with the same reasoning.
Had Alex overreacted? Was it all just paranoia from what his dad had said in the video and his own distrust of Silas?
He might never find out.
Finally the big stone door shuddered and ground open.
A young girl, no more than ten years old, came carefully down the steps holding a stone bowl in her hands. Behind her, a fierce-looking teenage girl followed, one of the stone blades gripped in her hand. Her hair was long, gnarly, hanging in dreadlocks. She glared a clear warning through the tangled mess, as if she was sure he’d already made up his mind to attempt escape.
She needn’t have worried. Just outside the door, Alex saw two men standing sentinel. He awkwardly backed up against the far wall.
The younger girl stopped in the center of the room. She looked up at him with wide, innocent eyes and held the bowl toward him. “It is food,” she said in a small, sweet voice.
Alex leaned forward and looked into the bowl. In it were small, raw fish cut into bite-sized chunks. He wrinkled his nose. He’d eaten sushi once or twice, and it was okay, but this looked nasty. Like someone had done nothing more than slice up a fish they’d caught and toss the pieces in a bowl.
He was starving, though, and he didn’t know when he might get another chance to eat. After only a brief hesitation, he reached for the bowl, but the little girl flinched, pulling the bowl back.
“It is okay, Sarah,” the older one assured her, meeting Alex’s eyes steadily. “I will not let him hurt you.” The way she held her blade so familiarly, Alex was sure she would have no trouble keeping her promise.
Slowly, Sarah inched forward and held the bowl out again.
“Thank you, Sarah,” Alex said carefully.
She didn’t smile. She looked down at her feet and stepped back until she was behind the older one.
“I am Tabitha Abbott,” the older one told him with an almost imperceptible curtsey. Her voice was tight, like it was an effort for her to be polite. “What is your name, sir?”
Sir? And a curtsey? Alex was momentarily speechless.
Mistaking his silence for lack of cooperation, Tabitha gave him a level look. “We have no wish to harm you, I assure you.”
Really. “You tied me up,” Alex reminded her, feeling himself getting angry. They were going to try and tell him he should play nice? Not likely. “You put a hood over my head, you forced me to walk for miles, and then you throw me in this jail—and you’re saying you’re my friend?”
Tabitha’s expression never changed. “I am saying we have no wish to harm you. We do not know you yet, and you do not know us, so I cannot say whether there is a chance for friendship.” She blinked once. “I do know that most friendships begin with the exchange of names.” Patiently, as if she hadn’t already asked once, she repeated, “My name is Tabitha Abbott. What is your name, sir?”
As if teleporting below the surface of the earth wasn’t strange enough, the first person he has a conversation with is named Tabitha Abbott. Her name sounded like something out of Little House on the Prairie.
“Mine’s Alex,” he grunted reluctantly.
Although he didn’t offer his last name, it seemed to be enough. Both she and younger girl curtsied again. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Alex.” She patted Sarah on the back and motioned with her eyes toward the door. Without a word, Sarah obediently turned and left the room.
“Is she your daughter?” Alex asked.
For the first time, a hint of emotion flared in Tabitha’s eyes. “No, she is my sister.”
Alex looked past Tabitha and out the door, trying to get a glimpse of what lay beyond. All he could see were the backs of the guards and, beyond them, above them, the blackness of open space.
“Why have you come, Alex?” Tabitha asked.
Alex wasn’t ready to talk about his dad yet. Dad could be a prisoner, just like him. He wasn’t going to give them any leverage.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” he admitted truthfully. “I don’t even know where here is.”
Tabitha pursed her lips slightly, her cold green eyes calculating, as if trying to decide whether or not to believe him. “How did you arrive?”
As she asked, her eyes fell to his right hand. She knew about the suit, or least she knew that he could shoot a laser out of his wrist. She must have been one of the ones in the cavern when he arrived.
“I teleported here,” he said bluntly, purposely being as vague as possible.
She mouthed the word ‘teleport,’ her eyebrows raised. It was clearly a foreign word for her. She looked back expectantly, the question clear on her face.
“I, um,” Alex tried to simplify it. How you do simplify teleportation? “I disappeared from where I was and came to this place. Instantly.”
Her mouth opened in sudden understanding. “You found a way to emit,” she clarified. “You possess a Magnosphere.”
For her, it may have only been a simple declaration of understanding, but for Alex it sent him reeling. He had no idea what a Magnosphere was, but for her to use that word—EMIT—it couldn’t be coincidence. It couldn’t be. If it wasn’t for the wall he had already backed up against, he might have stumbled. As it was, he sagged against it.
“Where am I?” he breathed.
“Sir, are you alright?” Tabitha asked.
“Where am I?” Alex demanded, louder.
There was a rustle of movement by the door as one of the guards took a step into the room, but Tabitha waved him off with an impatient gesture.
“You are in the community of Domus,” she told Alex.
“Not here! Not this town, or wherever it is you’ve taken me,” Alex argued, waving one arm to encompass everything. “I mean, where am I? Am I even on Earth?”
Understanding and relief blossomed in Tabitha’s eyes. “So you are from Earth,” she said. “That is good.” Alex began to sputter out a reply, but Tabitha hurriedly assured him, “So am I. So are we all. You are in the Under. Far below the Earth’s surface.”
Alex reflexively hugged his jean jacket to him. “I’m…” he tried to find the right question, but there were too many. “How?”
Tabitha looked again at his wrist. “We were hoping you would tell us,” she told him.
They stood for a moment, neither of them speaking.
“Alex,” Tabitha said, “I have been instructed to bring new, clean clothing for you.” With a clear, matter-of-fact gaze, she added, “We would like to examine what you are wearing.”
She said it so politely, as if it were just a tiny request.
“No,” Alex replied firmly.
She looked him up and down quizzically. “Certainly this is not what passes for clothing on the surface.”
This was getting way past curious. As far as he could tell, every one of these people wore the same mismatched skins for clothing. And she was giving him a hard time about his wardrobe? Where was he, and who were these people?
“I appreciate the offer, but I am very comfortable with what I am wearing,” he told her. She paused, measuring him. He could tell she was weighing her options.
“Very well,” she said finally. “Please, eat.”
With a last, stiff curtsey, she turned and climbed the steps.
The guards rolled the door closed behind her.
Alex spent another two hours in the small space. He’d managed to choke down the bowl of food, some sort of fresh-water fish. Although he wanted to gag from the very first bite, he didn’t know when he would have another chance to eat, so he forced himself to swallow every last morsel.
Three small, quarter-sized holes in the ceiling brought in fresh air and snatches of conversation. He could never make out what was said, only the tone and cadence. Above his shelter, hundreds of feet up, he could see a ceiling of solid rock through the small holes. It was coated with a greenish fungus or algae that gave off a steady glow—light for the entire cavern, albeit a muted light.
There was nothing to do except wait, and Alex had never been good at being patient. Every second that passed was another second not knowing what his Dad was going through, and down here the concept of time was tough to gauge because the light never changed. It made the waiting even worse, made the moments seem twice as long. Up above, on the surface, he couldn’t begin to guess what time it was.
Finally, exhaustion sunk in and Alex dozed off. He awoke abruptly as the door to his prison ground open and Tabitha re-entered. He clambered to his feet awkwardly, brushing the dust off his clothes.
“Please come with me,” she requested politely, “and I will escort you to Sanctuary, where you will meet with Winston.”
Just like that? They lock him up for hours and then expect him to go where they tell him because they ask him oh-so-politely? No way. He didn’t do anything to them, they took him prisoner. He wasn’t going to do anything they wanted until he got some answers.
“No,” Alex crossed his arms. “I’m not going anywhere except home. Who is Winston? Why does he want to talk to me?” In truth, he wanted nothing more than to be free of the claustrophobic space. But for all he knew she was taking him somewhere worse. It might not be comfortable in the small stone cell but it was safe, and he had no idea know what was outside. He might not need to be afraid for his life—they wouldn’t have fed him if they were planning to kill him—but he wasn’t going to take any chances.
Tabitha lifted her chin proudly. “Winston is our leader,” she told him. “He protects and guides the community. It is he who has ultimate authority in Domus.”
“And what does your leader want from me?”
Tabitha looked furtively over her shoulder again. “We do not have far to go. It is very close,” she spoke hurriedly, beckoning with one hand as she did. She seemed nervous, as if Alex’s reluctance could land her in trouble. “It is at the edge of the Great Lake. Sanctuary is the heart of our community, where all our leaders have lived and governed since the Arrival.”
Alex shook his head. “What Arrival?” he asked.
“Please,” Tabitha replied, a note of desperation entering her voice. She looked once again toward the door. “If you will come with me, I am certain that Winston will answer all of your questions.”
Alex didn’t care if this girl could get in trouble because of him. Why on earth would he? He had half a mind to just lay back down on the floor and make this Winston person come to him. But as satisfying as it would be to do that, Alex had to wonder if it might put him in an even worse situation. Tabitha certainly seemed concerned about incurring Winston’s wrath.
What had he gotten himself into? He should have listened to his father and destroyed the suit, the basement lab, all of it. Maybe he would have lived the rest of his life regretting that he hadn’t tried to find his dad, but at least he would have lived his life.
Unbidden, an image of Leeann’s practical face popped into his mind. When they were little, whenever he would call her a chicken for not agreeing to do something dangerous her answer would always be, “At least I’m a live chicken.”
Maybe she’d had a point.
So far, no one had hurt him. In fact, they’d been overly courteous. Aside from making him wait for so long, they had been solicitous and kind.
And he’d never find his dad if he stayed locked in this tiny cell.
“Okay,” Alex smiled thinly and gave his escort a forward wave. “After you.”
Tabitha surprised Alex by letting out a pent-up breath, visibly relieved. “Please,” she motioned. “I will follow.” She stepped back to allow him room to pass.
Alex hesitated briefly before moving. She kept her eyes averted as he passed, maintaining military rigidity. He climbed the steps and stepped through the stone doorway, nearly stumbling over his own feet as he got his first view of Domus.
He gaped in wonder, awestruck.
The cell where Alex was being held was at the farthest edge of the community, on a slight rise that ended against a sheer, stone wall. Behind it, steps were carved into that wall, winding upward until they ended at a dark tunnel entrance, presumably the one he’d arrived through when they brought him from the cavern with the red glow.
In the other direction, ahead and below him, Alex gaped at the underground city of Domus. It sprawled on the floor of an enormous, natural, underground cavern with a ceiling at least two hundred feet high, every inch of it coated in the glowing green fungus that he’d seen from inside his cell.
Every structure in the city was made of stone. Most were chiseled from irregularly-shaped formations on the rock floor, but some were dug into the floor itself, human-sized holes marking entrances with smaller, window-sized holes close by.
For Alex, the time and effort it must have taken to create such a place was incomprehensible. He’d seen the weapons they’d been carrying—there hadn’t been a single scrap of metal. How had they managed to create something on such a scale as this?
Looking further into the distance, to the edge of the city, he understood why they’d chosen to build their home in this cavern. As still as glass, an enormous underground lake lapped at the farthest boundary of the city, a natural barrier against intrusion. Now he knew where the smell of water had come from.
“Wow,” Alex finally breathed, shaking his head and blinking his eyes. The sight of something so magnificent momentarily made him forget he was standing between two armed guards who, together with Tabitha, were taking him to someone who or may not mean to do him harm.
Tabitha emerged from the cell and pointed toward the lake’s edge. Centered at that far boundary was the city’s largest structure, a natural, square-shaped mountain of rock more than twice the height of anything else in the city, imposingly solid.
“That,” Tabitha told him simply, “is Sanctuary.”
As if her words were an unspoken signal, the guards took up positions in front of and behind them in two quick movements. Tabitha gave them an uncomfortable glance, and then lowered her eyes.
It was clear that something was going on with Tabitha that made her uncomfortable among her own people. Alex gave her a quizzical look, but she either didn’t notice or ignored him.
“We are ready,” Tabitha said, her eyes still downcast, and the guards stepped into motion.
A wide path, more like a narrow road, sloped downward into the city. The ground quickly leveled out, the path following the natural contour of the cavern floor as it meandered between mounds of rock that had been hollowed out for shelters. Peering into a few of them, Alex saw that many were just as small as the one he’d been in. It gave him pause. Maybe it hadn’t been a jail cell, but simply the best place they had to offer while he waited to speak to their leader.
They moved forward as a group, almost formally, like a procession. As they approached, people filtered out of their homes to line the roadside. They came out gradually at first, but with greater numbers the further Alex and his small escort went. Soon people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, watching as if a parade had come to town. There were hundreds of them—men, women, and children.
They watched with wide eyes and silent curiosity. Eerily, none of them spoke, not even the young ones, and it did nothing to alleviate Alex’s sense of unease. Their stares were inscrutable, as if they didn’t know how they felt about Alex being here. He didn’t feel any hostility or anger directed toward him, but he certainly couldn’t call this a warm welcome.
“Is this everyone?” Alex asked.
“All but the Core Guard.”
More information to store away and ask about later. “Don’t they live in Domus?”
Tabitha gave him a curious look. “Of course they do. They’re just out guarding the Core.”
Oh, Alex thought with an inner roll of his eyes. Of course that’s what they’re doing. “The core of what?” he asked.
Tabitha started to answer, but the guard walking behind them made a low, growling sound in his throat. Tabitha cast a quick glance over her shoulder, blushing with embarrassment.
“The core of the world,” she replied brusquely. She stood up straighter and looked directly ahead, her body language a clear signal that she would not be answering any more questions.
Alex looked back at the guard who’d made the noise. The guard stared back with burning intensity, clear dislike painted on his face, and Alex quickly turned back around.
The core of the world… Alex was no star pupil, but he’d paid enough attention in school to know that if they were anywhere near the core of the earth, they’d be a lot warmer right now.
Where was he?
They rounded the last curve in the road and Alex got his first up-close look at Sanctuary. From this vantage point it was even more massive than it had been from outside his cell. The architecture was that of an ancient Middle-Eastern building, like the ruins at Petra. It was rudely formed, yet elegant at the same time.
Armed guards flanked both sides of a wide set of steps that climbed toward massive front doors. They stood with stone blades gripped firmly in their hands, held at an angle across their chests.
Each and every one of them stared a clear warning down at Alex.
Alex faltered and then stopped. He flexed the fingers on his right hand, feeling with his fingertips for the activator that would turn on the laser pointer. The thought that he could use the suit to escape was reassuring, but he wasn’t ready to use it yet. His dad could be in Domus somewhere.
He turned to Tabitha, the severe stares of the guards suddenly making him feel as if he needed to reassure her that he hadn’t come to hurt anyone.
“I’m not…” he began, but didn’t know how to finish the sentence. I’m not what? Not a threat? Not sure what they expected of him? Not supposed to be there?
Tabitha waited with a clear, patient expression, but the moment dragged out and Alex was still at a loss.
Just when it seemed it couldn’t get any more awkward, Sanctuary’s doors ground open. Tabitha’s body went ramrod straight as Alex’s other two escorts snapped stiffly to attention.
From within Sanctuary emerged the leader of Domus, one of the most fearsome men Alex had ever seen. He was a giant man, well over six feet, with shoulders that seemed half as wide as he was tall. He was clad in the same mismatched skins as everyone else, but also wore a thick, white fur mantle draped over his shoulders. In his hand, drawn and held at the ready, he carried a short, black blade. It gleamed metallically in the phosphorescent light cast down from the ceiling’s glowing fungus. It was the first weapon Alex had seen that wasn’t made of stone.
Winston gazed down with penetrating eyes. Alex fought the urge to squirm and forced himself not to look away. It felt as if the man’s gaze burned a straight path directly into his soul, capable of measuring his worth in a single look. Without understanding why, it stoked a small ember of courage in Alex’s gut. He stood straighter and glared back challengingly.
And then the spell of Winston’s gaze was broken. The leader of Domus looked up, his eyes sweeping over the assembled crowd. In a loud, booming voice, he spoke, and though his words were for Alex, his eyes remained on everyone else.
“Welcome,” Winston said. “While you are among the people of Domus, we will do you no harm so long as your blood remains true.”
Alex glanced around. Every eye was on the giant man. What did that mean: as long as your blood remains true?
“He has been tested,” Winston announced. He looked hard into the eyes of his people. To Alex, there seemed an immediate lessening of tension with that declaration. “I know you have many questions,” Winston shouted. “We all do. When I have been given the answers, I will share them.”
Now some of the people of Domus turned their attention toward Alex.
Winston gestured with his free hand, beckoning. “Please,” he invited Alex, “join me in Sanctuary so that we may have a chance to acquaint ourselves with one another.”
Alex hesitated, but Tabitha whispered fiercely from one corner of her mouth. “You must not defy him! Please! Do not bring shame upon me!”
Defy him? Alex was scared to death! His immediate reaction was to tell Tabitha that her shame meant nothing to him, but as soon as she spoke the guard behind him made that low, growling sound again.
Was Tabitha some sort of pariah in Domus? He pursed his lips thoughtfully.
It really didn’t matter. Whether it brought Tabitha shame or not, Alex’s only choice was to do as he was asked unless he was going to make a run for it. Reluctantly, he climbed the steps toward Winston, who was still waiting with an outstretched hand. With each upward step, the guards lining the sides silently closed rank and fell in behind him. The movement seemed automatic, possibly ceremonial, but to Alex it only mattered that they had blocked any chance for retreat.
When he reached the second-to-last step, Winston came forward with his free hand held open and flat. Alex automatically took it, his palm fully engulfed in the giant man’s grip.
“I am honored to make your acquaintance,” Winston told him, his fierce eyes unblinking as he executed a short, curt bow.
“I,” Alex looked over his shoulder for Tabitha. He had no idea why he did it—she was one of the ones keeping him prisoner, after all. She was standing where he’d left her, wide-eyed and alarmed that he had turned away from her leader.
“Please,” Winston said, “join me in counsel.”
Alex took a deep, shaking breath and stepped through the threshold, only to be brought up short by an interior wall with an additional set of doors. Two guards stood in front of the doors, blocking the way.
Winston stepped up to them and held his black blade across his chest in a salute. “As Marshall and Protector of Domus, I request entry for myself and a guest of the city.” He kept his eyes forward, his stance rigid.
“As Guardians of Sanctuary,” the guards replied in unison, “Your authority is recognized and passage is granted.”
This was obviously a ritual, but to Alex it was over the top and a bit much. The overt courtesy and blatant civility everyone in Domus displayed seemed forced and fabricated. People just didn’t act that way all the time. It ground on his nerves, like a bad episode of a sixties television series.
The guards stepped to the side, giving Alex an unobstructed view of an intricate design that covered the majority of both doors. Two halves of an enormous shield had been chiseled into each one. Embossed in the center of the shield was an engraving of the planet earth.
Alex leaned forward to get a closer look, but the guards were already taking firm grips on the chiseled handholds set into the outer edges of each door. Their muscles strained as they pulled them aside, the stone slabs slowly grinding open. Beyond, Alex was surprised to see a wide, open space as well-lit as the cavern outside. Winston swept a hand forward in invitation.
Alex stepped through the threshold and saw that the reason it was so bright inside was because there was no ceiling, it was wide open to the glowing cavern ceiling. The walls were high, easily over twenty feet, and extremely thick. Along the length of the walls were a number of arched doorways leading into darkness.
Sanctuary was laid out like an amphitheater, a set of steps climbing to a raised section of the floor on the far side, like a natural stone stage. Rows of stone benches faced it, the closest row ending only a half dozen paces from the entrance. It was hushed, quiet, like a cathedral, the enormous walls blocking the sound of the city out completely.
As far as Alex could tell, there was no one else inside. Behind him, the entrance doors ground closed.
“You stand where only citizens of Domus have ever come,” Winston told him quietly. “Sanctuary is our most sacred and protected place.”
Alex could see why. He could feel why. There was a stillness to the place, a feeling of safety that he couldn’t describe but could feel nonetheless. A holiness. On either side of the stage were life-sized sculptures of a man and a woman, both dressed in ancient garb and wearing severe expressions. Carved into niches in the walls were bas-reliefs of other men and women in various poses and, covering most of the back wall, was what appeared to be an enormous map of the tunnels.
Alex took slow steps down the center aisle, studying the carvings.
“It’s like going back in time,” he murmured, more to himself than to Winston, and was startled when Winston’s deep baritone replied from right behind him. He hadn’t heard the big man move.
“Yes,” Winston answered quietly. “They are representative of our history. Symbols from above to remind us where we come from, why we fight, and what we protect.”
Alex turned. “And what are you fighting? Who are you protecting?”
Winston looked surprised. “You,” he replied earnestly. “We fight in order to protect you and everyone else on the surface.”
Alex blinked and took a step back. “Protect us from what?”
Winston’s penetrating gaze bore relentlessly into Alex’s, studying him, measuring him again. He appeared on the verge of answering, but apparently changed his mind.
“Tell me, Alex,” Winston drew out the ‘x’ in Alex’s name, as if the short, abbreviated name did not sit well on his tongue. “What does it mean to you when I tell you that I know you are not Nocuous?”
“Uh…” Alex faltered. Winston’s gaze was intense, demanding, but Alex had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. “I… nothing?” Briefly, he felt like he was back in school talking to one of his teachers. He was afraid that by giving the wrong answer he might land himself in trouble. “I don’t know what Nock… I don’t know what that is.”
Winston’s intensity was unrelenting. “Then how is it that you come to be here? There is only one man who has ever found the way, and now, suddenly, we see two Arrivals in the space of two-score days—”
“Wait—two arrivals?” Alex interrupted, the adrenaline of hope immediately surging through his veins. Was Winston talking about his father? “There was someone else? Is he here?”
Winston became as still as the statues along the wall.
“Do you know of the other?” His voice had gone low and dark.
“Where is he?” Alex demanded, ignoring the wary look he was getting from Winston. “You have to tell me!”
Winston’s mouth set into a grim line. “Who is this other to you?” he asked quietly.
“He is my father. I came here to find him.”
Winston’s eyes grew hard. “Your father,” he repeated, as if in confirmation. Alex took another step back, nervous at the way Winston’s attitude had changed. “Your father is with Rasmus, working for him, in league with him.” Winston also stepped back, flexing his grip on the black blade. When he spoke next, he practically spat the words. “Your father does the bidding of the Devil’s acolyte.”
Although Winston made no move toward him, Alex was terrified and couldn’t take his eyes off Winston’s blade. He rubbed his fingers against the activator in the wrist of his suit. In return Winston was regarding him warily, as if Alex might be dangerous, and that worried Alex even more.
The Devil’s acolyte? What was this man talking about? Whatever it meant, Winston’s opinion of Alex had taken a drastic turn.
“Can you take me to him?” Alex asked cautiously. “I just want to go home. Both of us do.”
Winston’s mouth twisted. “Never! I will not risk myself or my people for such a foolish endeavor,” he said severely. He gripped his still-lowered blade, his knuckles turning white. He took an aggressive step toward Alex. “And I can never allow you to leave, with or without your father. There is far too great a risk.”
Before he knew he’d done it, Alex had stretched out the fingers of his right hand and activated the laser, its red beam piercing the air between him and Winston. Winston flung up his blade and crouched, battle-ready, eyes wide.
Alex backed off, his arm and the laser held at a downward angle toward the floor. He frantically scanned the walls for an exit.
“Please,” Winston reached out with his free hand, “we have no wish to harm you.”
And no wish to let him go, either. Alex had to find a way out.
The walls were solid. There were plenty of doorways set into both sides of the room, but they all led into darkness. They didn’t look like a safe escape.
“If you would allow me to explain,” Winston urged, “you will see that our cause is a righteous one.”
Sure it is, Alex thought to himself. His eyes roved upward, to the tops of the walls. They were thick—they were very thick. He looked back at Winston one more time and then swung his arm in an arc, aiming for a flat section along the top of the wall near the entrance.
In the last second before he closed his fist, Winston roared and surged toward him, only to charge through the empty space where Alex had been moments before.
Standing atop the great wall now, Alex looked over his shoulder as Winston shouted for his guards. The wall shuddered under his feet, the entrance doors grinding open beneath him. He briefly locked eyes with Winston and then turned, once again splaying his fingers and shining forth with the laser.
Far away, all the way across the city, he saw the entrance to the tunnel behind the cell where he’d been held. If it was the tunnel that he’d come through when he arrived in Domus, then somewhere beyond that darkened passage was the red glow and the cavern with the shimmer on the ceiling. He needed to find that shimmer again. It was his only way home.
Would the suit teleport that far?
Below him, the guards rushed into Sanctuary and Winston pointed up at Alex. They paused briefly, shock and disbelief on their faces. And then as a group they sprinted for one of the side doors.
There must be a way to the top of the wall through that door, a way to reach Alex.
Taking careful aim at the far-off tunnel, unable to see whether the laser reached the entire distance, Alex calculated his options. If it didn’t reach the entire way, he could find himself re-appearing in mid-air, above Domus, halfway between Sanctuary and the tunnel. And then it would be ker-splat.
With an explosion of movement, the guards burst onto the wall at the far side and rushed toward him.
Heart in his throat, Alex squinched his eyes shut and closed his fist.
And in the next moment, he was in a free-fall.
But thankfully the fall was only a few feet. Landing with a thud, he stumbled onto a rock floor in near-darkness. Reaching out, he found a rough wall with his right hand and grabbed at it to keep from falling to his knees.
He blinked, seeing the rough shape of the tunnel stretching away into darkness. He’d made it! Over his shoulder, he saw the open expanse of the cavern of Domus and heard the faint cries of its people as they shouted the alarm that he’d escaped.
Feeling ahead blindly, not trusting to use the suit in the darkness, Alex stumbled forward as quickly as he was able.
The going was slow. He had no idea whether he could outdistance himself from the people coming after him, even with such a head start. Surely his pursuers knew the tunnels intimately, but he had to try. Whoever it was that Winston had said his father was with—Rasmus, was it?—sounded even worse than the people in Domus. It gave Alex even more reason to continue the search for him.
The air cooled quickly as he moved deeper into the tunnel, and the sound of the city faded away to nothing. Soon all Alex could hear was his own panicked breathing as he groped his way forward.
At some distance into the tunnel, it curved to the left. Following its arc, Alex leaned against the right-side wall to keep from losing his point of reference. Suddenly the wall was no longer there. He nearly fell into the blackness but caught his balance. Wind-milling briefly, he inadvertently activated the wrist beam on the suit.
Immediately, the area before him was cast in a red glow. Of course! He should have used the beam from the start! It didn’t mean he had to teleport, but he could use the light and travel much faster.
He turned in a slow circle, getting his bearings. He’d come to an intersection, tunnels on four sides, none looking any more promising than the next. Not a single one of them showed any sign of the red glow he was searching for.
And then he froze.
From only a few feet away in the last tunnel, two large points of silver light glowed back at him. Had they already found him? What was it?
Alex slowly raised his arm and pointed the laser directly at the two points.
And then the points blinked.
A thundering growl burst from their direction.
With a shriek of pure terror, Alex spun and ran for all he was worth, the laser swinging wildly about the tunnel.
He only made it a half-dozen steps before he ran full-tilt into the tunnel wall and fell flat on his back.
He lay there, dazed from the impact, waiting for the certain death he knew was in store for him.
But it never came.
Instead, he heard battle-cries mixed with squeals of pain from something that wasn’t human. In the final seconds before he lost consciousness, Alex craned his neck to see the stealthy approach of a group of Domus warriors, their hands outstretched toward him.
Alex woke with a sharp intake of breath. He bolted upright, immediately regretting the quick movement. His head throbbed with every beat of his pulse. Clutching it in both hands, he moaned quietly.
“You took quite a fall.”
Winston’s deep voice startled Alex out of his misery. He jumped, turning sharply. He’d thought he was alone. A fresh wave of pain radiated through his skull.
He was back in his small stone cell. He’d been laying flat on the cold, stone floor. Winston crouched, only a couple of feet away. The big man squatted on his haunches with his back against the wall, his short blade balanced across his knees.
When Alex didn’t reply, Winston said, “You honor your father. You’ve shown great courage and loyalty—foolishness, to be sure, but courage nonetheless. You could have been killed.”
Whatever, Alex thought, angry all over again at his predicament. He turned away, glancing toward the exit as he did. Unfortunately, the door was solidly closed.
Winston followed his gaze. “I will not make the same mistake twice, certainly now that I know the source of your power.”
Alex gave a start, reflexively clutching at himself.
Everything was there. He still wore his jean jacket over the suit, and the suit was still plugged into his arm ports.
“We have taken nothing from you,” Winston said. “We are not your enemy, Alex.”
Alex frowned. Easy for him to say, Winston wasn’t the one locked up.
Winston leaned forward, trying to make eye contact. “And I do not believe you are our enemy,” he said earnestly. In the ensuing silence, Alex sneaked a couple of glances but stayed quiet. “Tabitha tells me that you do not know where you are.”
Alex’s head was still pounding and his body ached all over from lying unconscious on the hard stone floor. He sighed and put his head back in his hands, not answering.
“If that is true,” Winston continued, “I must conclude your arrival was an accident.”
Alex shook his head dismally. Shouldn’t that have been obvious from the start? Of course he wasn’t supposed to be here. He’d had every intention of going wherever his father had gone, but never in his wildest dreams would he have conceived that this would be where he’d end up.
“However,” Winston continued after a pause, “I am a believer in fate, and although you may never have intended to come to this place, perhaps this place intended that you come to it.”
Alex had no idea how to respond to something so ridiculous. He was just a high school kid who wanted his dad back. Whatever these nut-jobs had going on down here had nothing to do with him.
“Tell me about the man you came here to find,” Winston asked. “Tell me about your father.”
Alex pressed his lips together. Winston meant to hold him prisoner, he’d clearly said so. Cooperating with him seemed foolish. If Alex was going to rescue his dad, the less he told Winston, it seemed the better his chances would be. But on the other hand, Winston didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt him. He could have done anything to Alex while he was unconscious, but the big man hadn’t even taken the suit and Alex knew he wanted it. Whatever that thing had been in the tunnels, Winston’s people had saved him from it.
Maybe if they understood, they would help him.
Alex sighed and plucked at the sleeve of his suit. “My father invented this,” he said finally. “He called it a PTS, a Personal Transport Suit. He built it in secret, because he believed it would help him find my mom.”
Alex waited for Winston to ask about his mother, or why his dad would keep something like that a secret, but he just listened attentively, politely.
“I don’t know how it works, not really,” Alex confessed. “I just know how to use it. I point the laser at something, clench my fist, and it teleports me there.”
Winston mouthed the words laser and teleport without speaking them, clearly not knowing what they meant.
“Your father is a smith of some kind?” Winston asked.
Alex chuckled in spite of himself, but quickly stopped. It just made his headache worse.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a smith, not anymore,” Alex replied. Winston’s eyebrows came together in confusion. “My father is an electrical engineer,” Alex explained. “His name is Charles Croatoan. He’s the founder of Electromagnetic Impulse Technologies.”
Winston shot to his feet, eyes wide, his large frame towering over Alex. “Your father is Croatoan?” he demanded hoarsely.
Shocked, Alex scuttled away from Winston, his stomach clenched with fear. If anything, he would have expected Winston to recognize the name of his dad’s company, not his last name. “Yes?” Confused, he asked, “I am too. Why? Do you know my father?”
“Know him?” Winston seethed, “No, I do not know him. But I know his lineage.”
Winston began pacing the small space, his blade clenched tightly in his hand. “Fate, indeed,” he murmured.
“What?” Alex was on his feet now too, but he stayed well out of Winston’s reach. “How do you know my name?”
Winston abruptly stopped pacing and spun to face Alex, his eyes glowing with fervor. “Four hundred years,” he whispered. “Perhaps you have finally come.”
Now it was getting weird. As if teleporting somewhere far beneath the earth’s surface hadn’t already been weird enough.
Alex held up a cautious hand. “I just want to find my dad and go home,” he said carefully.
“As you have avouched,” Winston acknowledged. He stood straighter and visibly relaxed his shoulders. “But I am afraid that may not be possible.” Alex bristled, but Winston held up a hand. “Please. Allow me to explain. Allow me to share our history, and perhaps you will see that my motives are genuine.”
“I don’t understand how your history could have anything to do with me,” Alex argued. “Just let me go. I don’t want anything from you. I’m not here to hurt anybody.”
Winston’s lowered his blade. “I can see that you are frightened.” His eyes softened. “And for that I can empathize.” He stepped forward, saying earnestly, “But Alex, our history has everything to do with you, or rather, with someone from which you are a direct descendant.”
“What?” Alex answered incredulously. He shook his head and blinked. “Who? What?” The big man was out of his mind. Or maybe Alex was the one going nuts. He squeezed the skin of his forearm between two fingers and winced. He should’ve known it would hurt with the way head was already pounding.
“I would surmise that he was your grandfather many times removed,” Winston replied. “He was once a good man, a brilliant man, but in the end he was our ruination, and the reason for our self-imposed exile to this place.”
“My…” Alex shook his head involuntarily. “What are you talking about?”
“Benjamin Croatoan,” Winston replied darkly, a hard edge to his voice. He settled to the floor again, cross-legged, his blade across his knees. “Long ago, he was just a man like you and I—an amazing man to be sure—but just a mortal man.”
Alex had never heard of anyone in his family named Benjamin. “This is some kind of mistake,” he objected. “Some kind of strange coincidence. My family… we’re not part of…” Alex made a wide arc with one arm. “Whatever this is.”
Winston motioned toward the floor. “Please, sit. I am certain you would never have heard of him. No family would lay claim to an ancestor such as he with any measure of pride.” Winston sighed again, and for the first time Alex saw a weariness in the big man’s eyes. “He had a child. A son, to whom the colony showed pity.” He shook his head in remorse. “It was not the child’s fault his father had become a vile, despicable man, and perhaps my people were fools to stay their hand and let the child live. Or perhaps it was destiny…”
Alex couldn’t stop shaking his head, a reflexive denial to everything Winston was telling him.
Winston looked up. “You would be descended of that child’s line, arrived here through providence and destiny.” He paused, studying Alex. “But is it your destiny to save us, or bring ruination upon us yet again?”
Alex blinked. Then he blinked again. “You’re out of your frikkin mind, you know that right? You all are.”
Winston remained unfazed. “Please, Alex,” he beckoned toward the floor again. Hear my tale, and then determine its veracity.’’
Alex looked back at the closed door again. What choice did he really have? Slowly and overtly reluctant, he sank down and sat across from Winston.
Winston nodded. “Thank you,” he said.
Alex grumbled under his breath but made no other attempt to reply.
“Benjamin Croatoan was a simple blacksmith,” Winston began after an awkward pause. He nodded thoughtfully and leaned back against the wall. “Simple…” he mused. “Perhaps that is an inaccurate depiction. Benjamin, as the legend is written, was anything but simple. He was a genius. A master of innovation, his mind evolved far beyond that of any of his contemporaries. Far beyond anything they could ever hope to comprehend. They were pioneers, his people. Colonists from the mother-land who hoped to settle the Island of Roanoke and establish it as a trading post to the New World.”
“You mean like, back in colonial times?” Alex asked. “Wait, you mean the colony of Roanoke? The lost colony?”
Of course Alex had heard the legend of the lost colony in history class. The only remnant of it that had been left behind was a single word scratched on a tree, and that word had been “CROATOAN,” his last name. The story had always held a kind of romantic notion for him. But now…
“Wait a minute,” Alex sputtered. “There is no way…”
With a confused look, Winston replied, “I cannot say if we speak of one and the same, I can only tell you the history of my people. Your people, it would seem, as well.”
Although Alex scoffed at Winston’s last statement, he was beginning to feel the first stirrings of doubt. There was very little of the story other than the coincidence of the same last name to link Alex to these people. But still…
“It was an accident,” Winston explained, “the first time Benjamin found his way here to the Under. He did it through the use of a by-product of a smithing tool he had created to fuse metals together. He called it his Magnosphere, a round ball of metal no larger than a pumpkin. Somehow, he could use it to transport himself from one place to another in the blink of an eye.”
Alex stiffened. Confusion muddled his reasoning and his head began to pound harder. If this history were the truth, if it were even partly the truth, there were way too many parallels. But how could it possibly be? Someone with the same last name as him had created teleport technology hundreds of years ago? “But you said he was my great, great, great… my grandfather from a long way back,” he protested.
“I believe that to be so,” Winston confirmed.
“That’s impossible! Did they even know what electricity was back then?”
Winston mouthed the word electricity. “I do not pretend to know what you speak of, but I can tell you that our lore is accurate. Benjamin Croatoan did create a device that ultimately led him to this place. He found it, and was gone for many months,” Winston spoke as if reciting a text. “He returned, only to leave again and again. This behavior went on for a number of years until one day when he returned, it was clear to everyone in the colony that he was no longer himself.” Winston gave Alex a hard look. “He had become Nocuous.”
There it was again—that word. “What does that mean?” Alex was nearly whispering by now.
“It means he was granted long life, possibly everlasting.” The Marshall of Domus’s tone didn’t falter, his eyes never wavered. Alex could see that he truly believed every word he had spoken. “And,” Winston continued, his voice low and ominous, “he was strong, stronger than any mortal man.”
By now, Alex was hanging on every word. “But how? How did he get that way?”
“Benjamin told the colony of a place far beneath the surface of the world that only he could reach. He called it The Under and spoke of a power there. ‘The Core of the Earth,’ he said. He claimed that it had gifted him with boundless strength and a clarity of purpose.”
“This?” Alex asked, looking up through the holes in the ceiling of the small space they shared. “This place is the Under?”
“This is Benjamin’s Under,” Winston confirmed. “At first he made many journeys here, to the source of his power. The colony would gather to watch in awe as he used his Magnosphere. Most hailed him as a genius. Others believed him a heretic. Regardless, no one interfered. There was no way for anyone to know then that something about being in the presence of the Core soothes those who are Nocuous, that its red glow made them ever stronger. It is believed Benjamin grew to need it, yearn for it any time he was on the surface, which is why he spent so much time in this terrible place instead of on the surface.”
“Wait—red glow?” Alex interrupted. “The Core—is that where I was when I first came here? The cavern with the red glow?” Despite the preposterousness of the story, Alex was caught up.
“The Antechamber to the Core,” Winston confirmed. “It is the reason we came upon you so readily. We guard the Core at all times against any who would approach it. You see, the Core does not discriminate against who it awards power. Benjamin is not special in that regard. The Core calls to any and all, a siren song that tugs at the ambition of every man.”
“So the Core,” Alex reasoned, “made Benjamin strong and… he couldn’t die? How is that a bad thing?”
“Because he was also cursed with an unquenchable thirst for power and dominance. Benjamin Croatoan believed he could create a new, better world, with himself as master over all—and left unchecked, he very well could have.” Winston leaned forward, his gaze burning with intensity. “Benjamin learned that with a simple touch he could bring others to the Under with him, and the first person he took was his wife. While they were gone, he learned a new facet of his power. Upon their return it was apparent that she had also been changed, but not like him.”
“What was she like, then?” Alex shivered involuntarily.
“She was in thrall to him,” Winston told him grimly. “She may have been his in name before they left, but after they returned she was his in soul as well. Mute, subservient, pale, and inhumanly strong, she would do anything he asked—including dying.”
“What did he do to her? How did he make her that way?”
“He bit her, and drank of her blood.”
Alex did a double take and pulled away, the spell of the story finally broken. “Come on,” he said disbelievingly. He looked toward the exit, half-expecting to see the guards smirking back at him. Everything about Domus had been unbelievable and amazing thus far, but this—this story was absurd.
But Winston’s eyes remained clear and serious, his gaze steady.
“You’re telling me,” Alex scoffed, “that the Core made my great-great-who-knows-how-many-times-great grandpa a vampire?”
Winston squinted. “I do not know that word.”
“A blood-sucker. Like, ‘blah-blah!’” Alex imitated a B-movie vampire character from a nineteen-thirties movie. “You know—fangs, black hair? Cape? Turns into a bat?”
“The Nocuous do not have the power to turn into a bat,” Winston replied seriously.
Alex hesitated. Winston really believed what he was saying.
“I do not know the extent of their power,” Winton continued. “I only know that they are strong, fast, and do not age. I know that by ingesting the blood of another, they are able to put that individual in thrall to them.”
Alex hesitated, remembering the strange men who had attacked the Domus warriors the first time he had come to the Under. They had been silent, fast, and strong. He swallowed a lump that he hadn’t known was in his throat.
“If this were all true,” Alex grudgingly allowed, “and I’m not saying I believe it.”
Winston raised an eyebrow.
“Not yet anyway,” Alex said quickly. “But if this were all true, then how did all of you get here? Benjamin Croatoan doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who’d give up very easily. What happened to him? What about all the everlasting-life stuff you just told me about?”
“Our descendants captured and imprisoned him, and then beheaded every man, woman, and child that he had put in thrall to him.” Winston said this without any trace of remorse. Alex’s eyes widened in shock. “And then they burned their corpses.”
“They…? Are you serious?”
“Benjamin had created a small army by the time the people of the colony truly began to realize his intentions,” Winston explained it as if it were an everyday occurrence.
Maybe it was, Alex realized. For the people of Domus, in the Under, maybe it was.
“This was an army that had become fanatically loyal to him and had lost any trace of humanity,” Winston explained. “His plan was to place the entire colony of Roanoke in thrall to him and use it as the base from which to conquer the world. From there, he would spread his will, creating thralls like a plague, one small area at a time. He was in no hurry, after all—he had an eternity to make his plan a reality.”
“Why didn’t they kill him too?”
“Because Benjamin wasn’t the true cause—it was the Core. If not for the Core, he would still have been just a man. Benjamin needed to die and his Magnosphere needed to die with him. Nothing like it had ever been created, and—so people of the colony believed—nothing like it could ever be created again. It had to be brought here and destroyed, so that no one would ever be corrupted again.”
“And that is why the rest of the colony came here,” Alex realized, suddenly understanding the sacrifice Winston’s ancestors had made. “To guard and protect the rest of the world from becoming like Benjamin Croatoan, my great-grandpa.” He blinked. When had he decided he was buying into Winston’s story?
“To be certain, that was their goal,” Winston confirmed, “and it is still our goal today. Unfortunately, the power of the Core was grossly underestimated and many of the citizens of Domus have fallen victim to its allure over the years.”
“You mean there are more?” With absolute clarity, Alex again remembered the snarling, pale men in the Antechamber. Now it was clear the people of Domus weren’t guarding Core—they were keeping people from reaching it.
“Many more,” Winston answered sadly. “It is rare for us to lose anyone to the Core, but four hundred years have passed since we first settled in these caverns—plenty of time for there to have been losses.”
Alex suddenly felt sick to his stomach. He had run blindly into the tunnels trying to escape.
“We hunt them constantly,” Winston continued. “Our warriors guard the Core because we know the Nocuous are drawn to it. Unfortunately, almost every Nocuous has burrowed deep and built dens where they surround themselves with Domus citizens they’ve snatched and have turned into thralls.”
“If you know they’re hiding in dens, why don’t you just go in and kill them?”
“We do not go near the dens,” Winston spoke sharply. “The population of Domus is a finite number, every life is precious. We would never risk the lives of our citizens so foolishly.”
Alex blanched at being chastised so harshly.
“Most of the dens are close to the Core,” Winston’s tone calmed. “Its vile power is a draw to both Nocuous and thralls alike. But a few, the oldest ones, have dens on the fringe, many miles from the Core, in tunnels we have never charted. They are the strongest ones. They are not only feared by the people of Domus, but by their fellow Nocuous as well.”
Winston fixed Alex with a direct stare.
“Your father is being held by the strongest of these fringe-dwellers. His name is Rasmus.”
Icy dread gripped Alex’s heart. “But how do you know that?” he whispered.
“Because every one of Rasmus’ thralls is marked with twin scars, a type of brand if you will, along their jaw lines, both as a mark of pride and a clear threat that the wrath of Rasmus would befall any who harm his property. It was one of these thralls that abducted your father from the Core Guard the day of his Arrival.”
Alex took a deep, shaking breath. Had he come all this way for nothing?
“I can’t leave him there,” Alex said in a small voice. “I can’t go home without him.”
Winston hesitated, and then rose to his feet. “Then perhaps it is for the best that Rasmus has him,” he said sadly, looking down on Alex with pity, “because as guardians of the world, we can never allow you to leave, with or without him.”
“I can’t stay here,” Alex objected, a tide of panic rising. Winston regarded him impassively, not replying. “I have a life! I can’t just leave it behind, I have—” he started to say he had friends who would miss him, but besides Leeann, did he? Instead, he said, “My father is very important to a lot of people. They’ll ask questions. They’ll search and search until they find something. What if they found his research on the suit and it brought them here, just like it did me?” Unbidden, an image of Silas’s emotionless eyes flashed into his mind. Silas was definitely the last person they’d want coming to Domus. “If I bring him home,” Alex pressed. “If I can do that, they won’t have any reason to dig through his research.”
Would Winston really hold him prisoner? Forever? He couldn’t, the thought was inconceivable! The world Alex knew simply didn’t work that way.
But this wasn’t the world Alex knew.
“You must stay,” Winston sounded apologetic, but there was no hint of yielding in his tone. He wasn’t trying to convince Alex, he didn’t need to. His words were a statement, not a request. Indisputable. “Your father’s status on the surface is of no consequence. Your return would carry with it the potential for far more harm than good. Surely, after all I have told you, this must be clear to you.” Alex tried to object but Winston held up a hand. “Your intentions, no matter how pure or accidental they may be in nature, could change over time. The simple knowledge that we and the Core exist would eventually come out, and more like you would come. And then the world would be engulfed in a tidal wave of evil.”
“Winston, I would not—”
Winston shook his head, refusing to listen. “By creating thralls,” he continued, “the Nocuous would spread their evil like a virus until no one could oppose them. Down here, they do not have the human resources available to build such an army, but on the surface—the world is not ready to face them. The world will never be ready. It would only take one escaped Nocuous from the Under to change the course of humankind.”
“But I would never tell anyone!” Alex objected. “They would never believe me if I did, anyway.” But Winston’s eyes remained inscrutable and Alex began to get angry. How could this man, this so-called leader and protector of mankind, care so little? “I just want to save my dad,” he pressed relentlessly. “This is all a big mistake. A coincidence! Maybe one of my ancestors is part of why you’re here, but that was hundreds of years ago. I’m not him, and I never will be!” He’d raised his voice by now, fists clenched at his sides. He didn’t care that he sounded like an angry child. “I just want to go home!”
In the silence that followed Alex’s tirade, Winston calmly asked, “And then?”
“And then what?” Alex was way past simple frustration. He was mad. “There is no ‘and then.’ We leave! We go home and never come back! Is that the ‘and then’ you’re looking for?”
“The suit?” Winston swept his eyes over Alex. “What of it?”
“Wha—” Alex raised his hands palms up, helplessly. “What do you mean?”
“That suit, in the wrong hands, would be a direct link to the Core.” Winston’s eyes were insistent, piercing. Eventually Alex had to look away. Again, unbidden, Alex thought of Silas. What would someone like Silas do if he knew the Core existed? Winston nodded slowly, as if he could read Alex’s mind. “Even those without malice, like yourself, who found their way here by accident, could fall prey to its promise of power.”
Alex reflexively opened his mouth to object, but he couldn’t—he knew Winston was right. He could say he would just destroy the suit and all the research that had gone into building it, but he couldn’t make that promise. Not really. For all knew, Silas’s men had already found his father’s lab in the basement and had begun studying the notes. Silas had seen the video from the airstrip—he knew the suit existed. Even if Alex brought Dad home alive, Silas would ask about the suit. Especially if he brought Dad home alive.
“Yes,” Winston read the look on Alex’s face. “I can see that you understand.”
Alex blew out a defeated breath. “That thing,” he said, changing the subject. “In the tunnel. The thing that almost killed me.”
“Was that a Nocuous?”
Winston chuckled, slapping his thighs once and rising to his feet in a single, fluid motion. “That,” he told Alex, “was a mole.”
Alex blinked. “What?”
“A cave mole,” Winston clarified. “Not necessarily a carnivore, more of an omnivore with a bent for insects, but certainly willing to fight if it was protecting any of its young.”
“I was almost killed by a mole?” Alex asked disbelievingly. “That was not a mole. It was at least as tall as me!”
“Yes?” Winston appeared genuinely confused. “Possibly not yet full-grown, but certainly still large enough to do you harm.”
If what had been in the tunnel was not yet full-grown, Alex had no desire to find out how big they could get. And judging by Winston’s reaction, cave moles were nothing in comparison to the threat a Nocuous or their thralls presented. He’d been such a fool to attempt to escape without any idea where to go or what might be in his way! He had no business being in this place.
“I can’t stay here,” Alex repeated quietly.
Winston remained silent, looking down on Alex emotionlessly.
Alex suddenly looked up, hope in his eyes. “What if we gave you the suit?”
Winston’s eyes narrowed.
“Not right now,” Alex clarified. “Look,” he said. “If the suit my Dad was wearing still worked, he would have come home already. But he didn’t, so that means this Rasmus guy either has it or it’s broken. Either way, Dad doesn’t have it.”
Winston nodded slowly following Alex’s train of thought. “If Rasmus had the suit and it worked, he would already be on the surface.”
“Okay then, it’s broken,” Alex said impatiently. “So if that’s true,” he was pacing now, “it means my dad needs to be rescued. And if we rescue him, he can figure out a way for this suit,” he plucked at the fabric across his chest, “to take us both back at the same time.” Alex stopped pacing and grinned. “And if he can do that, he can make it so you can come with us.”
Winston remained motionless.
“You could come with us, we could show you the research and you could watch us destroy it. And then you could use the suit to come back here, and then you can destroy it!” Alex announced, like it should have been obvious. “Or,” he said with a sly look, “you could hide it somewhere super-secret, somewhere safe, and save it for the day when you kill all the Nocuous. Then you could use it to bring all your people home.”
Winston’s jaw clenched once. Alex smiled, feeling hope build in his heart.
And then Winston turned stiffly on his heels, leaving the room so quickly Alex had no time to ask what he’d said wrong. The stone door ground aside and in less than a minute, Alex was left alone again, staring after the man in bewilderment.
Alex laid on the cold stone floor, trying to fall asleep but failing miserably. His eyes stung as if they were full of sand, his mind heavy with jumbled thoughts. How long had it been since Winston left? He had no idea, he’d lost track of time.
What was it that had made Winston leave so abruptly? Somehow, Alex had offended the big man, but why? All Alex wanted was to bring his dad home safe. He wasn’t looking to hurt any of these people and he certainly wasn’t looking to save them. The problems and history of Domus weren’t his to solve. It didn’t matter to him how they’d gotten here, even if it had been because of some long-lost relative. It wasn’t his fault and he shouldn’t be made to feel as if it were.
“Hey!” he shouted half-heartedly, knowing he wouldn’t get any answer. He’d already tried yelling to the guards. They either had very strict orders to ignore him or they couldn’t hear him through the thick, stone walls. Whichever it was, he was stuck. There was no way he could move that big stone door out of the way, not by himself. And even if somehow he could, what then? Run for the tunnels again? Not a chance.
There had to be a way out of this. What did they plan to do? Keep him locked up for the rest of his life? He gasped, abruptly realizing that the rest of life might not be very long. What if what he’d said to Winston had been the proverbial nail in his coffin?
Alex sat up, squinting through the small holes in the ceiling, into the heights of the cavern above. They were just air holes, a couple inches wide, if that. All he could see was a small section of rock and fungus on the cavern’s ceiling, nothing more.
He fingered the mechanism for the laser on his wrist. Would that work? The holes were small, but if he understood correctly how the suit worked, the size of the opening shouldn’t matter. When he teleported, he traveled in the laser. His body was broken down into tiny atoms, propelled to their destination by the light traveling in the laser beam. If that was right, he should have no problem riding the beam out through the holes.
But then what? When he reappeared, he’d be in mid-air, maybe even right at the cavern’s rooftop. He’d be as good as dead unless he was fast enough to find a spot, aim the beam, teleport himself somewhere safe before going splat on the cavern floor, all the while falling through the air.
Alex shook his head. How ridiculous could he be? He wasn’t a superhero.
He was so self-absorbed that when the door began grinding open he nearly yelped aloud, the sound deafening after such a prolonged silence.
At first no one entered, but then slowly, timidly, Sarah stepped into view with another bowl of food cupped in her small hands. She stopped three steps up from the floor, glancing down toward his wrist and back up to his face.
Alex tried to smile, but it must have looked more like a grimace because it made Sarah flinch. Shocked, he realized she was shaking from head to toe. She was terrified.
“Hey,” he said blandly, trying to sound as benign as possible. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt—”
Sarah quickly bent down and placed the food on the step, the bowl clattering as she released it from her quivering hands. Without a word or backward glance, she spun and raced for the safety of the door.
Dumbfounded, Alex waited as the door ground its way closed again. Sarah was afraid of him? Why? Because he was the descendant of some long-lost monster who happened to be the reason they lived like trogs in the darkest recesses of the earth?
Alex sighed. His stomach growled, reminding him that the last thing he’d eaten had been the fish chunks she had brought before. He stepped over and scooped up the bowl, sighing disappointedly when he saw it was more of the same. He blew out a resigned puff of air and scooped a piece the cold fish into his mouth, chewing and thinking about what their giving him food really meant for his situation. Of course they wouldn’t keep him locked up forever.
Domus, as far as he could tell, wasn’t a big place and it seemed to be the only place these people felt any measure of safety. It wasn’t likely they were rich in resources. They all dressed the same, and this second meal was exactly the same as the first. He’d be a draw on their resources if they kept him locked up like this, feeding him every day. If he didn’t contribute in some way, there would be no reason to keep him alive.
Would they kill him just to save food? Tabitha and Sarah seemed nice, but what about the rest of the community? Even though he had only spent a short time with him, Alex was certain Winston would always do what was best for his people, even if it meant killing someone else.
Alex snorted at his own naivety. Who was he kidding? Especially if it meant killing someone else to do it! Their whole existence was based around keeping those vampire things from getting to the surface. They lived in this cavern for the sole purpose of hunting down and killing those who’d been transformed by the Core.
Alex tossed the bowl to the side, letting the raw fish spill onto the floor. He couldn’t stay here! They couldn’t just keep him locked up!
“Hey!” he yelled. “Hey!”
When the door began to grind open, Alex’s heart stopped. He hadn’t actually expected anyone to answer! He backed against the wall farthest from the door, curling his fingers up and around the laser pointer, and was surprised to feel a measure of happiness when he saw that it was Tabitha entering the room.
His relief was short-lived, however, when he saw the stormy expression on her face. She strode up to him, already spouting angrily before she was halfway across the room.
“What did you say to my sister?” she demanded. “What did you do?” She got up close, her face mere inches from his own, eyes blazing. “I don’t care if you’re the second coming of Croatoan or just the poor little lost boy you claim to be—you will never intimidate my sister in such a manner again!” She stuck out a finger, jabbing him in the chest to accentuate her last words. “Do. You. Understand. Me?”
In spite of her aggressive tone and fierce body language, all Alex could focus on was how near she was to him. Her brilliant green eyes were deep pools of jade he could easily lose himself in. He could feel her breath coming in small, angry puffs and, despite how clearly upset she was he couldn’t stop himself from zeroing in on her lips.
They stayed like that, Tabitha with her demanding gaze and Alex feeling confused, intimidated, and strangely—almost embarrassingly—attracted to her.
Finally, Tabitha asked, “Are you going to answer me?” Her voice softened and was much less emphatic, quieter. She didn’t back away, but her posture was less combative. Alex wasn’t sure, but to him it seemed like maybe she was staying where she was because she wanted to.
“I didn’t mean to scare her,” Alex replied honestly. “The only thing I said was that I wasn’t going to hurt her, that’s all. I swear.”
Tabitha looked down at the floor, blinking rapidly and suddenly seeming shy. When she looked back up she gave a start, as if she’d just realized how close they were to each other. Her cheeks turned a brilliant shade of crimson and she stepped back.
“She’s all I have left,” Tabitha told him. “My mother and father both… they’re gone.”
It seemed like she might say more, but she didn’t. “I’m sorry,” Alex said simply. “My Mom is gone too. And maybe my Dad. I truly did not mean to scare Sarah.”
Tabitha let out a tired sigh and glanced once over her shoulder, toward the door and the guards they both knew were there. She stood straighter and gathered herself.
“Winston sent me,” she spoke formally, once again in complete control of herself. “He has shared your proposal with the people and it is agreed that what you possess is worth the risk of going to war with Rasmus.”
Alex gave a start. They were going to help him get his dad back? “That’s… that’s fantastic!” he shouted, smiling in spite of himself. For the first time since arriving in Domus he felt a shred of hope beginning to creep in. “When?” he asked. “When are you going to attack?”
Tabitha gave him a level stare, the smallest hint of a smirk curving up the edges of her lips. “We,” she clarified. “You will be accompanying us.”
The image of the zombie-like men who had attacked the Core guard in the Antechamber flashed through his mind. They’d been fast and vicious, and they were only thralls. He could only imagine the savagery of a full Nocuous. And the men that had been there—the Core guard—they’d been so efficient, so brutal in the way they retaliated against the thralls. Surely they didn’t believe Alex could hold his own against creatures like that?
“You want me to fight?” Alex objected. “I’m no fighter, I don’t know how. I’ve seen those things! I’d be dead in a second!”
“And that,” Tabitha answered in a tone that allowed no rebuke, “is the reason I am here.” She lifted her head proudly. “I am to be your mentor. You will learn our ways, and the ways of the Nocuous, so that you may fight by our side when the day comes for our attack.”
Alex sputtered, trying to object, but she continued on as if she were oblivious to his panicked denial.
“You will live here, in this shelter.” Tabitha cocked her head to one side, a quick movement. “We begin immediately.”
Alex clenched the base of a short, stone blade in his right hand. The weapon had long-since grown warm in his grip and his hand was sweaty, making it slip in his grasp. He flexed his fingers, trying to get a better hold.
Tabitha was squared off in front of him. She smiled, recognizing his moment of self-doubt. How she was able to read him so easily, Alex had no idea. She stepped to the right, her blade held at the ready. Without looking down, Alex matched her step with one of his own, keeping her in front of him.
“Good,” Tabitha commented, the warmth of the compliment never reaching her eyes or tone of voice. She was focused, intense, as she had been for the past fourteen days. “If you keep your opponent in front of you, it will be much harder for them to surprise you.”
Alex knew this. He’d have to be an idiot not to. They’d been working on footwork for the past seven days, and he was sick of it. Tabitha’s training seemed to move at one speed only: super-slow-motion, and it was exasperating to say the least. Each passing minute, each day that she announced they would continue to train, he felt as if his father were slipping further away.
Tabitha lunged suddenly. She put her right foot forward and Alex reflexively moved his left foot back and brought up his blade to parry. She brought her weapon around in a counter-stroke and Alex pivoted, angling his blade and his body to deflect her attack. He came back around and was crouched at the ready again before she’d turned back to face him.
When Tabitha’s only response was a slight crinkling of the eyes, Alex growled and lowered his blade, angrily rising from his combat stance. They’d been over these moves again and again. He wasn’t learning anything new. Was she purposely delaying his training?
“How long are we going to do this?” he demanded.
This wasn’t going to be the first time he poured his frustration out on Tabitha. By now it was a daily event. But this was stupid! Why keep drilling him on the same things over and over if he already knew them?
But he knew why. Or at least he thought he did: to keep him occupied until the rest of Domus was ready, that’s why, and it made him wonder if they ever would be. These people had no reason to go to war for him, not really. They lost nothing if they kept him there in the cavern, but they were certain to lose some of their people if they staged an assault on Rasmus.
Perhaps it wasn’t fair for him to vent on Tabitha so much—certainly, she was only doing as she’d been instructed—but there was no one else. She was the only one he was allowed contact with. All of their training was done on a level patch of stone a short distance from his shelter which was convenient, but it kept him at the outskirts of the community. At first Alex had been a little disappointed, but remembering the way Sarah had reacted to him made him think maybe it was better if he didn’t go into the city.
The people of Domus kept their distance, never once approaching him, staring curiously from afar. The only people who came close were the Core guard, those whose duty it was to stand a long, sixteen hour shift watching for anything that approached the Core. Twice per day, two groups of six passed Alex’s shelter. One on their way to the Core, and one coming back.
As for Winston, Alex had not spoken to him since the day he’d offered up the suit in exchange for rescuing his father.
“We will do this until I am satisfied you have the skill required to defend yourself,” Tabitha replied patiently. It was the same answer she always gave him.
Angrily, he flung his weapon to the ground. Normally, Alex would just grind his teeth and continue training, but it had been two weeks. Two weeks! He could lunge, he could parry, he could block. He wasn’t a master, not by any stretch, but he could certainly hold his own.
“You say that, but you never say when that will be! What do I have to do? What more can you teach me? You’ve shown me how to fight! We need to go after my father now! Before it’s too late!” Alex angrily balled his hands into fists and set his shoulders. “I want to talk to Winston!” he demanded. “I’m ready.”
Tabitha met his glare impassively, still in a combat stance, patiently waiting out his tirade. It infuriated him.
“I’m ready!” he repeated.
Tabitha pressed her lips together in a thin line and glanced down at his blade.
“A warrior would never disrespect his weapon in such a way.” She met his gaze squarely. “Your weapon must become a part of you, because it will be the difference between life and death in the tunnels.”
Alex snorted, crossing his arms, and Tabitha rose to her full height. She stepped up close to him, the movement fluid, dangerous. Alex could feel anger radiating from her.
“How many citizens of Domus have you seen without a weapon?” Tabitha asked him quietly.
Alex realized he hadn’t seen any. Aside from little kids like Sarah, everyone carried a weapon at all times.
“We are at war,” Tabitha told him through clenched teeth. “And there will never be a time when we are not. Our enemies would eradicate us if they could, and have tried many times. But we are strong, we are always ready, and so we have always prevailed.”
Chastised, Alex lowered his eyes. He reached down and picked up his blade.
“I’m still ready,” he mumbled quietly.
Tabitha’s gaze became fiery, her body quivering with suppressed fury. “Do you understand what it is to be at war with opponents as relentless as the Nocuous?”
“They have my dad!” Alex answered hotly. “It doesn’t matter who they are!” He fixed Tabitha with what he hoped was as steely a glare as she was giving him. “I am going to get him back.”
After a brief pause, Tabitha said, “Come with me,” and strode away without waiting to see if he followed.
Alex did a double take, watching her receding back. Was it that easy?
“Are you taking me to Winston?” he called after her, hurrying to catch up.
Tabitha didn’t answer or acknowledge that he’d spoken.
They passed through the outer boundary of the city, cutting a wide swath to avoid having to go near the center. Down here in the bowels of the earth, Alex had no sense of direction, but assuming his shelter was located at the eastern boundary of the city then Tabitha was leading him to the northern boundary.
They passed very few people, which Alex assumed was the reason for their circuitous route. Soon they passed no one at all. Wherever they were headed, it was a part of Domus that wasn’t regularly used.
Finally, as they reached the farthest boundary of the cavern, the floor of the cavern sloped away, downward toward the outer wall. There, standing at attention with their backs to it, were a group of six Domus warriors. At first it looked as if they were simply loitering, but Alex knew better. No one in Domus ever relaxed. They were standing guard.
“Are they Core guard?” Alex asked Tabitha.
Still Tabitha didn’t answer. Instead, she strode to the guards and offered a salute, which was summarily returned.
“My pupil claims readiness,” she stated flatly, her tone conveying the lack of faith she held in her statement.
One of the guards glanced at Alex and pursed his lips. He looked back at Tabitha and nodded.
“Please turn and take twelve paces from the wall,” Tabitha ordered Alex. “Then turn back to face us and wait.”
Despite an overwhelming desire to ask why, Alex did as he was told. He counted off the paces and turned back around, noticing for the first time that the wall where the guards had been standing had six rectangular-shaped doors set into it at even intervals.
Tabitha and four of the guards backed away, leaving the remaining two guards standing in front of one of the doors.
Both guards stared back at Alex, their gazes impassive, as if they were sizing him up.
Suddenly and inexplicably, Alex became very nervous. He looked at Tabitha, who now stood with the other guards quite some ways down the cavern wall.
Movement from the door guards drew his attention back to them. They gripped the door’s handholds and began pulling it open, stone grinding on stone as they heaved. Above the sound of the door being opened, Alex heard a low growl emanate from behind it, slowly rising in volume the further it was pulled aside.
At first Alex thought the sound was from the guards grunting as they strained to pull the door open, but now he was sure it was coming from inside the cavern wall, from someone or something the door had been blocking.
Alex squinted at the opening. It was pitch black inside. He couldn’t see anything except a rectangle-shaped opening into darkness.
And then suddenly, with a blinding rush of movement and a savage snarl, a man loped out from the dark opening, running like a gorilla on all fours.
His speed defied belief.
He rushed straight for Alex.
Alex clumsily brought up his blade and stumbled backward, but tripped over his heels and landed on his butt, his blade sliding away as he reflexively threw out his hands to break his fall.
In the space of two heartbeats, the savage was in front of him and would have been on him if not for the collar holding it back. A thick rope was attached to the collar, anchored somewhere inside the dark place where the thing had been held prisoner.
With an audible snap, the rope went taught and the man was yanked to a halt. As fast as he had been moving, he should have been pulled off his feet to land on his back, but instead he simply came to a savage, abrupt stop. He strained mightily against the collar, the rope holding him fast as his neck and face bulged with the effort of trying to reach his prey.
Alex scrambled backward on all fours. He snatched up his blade and lurched clumsily to his feet.
“What the hell!” he shouted angrily. “What is this?”
“This,” Tabitha answered, cutting a wide radius in order to stay out of reach of the thing on the rope, “is what you say you are ready for.”
Breathing heavily, his heart going a hundred miles an hour, Alex gaped incredulously at her. She was insane! He could have been killed! The thing continued to snarl and claw in a futile attempt to reach him.
“This is a Nocuous?” Alex asked shakily.
“Hardly,” Tabitha answered with a note of contempt. “This is a thrall, and a fledgling at that. We captured it near the Core nearly a month ago. There are five more caged within this wall.”
“And you kept him here?” Alex gaped at the guards. “Are you crazy? Why would you keep something like this so close to Domus?”
“To train,” Tabitha told him simply. “You are not the only one in this community not yet ready to wield a blade in combat.”
“I am ready,” Alex protested.
The thrall continued to growl and slaver, sounding exactly the way Alex imagined a zombie would sound.
“That is good,” Tabitha told him evenly. “Because that is why we are here.”
The guards took up protective positions on both sides of Tabitha and Alex.
“Do you know how to kill a Nocuous or thrall?” she asked.
At the sound of Tabitha’s voice, the thrall began to thrash anew against its restraint.
“Can it understand us?” Alex asked worriedly.
“Yes,” Tabitha answered without elaboration.
Alex swallowed shakily. The thrall seemed to have boundless energy, supernatural strength that showed no sign of lessening. He eyed the rope that held it in check nervously, watching as it stretched taut, loosened, and then snapped taut again, over and over as the thrall struggled to break free.
Tabitha and the guards remained perfectly calm, as if this demon-thing was commonplace in their lives.
Alex blanched, realizing that it was commonplace for them. These terrible creatures were the reason for Domus’s existence. Of course these seasoned warriors wouldn’t be rattled by the presence of this creature. They had been fighting them for generations—centuries.
Alex looked back at Tabitha, who patiently awaited his answer. “Alex? Do you know how to kill it?” she repeated.
Alex’s gut clenched as he finally realized why she had brought him here—to test his resolve.
“You cut their heads off,” he said woodenly, looking again at the thrall, looking directly at its throat. “You have to cut their heads off to kill them.” His hand unconsciously tightened on the hilt of his blade.
“Or burn them,” Tabitha confirmed. “Preferably both.” She nodded at the thrall, indicating to Alex to proceed.
Slowly, Alex raised his blade and took a step forward. The thrall redoubled its efforts, its ravenous growls rising in volume as it thrashed and pulled. He took a deep breath and looked it full in the face, realizing with a start that it was female. She was young. Underneath the grime and filth, her pale, contorted face might once have been pretty. She couldn’t have been much older than he.
“I…” Alex looked helpless back at Tabitha. “It’s a girl… Isn’t there a cure?”
“No,” Tabitha stated flatly.
Alex began to tremble. This could be anyone. Tabitha said the Core lured people in, called to them somehow. It wasn’t this poor girl’s fault she’d been seduced by its power. Why did she have to die? And why did Alex have to be the one to kill her?
“This is wrong,” Alex breathed. “How can you just kill her? She was one of you.”
One of the guards grunted, a disgusted sound from the back of his throat, his contempt for Alex summed up without an actual word.
“Her name was Susanne,” Tabitha replied severely. “She was a Core guard on her first tour of assignment.” Her mouth tightened into a thin line. “She let the Core consume her.”
“And so you just kill her?” Alex asked incredulously. “You lock her in a cave for a month, letting her out only to cut her head off?”
Tabitha faced him squarely, her eyes fierce. “Susanne was my friend. We played together as children. We trained together as adults.” Through clenched teeth, she said, “She would do the same kindness for me were I weak enough to have been seduced by the Core. We do not do this to her, we do it for her.”
Tabitha stepped aside, leaving Alex to face the thrall—to face Susanne—alone.
Alex moved to grip his blade in both hands, breathing heavily as he mustered his courage. One solid swing was all it would take. One heavy chop to her neck. A few seconds of his life and he could end Susanne’s. He flexed his fingers, adjusting his grip, and moved to raise the blade over his head.
Susanne continued to reach toward him, grasping at thin air as if she could take hold of it and pull herself to him. Her thrashing became more agitated and she went into a frenzy. It was horrifying. She was a monster.
And yet he still couldn’t do it. His arms hadn’t moved, as if his brain wasn’t sending the signal to put them into motion. Alex stared into Susanne’s eyes and clenched his jaw, willing his body to move, to obey him, but it wouldn’t. He just couldn’t kill her like this: defenseless and tethered like an animal.
Defeated, he lowered his blade and turned to Tabitha. “I can’t,” he said. “She’s—”
He never finished the sentence.
With a loud snap, the rope around Susanne’s neck gave way and she launched herself at Alex.
Alex stumbled and clumsily lifted his blade, but he knew he could never bring it to bear in time to defend himself.
Susanne was nearly on him.
Until Tabitha smoothly spun, a backhanded swing cleanly slicing through Susanne’s neck in a single stroke.
Susanne’s body crumpled, skidding to stop mere inches from Alex’s feet, her head rolling forward to bump him in the foot, blood oozing from her neck and pooling on the ground.
“Get the torches,” Tabitha ordered, turning away from Alex in disappointment.
**]Four Weeks Later
“Domus exists for one purpose,” Winston intoned, his deep voice echoing off the walls of Sanctuary.
“To protect the world above!” replied the congregation in unison. Their voices were loud, startling Alex in spite of the instruction Tabitha had given him regarding the ceremony.
Today was Commencement. Once every six weeks, the people of the community gathered in Sanctuary to acknowledge those who’d earned the title of Warrior.
He’d made it. Despite an overwhelming lack of faith from the citizens of Domus, he’d completed Tabitha’s training and was about to become recognized as one of them. Including Alex, three of them were being inducted today.
Without turning his head, he snuck a sideways glance at the other two initiates. He’d never met either of them. They stood shoulder to shoulder with him in the front row, eyes focused unblinkingly forward as the leader of Domus continued the ceremony.
Winston raised his black blade and held it just over his head, horizontally, like a salute. “We carry our blades unsheathed,” he declared.
“To protect the world above!” came the unified reply.
Alex sighed impatiently. Although it was almost certainly an important rite of passage for the two young men standing next to him, it wasn’t for him. He couldn’t care less about some title, he just wanted to get going after his dad.
Tuning out Winston’s droning voice, Alex allowed his mind to drift back to the day that had ultimately led him to where he stood now—the day at the thrall cages.
From that day forward, every citizen of Domus, including Tabitha, had treated him with contempt. Word of his cowardice had spread like wildfire, so quickly that by the time he got back to his shelter the guards were already gone. Their absence spoke louder than any words ever could. The message was clear: now we know of what you are made. Go ahead—try your luck in the tunnels again. You don’t have what it takes.
Their passive dismissal, their disregard for any danger Alex might represent, infuriated him. Of course it was ludicrous to feel that way; he wasn’t a threat, not to them, and certainly not because one of his long-lost relatives was some sort of evil genius. But that wasn’t the point. He didn’t need them to fear him, he needed them to respect him enough to want to help him, and that would never happen unless he proved himself worthy.
With his single act of compassion at the cages, he’d set back the timetable for his departure. He should have simply swung the blade, the same way he should have swung a right hook into PJ’s head at the volleyball net.
The one upside was that he now had free rein. He could go wherever he pleased and no one stopped him. Ironically, he only tested his freedom once. The day after his humiliation at the thrall cages he went into the city, but quickly found that there was nothing and no one there for him. Every attempt he made at speaking with any of the Domus people went unanswered. They either went about their business while ignoring him or pointedly walked away.
It fueled the fire that was already raging in his gut.
Alex intensified his training efforts. He spent every waking moment on the small, flat patch of rock near his shelter, working through his drills until his muscles could no longer handle the strain and he was forced to rest. Tabitha still came every day to work with him and they spent long, ten-hour sessions together, but that wasn’t enough.
Alex was worthy of their respect. And he would prove it.
He did prove it.
“We are warriors,” Winston announced proudly, bringing Alex back to the present. “Each and every one of us taught from birth to not just face our fears, but embrace them—to conquer them! We do this, we become this, because we must!”
“To protect the world above!” the congregation replied.
Tabitha’s demeanor toward him had cooled even further after the cages. The mutual attraction Alex thought might have existed had completely vanished, to the extent that Alex often wondered if he’d just imagined it.
Despite her lack of warmth, the two of them had forged a bond the likes of which Alex had never known. Through his training, he learned what she was like both physically and mentally and although there was nothing sexual about it, he knew her more intimately than anyone, and she him. He could feel her presence behind him now, standing on formality with the other initiates’ mentors. He didn’t have to turn around to know she stood ramrod straight, head held high, green eyes forward, absorbing every word Winston said.
Tabitha’s decision to submit his name for ascension to warrior status meant more to him than anyone else’s approval, even Winston’s. It was Tabitha who made him wish he’d made a different decision at the thrall cages. Not because he would have been proud of killing that poor, lost girl, but because Tabitha wouldn’t look at him with such disdain.
“And so I send you forth!” Winston now spoke directly to Alex and the other two initiates. “You have been given skills, the rest is up to you.”
Had he been given the skills? Yes, Alex could now fight as well as any warrior of Domus, but Tabitha had never taken him back to the cages. Like parallel parking when he had taken his driving test, Alex had been dreading the day and fully expected he would be required to prove himself there. But it hadn’t happened and they had never spoken of it again.
“As tradition dictates,” Winston said, “you will leave Domus immediately and begin your first tour as Core guard. As there are three of you ascending this day, all of you will go, as will your mentors.”
Alex heard a small, quiet, but sharp intake of breath from behind him. No one else was likely to have noticed it, but because it had come from Tabitha, he had.
She was surprised to be sent to the Core. Why? Didn’t everyone in Domus take a turn in the rotation? Surely she’d done it before. He almost turned so that he could get a glimpse of her face. Almost. But he knew it would be an enormous breach of etiquette, as much her shame as his if he did, so he remained still.
“I bid you farewell for today, assured in the knowledge that you go forth with confidence and in bravery, to do that for which you were born.”
Having been tutored by Tabitha, Alex knew what was expected of him next. He raised his blade as Winston had done previously, horizontally above his head and, in unison with his fellow initiates, bellowed, “To protect the world above!”
Sanctuary erupted in applause. Those who’d been seated to watch the ceremony came forward to offer congratulations and wish the initiates a safe first tour.
One by one, the citizens of Domus came and shook the hands of the other two initiates and those of their mentors. And one after the other, they shunned both Alex and Tabitha as if they weren’t there at all.
Alex snuck a glance at Tabitha, but she either didn’t notice him looking or was purposely avoiding eye contact. She stared straight ahead, her gaze fixed.
For himself, Alex perfectly understood why no one approached them. He had made exactly zero effort to cultivate any friendships after that first day back from the cages. He’d stayed exclusively near his shelter at the edge of the city. No one knew him. The only thing they knew was that he bore the last name of an abomination and that he hadn’t enough nerve to kill a thrall. They didn’t trust him, and that was fine—he didn’t care, he wasn’t staying in the Under any longer than he had to.
But he did care if his association with Tabitha was making life hard for her. She would still be here long after he and his dad were gone.
He began to bristle, ready to speak in her defense, but Tabitha was quicker.
She grabbed his arm in a firm grip. “Come,” she commanded tersely, her eyes hooded, unreadable.
“Where are we going?”
Shouldering through the crowd, she replied, “To the Core.”
The people closest heard her and went silent. Alex watched as they pretended to look away, but he could feel their eyes following them. He struggled to keep up as they elbowed their way through the thick press.
“Is everything okay?” Alex asked once they’d left Sanctuary and begun the trek to the outer edge of the city.
“Everything is fine,” Tabitha answered without turning around.
Obviously it wasn’t. “Tabitha, I know I don’t have the right to involve myself in your personal life, but if there is anything I can do to help—”
Tabitha spun to face him, her face red with anger. “You’re right, you don’t have the right! You are my trainee, nothing more!”
Alex was stunned. Never, not once in the time he’d spent with her, had Tabitha lost her composure.
Alex turned to see the other two initiates and their mentors hurrying down the steps of Sanctuary to catch up to them. He recognized one of them as Jonathan, the warrior who’d introduced himself so long ago on the first time he’d arrived in the Under.
“Jonathan, Gideon,” Tabitha greeted the two without warmth.
“You three,” Jonathan said, including Alex and the other two initiates. “Follow, but keep your distance until we have reached the tunnels.”
The mentors walked ahead, the presence of Alex and the other two initiates all but forgotten, their heads together as they spoke quietly amongst themselves.
Alex and his fellow initiates exchanged glances as they trailed behind, an awkward silence hanging in the air.
“I’m Alex,” he tried, hoping to break the tension.
Neither of them replied.
Both appeared to be close to his age, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old. Seventeen, Alex thought to himself, remembering that Tabitha had told him that every citizen of Domus was trained to be a warrior at seventeen. Until then, they were responsible for the more menial tasks such as fishing and sewing.
“So I bet you’re glad to be done doing the grunt work,” Alex tried again.
The one closest to him, a tall, blonde-haired boy, turned to look at the other. Although he couldn’t see the boy’s face, Alex was sure the two were sharing a look.
“My name is Abner,” the blonde finally replied stiffly, his eyes forward. “And this is Phineas.” The other, a young man with jet-black hair, a hawkish nose, and a sour disposition nodded past Abner with a scowl on his face.
“So…” Alex said.
“We know who you are,” Phineas interrupted acidly. “Everyone knows who you are.”
Phineas’s demeanor and higher-pitched voice clearly conveyed what Phineas thought about Alex.
Not knowing what to say, Alex continued in silence for a bit before asking, “So are either of you nervous? This being your first tour at the Core and all?”
Abner gave Alex a quick glance. “No.”
Alex sighed. They weren’t going to make it easy for him.
“Look,” he said. “I know everybody knows I didn’t kill that thrall. And I know everybody knows what my last name—”
“Your surname is of no consequence to us,” Phineas interrupted testily. “We are warriors of Domus. As such, we perform our duty without question. We have been instructed to take our first tour with you as part of the guard—and so we will.” He glanced ahead, at the backs of the mentors. “At least there will be four of us that can be counted on to perform their duty,” he added snidely.
Alex’s eyes narrowed. Why had Phineas excluded Tabitha? Certainly she was more than capable. “Four?”
Abner gave Phineas a scathing look, glancing nervously at the mentors. “Alex,” he said quickly to prevent Phineas from saying anything else, “before we reach the tunnels, where we must be silent, do you harbor any reservations?”
Like getting eaten by a giant mole or attacked by a vampire? Nah…
But he knew what Abner was really implying.
“I’m not afraid,” Alex replied flatly. Neither Phineas nor Abner replied. “I do have some questions, though.”
Phineas didn’t answer, but Abner gave him an encouraging nod.
“I know there is always a group guarding the Core, but why? I mean, I know it’s supposed to be bad, I know it draws people in and changes them, but how? How does it work?”
Phineas made a sound of disgust, like he couldn’t believe Alex had asked something so basic.
“Tabitha did not instruct you in this regard?” Abner asked.
“We, uh,” Alex made a face. “We really don’t talk much at all.” He remembered when she confronted him over her sister, how he’d mistaken her intensity for attraction. He almost chuckled out loud at the thought. Over the past month, she’d proven to be a stern and severe young woman, only speaking to him when critiquing his combat form or technique.
Abner looked like he wanted to question Alex more, but apparently changed his mind. “We do not know what the Core is or how it works,” he answered candidly. “We only know what it does.”
“Pfagh!” Phineas spat. “We know exactly what it is! It is evil, pure and concentrated into a single, glowing entity, placed here by Satan himself to await the day mankind would be arrogant enough to invent a way to find it!”
Ahead, Gideon stopped. “Phineas,” he chastised. “You will maintain your composure.”
Phineas bowed his head once, his eyes hooded.
Alex was shocked at the fervor behind Phineas’ words, and made a mental note to stay as clear of the young warrior as possible.
Abner looked uncomfortable. “There is a faction among us,” he explained, glancing at Phineas, “the Edenites, who firmly believe what Phineas has said is true. Another faction, the Divinites,” at this, Phineas made a sound of disgust, “believe that God placed it here to hide it, to protect mankind from ever finding it.”
It was clear Phineas had drunk the Kool-Aid from the Edenite pitcher.
Alex looked from Abner to Phineas and back again, both of whom were watching him expectantly. As if vampires and giant cave-dwelling animals weren’t enough, there were cults down here too. Great. “Why do you call yourselves Edenites?” he asked Phineas.
Phineas leaned past Abner and sniffed, declining to answer.
“They believe the story of the Garden of Eden was figurative. That the Under represents the Garden, the tunnels the snake, and the Core…”
“The Core is the apple,” Alex finished, fighting the urge to shake his head at the absurdity of it all. “And what do you believe?” he asked Abner.
“I believe it contains power,” Abner replied. “The kind of raw power only found in nature, like a poison berry or a venomous snake.”
Again, Phineas snorted in disgust and muttered, “Naturalist.”
“But why guard it?” Alex asked, ignoring Phineas. “Why stay so close to something like that? No matter who or what put it here, it’s bad, right?”
“Why, to kill the weak of course!” Phineas replied fiercely, earning another backward glance from his mentor.
Abner smiled thinly. “The Core calls to all mankind,” he sounded almost as if he were apologizing for Phineas’ words, “as well as those who have already been seduced by its power. The Edenites have very strong views against those who succumb.”
“And what does that mean—to succumb to the Core?”
“Surely you felt it when you were last in the Antechamber,” Abner answered. “Did you not experience a feeling of comfort and warmth? It pulls you, beckons to you, without you ever realizing it was what drew you to it. A natural feeling of safety and belonging pulsates from it, but so passively that you believe it is coming from within yourself rather than from the Core.”
“But it is a lie, Satan’s Great Lie!” Phineas decried hotly.
With cold clarity, Alex did remember feeling it. He had wanted to go toward the red glow. He remembered feeling lost and confused, not knowing where he was, but feeling certain that if he had to go in any direction it would be toward the red glow: toward the Core. There had been no reason why, it had just been his instinct that it was safe.
Alex’s stomach dropped out. If he’d gone to it he would have been changed forever, and had the Domus warriors not been there it was very likely that he would have. The Core had been playing tricks on his mind from the moment he arrived in the Under. It must have been what had happened to his ancestor, Benjamin Croatoan, hundreds of years ago. The thought was chilling.
Abner was nodding at Phineas’s outburst. “On that, every faction of Domus agrees that the Core is a liar, indeed. It seduces you, draws you in, and then bends you to its will.”
“But how?” Alex nearly whispered. “How does it do that?”
“We do not know how,” Abner answered candidly. “The change is gradual, sometimes taking weeks to fully manifest and sometimes only taking minutes. Each person’s level of resistance is different.”
“Pfagh!” Pfagh seemed to be Phineas’ favorite word. If it even was a word. “If they had any desire to resist, they would never go near it in the first place!”
Alex didn’t need to be told that this was another Edenite view. “So that’s all it takes? You just touch it and become…?”
“Nocuous,” Abner nodded grimly. “Yes. Like a poison slowly seeping in through the pores of your skin, the Core’s influence takes over and alters you.”
A cold shiver ran down Alex’s spine. “So you stand guard to protect your people from going to the Core, to protect them from changing.” They were silent for a few moments as Alex absorbed the information. “In all the time you’ve been down here,” he asked, “hasn’t anyone ever resisted the change? After touching it, I mean?”
“It is impossible to resist,” Phineas answered condescendingly.
“He is right,” Abner confirmed. “No one has ever successfully fought the change.”
“But six guards?” Alex asked. “That seems like a lot. It seems like the more people who guard it, the greater the chance of losing someone to it.”
“It is not just humans who are drawn to the Core,” Abner told him. “Both Nocuous and thrall also answer its call. We believe that being in its presence provides them a level of comfort, and that it also feeds them, grows their power.”
“And that is our true purpose!” Phineas declared. “To kill the weak! To kill those who’ve succumbed!”
Jonathan’s deep baritone made them all jump. They hadn’t realized the mentors had stopped.
“Do not allow the zeal of this young warrior to lull you falsely,” the mentor told them. “There is no such thing as a weak thrall or Nocuous.”
They were now very close to Alex’s shelter, at the outer boundary of the cavern. The steps to the exit tunnel rose before them.
“Be on your guard, all of you,” Jonathan warned. “As of this moment, we are silent.”
Wordlessly, silently, the six of them climbed the steps in single file. The darkness of the tunnel loomed ahead, like a mouth ready to swallow them whole. No matter how much training he’d undergone, Alex was still nervous after his last venture into the labyrinth of catacombs. He and Tabitha had trained exhaustively in the art of moving silently, and although he found he had a natural talent for it, he was already second-guessing his skill as they ascended the steep stairs.
Sixteen hours. That was how long an average tour at the Core lasted. Sixteen hours of complete, attentive silence—a long stretch for anyone, and Alex wasn’t looking forward to it. For the people of Domus it was simply what they did, as much a part of their life as going to school was for him. Alex vowed he was not going to complain his first time out. This was a test, and he knew it. A test of his resolve, fortitude, and ability. He would not, could not, fail because everyone would be waiting to see how he fared. For his father, the city’s opinion of him could mean the difference between life and death, and Alex wasn’t going to let him down.
They entered the tunnel without pause or comment, a long length of twine passed back from Jonathan, who led the way. They would be traveling in darkness, so as to lessen the chance of any predators taking notice of them. Because there was no light, they looped the twine around their waists, forming a human chain so that they could more easily keep together.
Jonathan set a slow, methodical pace, each step placed cautiously in front of the next. Alex knew that moving faster would be foolhardy, but for someone accustomed to the hustle-bustle of the world above it was an agonizing test of his patience. What’s more, it was a test of his courage. All he wanted to do was to get where there was light again, as quickly as possible. Try as he might to suppress it, the memory of the giant mole kept popping into his head, and each time he had to fight the desire to leave his place in line and hurry ahead.
Soon the darkness was so absolute that Alex couldn’t even see the walls, though he knew they were only a few feet away on both sides. Jonathan never faltered, unerringly bringing them around turns, through intersections, up grades, and down slopes. Both literally and figuratively, Alex was forced to blindly trust the twine that was tied around his waist, and that only put him even more on edge.
They halted several times along the way, twice for water and the other times as a result of the extreme caution being observed by their leader. Once, Alex heard the sound of something large shuffling through a nearby tunnel. It was all he could do not to blurt out a question, to ask what it was, to do something, as they silently waited for it to pass. When it was finally gone, seemingly ages later, Jonathan pulled them back into motion without a sound.
Scores of twists and turns later, the red glow of the Core finally began to permeate the air, faintly illuminating the way. The change was so gradual it took Alex by surprise when he realized he could completely see again.
At the entrance to the Antechamber, they stopped as three Domus warriors rose from a crouch and gave Jonathan a salute. Alex knew there were three others waiting in the tunnel on the other side, totaling the six Core guard that Alex and his group were relieving.
Jonathan motioned to Alex and Phineas that they would remain at this post with him. Phineas scowled his displeasure at the news, but dutifully moved to a spot on one side of the tunnel mouth and crouched against the wall, his stone blade balanced across his knees.
Alex watched as Tabitha, Abner, and Gideon crossed the Antechamber to take up positions at the other tunnel. Minutes later, the six Core guard who were going back to Domus silently crossed the Antechamber and began their long journey home, linked together by the same twine Alex and his group had used.
Alex settled in across from Phineas and gave him a reassuring nod, earning yet another derisive scowl as a response. Alex frowned back, already tiring of the hot-headed young warrior’s attitude toward him. There was nothing he could do right now, but when they got back to Domus Alex had every intention of squaring him up.
The minutes dragged by in agonizing slowness, the Core his only companion. Now that Alex understood how it worked, he could recognize it gently tugging at his consciousness. It was so subtle, almost imperceptible, that even when he pushed it out of his mind, it constantly crept back in and dominated his thoughts. At times, it made him feel so curious that he talked himself into going to get a look—just a look—to see what it was he was guarding. And then he’d have to firm up his resolve and push the thoughts from his mind and the process would start all over again.
For hours they squatted there, staring into the empty Antechamber. Alex had known that this was how it would be. But the tedium of remaining still and silent, constantly peering into the dim red light, was torturous.
To make matters worse, the muscles in his legs had begun to cramp until there was no way he could remain in the same position any longer. He carefully stood and began the series of quiet exercises he’d been taught to relieve tension. As he worked out the knots from his calves he glanced back at Jonathan. The Domus warrior was facing in the other direction, staring back into the tunnel they’d arrived through.
Although Alex hadn’t heard it, Jonathan had also risen to his feet and was standing rigidly, like a bird dog on point, staring into the darkness. Jonathan turned ever-so-slowly and lifted a finger to his ear, the signal that he’d heard something.
Alex tensed, remembering the mole. He turned to get Phineas’s attention, but the young warrior was already on his feet. That was good, except he was facing the toward the Core. Alex didn’t know if he should make an effort to get his attention. He certainly couldn’t call out, and moving to grab his arm or tap him on the shoulder would probably be an even worse idea if something was lurking back in the tunnel.
Alex figured Jonathan would know what to do, but when he turned back, Jonathan was already facing the darkness of the tunnel again. The veteran warrior radiated tense readiness, his arm held out rigidly, his blade clenched tightly in his fist.
Alex heard nothing, but if Jonathan believed something was there Alex knew he should make ready.
Phineas still seemed completely unaware of their impending danger. He stared fixedly toward the Core, his blade now held loosely, the tip pointed toward the floor.
Something was wrong. Phineas wasn’t acting right. All warriors were trained to stay alert. By now the young, hot-headed Edenite should have been well aware of Alex and Jonathan’s growing alarm.
A short, muted, scuffing sound from behind him almost made Alex’s heart stop. After so many hours of silence, the brief sound of Jonathan’s foot brushing the stone floor may as well have been as loud as a gunshot.
Jonathan was now crouched low, his blade held defensively, and he was slowly backing out of the tunnel.
Adrenaline shot through Alex’s body. This was it. He raised his weapon, also dropping into a crouch and backing into the Antechamber. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Phineas had finally begun to move, but it was in the wrong direction. With a clatter, Phineas’ weapon dropped to the floor. He strode toward the red glow, where the floor sloped away.
“Psst!” Alex hissed at Phineas. He didn’t know what else to do. This possibility had never been discussed. Jonathan had finally reached Alex, but his attention was fully riveted on the tunnel before them. Alex wanted to shout, to say, ‘Hey! Phineas is in big trouble!’ But he couldn’t. Surely Jonathan had heard the clatter of the sword on the floor!
A light touch on his shoulder nearly made Alex yelp. He spun around and raised his blade, but checked the swing when he saw that it was Tabitha, Abner, and Gideon.
Tabitha’s eyes were wide, silently demanding an explanation.
With his free hand, Alex first pointed toward Phineas and then at Jonathan and the tunnel, giving her an almost-hysterical shrug. What do I do?
Gideon signaled for Tabitha and Abner to go after Phineas, but they’d barely taken a step when a terrified shriek sounded from deep inside the tunnel.
All five of them spun, fanning out in the half-circle that was the standard battle formation for all Domus warriors.
At first nothing else happened. Alex counted silently in an effort to calm himself, 1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
Another shriek sounded, now much closer, and something moved in the darkness. It was still a long ways away, but it was definitely coming toward them. Alex could hear pounding footsteps now.
Slowly, like ghosts materializing from thin air, the Domus warriors who’d previously been guarding the Core came into sight, and they were running for their lives.
Alex squinted. One, two… there were only two of them. Why were there only two? Where were the others?
“To arms!” the one in the lead shouted. “To arms!”
“How many?” Jonathan shouted back.
“Too many!” shrieked the one farther back in the tunnel. “They’re com—”
He was never able to finish the word. Something unseen pulled him down by the ankles. He fell face-first to the floor and only had time for one brief, horrified look back at Jonathan before he was yanked backward into the blackness.
The remaining Domus warrior finally reached them and plowed through their line like a game of Red Rover, collapsing on the floor in a quivering heap.
“You will stand, Erikson!” Jonathan barked at the shaking warrior. “You will stand and fight!”
Alex looked from Jonathan to Erikson and back again, his breath coming in rapid gulps. This was it. This was really it.
Erikson propped himself up on the floor, sobs wracking his body.
“You will stand!” Jonathan yelled and thrust out a hand, offering to help him to his feet.
With great effort, Erikson pushed himself up onto his knees and clasped Jonathan’s forearm. “Yes…” he said, still disoriented but beginning to regain his wits. He pulled himself to his feet and his eyes scanned the group. “Where is your sixth?”
Jonathan threw a look toward the Core, his face grim. Erikson squeezed his eyes closed and bowed his head, understanding all too well what Jonathan’s look meant.
“I have no weapon,” Erikson finally said.
“Here,” Alex offered, remembering that Phineas had dropped his blade. He went to retrieve it, but his hand had barely reached the hilt before he caught a flash of movement from inside the tunnel.
There was barely time to turn his head, just the briefest of glimpses, before Alex was barreled into and flung backward. His arms arched behind him as he tried to catch himself, both his and Phineas’s blades clattering across the floor. The power of his attacker sent Alex sliding all the way to other side of the Antechamber to slam up against the far wall. He lay there, dazed, gasping for the wind that had been knocked from him.
He’d been attacked by a thrall, and it was already rushing the others, moving in quick, savage lunges in an attempt to reach them.
The others had squared off against the thrall, Erikson having bravely taken Alex’s place in formation barehanded. It snarled, furious, a constant blur of motion. No one spoke. The only sounds in the cavern were snarls and the shuffle of feet as the warriors waited for the perfect moment to strike.
Alex shook his head to clear it. He knew he should be there with them. He scanned the floor and found both his and Phineas’s blades a short distance away. Scrambling up onto his hands and knees, he used the cavern wall for leverage and lurched to his feet. The pain in his side was agonizing. In spite of himself, he groaned.
The thrall spun at the sound, as if remembering Alex was there, and Tabitha took the opportunity to strike. With a step forward and a long, overhand stroke, she neatly severed its neck. Its head fell to the floor with a dull thud, its body following a few moments later.
“Phineas,” Jonathan said into the prolonged silence following the thrall’s death. He only said the one word, but they all knew what it meant: Phineas had abandoned them, and must be dealt with. Domus law stated that his life was now forfeit.
No one replied, and no one met anyone else’s eyes.
Alex retrieved the fallen weapons, feeling conflicted. Phineas was someone he doubted he would ever have called a friend. He was surprised that despite the young warrior’s strong Edenite beliefs, he had still fallen prey to the Core.
“Who will go?” Jonathan asked, his voice deep and unrelenting.
After another pause, Abner stepped forward. “I will go,” he said, not looking directly at anyone.
“And I will go,” Tabitha stepped up next to him, her voice shaking.
Jonathan turned to face Tabitha squarely, forcing her to look in his eyes. She met his gaze, but couldn’t mask the fear she felt for what she knew needed to be done.
“No. You will not,” Jonathan replied quietly. Alex couldn’t tell for sure, but he thought he might have heard a note of tenderness in Jonathan’s words. Irrationally, it made him jealous.
“I will go,” Gideon stepped forward, his voice resolute. “He was my responsibility. My initiate.”
Jonathan gave Gideon a nod and clasped his shoulder.
And it was at that moment that Alex first heard the voice of a Nocuous.
It started as a low, throaty chuckle, barely discernible. It came from the same tunnel the thrall had burst from, deep and resonating, growing louder and louder until Alex was sure he felt the cavern vibrating to its rhythm. It was the most terrifying sound he’d ever heard.
The group spun and gathered into formation, at the ready once more, Phineas all but forgotten.
“Is that…?” Alex asked in a husky voice. He still stood rooted to the spot where his and Phineas’s weapons had landed, apart from the others, holding the blades awkwardly in both hands.
“It is,” Jonathan stated in his deep, steady baritone. “Maintain the formation!” he commanded.
Jonathan hadn’t taken his eyes from the tunnel, but Alex knew he was talking to him. Clenching his jaw, he put fear aside. “Erikson,” Alex said, holding out Phineas’ blade.
Reaching out to accept the weapon was the last thing Erikson ever did.
In a blur of violent motion, three thralls burst from the tunnel and slammed into Erikson. In a blink, they had him against the far wall, using their teeth and claws to tear into his throat, his torso, his eyes.
Erikson’s mouth opened to scream, but in a matter of seconds all he could do was gurgle out his torment. He thrashed and flailed, but his attackers were far too strong. All his struggling did was encourage their savagery.
The group of Domus warriors, now only four strong, spun and lunged forward in one smooth motion. A moment later, three heads were on the floor: two from thralls and one from Erikson—a mercy performed by Jonathan.
To Alex’s alarm, the remaining thrall scuttled backward, directly toward him. It still faced the group, but if it turned he would be the first person in its path.
“Ah,” thundered a deep, unnatural voice from the darkness of the tunnels. The thrall froze at the sound. The Domus warriors spun again, backing away in order to face this new adversary. Briefly, Alex and Tabitha locked eyes. She was terrified. To his surprise, the dominating emotion he felt in that moment wasn’t fear, but a desire to go to her, to protect her. He couldn’t, though. The thrall was now directly between him and the group.
“And so it appears you’ve given me a need to replenish my servants.” The cavern rumbled as the Nocuous emerged from the tunnel, surveying the carnage.
From its intimidating voice, Alex would have expected a giant to emerge from the darkness. Instead, a short, rather unimposing man stepped forward. Like the people of Domus, he was pale and thin, but carried none of the stoic tension that was the dominant trait of every person in the community. Instead, it strolled into the Antechamber casually, languidly, as if amused that these pathetic humans could have the audacity to consider mounting a defense against it.
The Nocuous trailed his long, dirty fingernails along the wall of the tunnel mouth, scraping them along the rock. The gesture was a strange mixture of nonchalance and intensity, his body language carefree, but his keen eyes burning as he scanned the room.
The thrall remained where it was, bent low and breathing heavily with its arms out, fingers curled claw-like.
Alex ever-so-slowly moved backward until he bumped against the cavern wall. Once there, he began inching his way along the perimeter toward the rest of the Domus warriors.
“Move no farther!” The Nocuous commanded sharply, cocking his head to the side as he zeroed in on Alex. His eyes narrowed. “You,” he murmured thoughtfully, his nose wrinkling. “You… smell different. Your fear… is desperate.”
The Nocuous’s voice was deep, so deep that Alex swore it echoed before it emitted from the creature’s mouth.
The thrall shifted and turned to face Alex with short, scuffling movements.
Standing with the crude stone blade clenched in his fist, Alex felt panic creep in and was overwhelmed by a feeling of absolute despair. What was he doing in this place? What was he thinking? He was no warrior, he was a high school kid with slightly-better-than-average grades.
He should never have come. If only he’d listened to his father and destroyed the suit he’d be going about his day, safe and unaware that the Under even existed.
Alex gave a start. The suit! He was still wearing the suit, and the shimmer was right above him! He could leave any time!
This wasn’t his fight. He wasn’t a Domus citizen and he sure didn’t have to die for their cause. He looked back at the group of warriors, going from face to expectant face, and knew by their expression he would die if he didn’t do something right now. It was in their eyes.
Shifting his weapon to his left hand, Alex felt with his fingers for the activator on the laser pointer. He looked upward, at the ceiling of the cavern. The Core’s reflective red shimmer was there, rippling on the roof like gently-rolling red waves.
Alex lifted his arm and curled his fingers downward.
The Nocuous had taken note of Alex’s every move and, seeing Alex’s glance at the ceiling of the cavern, its eyes widened in understanding. It hissed, baring its teeth in an anticipatory and hideous grin.
Tabitha had also taken note of what Alex was doing. “Alex, no!” she shouted in a desperate, panicked voice.
At the same time, the other three Domus warriors, led by Jonathan, seized the opportunity and attacked.
The Nocuous was unbelievably fast. He burst toward Alex in an explosion of movement so swiftly that there was no time to react. It was on him in a moment, its claw-like grip around his neck as it pinned Alex against the wall.
The thrall, seeing the warriors moving against its master, flung itself at them, heedless of any personal danger. It took a deep slice to the shoulder from Abner as he attempted to claim his first kill and backed away, howling in agony.
The Nocuous leaned in close to Alex, his black eyes inches from Alex’s. He sniffed him, a frown of concentration on his face, as if he couldn’t quite place what he smelled. Alex squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head, certain that he was living his final moments, but Tabitha screamed a challenge and rushed to attack, her blade a blur of motion. Behind her, Jonathan took advantage of the injured thrall and relieved it of its head in a single blow. As a single unit, the three warriors turned, roaring their defiance as they moved to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Tabitha. The Nocuous was finally forced to turn from Alex, slowly releasing his grip as he spun around, a slow leer spreading across his face.
Alex was completely separated from the main group. He briefly locked eyes with Tabitha, but it was Jonathan who said, “Alex, leave! Use the suit!”
The shocked look on Tabitha’s face must have been mirrored on Alex’s.
“What you possess is far too valuable!” Jonathan shouted. “Depart now!” he commanded again.
Alex activated the laser uncertainly, feeling none of the conviction to leave that he’d felt previously.
“Go!” Jonathan roared, and rushed the Nocuous with his blade held high, the other warriors rushing in behind him.
They were going to die. These warriors were willing to die in order to save him.
He raised his arm and pointed the laser at the red shimmer, but he didn’t close his fist. Not yet.
A scream drew his attention back to the battle as the Nocuous easily blocked Jonathan’s attack and, with a casual swipe, knocked the warrior across the cavern and into the wall. Jonathan slumped there, unconscious, possibly dead. The Nocuous pivoted smoothly, meeting the charge of the remaining warriors. It deftly lashed out, knocking Tabitha’s weapon from her hand, easily avoiding the blades of the other two.
They were going to die.
They were going to die and it would be his fault.
Before he knew what he was doing, Alex shifted his blade back to his right hand. The laser winked out and he charged the Nocuous from behind. He didn’t roar or rage as he ran toward the Nocuous—he was too afraid. He swung with all his might, aiming straight for its neck.
Just before the blade made contact, the Nocuous realized its own danger and whirled to face him, but it wasn’t quick enough. Alex’s stroke didn’t kill it, the angle was wrong after the Nocuous moved, but he managed to sink the width of the blade into its neck. As the Nocuous wrenched away, the weapon was yanked out of Alex’s hand, the blade still embedded there.
The Nocuous howled in pain, outrage, and fury. It charged him, but Tabitha was at the ready and with a single savage swing, finished the job Alex had begun.
The echo of its cries rang throughout the catacombs as the Nocuous’s head dropped to the floor, bouncing once before coming to rest, it’s dull, open eyes staring toward the red glow of the Core.
“Winston, I’m ready,” Alex insisted. The two of them sat alone in the big man’s home, a small room built into one of the thick walls of Sanctuary. He could see that Winston was running out of patience, maybe even getting angry, but Alex refused to be dissuaded. Dad could be running out of time. He’d done everything Winston had asked. He’d proven his worth back in the Antechamber.
“You promised,” Alex pressed. “We had a deal, and I’ve held up my end.” When Winston didn’t answer right away, Alex began to get mad. “Do you want everyone to know you didn’t keep your word?” he threatened.
Winston rose to his feet indignantly. He glared down, his fingers flexing into clenched fists, and for a moment Alex worried he’d gone too far. Finally Winston snarled and turned away.
That Alex might be able to sway the opinion of the people wasn’t an idle threat. Winston knew it, but more importantly, Alex knew it too. Maybe if Alex’s first tour at the Core had been uneventful, maybe then Winston wouldn’t have any cause to worry. But the whole city had heard what happened in the Antechamber. They knew that Alex had been an integral part of slaying a Nocuous, and for Alex that made it a whole new ballgame.
It had been four days since they’d returned from their terrible ordeal, something Alex hoped he’d never have to repeat.
The hours following the battle had been awful. Phineas had never returned, and it was far too late for any of them to go to the Core to look for him—undoubtedly, the damage had already been done. The worst part was, they all knew he must still be there because none of them had seen him come back through the Antechamber and it was the only way in and out the of the Core room. So they waited there, exhausted, scared, and bruised, for their relief to arrive, a strange mixture of hope and dread in their hearts for their lost companion.
Although none of them said it aloud, Alex was sure any one of them would have been happy to leave and return to the city, but Domus law dictated they wait until a new group of guards came, and there was still close to ten hours left of their tour.
Because Jonathan and Alex were the most injured, they spent most of the remaining time dragging corpses out of the Antechamber while the most able-bodied, Tabitha, Abner, and Gideon, remained on guard. They pulled the dead weight for hours, through miles of dark, dank tunnels, to a place Jonathan called the Ossuary, a small cavern where thousands of bone fragments littered the floor.
It was soul crushing and grisly work. Not only did they dump the remains of Nocuous and its thralls there, but also those of Erikson and the guard who’s name Alex had never learned, the one who’d been pulled down as he’d been sprinting for the safety of the Antechamber.
“It seems wrong to leave them lying in the same grave together,” Alex had said bleakly.
“We all end up in the Ossuary,” Jonathan had replied grimly. “We dare not leave remains anywhere near Domus or the Core. The scent of blood would attract all manner of creatures. We cannot bury them, and should we commit their remains to the Great Lake, we risk contamination of our water supply.”
It was a sad fact of existence in the Under. The Ossuary was the only form of graveyard they had available to them, and Alex left it feeling worse than he had when he’d first hefted Erikson’s corpse to drag it there. The stench, the terrible knot in his gut, and the cold realization of victory’s consequences crushed the thrill and left him remembering how his dad had always told that there were never any winners in any fight. Finally, he understood what his father really meant. It lent Alex a new kind of respect for warriors like Jonathan, whose daily life was constantly overshadowed by impending tragedy.
Their relief guard had arrived nearly three hours after that, appearing from the dark gloom with wide, frightened eyes. They’d seen the blood trails as they neared the Antechamber and had feared the worst.
In terse whispers, Jonathan had recounted the story of the battle. More than once, Alex heard his name. Every time that happened ten pairs of eyes had come to rest on him, and every time the respect in them had become a little less grudging.
They’d arrived back in Domus, nerves stretched wire-thin. There wasn’t a single one of them who wasn’t weary to the bone both physically and emotionally. Alex had bid them farewell as soon as they neared his shelter, eager to give his body a chance to rest. The cold, hard, stone floor had felt like a four-posted feather bed.
Alex had awoken countless hours later, stiff and sore, especially in his ribs. He’d painfully pushed himself up into a sitting position before he realized someone had come into the room while he was sleeping and had wrapped a skin blanket around him for comfort and warmth. No one in Domus had ever done anything like that for him before.
“I brought you food,” Sarah’s small voice had startled him. She was perched on the last step, watching him with her elbows on her knees and her hands tucked under her chin. She pointed to a bowl on the floor near his feet.
He’d known it contained the same raw fish that he’d eaten for every single meal since he’d arrived in the Under, but his gut rumbled in spite of it.
“Thank you, Sarah.” He immediately went to work on the bowl’s contents. “How long have I been asleep?” he had asked, his mouth full.
“Nearly a full day,” Sarah had answered. She edged forward on the step and watched him eat, smiling as if seeing him scarf down the food made her happy. It was a little awkward, but Alex didn’t say anything or ask her to leave. No one ever came to visit him, and the last time he and Sarah had spoken she’d run away in terror. It was a nice change.
“My sister says you’re a good guy now,” Sarah had told him matter-of-factly. “She says you’re a hero.”
“Ummm…” Alex swallowed down a chunk of fish. He hadn’t know what to say. “Cool,” he finally answered lamely. He definitely didn’t feel like a hero. It had been Jonathan and Tabitha who’d been the bravest. Tabitha, especially, had been the strongest one. She had delivered the killing blow to the Nocuous. Alex had not only failed to kill it with his weak swing, but lost his weapon in the process.
And he’d nearly abandoned them all. He’d been seconds from simply teleporting out and letting them die. No, he most certainly did not feel like a hero.
“Cool?” Sarah had asked. “Do you require another blanket?” She was already halfway to her feet, eager to make him comfortable.
Alex hadn’t replied. He’d just shook his head and grinned, and Sarah had grinned back, sitting down again to watch him finish his breakfast.
Word of the battle spread quickly. In the following days, Alex had more people wave and offer friendly nods—from a distance, of course—than he would ever have believed possible. It seemed public opinion of him had begun to shift.
Tabitha even warmed in her approach. Although she was no longer required to mentor him, she still came to his shelter every day under the pretense of continued training. That first day back, she made quite a fuss when she caught him favoring his side and demanded that he allow her to make certain there were no breaks.
She had gasped at the sight of his arm ports when he peeled the suit from his upper body, but when she saw that the entire right side of his torso was a mass of purple and black bruises she forgot the ports and went straight to work. Alex had to concentrate hard not to let it show how much he enjoyed the feel of her warm hands probing his side, and as much as he would have liked to, he knew better than to comment. He was fairly certain, however, that he saw a slight flush creep up her neck as he pulled the suit back over his chest that, after weeks of training, had turned hard with sinew and muscle.
Now, four days after the battle in the Antechamber, Alex sat with Winston.
Winston was still pacing, agitated.
“Sir,” Alex said, changing his tone in the hope that he could convince the Marshall. “I know you just lost seven good men, and I know you don’t want to lose more. I don’t want that to happen either.”
Winston stopped pacing and listened, his hands clasped behind his back. Alex couldn’t read the big man’s expression.
“Is it possible we could do this without attacking?” Alex asked hopefully. “Couldn’t we just rescue him? Sneak in?”
“We do not even know if he is still alive,” Winston pointed out.
“He has to be,” Alex replied in a flat, uncompromising tone. “My father has to be alive. But,” Alex cleared his throat, “that’s a good point… sir.” The word sir tasted funny coming from Alex’s mouth. It wasn’t one he used with anyone, not even with his father. “If we go to Rasmus’s den and don’t see my Dad, then we don’t attack.”
Winston narrowed his eyes. “A Nocuous den is simply not a place you stop by for a visit. As soon as we come anywhere near his lair, Rasmus will know we are there.”
Alex swallowed back his irritation. “What if we kidnap one of his thralls? And force it to tell us…” Winston snorted as Alex trailed off, and Alex knew the suggestion was ludicrous. Thralls couldn’t speak.
“Please,” Alex finally said, almost begging. “I’ve been here so long already. You said it yourself—my father could be dead. Every day that we wait, every second, makes that more likely.”
A prolonged silence filled the space between them. Alex could see that Winston felt compassion for the situation he was in, but he also knew the big warrior would always take the welfare of his people into account first.
“Every warrior that Domus loses,” Winston finally said, “is one less that would defend our home and people were we attacked. This, our home, must be my first priority, always.” He pursed his lips. “And we lost seven in one day.” Alex bristled, but Winston stopped him. “I can see that you love your father, and I am certain that, having been the one who created the Magnosphere suit you wear, he is an important man.”
“Yes,” Alex began, standing to counter whatever argument Winston was getting ready to make, but Winston wasn’t done.
“But is your father’s life more important than twenty of my warriors?” Winston asked. “Or ten? Or one?”
Alex deflated. “You promised,” he protested quietly. “You gave me your word.”
“And I will keep it,” Winston replied.
Alex looked up, hope reclaiming his heart.
“When seven more initiates ascend to full warrior status,” Winston said, “We will engage Rasmus.”
Alex blinked, the implication of what Winston had said taking some time to sink in.
Seven more warriors? How long would that take? Another month? A year?
“Are you freaking kidding me?” Alex shouted, his temper let loose in an instant. “Do you even know when that will be?”
“It will be when they are ready,” Winston answered calmly, his voice low and resolute. He moved to the door to show Alex out, a clear signal that their meeting was over. “My decision will stand firmly.”
Alex was so mad he didn’t trust himself to speak. A barrage of insults rose to his lips, but he knew he’d only risk incurring Winston’s wrath. He snatched his blade from the table and stormed out of the room.
Tabitha was waiting in the main room of Sanctuary. One look at his stormy expression was all she needed to know how it had gone.
“This is stupid!” Alex fumed, striding past Tabitha for the exit. “It’s absolute crap!”
Tabitha followed after him, not replying.
Turning abruptly, Alex wheeled around with the fabric of his suit clenched in one hand. “Doesn’t this count for anything? I mean, I can teleport, for God’s sake!” He raised his voice, shouting back toward Winston’s room. “Doesn’t he want to save his people once and for all?”
Alex spit a curse and turned away. He shouldered past the guards at the main exit and was out on the steps before he turned back to Tabitha again.
“He promised me!” Alex said angrily, nearly in tears out of the frustration he felt. “He promised and now he—”
He would have kept ranting, but Tabitha didn’t let him. She closed the distance between them and clamped her mouth over his, pressing a long, hard kiss on his lips.
It took Alex completely by surprise and, by the way Tabitha was looking back at him stunned and wide-eyed, it had taken her by surprise too.
“It’s about time.”
They spun to see Jonathan smirking up at them from the bottom of the steps.
“Uh…” Alex stammered. “I…”
Tabitha made a high-pitched, choking sound and fled down the steps and into the city.
Alex watched her go, stupefied.
“Give it time,” Jonathan told him with a smug grin as he sauntered away, “and I promise it will get even more confusing, my friend.”
The next morning, Tabitha didn’t come to Alex’s shelter. It was the first time since they’d begun training so many weeks ago that she failed to arrive on time.
Alex stepped outside his shelter and stretched, looking down on Domus. For the first time in a very long time, he felt a pang of loneliness. Even in Beaver, Utah he hadn’t cared if anyone spent time with him.
But Tabitha was different.
How did this all get so complicated? He’d come to the Under to find his dad. How on earth did he end up with woman problems in the middle of it all?
Alex sighed helplessly and knuckled his sore back. He’d spent what was left of the previous day training alone, furiously putting himself through his paces in an attempt to work out his frustration.
Winston’s reason for delaying the attack on Rasmus was hard to argue with. Alex knew the Marshall was doing what was best for his city. Sure, he could go out and attempt to sway the people’s opinion, but then what? It was clear Winston was respected by everyone. Alex had just started receiving hesitant greetings from people, and those were usually from a distance. The idea that anyone might actively try to convince Winston to reverse a decision made in their own best interests was ridiculous, and Alex knew it.
He’d just have to figure out another way to convince the big man.
With still no sign of Tabitha, Alex ducked back into his shelter to grab his jean jacket. Having no other plan of action, he figured he may as well train some more, even if he had to do it sore and alone. At the very least, it would clear his mind.
A stir of movement caught his eye as he re-emerged and Alex felt his heartbeat quicken with the hope that Tabitha had simply been running late.
But it wasn’t her. A group of warriors were headed up the path from the city, on their way to begin a tour at the Core. Patiently, Alex bowed his head respectfully, silently wishing them safe passage and a speedy return as they went by. Core guards always passed in silence, their eyes straight ahead. In the beginning Alex had taken offense to it, but now he understood. They weren’t ignoring him, they were mentally preparing themselves for the road ahead and the hours they would spend guarding the most dangerous area of the Under.
But this time was different. This time as they passed, their eyes met his. They didn’t speak, but one by one they raised their blades to their chests, tips pointed downward. A brief, silent display of acceptance. Alex was now was one of their own.
That was all they did, nothing more. It was over in seconds, but Alex was left in their wake with a lump in his throat and a swell of pride in his heart. He watched them climb the steps and disappear into the tunnel mouth, his spirit right alongside them.
It had been a long time since he’d felt any measure of acceptance from his peers, and it felt good. How ironic that he’d found it in a place where he couldn’t possibly be any more different than those around him.
Watching the last warrior disappear get swallowed up by the dark tunnel, Alex idly flicked the laser pointer on the body suit on and off, thinking for the hundredth time how drastically his life had changed in so short a time. If he’d made just one decision differently, if he’d have destroyed the suit like his dad had asked, he would never have known the Under existed. He would never have known about Domus or the Core. He would never have met Tabitha.
“Oh!” A tiny voice made Alex jump, startled.
Sarah must have come up the path after the warriors, but Alex had been too mired in his own thoughts to notice. She stood with a bowl in her hands, staring wide-eyed at the spot where the laser beamed out of his wrist. Alex self-consciously hid it behind his back.
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” Alex said quickly, knowing how skittish the little girl could be. “I didn’t know you were there.”
Sarah leaned to the side, trying to peer around him and get a look, curiosity replacing her fears.
Standing with his arm behind his back, Alex began to feel foolish. He awkwardly switched the laser off. He took his arm from behind him and let it dangle, trying to look natural. He felt a strange desire to look away and whistle.
“Does it hurt?” Sarah asked.
“What? No!” Alex smiled, holding up his hand and twisting it at the wrist to show her. “Wanna see?”
Sarah’s face lit up. She nodded eagerly.
Alex pointed to the ground, away from Sarah, and turned on the laser. She gave a short, mouse-like squeak and jumped. Thinking he’d frightened her again, Alex moved to switch the laser off, but then she moved closer and he knew her exclamation had been a sound of delight.
Alex grinned and pointed the laser upward, waving it across the ceiling of the cavern. Sarah watched in rapt amazement as the laser traced lines over their heads. With a quick flick of his wrist, Alex flipped it around and pointed it at himself, right in the middle of his chest. Sarah’s mouth opened, her expression alarmed.
“It’s okay!” he assured her hastily. “It doesn’t hurt. It’s just light. Just different colored light.” Holding his other hand up, he illustrated by waving the laser back and forth across his palm.
Sarah’s head moved with the pinpoint of light on his hand and Alex couldn’t help chuckling.
“You remind me of my cat.”
“What’s a cat?” Sarah asked.
Alex frowned, momentarily saddened by the thought that a little girl as sweet as Sarah would never know something as simple as the love of a pet.
Sarah lifted her finger hesitantly, like she wanted to touch his hand where the light was.
Grinning anew, Alex flipped it around and pointed the laser at her. Sarah shrieked and dropped the bowl, which Alex couldn’t help noticing didn’t contain fish for the very first time, and began swatting at herself in an attempt to wipe it off. She danced around in circles, over and over trying to avoid the light and soon they were both laughing hysterically.
Alex kept it going for a while, until they were both so out of breath all they could do was laugh silently. He finally shut it off, eyeing the scattered mess of his breakfast strewn on the ground.
“Oops,” he said, smirking at Sarah. Whatever it was—mushrooms, maybe?—it didn’t look very good. And then they started laughing all over again.
“So,” Sarah said after they’d calmed down again, her expression serious. “What about the other part—does that hurt?”
“The other? You mean the…” Alex still couldn’t think of a word to use for teleportation. “The, uh…”
Sarah lifted her tiny fists, opened one and then closed it, then opened the other. “Ffft, ffft!”
Alex smiled. He couldn’t have described it any better. “No,” he told her. “That doesn’t hurt either. It’s more like—it just feels funny.” He squinted. “It’s hard to describe. Tingly, I guess.”
Sarah nodded. Alex could see was thinking hard about what she was about to say next.
“So why didn’t you use it?” she asked. Her voice was small, like she was afraid he was going to get mad.
“Well,” Alex sighed. “I wanted to, but…”
I’m in love with your sister.
Alex jerked his head up. Where had that thought come from? He blinked, sputtering, “I just couldn’t leave them there to fight alone.”
In love with Tabitha? Alex didn’t even know what love was! Did he?
“That’s not what I mean. Why didn’t you fight with it?” Sarah prodded.
Alex’s inner turmoil was cut short in an instant.
It was such a simple question. Such an obvious question. Why hadn’t he used it to fight? What a weapon the suit could be!
The Nocuous and their thralls had two main advantages: their speed and their strength. But with the suit, Alex could be faster than any Nocuous ever dreamed. If he could learn to use the suit and his blade together, there would be no stopping him. Then he wouldn’t even need Winston’s help.
Well, maybe he would still need some help. He still had no idea how to find Rasmus’s den.
First though, he needed to see if he could do it at all. And to do that he would need a practice dummy.
“Sarah,” he said, ruffling her hair, “you just might be a genius.”
For the next hour, the two of them gathered flat stones to stack one on top of the other. It took a long time to find the sizes and shapes they needed, but eventually they’d stacked them as high as an average person. In the end, it looked like a big, clumsy snowman made of rock.
“Well, it’s not pretty,” Alex noted.
“I think it is cool,” Sarah answered with an emphatic grin and then turned serious an instant later. “Did I say it correctly?”
Alex gave an appreciative nod in return and ruffled her hair. He paced around the rock-man thoughtfully. “I can’t practice on a rock,” he murmured. “My blade would chip or break if I swung too hard.”
“Oh!” Sarah said excitedly, hopping up and down clapping her hands. “I’ll be right back!”
She ran off without waiting for Alex to respond. When she returned, she was triumphantly carrying an arm-full of ragged, torn animal skins.
“What are we going to do with that?” Alex asked.
Sarah dropped her armload to the ground and sifted through it until she found what she was looking for. Grinning, she held up a fist-sized stone she’d bound tightly with skins and lobbed it to him.
It was soft, having been wrapped quite a number of times. To Alex it felt like a slightly larger, harder version of a softball.
“And I brought extra scraps in case you chop up what’s covering the rock now,” Sarah told him.
“It’s perfect,” he told her gratefully, bouncing the stone in his hand. “Absolutely perfect.” Carefully, he placed the bound rock atop his rock-man. “This is going to take me some time,” he warned Sarah. “Like, probably a long time. You might get bored, and I don’t want you to get in trouble for missing your chores because of me.”
In truth, he was sure he was about to make a fool of himself and preferred to do that alone.
“It’s alright,” Sarah assured him. “I did my chores before I came up here.”
Of course she did.
Giving Sarah a wry look, Alex shrugged out of his jean jacket and took up his blade. He went to the rock-man and turned around, putting his back to it. In order for the suit and sword combination to be effective, he needed to perfect the backswing Tabitha had taught him. He wanted to teleport behind his opponent and attack from the rear, but most of all he had to learn to be quick. As soon as he appeared, he had to be swinging his blade. They’d never see him coming. Literally.
It wasn’t going to be easy. Alex was right-handed, and the laser pointed from that hand. If he was going to attack immediately, he’d have to use his left hand for the attack stroke and that would make it awkward, at best.
For the first hour, Alex did nothing but pivot and turn, pivot and turn, until he was certain he wouldn’t lose his footing. Next, he added the backhanded swing to the move, slowly at first and then with increasing speed as he grew more and more confident. He worked methodically, and soon one hour turned into five.
It turned out to be easier than he’d expected, all things considered. Tabitha’s training regimen proved to be his greatest asset, because he already had confidence in his moves and his body was in as good a shape as it had ever been. He couldn’t exactly call his backhanded left-side swing agile, not yet, but he was getting there.
Of course, it was one thing to do it in practice, over and over, and another to have only one shot at getting it right. And that’s exactly what he’d have to do. His life would depend on it.
They took a break to eat lunch, he and Sarah eating in companionable silence, stopping only to stand respectively as a group of warriors returned home from a tour at the Core. Their rock-man got more than a few curious glances, but no comment was made.
“You had better get back out there,” Sarah commented, watching the warriors disappear into the city.
“Oh really?” Alex chided and gave her a light nudge. “Oh really?”
“Yes,” she replied seriously, looking up at him.
He paused, looking out over the city. “So, uh… I don’t suppose your sister said anything to you?” he asked. “You know—about me?”
When Sarah didn’t answer, he glanced down at her. She gave him a mischievous smile but didn’t answer.
What was that supposed to mean?
Grumbling about the way even the youngest women seemed to want to frustrate him, Alex rolled his shoulders to loosen up and went back to his place next to the rock-man. He’d worked all morning on his technique, and it was time to see if the work had paid off. He needed to improve his momentum, to turn his careful swings into killing strokes. In the Antechamber, when he’d tried to take the Nocuous’s head off, he hadn’t even managed to slice halfway through its neck. Alex needed to learn precision, yes, but just as importantly, he needed a strong, even swing.
Alex took a deep breath, lifted his right arm out at an angle as if he were pointing the laser, and slowly down from five.
5… 4… 3… 2…
“Just do it!” Sarah called out, popping a last chunk of mushroom in her mouth.
Nearly stumbling without ever having moved, Alex completely lost his focus.
“I am!” he shouted back. Sarah gave him a helpless shrug and a grin as he refocused.
5… 4… 3… 2… Now! Turn and…
He swung with all he had and his blade whizzed almost a foot over the skin-wrapped stone. Alex stumbled, fell into the rock-man, and knocked over the top-most stones. Back on the path, where Sarah sat with her empty bowl of mushroom chunks, he heard her gleeful cackling.
Pushing back to his feet, red-faced, Alex gathered up the fallen stones and took up his stance once again.
Over and over, he worked on his swing. Before long he began to connect with the skin-wrapped stone regularly, but not consistently. If he didn’t hit it at just the right angle, in just the right spot, his blade would careen off the top or gouge into the rock underneath it. He was aiming for the center, and that’s where he needed to hit. Every time.
Alex worked with a fever, spending so many hours at it that when he finally looked up again, his arm was throbbing. Sarah had gone. He wasn’t sure when she’d left. He assumed she must have gotten bored or simply had to go and didn’t want to interrupt him.
He slept, and when he woke he went right back to it. By the end of the second day, Alex could hit the stone every time.
And, by the end of the second day there was still no sign of Tabitha. Briefly, Alex considered going into the city to look for her, but he feared he’d just end up doing more harm than good. If she wasn’t ready to talk to him yet, he’d be patient and wait until she was.
On the third day, Sarah returned and Alex was ready to take his new swing to the next level. He was ready to begin using the suit.
“Sarah,” he warned. “I don’t want you to worry. This is going to look scary, but it’s not. I promise.”
Sarah looked anything but scared. Her big, bright eyes were wide with anticipation.
Alex stood on the path just outside the training area, blade in hand. It was still a little awkward holding it in his off-hand, but much less so than it had been.
He gave Sarah a wink and switched on the laser. Turning to face the rock man, he carefully pointed to a spot directly behind it and tightened his grip on the hilt of his weapon.
Slowly, he let out his pent up breath and clenched his fingers together. The suit lit up and he was washed over with the familiar dull light of its transport. A moment later, the rock-man had disappeared and Alex was staring past it, toward the far end of the cavern. With a start, he realized he was standing right where he was supposed to be and swung, his left arm arching behind him in the move he’d practiced time and again over the past two days.
He connected solidly with the skin-wrapped stone and sent it flying. It landed dozens of feet away with a dull thud.
He’d done it! And on his first try!
Vaguely, he heard a high-pitched sound growing in volume, getting louder by the second and then he was barreled into by Sarah, who’d been screaming triumphantly as she ran to hug him.
“That was the most amazing thing I have ever seen!” she squealed. “It was most cool! The very most cool thing ever in the Under!”
Alex didn’t have the heart to correct her, he was far too excited himself. He raised his blade over his head and bellowed exultantly, the sound echoing off the cavern wall. He could only imagine what they must be thinking down in the city.
But it didn’t go like that every time. After Alex and Sarah’s initial celebrating calmed down and he was ready to try it again, Alex whiffed completely, his blade sailing over the rock-man’s ‘head’ by half a foot. But he didn’t let it dampen his spirit, he went right back and tried again. And again. And again.
When lunchtime came, Sarah not only brought food back from the city, but also a small group of kids who wanted to see if she was telling the truth. At first they whispered to each other quietly, but before long they oohed and aahed openly as they watched him work with the suit and the sword. By the end of the day, a small crowd had gathered. At first, Alex was self-conscious about having so many eyes on him, but when they laughed with him at his failures and applauded his successes, he found himself beginning to thrive on their attention and funneled it into motivation to do better. Abner showed up and was a great help. He volunteered to retrieve the rock each time Alex hit it and he was also the one who suggested that Alex try it from different spots, different angles, because certainly in a fight an opponent wouldn’t always be standing in exactly the same place, waiting to be killed.
By the end of the day Alex was exhausted and sore, but exhilarated. The people who’d come to watch now numbered close to a hundred and congratulated him on his progress. When they bid him farewell, it was with a fondness in their voice and a promise that they would come to watch again.
The only gloom in his otherwise wonderful day was that Tabitha never made an appearance. He would have expected that she would be among the first to come when word spread about what he was doing. He’d thought about questioning Sarah more, but doing so might only alienate Tabitha. He’d learned firsthand how protective she was of her sister.
Despite all the positive things that had happened that day, Alex went to bed with a hollow, lonely ache in his gut that was still there when he finally drifted off to sleep.
When he emerged from his shelter the next morning, he could scarcely believe his eyes. Sarah was waiting, as usual, with his morning breakfast. But past her, standing in a crowd around his rock-man, were so many people that it appeared the entire population of Domus had come to watch.
What’s more, standing front and center of the crowd was Winston, arms crossed over his chest.
“How long have they been here?” Alex whispered to Sarah.
“A long time,” she whispered back loudly.
“You sleep like an old man,” Abner said from behind, causing Alex to jump. He hadn’t noticed the young warrior waiting there.
Alex took his breakfast from Sarah, distractedly stuffing it into his mouth as he descended toward his practice area. When he neared, the crowd amicably parted to give him space. No one said anything except Abner, who seemed more than happy to speak enough for everyone.
“I thought you would like to start simply,” Abner said. “From where you stood so often yesterday. I told everyone where that was and asked them to stay clear.”
Alex glanced at Winston as he passed, but the Marshall said nothing, following him with his eyes, his expression blank.
“I re-wrapped the stone for you, as well,” Abner continued.
“I helped!” Sarah piped in.
“Yes,” Abner smiled down and ruffled her hair. “Sarah helped too. We wrapped it a few extra times to be sure there would be no more damage to your blade. Have you examined your poor weapon?” he chided, but didn’t give Alex a chance to answer. “It needs to be sharpened, at minimum. Replaced, more likely. You must have swung into bare rock at least a hundred times yesterday.”
Abner handed Alex his blade and ushered him toward the stone dummy, talking nonstop the entire way.
Halfway there, Alex stopped and interrupted Abner. “Is Tabitha here?” he asked. Abner finally shut up. “Where is Tabitha?”
“She didn’t come,” Sarah answered with a solemn expression.
“Did she say why?”
Sarah shook her head slowly.
Abner put a conciliatory hand on Alex’s shoulder. “Let us proceed,” he said cheerily, “we have much more pressing issues! All these people have come to watch!”
When did this become ‘we’? Alex wondered. He began to shrug out of his jean jacket, but Abner was right there to help, taking it from him and carefully draping it over one arm. Alex pursed his lips in annoyance, close to saying something, but held his tongue.
The crowd backed away as Alex moved to his usual spot on the path, giving him a wide, clear line of sight to the rock-man. He shifted his blade to his left hand and switched on the laser, drawing a chorus of gasps from many of the people watching.
“It’s okay,” Alex told them uncertainly, feeling out of his depth. “It’s just—”
“It’s just colored light!” Sarah piped in, grabbing his hand and waving it so that it crisscrossed over her. Another round of gasps coursed through the crowd. She giggled, looking expectantly at them, but trailed off uncomfortably when no one said a word.
Alex cleared his throat loudly, turning back to the rock-man.
“Tough crowd,” he muttered.
“You’ll be terrific,” Sarah leaned up and whispered loudly. She patted him on the back and backed away.
Nothing like a little pressure.
Alex raised his arm and pointed to his now-familiar spot behind the rock-man. Without giving himself time to feel any more nervous, he clenched his hand into a fist. The next instant, he was automatically swinging his blade in a back-handed stroke. He connected solidly with the skin-wrapped stone and it went flying into the crowd, striking someone three rows back solidly in the gut. The man doubled over with a wide-eyed grunt.
And still no one said a word.
“Sorry!” Alex called out, raising his hand apologetically. The laser swung out into the crowd. They gasped and ducked. “Sorry!” he said again and hastily turned it off, blushing now.
It wasn’t like yesterday. There were no congratulations, no words of praise. He felt like a buffoon. Worse yet, he didn’t feel comfortable practicing any longer, not with all these people around, and he knew he needed to.
He stood there awkwardly, wondering why it was so quiet and at same time trying to figure out a way to ask everyone to leave without alienating them, when Winston stepped forward.
Of course. The stoic leader would naturally make the people of Domus more subdued.
“I would speak to Alex,” he said in his deep, resonating voice. “Privately.”
Quietly and respectfully, the crowd retreated back toward the city until the only people left in Alex’s practice area were Alex, Winston, and Sarah.
Winston looked down at the little girl expectantly.
“Me too?” Sarah asked disappointedly. Alex was sure if there had been a pebble nearby to kick, she would have.
Winston smiled indulgently. “Yes, but only for a short while.”
“That was very impressive,” Winston said once he and Alex were alone. “When my people told me that you were training to go to war alone, I had to see it for myself.”
Alex had most certainly not been planning to do that. Did Winston think he was crazy? There was no way Alex would last ten minutes in those tunnels alone, suit or no suit.
“Your determination and zeal will not diminish, I can see that,” Winston continued. “More importantly, I now see that your suit might give us the advantage we need to eradicate the Nocuous and someday return to the surface.” Winston leaned forward, his voice insistent. “If you could train our warriors to use the suit as you’ve shown today, we would be unstoppable.”
“Um…” Alex stammered.
Winston bent so close it made Alex nervous and he reflexively leaned away. The Marshall was imposing enough from a distance. The idea that Winston might consider taking the suit by force flashed through his mind.
Hurriedly, Alex replied, “You know I can’t give you the suit until I find my dad and take him back to the surface. It works for me, but there is a machine that makes it do what it does, and only for one person at a time. I can’t change the suit from down here. It won’t work for anyone else without that machine.” He gulped. “And I need my dad to show me how to work it.”
Winston nodded sagely and stood straight again, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Alex could tell he didn’t fully comprehend what Alex had said, but certainly he understood that the suit wouldn’t work for anyone else.
“You will scout a smaller den on the fringe first, far from Rasmus’s lair,” Winston finally said. “We will choose carefully, and make certain that it is the home of a weaker Nocuous. It will be a test to see if you are capable of infiltrating Rasmus’s den without alerting him to your presence.”
Alex was already nodding, a mixture of hope and relief filling him.
“When?” Alex asked. “When will we go?”
“If all goes well,” Winston told him, “we will return from this test and carefully plan the assault on Rasmus.” He fixed Alex with a steely glare. “There will be no unnecessary loss of life,” he warned. “We have never been the aggressor, always the defender. I do not make this decision lightly, but I cannot deny that I see the future of Domus before me and I would be remiss in my duty as Marshall if I did not take advantage of it.”
“I understand,” Alex answered carefully. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t want anyone to get hurt on my account.”
Winston squinted, as if he were weighing the sincerity of Alex’s words. There was a tense moment when neither of them spoke, and then Winston laid a hand on Alex’s shoulder and squeezed it gently. Alex could not help comparing it to the kind of gesture his father might make when he was proud of him. “We will attack with volunteers only. I will announce it to the populace today. Tomorrow we will see who steps forward and, if enough are willing to join you on this mission, you will leave the day after.”
With one last pat on the shoulder, Winston turned away.
As Alex watched Winston make his way back into the city, he knew that something he’d done or said had finally made Winston change his opinion of him. He should feel elated. He’d finally gotten what he wanted from the Marshall.
Or was it the other way around?
Alex slept fitfully, unable to shut his mind down.
Now that he’d finally gotten what he wanted out of Winston, he was scared to death. He was going to scout the den of a Nocuous, but he had no idea what he would find there or the dangers he might face. Would Winston require him to lead the mission? Surely the Marshall had no illusions that Alex was fit to take on such a responsibility. And what about the den itself? Would it be nothing more than an empty cave where the Nocuous slept, or something else entirely? Did Nocuous even sleep?
And then there was the issue of the sudden trust Winston had placed in him. Alex was glad he’d won the Marshall over, but now he was nervous that he wouldn’t live up to that trust. Never in Alex’s life had he concerned himself with anyone else’s problems but his own. He’d always been too absorbed in his own self-pity to pay attention to those around him. Alex knew that Winston’s hope wasn’t to have Alex simply turn over the suit, but to have Alex stay and continue the fight even after his father had been rescued.
What scared Alex more than anything else was that he was actually considering it.
Lying there, tossing and turning on the cold, stone floor, Alex never heard Tabitha come into his shelter.
“I am sorry that I kissed you.” Her soft voice startled him. “I have no reason to believe I could lay claim to your heart.”
Alex had turned around at the sound of her voice, elated that she had finally come, but his joy quickly turned sour when he saw the distraught look in her eyes. It was obvious that she was in deep emotional pain. He scrambled to his feet.
“Hey,” he put a hand out but Tabitha pulled away, careful not to let him touch her. How had it gotten to this point? All she had done was kiss him. Lay claim to his heart? They had never spoken of their feelings for one another, not once!
“Whoa, slow down,” Alex urged. “Is that why you haven’t come to see me in the past few days? Because you think you overstepped your bounds?”
Tabitha lowered her eyes guiltily. “You are not of Domus. You have come here for a specific purpose, and now that I know you, now that I know the depth of your dedication to your father, I know you will achieve your goal. Once you have done so, you will leave us forever.” She turned away. “It would be wrong of me to forge a bond.”
“Tabitha.” She didn’t meet his eyes. “It was nice.” He leaned in to force her to look back at him. “I like you too.” Maybe too much. “I like you a lot,” he clarified. “But you’re right. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, neither of us do. And I am going to find my father.” Putting his heart into his voice, he said, “So why don’t we take it slow? Why don’t we just be really good friends right now and see what happens?”
Alex reached out a tentative hand, but Tabitha was having none of his platitudes. She took two steps toward the door, but stopped and turned.
“You do not understand!” she cried out. “I am seventeen years old! In Domus, I am considered a spinster! Most women my age have been sworn to a life partner for years already, and yet here I stand never having caught any man’s eye with no expectation that I ever will!”
Alex was shocked. In his eyes, Tabitha was an extremely attractive person and he had a hard time believing anyone else would dispute it. “You’ve never had a boyfriend?” he asked incredulously and winced, immediately regretting the way he’d asked it.
Tabitha was silent. She took deep, shallow breaths, clearly upset.
“Why would you say something like that?” Alex asked. “Why would you think no one would ever want you? You’re beautiful, Tabitha. Absolutely gorgeous.”
He was way out of his league. Flattery had never been one of Alex’s strong suits, he just didn’t have that much experience. Truth be told, he didn’t have any experience. Ostracizing himself from his friends at school had included all the girls, too. The sad truth was, he’d never had a girlfriend either.
But he must have said the right thing, because Tabitha finally spun to face him, tears streaming down her cheeks, and threw herself into his arms. He was too shocked to do anything except awkwardly hug her back.
“You don’t know the half of it,” she sobbed into his shoulder. “No one wants to befriend me because they believe I’ll end up like my parents. They all say I’m the next Raven.”
She was so distraught Alex was having trouble understanding what she’d said. Her face was buried and she was speaking through heaving sobs. Still, Alex was pretty sure he’d gotten the gist.
“What do you mean?” he asked. “What do birds have to do with your parents?”
Tabitha stopped sobbing for nearly a full second to give him a scathing look. “Not a bird! A person! She is…” Her mouth twisted into a quivering frown. “It doesn’t matter. She’s myth, a story we tell the children of a woman who lost her mind and roams the tunnels alone.” She sniffed. “We tell them if they do not behave they will be sent away to live like Raven.”
Alex chuckled. “That’s terrible,” he chided.
“Maybe,” Tabitha said. “But it is not far from the truth. Plenty of Domus citizens have been exiled.”
Alex blinked. They exile their own people? To where? There was nowhere to go!
“Why would you ever do that to anyone?” he asked. “How could you do that knowing what’s in the tunnels?” He paused. “Wait a minute.” He stood up, already angry. “Is that what happened with your parents? They were exiled?”
“What?” Tabitha asked. “No!” She turned away again.
He was getting nowhere. Everything he said seemed wrong somehow, and he had no idea why.
“Tabitha,” Alex carefully placed both hands on her shoulders and gently spun her to face him. Using one finger, he lifted her chin. “You can talk to me. It doesn’t matter what your parents did, not to me. I know you, and that’s all I need to know.”
Although her tears kept coming, Tabitha finally managed a weak smile.
“You don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to,” Alex offered. “I can see how upset you are.”
Tabitha smiled then. A real smile, full of gratitude. “No,” she said. “I want to. I did not realize until now how badly I have wanted to talk to someone about them.”
Alex picked up his blanket and spread it on the floor. They settled onto it, sitting side by side, shoulders touching.
“It was three years ago,” Tabitha began. “Sarah was hardly more than a baby then, not old enough to understand what was happening. She still does not. She is so innocent, so sweet. I do everything I can to protect her from the truth.”
Alex just listened, knowing that this was a story Tabitha had to tell at her own pace, in her own way.
“Everyone liked them,” Tabitha smiled at the memory. “They were kind people with kind souls. They were not extraordinary, not in any way, but they were good.” She sniffed long and loudly. “Good, kind people.”
Alex cautiously put one arm around her shoulders. She didn’t object.
“They were both warriors. They had been on more tours than most people could boast of in a lifetime. Like most tours, nothing ever happened when they went, not once. They would go, sit in that damnable Antechamber for sixteen hours, and they would return. Over and over again. Sometimes they would even volunteer to go in another’s place, even if their rotation was not due again for days.”
Tabitha shook her head sadly, her eyes focused somewhere in the distant past.
“The day they did not return from their tour, I first believed that it was likely they had accepted a double tour for someone who was sick or fatigued.” She looked up but she wasn’t seeing anything. Alex could see that she was right back there at the day she was describing. “But that did not make any sense, because if they had accepted another tour, there would be six others who returned. But there was no one!” Now she focused on him, looking him directly in the eyes. “No one came back, Alex!”
Tabitha was back to taking quick, shallow breaths and Alex was surprised to find that he was too. “What happened?” he asked breathlessly. “Were they attacked? Were they attacked like we were?”
“No,” Tabitha said, her voice cracking. “It was them. It was my parents. They went to the Core.” Alex closed his eyes and bowed his head, knowing what she was going to say next. “They must have succumbed quickly. They killed everyone. Not just the guards that were there with them, but the six who had arrived to relieve them as well.”
Before he realized he’d done it, he gathered her into his arms and held her as she sobbed. Rubbing her back with one hand as her body shook, everything suddenly clicked. He knew now why no one congratulated her on the day of their ascension. He knew why none of the others had wanted her along on that first tour at the Core.
And he now knew why she came to his shelter every day to train with him even when she was no longer required. She had no one else. She and her sister were as much outsiders in Domus as he was, and for nearly the same reason. Only she was trapped here, with no possibility of ever escaping the condemnation of the people around her.
“I never saw them again,” she cried. “No one ever saw them again. They were just gone. Gone forever.”
“Oh, Tabitha,” he said softly, rocking her gently in his arms. “We’ll figure this out, I promise you. You don’t have to be alone anymore.”
They crept forward on silent feet, moving one careful step at a time, pausing after each one to listen. There would be no turning back now. The chosen den was just ahead. Alex could hear guttural growls and a rhythmic, heavy banging from something loud and metallic. Above it all raged the unmistakable voice of a Nocuous, shouting and cursing in a vicious torrent of obscenities.
Jonathan crept along one wall of the tunnel, his back flat against it as he inched forward, eyes wide with restrained fear. Clearly, the banging sound unnerved him.
The fringe consisted of a nest of Nocuous dens located in the farthest-known reaches of the Under. Alex and his small group had left Domus three days ago, laden with enough food, water, and weapons to get them to the fringe and safely back again.
In the end, only seven had volunteered to join the mission.
Alex still grew bitter when he thought about it. Seven out of more than seventy able-bodied warriors.
“It is not about bravery,” Jonathan had explained when Alex got angry. “It is about survival. Never, not once in over four hundred years, have we mounted an attack against a Nocuous in their own den. It is simply not our way. To most of us, what you propose to do is madness.”
“But I’m not talking about mounting an attack!” Alex had objected. “I’m taking about a rescue!”
“Nevertheless, it flies in the face of our most basic values. We have maintained our existence through hard work and, above all, caution. It is the reason we guard the Core. We exist to protect the world above, but for us to be able to do that, we must survive. First and foremost, we must survive.”
Of course, Tabitha and Abner had stepped forward immediately to volunteer, and Jonathan hadn’t been far behind. The other four had done so as a group, eliciting a quiet groan from Tabitha when they did.
Alex, realizing that those four would be fully half the team, wasn’t about to refuse their help no matter what Tabitha thought of them.
“Divinites,” she muttered disgustedly. “Out to prove their worth after the disgrace Phineas brought down on their sect. Arrogant and self-righteous, each and every one of them.”
It had taken no time at all for them to prove Tabitha right.
“We will join you!” their leader had announced loudly. His name was Daniel, a tall, skinny, toe-headed man who couldn’t have been much more than twenty years old. “We do not fear those loathsome creatures. Vile, base, mutations created by the Devil himself!”
At that point, even Alex was rolling his eyes.
“My brother warrior,” Daniel had strode forward with an arrogant swagger, clasping Alex’s wrist. “We will gladly join your crusade if it means a chance to strike a blow against the Dark One.”
Having automatically accepted the man’s grip, Alex stuttered out, “Um… I… thank you.”
At which point Abner had snorted, choking back his mirth.
Now, countless miles and scores of hours through pitch-black, silent tunnels, they had arrived at their destination. Jonathan had led the way, as he was the one with the most Core tours under his belt. Like most Domites, his intimate knowledge of the tunnels was limited to the span between Domus, the Ossuary, and the Core, but the tunnels had been mapped over the hundreds of years since the Arrival and meticulously carved into the wall in Sanctuary. Every citizen was taught from a young age to memorize their twists and turns. Jonathan knew the layout of the tunnels well, and had unerringly brought them to their destination.
They moved in a silent crouch, a short distance from the entrance to the den. Ahead of them, the tunnel bent sharply to the left. Beyond that bend was the home of Thrain, a Nocuous known to be weak, but very clever. His was the first den in the fringe, which was the main reason why it had been chosen for this first mission. It gave them their greatest chance for beating a successful retreat.
Thrain was well known to the warriors of Domus. Having made many attempts to reach the Core and grow his power, he’d sent his thralls against the Core guard time and again to no avail. His thralls were notoriously weaker than most, for what reason no one knew, but that knowledge had also been a major factor in their decision to infiltrate his den before any other.
From inside the den, a flickering yellow glow filtered out into the tunnel, a brighter source of light than Alex had seen since arriving in the Under. He could also smell the scent of thick, unvented smoke.
The source of the light must be coming from a flame.
But how had Thrain created fire? In Domus, there was nothing that could burn.
From behind, someone stifled a cough. Alex spun, alarmed.
Jedidiah—or Jed, as he preferred to be called—looked just as alarmed as Alex, one hand clamped firmly over his mouth to prevent more sound from escaping.
The rest of the group froze in place, listening carefully for any indication that the sound of Jed’s cough had given them away.
It was the smoke. It was likely that Jed had never smelled anything like it before in his life, so it was natural that he would choke in the thick air. Alex was surprised they weren’t all affected by it.
Jonathan raised two fingers near the side of his head and pointed forward, the signal that they were moving again.
Inch by careful inch, they crept toward the bend in the tunnel. The rhythmic clanging became louder with every step they took. Alex was absolutely now that it was something metallic.
The smoke was getting thicker. It couldn’t be easy on any of the warriors. It was already awful for Alex. Tabitha was right behind him. He glanced back to give her a nod of encouragement, but stopped when he saw that her face was almost completely coated in dark soot. He wiped his own face and his fingers came away black.
Coal. Thrain was burning coal in his den, and a lot of it.
Jonathan had also stopped. When he caught site of Alex, Tabitha, and the rest of the group, his mouth gaped open. The Divinites, having stopped as well, looked close to panic. Alex could only imagine that they were ready to decry the black tinge to the air as ‘the work of the Dark One.’
Alex put one finger to his lips, cautioning them to stay quiet. He licked a fingertip and wiped it across a cheek, to show that the black film wasn’t permanent. He made a calming gesture, praying they would trust him. The Divinites still looked spooked, but they remained quiet and didn’t retreat. Whether it was simply because they had been trained so well, or because they trusted him, Alex didn’t know. He was just glad they hadn’t given away the group.
Jonathan gave one more solemn nod and set his shoulders resolutely, slinking forward on the balls of his feet. Alex matched Jonathan’s pace from the other side of the tunnel, each step seemingly taking a lifetime, every instinct screaming that he should turn and run the other direction. No warrior of Domus had ever ventured this close to a den. Winston had made it very clear that their mission was considered by most as suicidal.
Quietly, unobtrusively, Alex switched his weapon to his left hand. He put his other hand in his jean jacket pocket and switched on the laser, keeping it well hidden.
When they finally reached the bend, Jonathan slowed even more, and then finally stopped altogether. He lifted one hand to signal a full halt and then signaled that he would be taking the first look into the den. His side of the tunnel was the one allowing the widest view of what lay within. By centimeters he leaned forward, moving so slowly that it was nearly imperceptible.
The banging was loud now, very loud, and along with Thrain’s unrelenting tirade, Alex could hear the sound of a roaring fire. Briefly, he closed his stinging eyes and prayed that what lay ahead wasn’t what he knew it must be.
Jonathan had stopped moving, his eyes roving over the scene in the den. He appeared petrified by fear and remained immobilized for a full ten-count. Alex gestured for his attention, but the veteran warrior wouldn’t, or couldn’t, look away, so Alex inched forward to get a look of his own.
The devil himself could not have painted a bleaker picture than the one that came into view. The den was an open cave, not terribly large, with numerous niches carved into the walls, presumably as bunkers for Thrain’s thralls. It was crude and dirty, filthy at best. A miserable existence for all who ended up there.
But it wasn’t who was within, but rather what was within that made Alex’s heart stop.
The den had been converted into a crude but effective smithy. Alex counted seven thralls hard at work, three of them gouging at the walls of one of the bunkers and digging out coal with sharpened stones. Another was separating the stone chips from the mined coal and carrying it to a separate bunker where an enormous pile already lay.
Not far from the pile of coal was a giant fire pit, kept fanned and fed by an attendant thrall. The remaining two stood hunched over flattened stone pedestals, hefting heavy stones and bringing them down, over and over, the banging sound of their work echoing painfully loud.
In the midst of it all strode Thrain, snarling and berating his thralls to work faster! More fire! More fuel! He carried a whip, cracking it down on the heads, arms, back, and legs of his thralls. Even when they redoubled their efforts, Thrain hit continued them, a look of gleeful malice on his face.
This, Alex realized, could be the beginning of the end for Domus. The Nocuous and their thralls already had so many advantages, but now they were adding forged weapons to the mix. At first Alex couldn’t get a look at what the thralls were making, but when Thrain took a step to the side, he got a clear view. A pile of dull-hued swords and axes lay on the floor next to the smithing stones.
Copper. They must have found a vein of copper somewhere in the tunnels and now, having a supply of coal to heat it, they were forging weapons. Alex leaned in further and squinted. A lot of weapons. But why? He had to assume that Thrain had all of his thralls there, in the den with him. Why would they create so many if he only had seven thralls to equip? Greed? And how had they learned to smith in the first place?
A light touch on his back made Alex flinch. Tabitha had come up behind him and was peering over his shoulder, her eyes wide and white in her blackened face. He nodded grimly and looked back again, careful to turn his head slowly and deliberately. One quick or wrong move is all it would take to put their lives in danger.
By greater and greater leaps, Alex’s heart sank as he realized everything this meant. The knowledge that a Nocuous was forging weapons was bad enough. But there were also implications for Alex, personally, and the quest to save his father. Their mission was to reconnoiter a den and use what they saw to judge whether they could realistically pull off a rescue without alerting the Nocuous or any of its thralls. If Thrain’s den was at all similar to other dens, there was no way they’d have any chance of sneaking in. It was a wide open space, and unless every single one of Thrain’s thralls was asleep—as well as Thrain himself—it just wasn’t possible. They’d be seen no matter what.
Tabitha murmured something, two syllables, and Alex felt her stiffen beside him. Everyone in the group turned in a panic, but she paid them no heed.
“Papa?” This time she’d spoken clearly. Tabitha took a tiny step forward, the movement almost jerky, like her body wouldn’t obey. She’d spoken in a small, child’s voice, barely above a whisper, but in the absolute silence of their group, it was like a detonated bomb.
Papa? Oh no.
Tabitha’s father was here, the father that had disappeared. Alex reached for her, hoping to pull her back into the tunnel where she couldn’t be seen, but it was too late.
Thrain’s head snapped around, his eyes zeroing in first on Tabitha, then Jonathan, and finally on Alex. Contrary to any reaction Alex would have expected, there was a gleam of exultation in Thrain’s black, fathomless eyes. The Nocuous was glad to see them in his den, possibly even expecting them.
Thrain’s lips peeled back in a hideous grin.
“To arms!” Jonathan roared, backing down the tunnel. “To arms!”
Everyone else backed into formation except Tabitha, who seemed immobilized, unable to tear herself away.
“Tabitha, come on!” Alex yanked on her arm, but she pulled away furiously and took another step farther into the den, her eyes trained on a thrall that had been toting the coal from one bunker to another. It finally looked up, facing her squarely.
“Daddy!” she cried out in anguish.
Thrain’s grin spread even wider. “Kill her,” he commanded tonelessly, pointing a gnarled finger at Tabitha.
Ignoring her sounds of protest, Alex dragged Tabitha back into the tunnel to the rest of the group. The last sight they had of the den was her father’s dead eyes filling with hatred and rage, a hungry growl rising from his throat. By the time he’d pulled her past the other warriors, Tabitha had slumped in defeat and despair, anguished sobs wracking her body.
The thralls came in a rush, halting when they rounded the corner and saw that there were more than just three warriors waiting for them.
“Kill them!” roared Thrain from inside the den.
Like the whip he had been using on them, his voice was a spur to action. Motivated by pain and fear, they reared ferociously and charged.
The Domus warriors met the onslaught in a screaming mass, never backing down an inch, their blades lashing out as one.
Four of the thralls went down in the first rush, testament to the truth that Thrain’s thralls were among the weakest. The warriors then retreated further into the tunnel to keep fresh stone under foot and give them time to regroup.
“Steady,” Jonathan cautioned. “They now know our mettle. They will not make the same mistake twice.”
“Kill them!” Thrain’s voice raged. He strode around the corner, all fury and righteousness. “Kill them all!”
The three remaining thralls lunged and feinted in an attempt to find an opening, Tabitha’s father among them.
Alex was still behind the rest, with Tabitha. “Are you okay?” he shouted. She didn’t answer. “Tabitha!” he shouted again. When she still didn’t respond, he slapped her soundly across the cheek, forgetting the laser was still activated. It flashed through the tunnel, illuminating the tiny specks of coal dust in the air. She looked at him then, indignation glimmering in her eyes.
“Him!” shouted Thrain, having seen the laser. “You take him alive, or die trying!” he commanded, now pointing at Alex.
“You must attack!” Abner shouted over his shoulder at Alex. “It is now or never. It is time for you to test your power!”
Abner was right. Alex moved Tabitha back against the tunnel wall. She was still so docile, she didn’t protest.
“Tabitha still isn’t a hundred percent,” he warned the rest of the group.
Firming his resolve, he pointed his laser behind Thrain, waiting for the right moment. Would there be a right moment?
The thralls hesitated, the laser spooking them, but Thrain raged them into movement. “Attack!” Thrain screamed. “Kill them now!”
Mindlessly, the thralls heeded their master and lunged toward the group. At the same instant, Alex closed his hand into a fist.
Before the light could dim from his suit, he was spinning in a backhanded stroke for Thrain’s neck.
But Thrain was ready. Either Thrain was much faster than Alex could ever have anticipated, or Thrain knew what Alex was going to do. The Nocuous lunged to the side, ducking smoothly out of the way, Alex’s blade whistled through empty air where less than a moment before the Nocuous’s neck had been.
Knowing he was now in mortal danger, Alex quickly pointed the laser into the back of the den and closed hand into a fist, reappearing next to the pile of coal.
He spun around in time to see Thrain’s enraged face as the Nocuous realized Alex might escape. Thrain burst into motion, moving so quickly that he was blur.
Acting purely on instinct, Alex used the suit again, teleporting back to where Thrain had originally been standing. As soon as he appeared, he shifted his blade into his right hand ran for the group, swinging his weapon at the neck of the closest thrall.
The thrall never saw Alex coming and was dead a moment later. Alex reversed his swing and chopped at the next closest thrall, but it lunged out of the way, only to have Abner cut it down from the other direction.
The one remaining thrall finally realized there would be no surviving the day. It looked for its master, but Thrain was still somewhere in the den, around the corner and out of sight. The thrall snarled. Alex thought it might try to make a run for it, but instead it turned to face them directly and prepared to charge.
“No!” Tabitha shouted from behind them. “It is my father! Please! You can’t kill him!”
“That is not your father,” Jonathan replied without hesitation, never taking his eyes from the thrall. “Your father died a long time ago, Tabitha.”
The thrall cocked its head, looking past the group to the girl who used to be its daughter. For a moment, it seemed to recognize her and it sniffed once, twice, appearing to be confused by what it smelled.
The moments stretched on, even though Alex could have ticked them off with two fingers. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tabitha take a hesitant step forward.
And then the thrall growled from deep in its throat and charged straight for her, mindless of the threat the rest of the group represented, the growl rising in volume to a fever pitch.
Above it all, Tabitha was screaming, “Don’t kill him!”
But the thrall was coming, and coming fast. Alex couldn’t allow it to hurt her.
He raised his laser, pointed it directly in front of Tabitha and clenched his fingers, reappearing just in time to pivot and swing his blade in a stroke that ended her father’s life.
As Tabitha fell to her knees, weeping over the thrall that had once been her father, the rest of the group rushed forward to do battle with Thrain.
But when they rounded the corner the Nocuous was nowhere to be seen. Somehow, Thrain had slipped away.
Winston, Jonathan, Alex, Tabitha, Abner, and the four Divinites were gathered together in Sanctuary to take counsel, the outer doors closed tight, a double guard posted to keep anyone from entering. They stared down at the pile of copper weapons, standing over it as if it were a treasure trove of incomparable value. For Domus and its warriors, it was.
The group’s arrival back in the city had caused quite a stir and, although each and every one of the group was weary to the bone, they had gone straight to Winston as they knew they must, sharing what they had learned and delivering the precious cargo they carried back with them. It simply could not wait. Citizens had called out to them as they passed, some even cheered. The fact that they had returned with their entire group intact led everyone to believe they’d been victorious, but all they could manage in response were a few weak waves and nods of their heads. Even the ever-upbeat Abner trudged along with barely a spoken word. Soon the cheers turned to silence and soon after that the silence turned to fearful whispers. The warriors’ grim, soot-blackened faces, especially Tabitha’s tear-streaked and anguished look, did nothing to assuage the trepidation that now hung heavy in the air.
After relating the details of the mission to Winston, they answered the Marshall’s questions as best they could.
“I have heard of this element,” Winston told Alex, studying the pile of copper heaped on the dais. “Our forbearers spoke often of the possibility that one day we might find its source. Never, though, had they considered that any Nocuous might find it first.”
Alex didn’t reply, knowing that Winston wasn’t necessarily looking for an answer, but was mentally working through the implications the weapons represented.
“And you say it was only Thrain and his thralls?” Winston continued, lifting a sword from the pile and testing its weight. “Why would he make so many?” he mused.
“We have asked ourselves that same question many times over,” Jonathan replied.
Winston fixed his gaze on the warrior. “Tell me again. Tell me everything from the beginning. Only you.”
Jonathan, who’d been standing at attention ever since dropping his load of copper swords to the floor, stood even straighter.
“We came upon the den, as planned,” Jonathan answered without hesitation. He’d already told the story once, with embellishments and additions from the rest of the group. Everyone except Tabitha, that is. She had not spoken a word since the battle and remained reticent, a fact that had not been lost on Winston. The Marshall repeatedly glanced at her, curious and perhaps worried.
“As our mission dictated,” Jonathan said, “we sought only to further our knowledge of the den itself. Our plan was never to engage in combat with Thrain or any of his thralls.”
After a pause, Winston nodded. “Continue,” he said.
“The air was thick with black dust,” Jonathan told him. “We could hear the sound of hammering and feel the heat long before we gazed upon the den.”
“The heat?” Winston asked.
“Fire,” Jonathan replied hesitantly, looking to Alex for help.
“Ah,” Winston answered. “Yes. I have also heard of this ‘fire.’” He glanced at Alex. “We will discuss ‘fire’ at another time.”
Alex nodded dutifully.
Winston turned his narrowed gaze to Tabitha. “And when you did gaze upon them, this was when you first saw your father?”
Tabitha didn’t move, not even to meet Winston’s eyes. For all it appeared, she hadn’t listened to a single word they’d spoken. Alex wanted to go to her, to take her in his arms and promise her that everything would be alright, but he knew it was the wrong time. Even if it wasn’t, his bigger concern was that she would rebuff him, and he wasn’t sure if he could handle that, as fatigued and emotionally drained as he was.
Certainly, she was in shock. He had killed her father. She must realize that she could have been killed if he hadn’t. Still, what if it had been his father they’d found in Thrain’s den and their roles reversed? He couldn’t say that he would ever be able to forgive such an act. And so he couldn’t expect her to.
Jonathan cleared his throat. “Indeed, that is when Tabitha’s father was first seen.”
“Working as a thrall.” Winston didn’t ask it as a question.
“Yes sir,” Jonathan replied. “He was carrying loads of a black substance from one bunker to the next.”
“Coal,” Alex supplied. “It was coal. Used to make fire.”
Winston glanced at Alex for a moment, but didn’t acknowledge him.
“Continue,” Winston told Jonathan again.
“We were seen,” Jonathan said simply. “They attacked. We prevailed.”
“Yes,” Winston replied, eyeing Tabitha again. “So you said. All but Thrain perished under your blade.” He ran a thumb along the edge of the sword in his hand, gazing without expression at the bead of blood that welled from a fresh, clean slice.
Alex shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the next.
“Thrain did manage to escape,” Jonathan conceded, “though how, we do not know. He did not come past us, and to our knowledge there was only one way in or out of his den.”
“All these weapons,” Winston said thoughtfully, still staring at the blood on his thumb.
Alex and Abner shared uncomfortable glances. They both knew what Winston must be thinking, and it was possible he was right: that Thrain wasn’t just making the weapons for himself and his thralls, but others too.
“Sir,” Alex began.
“And so!” Winston interrupted, ignoring Alex. “We have gained valuable information, but at what price?” He looked from face to face, but none of them answered.
“We didn’t lose anyone,” Alex objected, and Winston fixed him with a steely glare. “Sir,” he added uncertainly.
“Yet. For the battle is certainly only just begun,” Winston replied evenly.
“But Thrain lost all his thralls,” Alex said. “And there is only one way for him to get more. We warned the Core guard on our way back. They’ll be ready if he attacks. I saw him. He’s nothing like the Nocuous that attacked us in the Antechamber. Thrain is weak. I can’t imagine him ever attacking on his own.”
“If that is so,” Winston retorted, “then how do you suppose he ever got any thralls?”
Alex pressed his lips together, knowing Winston was right.
Winston hefted the sword in his hand and pointed it outward, seemingly impressed with its balance. “I do not believe for a moment that Thrain was forging so many weapons for himself. He has always been cunning, but he has never been fierce. He would not start a war on his own.”
Winston lowered the blade, deep in thought.
“But that would mean Nocuous working together,” Jed said tremulously. “They do not do that.” When no one answered, he asked, “Do they?”
“They never have before, but with these,” Winston spun the blade in his hand and took in a lungful of air. “We will be ready,” he said with conviction. “We are now armed with foreknowledge, and if they should choose to attack they will not have the element of surprise. But first…” he turned to look at Tabitha again. “I would like to know how your group was discovered at all.”
No one answered. Each man in turn looked anywhere but in Winston’s eyes or at Tabitha.
Winston raised an eyebrow expectantly, surveying the group.
“She saw her father and cried out,” Jed blurted. “And when she did, she was heard.”
Winston nodded, frowning. He looked one last time at Tabitha, waiting for her to say something in her defense, possibly even hoping she would, but she remained mute.
Finally, Winston asked heavily, “Could it have been avoided? Might you have returned unseen if not for Tabitha’s actions?”
Again, no one answered. And that was all the truth Winston needed.
“We must call for an Exile vote,” Winston said quietly.
“No!” The word burst from Alex before he could stop it. Everyone turned to look at him. Alex bristled, ready to defend Tabitha if need be, but a firm hand was placed on his shoulder. Jonathan gently pulled Alex back a step.
One of Winston’s eyes twitched. “The rules of Domus are clear. Anyone who has or would place our people in danger, anyone who would place their own needs above the greater good, must stand trial.”
Alex couldn’t believe Winston could be serious. Yes, Tabitha had put them in danger. And yes, by extension she had endangered everyone in Domus, especially if Thrain chose to retaliate. But she would never have been there at all if not for him. If anyone was ultimately to blame, it was Alex and his refusal to take “no” for an answer.
And what about the weapons they’d carried back with them? Not only were the weapons a priceless treasure, but the knowledge itself that Thrain had access to those resources was invaluable. Now, with the weapons in hand, Domus had a much greater chance of defending itself if there were ever an attack.
“You’re scared!” Alex blurted, pulling his shoulder free of Jonathan’s warning hand. “You’re scared that Thrain is going to attack.” Winston looked anything but scared. “And you are justified in your fear,” Alex reasoned, swallowing nervously, “but haven’t you always lived with that fear?”
“She has given Thrain a reason to attack,” Winston responded.
“Winston,” Alex retorted, immediately regretting it. “I mean… sir… you recently cited a lack of warriors as your greatest concern. Now you want to send one away? When the city could be on the brink of attack?” Winston did not reply. “You can’t blame Tabitha for what happened!” Alex cried out.
Winston rounded on him. “Do you believe I wish to carry out this act?” he demanded. “But I cannot ignore—”
“It was her father!” Alex shot back, unwilling to give any ground. “She saw her dad, in thrall to Thrain. What would you have done?”
“Tabitha’s actions have put the safety of the community in jeopardy,” Winston responded. “That, I cannot ignore. It is my duty to uphold our laws. In doing what she has, the safety of the entire world is in jeopardy.”
“Oh come on!” Alex shouted, exasperated. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” He saw Jonathan trying to get his attention out of the corner of his eye, but he ignored it. “You have been here hundreds of years! Hundreds! No one knows you’re here. In all that time, no one has ever come to Under, and no one has ever left!”
“Indeed,” Winston replied, scowling now. “Until now.” He focused on Alex, moving aggressively closer. “And yes, Alexander Croatoan, I do believe we protect the world above. It is the foundation of our existence, and your disdain for our purpose is an affront to every citizen of Domus, past and present.”
Alex blanched, knowing he’d gone too far. “I didn’t mean that the way it came out,” he apologized, feeling foolish and stupid. Even Abner was frowning. “I just meant to say that I don’t think what she did will have such a huge effect.” He looked down at the ground. “It was her dad,” he objected weakly.
Stone-faced, Winston replied, “That is not for you to decide.”
“I would speak,” Jonathan stepped forward suddenly, his strong voice surprising them all.
“You have certainly earned the right,” Winston replied. He appeared on the verge of saying more, but Jonathan began without hesitation.
“This young woman,” Jonathan indicated Tabitha, “has been living with the belief that her parents succumbed to the Core—that they committed the ultimate act of betrayal to this community and especially to her and her sister. And we condemned her for it,” he reminded Winston. “For years, she has lived among us as a pariah, believed to be the descendant of cowards, murderers, and traitors.”
Winston looked at Tabitha again, nodding thoughtfully.
“But that is not the case,” Jonathan continued. “The fact that her father was in thrall to Thrain means her parents were taken against their will, made to suffer and serve a cruel master. And although we knew this to be a possibility, we allowed ourselves to assume the worst instead.”
Tabitha finally lifted her head.
“Imagine yourself,” Jonathan said to Winston, “as she must have been when she first recognized a father she believed to be one step away from the devil. I was there! And I can tell you that I might have reacted in much the same manner!” He paused, letting his words sink in. “Have we not already punished her enough? We should not condemn her further—we should beg her forgiveness for our terrible lack of compassion and faith!”
Even the Divinites were hanging their heads in shame now.
“You are our Marshall,” Jonathan told Winston. “And your word is as law. I would follow you anywhere. But I urge you to reconsider Tabitha’s circumstances. I urge you to only inform the populace that her father was found as a thrall, and allow her, and her sister, to regain their family’s dignity.”
Jonathan raised his blade to his chest in a salute and then stepped back with the others.
Winston and Tabitha faced one another, neither speaking. Finally, Winston straightened and placed the copper sword back in the pile with the rest of the weapons.
“Warriors will be posted at the entrance to the tunnels and at the boundary of the city,” Winston finally said, “effective immediately. Until further notice, these postings are an indefinite addition to the guard rotation.” Winston briefly placed one of his giant hands gently on Tabitha’s shoulder. “No matter the blame, our community is now in greater danger than at any other time in its history.”
Tension hung tangibly in the air of Domus, carrying with it an expectation of dread in the empty silence that so often precedes catastrophic events. People went about their routines like any other day, but there were no warm greetings among neighbors or stories swapped in passing. They moved woodenly, their frightened eyes constantly glancing up at the tunnel mouth where a six-man guard stood watch against invasion.
Alex crouched outside his shelter, looking out over the city. The hushed sound of Domus was unnatural, like being in a crowded area and suddenly having the power go out. It frightened him, not just for himself, but for everyone else too. Winston had wasted no time informing his people what had happened in Thrain’s den and the potential repercussions. Not that he had needed to explain. The Domites knew their adversaries well, they knew that the Nocuous were ruthless and power-hungry. For someone to enter into one of their dens and attack, there was only one reaction that could be expected.
So now the people of Domus spent every minute in fear, wondering not if, but when, the attack would come.
Alex knew it was his fault. No one had needed to say it, he saw it in their eyes, in the reproachful way their mouths set in a grim line when they looked at him. His insistence to go after his dad had put everyone in harm’s way, just as Winston had predicted.
It was an odd thing to feel so responsible for these people. He wasn’t from here, this wasn’t his home.
But things had changed. Somehow Alex had changed. He cared about them.
Was this home to him now? He’d been in the Under for nearly two months. So much of what he’d learned, so many of the people he’d met, had impacted who he was becoming and how he felt about the world. He’d only just scratched the surface of this place, but he felt a bond with these people. In fact, he felt a bond with the Under itself, even though he knew so little about it. There was so much more he could do here. His modern knowledge of the world could help them live better, healthier, and happier lives. And maybe, just maybe, he could help them find a way to rid the world of the Nocuous forever, allowing them to come back to the surface where they belonged.
Alex glanced over at his rock-man, still leaning at an angle in his practice area, and thought back to when so many people had gathered to watch him learn to use the suit with the sword. They’d cheered for him, shared in his victory when he had mastered the killing stroke. It was hard to reconcile that they might be his people now, he was just so very different from them. Maybe all it took was for him to allow them into his life. He’d kept himself at such a distance, only letting a select few to get close to him. He had been doing the same thing his whole life. After his mother had gone missing, he’d closed himself off and kept his circle of friends small. He’d blamed his lack of friends on everyone else’s lack of compassion, but maybe that wasn’t really true. Maybe he’d just been so angry from losing someone so dear to him that he’d needed to direct that anger somewhere.
Maybe the people of Beaver, Utah hadn’t been as awful as he’d made them out to be in his mind, and maybe his classmates had been justified in their belief that he felt he was above them. Because the truth was he had been condemning them all for something he believed, not something he knew. The same way people in the Under had condemned Tabitha and her sister for so long.
Tabitha. She’d finally spoken once Winston had rendered his verdict, or lack of one. She’d quietly thanked Jonathan, just a few words, but her heart had been in her voice and her gratitude had been clear. She’d then asked Alex to allow her some time alone with her sister. He had, of course, agreed immediately. He’d wanted to say more, beg her forgiveness, but it wasn’t time yet. Besides, he knew that kind of forgiveness would need to come in time, as a choice she made on her own. Thinking again of all the people he’d hated for so long in Beaver, Utah, he knew that true forgiveness wasn’t a favor or a compromise, it was a bestowed grace. He could ask it of her, but it wouldn’t be the same as if she gave it freely.
Was he really beginning to feel that he could move on in his life? To let go of the resentment he’d held onto for so long back home? Down here, none of it seemed real. His life on the surface seemed like a long-ago dream and none of what he’d done until he came to the Under, big or small, seemed to have any significance. EMIT, Silas, PJ and the rest of the kids at school—even Leeann—didn’t hold the same sense of importance for him that the people of this place and their plight did.
It was an odd thought: that the Under seemed more substantial to Alex than the world above when the only reason the people down here existed was to protect that world. Did all those unknowing, spoiled people on the surface even deserve the sacrifice made by the citizens of Domus?
Of course they did. Because these people were those people, too. They were the same, just separated by hundreds of years of technology and sunlight. Winston, Jonathan, Tabitha, Abner—every person in Domus probably had relatives on the surface somewhere. Relatives who had no idea their bloodline had continued all this time, somewhere deep beneath their feet.
Alex smiled down on the city benevolently, allowing himself to feel for the first time a sense of connection to it, even embrace it. He made a decision: today he would make an effort. Today he would go into the city and meet more of its people. If Tabitha would speak with him, he would go to her first and tell her how he felt. He would thank Abner for his high spirits and all he’d done to bolster Alex’s confidence. Even Jonathan and Winston with their strict code of honor—he would thank them too. He would make himself a part of the community he lived in instead of living outside of it.
Alex ducked into his shelter to grab his jean jacket and his blade.
He barely had his hand around the hilt when the sound of an agonized scream shattered the silence of the city, followed immediately by a second.
Alex was out of his shelter in a flash, desperately searching for the source of the scream. The city below him sprang into action, frantic voices rose from a murmur to shouting.
Another scream ripped through the air and Alex whirled. High above him, at the top of the steps, the warriors who’d been on guard were backing out of the tunnel mouth. He scanned the group of warriors, frantically counting. One, two, three, four… where were the other two? There had been six!
The warriors faced the tunnel, barely glancing behind them as they navigated down the narrow steps backward. Inside, deep in the darkness of the caves, a last garbled scream could be heard before it abruptly ended.
In Domus, Alex saw movement around Sanctuary. He prayed to God that it was Winston and a group of warriors coming to aid, but they were still so far away he couldn’t make out any details.
The deep, rumbling sound of Thrain’s laughter echoed from of the tunnel and carried down to Alex, just moments before Thrain himself emerged from the tunnel, blood coating his face and chest. Even from where Alex stood, there was no mistaking the exultation and fanaticism in Thrain’s eyes as he advanced on the small group of warriors.
Where was everyone? Where were the rest of the warriors?
Alex looked back toward the city but just then Thrain lunged and struck, his claw-like fingers raking a jagged gash through the closest warrior’s throat.
The warrior toppled and fell from the edge of the steps, landing with a dull thump at the base of the cavern wall.
Three remained and it appeared they were going to die too. Thrain had come, just as Winston had said he would. He had come to take back what was his and punish those responsible for the thralls he’d lost. No one would be able to escape from the city quickly enough. There just wasn’t time.
It was all happening too fast. If Thrain moved into the city unchecked it wouldn’t just be warriors who died, it would be women, children—children like Sarah.
The laser was on and pointed before Alex finished the thought. He couldn’t see behind Thrain, the angle wasn’t right from so far below, so he pointed to spot halfway up the steps and closed his hand into a fist.
A dull flash of light and he was there, arms wind-milling to keep his balance as he teleported onto the narrow steps.
“You!” Thrain’s unmistakable voice ring out.
Alex spun to meet the Nocuous’s enraged glare. Thrain bellowed, roaring in bestial rage, and lunged again, heedless of the threat the remaining three warriors represented, throwing himself toward Alex with everything he had.
The warriors met Thrain’s charge head-on. The narrow stairs were only wide enough for two men abreast, and just barely at that. Thrain would have had to go through at least one of them to get to Alex, but instead the warriors forced him to retreat up the steps with two long, jagged gashes in his chest from the warrior nearest him.
Amazingly, Thrain regrouped in seconds as if the wounds were barely a scratch. Instead, he turned his focus back to the warriors, growling menacingly. He didn’t speak or threaten them, he just slowly inched forward. His silence scared Alex more than if he’d been bellowing in rage.
Thrain appeared to be acting on his own. Nothing else had come out the tunnel behind him. Alex steadied himself. If there were no others, he could end the battle right now. With the suit, he could save the three remaining warriors.
Before he could talk himself out of it, Alex pointed the laser behind Thrain and closed his fist, turning to swing his blade backhanded as soon as he reappeared.
As before, Thrain was ready and managed to evade the killing stroke, but not before Alex sank his blade deep into Thrain’s neck. The Nocuous dropped to his knees, struggling to get up, his head jerking spasmodically as he pushed and clawed against the ground.
Repulsed, Alex reached down and yanked his weapon free of Thrain’s neck, intent on delivering a final blow. As he pulled the blade free, the Nocuous collapsed to the side and fell from the steps, landing on the rocks below, very close to where the first warrior had fallen.
“Is he…?” One of the warriors leaned over the edge, peering down to see if Thrain’s body was moving.
“There is no doubt,” another said. “He will heal, if his head was not completely severed.”
“What?” Alex gaped. Were they serious?
“You must go to him. Now. Before he heals,” the first warrior. “Use your Magnosphere.”
The suit. The people of Domus called it a Magnosphere. Alex still didn’t know exactly what that was, but he wasn’t about to let Thrain escape for a second time. Alex beamed the laser down and closed his fist, reappearing next to Thrain.
They had been right. Thrain was still alive and was now struggling to push himself up. How was it possible? The wound was gaping and hideous, the slice more than halfway through Thrain’s neck. The fall must have been from at least a hundred feet up. And yet still the Nocuous was alive, glaring at Alex out of the corners of his eyes.
“You are a fool,” the Nocuous gurgled. “My death means nothing.”
Alex heard yelling and pounding footsteps. Winston, Jonathan, and a small contingent of warriors were almost upon them. Amazingly, Thrain turned his head to watch their approach. He sneered when he saw Jonathan approaching with a copper sword in his hand.
“You may have taken my tools of war,” Thrain coughed, “but there are more. So many more!” The Nocuous spat blood on the ground in front of him, a thick, black, slimy gob. He slowly pivoted until both knees were on the ground, his palms flat in front of him. “I go to my death secure in the knowledge that Rasmus will slay you all!”
“Wait, what?” Alex hastened to stop the killing stroke that Jonathan had stepped up to deliver. “Rasmus? Is my dad there? Does Rasmus have my dad?”
Slowly, as if with great care, Thrain turned his head to look Alex in the eye. And then he laughed, long and painfully. It was a foul, gurgling, choking sound filled with thick contempt. Alex, so enraged by Thrain’s response, was unprepared when the Nocuous suddenly lunged toward him, mouth agape and hands outstretched.
But Thrain made it less than a foot before Winston brought his short black blade down on Thrain’s neck, ending his life and any hope Alex had for news of his father.
Every warrior that wasn’t guarding the Core had been called to Sanctuary for a special counsel. On Winston’s orders, the outer doors had been sealed. The people of Domus were on the verge of panic, many of them openly fearful, and with good reason. Until he could determine their next course of action, Winston did not want to add to the rising tide of fear threatening to overtake the young and elderly.
The assembly of warriors waited silently on the hard stone benches, their backs ramrod straight, their eyes forward. Occasionally, one or another of them would sneak a peek out of the corner of their eye toward Winston’s personal quarters. No one commented aloud, but clearly all were wondering what was happening behind the closed door. On the front bench, Jonathan, Abner, and Tabitha sat closely together, sharing tense, worried looks. They, too, remained silent, knowing anything they said would add fuel to the already volatile situation. Winston had been anything but cordial when he ordered Alex to the Marshall’s chambers, following behind the young man like a prison guard escorting a criminal to his cell.
Inside Winston’s quarters, Alex prayed silently that he wouldn’t be sent away. It was indisputable that ever since his appearance in the Under, things for the people of Domus had gone from bad to worse, their crisis escalating with each passing day. It would be easy for anyone to blame him for what was happening. In fact, he knew that many already did. Would Winston? In the end, it would all hinge on the Marshall’s perspective. Unfortunately, Alex knew that a great deal of Winston’s perspective was determined by the prevailing opinions of his people and what was best for the community as a whole.
Most of all, he worried about Tabitha. He knew she still hadn’t worked through the complex emotions that had followed the events at Thrain’s den. She’d lived enough of her life on her own, having to face tough realties for both her own and for Sarah’s sake many times over, he hoped she could forgive him for killing her father. He had saved her life. He knew she knew that the situation had come down to her or her father. But after so many years believing her father had betrayed her, to realize that he hadn’t and then to have him there, so close but completely unreachable, and then savagely ripped from her by someone she had begun to trust and care so deeply for…
She shouldn’t feel betrayed, be he knew she did, and it was agonizing for him not to be able to comfort her.
And on top of that, now he fought to convince Winston of something he knew would hurt Tabitha even further. A heated argument raged on between him and the Marshall, but it wasn’t the argument most of the warriors outside would have assumed it to be.
“You have to let me go!” Alex insisted again, slapping the flat of his hand against the table for emphasis. “You heard what Thrain said—the weapons we took from his den are only some of what they have made. They’re probably making more right now!”
“And your solution is for me to send away my greatest asset?” Winston rebuked. He’d already flat-out denied Alex’s request to be escorted to the Antechamber. “With your ability to wage a surprise attack with your suit, we need you here more than ever!”
“You’re not sending me away!” Alex argued, exasperated that he couldn’t make the big man understand. “You’re sending me to get weapons that could save us all!”
Winston growled. “You said yourself; you don’t even know if you can accomplish what you propose.”
“But what if I can?” Alex leaned across the table. He gripped the cuff of his jean jacket and held it up, showing it to Winston. “If this jacket can come with me when I teleport, if the suit I’m wearing and my shoes can come with me, then I have to assume anything on me, anything I’m carrying, will come too. And if I can bring weapons back from the surface for our warriors, weapons that will literally slice through the copper blades the Nocuous have made, it could mean the difference between victory and defeat! Those weapons will level the playing field!”
Winston leaned back in his chair, squinting at Alex.
“Thrain said Rasmus,” Alex pressed. “He said Rasmus would slay us all. That has to mean Rasmus is the one who put Thrain to work forging these weapons and it has to mean that he’s building an army.” Winston still did not reply. Alex stood, his hands flat on the table. He leaned closer to better convey the passion of his words. “Sir, you said Domus has never been attacked directly. Now it has. You also said the Nocuous have always fought amongst themselves, but now they’re working together. You need all the help you can get!”
Winston nodded to himself, his eyes hooded. “All that you say is true, but I cannot help thinking your desire to go against Rasmus very conveniently coincides with your desire to rescue your father.”
“Yes!” Alex agreed vehemently. “Yes, it does! And because of that, I have more reason than anyone to stop Rasmus from destroying Domus! If this city and everyone in it are gone, I’ll have no chance at all! I need your help, and you need mine!”
Flatly, Winston replied, “I believe most of our citizens would debate your claim to a higher stake in this fight.”
Alex made to argue more, but Winston tiredly held up a hand. He took a deep breath and looked at his closed door. He knew his warriors were waiting on the other side. A decision had to be made.
“Tell me again about the weapons you propose to bring to us,” Winston asked. “And explain again how you believe you can get them here.”
Alex almost smiled. Almost, but not quite. He was getting through to the big warrior.
“My family is very wealthy,” Alex told him, as if that should be all Winston needed to know.
Winston’s blank stare made Alex realize that the concept of wealth was probably something that had been lost to the Domites long ago. What need had they for currency? The only goods they could possibly barter were food and clothing, and those were given freely to all.
Alex made a face. “Because my father has made himself very important to many people,” he tried again, “he has earned a great deal of what is universally taken in trade for…” he faltered, trying to come up with a better way to describe the concept of money. “They’ll take money in trade for anything,” Alex finally finished irritably. “And because I am his son, they will trade with me.”
“Will they not need to smith these weapons?” Winston asked. “How long will it take for you to return with them?”
“No,” Alex answered. “No, sir. There are already hundreds of these weapons made right now. All I need to do is go get them.”
“Hundreds?” Winston asked, a keen note entering his tone.
Alex snorted. “A lot more than that, sir.”
“I would think one for every warrior would be enough.”
“Of course, sir.”
“You could be back in a matter of hours?” Winston asked.
“It should take me no more than the length of a full tour at the Core.” Alex hoped so, anyway. He knew he was promising something that might be out of his control, but if he could do it in sixteen hours or less, he would. “At that point I would begin bringing the weapons back one load at a time. As many as I could carry with me on each and every trip.”
Winston stood, a frown on his face. “Tell me one final thing,” he asked, looking Alex straight in the eyes. “Tell me why you would do this at all.”
“I told you…” Alex replied, the weight of Winston’s gaze making him want to look away. But he didn’t. Because he meant it when he said, “If Domus falls, I’ll never see my dad again.”
“Yes,” Winston replied. “You did say that. And in that, you are very likely correct.” Never breaking his gaze, Winston carefully moved around the table to stand directly in front of Alex. Carefully, slowly, he reached up with both hands and gripped Alex high on each arm near the shoulder. “But I believe there is more to you than just that, Alexander Croatoan.”
An immediate rebuttal came to Alex’s lips, and then died just as quickly. His automatic rejection of any form of acceptance was still so deeply ingrained that he had to consciously will himself not to rebuke an authority figure like Winston.
“We both know,” Winston continued, “that it is likely there is an army of Nocuous and thralls gathering against us at this very moment. The possibility that our community will survive a war against such foes is slim. You are a smart young lad. You are not ignorant of our peril. The safest, most intelligent thing for you to do would be to leave us to our fate, to use your Magnosphere suit to save yourself and leave the cruelty of this place behind forever.” Winston smiled grimly. “But I believe you will stay the course. I believe it because I need you to. I believe it because every one of my people need you to.”
Alex swallowed down a lump that had formed in his throat, the unexpected gravity of Winston’s words hitting somewhere deep within him, in a place Alex had kept blocked away from the world for a very long time. He could not help thinking to himself, not just your people—my people too.
“I wish I could relate to you some ancient prophecy, a story handed down through generations that foretold your coming,” Winston told him, still gripping his arms, “but that would be a lie. I do not know what tomorrow may bring, nor do I know if you are the one that can save us, but I have held hope my entire life that one day we would find a way to forever eradicate the Nocuous scourge and free ourselves from this self-imposed prison.”
Winston clasped his left shoulder tightly. “Perhaps, unwittingly, you have come to make that happen.” He smiled grimly. “Perhaps you are our unwitting savior.”
They walked together toward the doors. “Come,” Winston urged. “Let us give this news to the community together.”
Alex and Winston emerged from Winston’s chambers and stepped forward to address the gathering of warriors.
Every eye was on them, an expectant hush filled Sanctuary. Winston didn’t speak right away. Instead, he stared down on his people with a burning intensity, his eyes roving over them, stopping briefly on each one of them. The silence went on long enough that Alex turned, wondering if perhaps Winston had changed his mind.
“Our danger is real and imminent,” Winston finally said. “There can be no denying it. Our home is no longer safe.”
Low murmurs rippled through the crowd, most eyes now on Alex.
“But we are not beaten,” Winston spoke louder, his great voice carrying the conviction of his words. “We will never be beaten until the last warrior has drawn their last breath—for we know what is at stake!” Now the murmurs changed to excitement. Heads were nodding. “We have always known this day would come.” Different versions of, ‘yes!’ and ‘for Domus!’ were shouted from people in the crowd. “We have even prayed for it,” Winston was now striding back and forth as he spoke. “For we know that it could ultimately lead to the end of our exile. We have always known why we exist as we do! With a single purpose!”
“To protect the world above!” roared the mass of warriors, their blades held aloft.
“But we cannot beat the Nocuous,” Winston warned in a low tone. He stopped pacing and scanned the group, taking in every warrior before him. “Not without help.”
A quiet descended on Sanctuary. Warriors were now looking at Alex, sizing him up.
“Yes,” Winston confirmed for his people, pointing at Alex. “I speak of this young man and what he can add to our fight, but not just with his blade.” The murmuring began anew, but now with a hopeful note. “We have seen his prowess in battle. We have watched him master his art.”
Alex almost made a self-deprecating face, knowing that Winston was going a little overboard with his praise. But he knew Winston was singing his praises for a reason. Winston was winning over his peoples’ approval for allowing Alex to go back to the surface.
“And we have seen him save one of our own,” Winston reminded them solemnly. Warriors were nodding again. “Indeed, it may be possible that we could say we have seen him save one of his own.”
Alex swallowed, recognizing that what Winston said mirrored the thoughts that had been going through his mind just before the attack. He did feel that he belonged in Domus.
Winston stepped forward, standing directly before his people.
“I trust Alexander Croatoan,” he announced boldly. “And I would hope that you trust him, as well.” His eyes swept the crowd again. “All of you. For I intend to allow him to return to the surface—”
It was as if everyone in Sanctuary had been forcibly pushed back on their heels. They all reeled and then, at once, began shouting questions toward Alex and Winston. Alex met Tabitha’s eyes and knew right away that he should have told her first, privately. Her eyes had already begun welling with tears, her chin quivered.
“Please!” Winston called out, his hands held over his head. “Please!” But still the warriors carried on. Finally, Winston raised his black blade over his head and bellowed, “Silence!”
Despite the gravity of the moment, Alex only had eyes for Tabitha. She hadn’t looked away from him, and had begun trembling in her seat. He took a hesitant step in her direction, while at the same time Jonathan reached out to put a comforting hand on her arm.
Tabitha could take it no more. Shocked stares followed her as she sprung to her feet and hurried for the exit. Her raw pain was such that even the guards at the doors offered no rebuke, but simply pulled open the heavy doors as she rushed past, closing them again behind her without a word.
Alex took another step after her, but Winston’s single, “No,” rooted him to the spot. He understood. If he left Sanctuary now, Winston might not be able to convince his people that Alex’s intentions were in their best interests.
Alex was forced to wait as Winston finished explaining the urgency behind sending Alex back to the surface, and then it was left to Alex to explain what steel was, why it was so much better than copper, the way he would obtain the weapons, how he would transport them back to the Under, and then finally he had to find a way to explain the concept of money to everyone in the room.
It was no easy task. It took hours, but in the end there was grudging agreement among the warriors: they would escort Alex to the Antechamber and wait there until he returned. Upon his arrival, they would plan their attack on Rasmus’s lair.
Throughout the questioning, Alex nearly went out of his mind with worry. He was sure Tabitha must believe he was gearing up to leave Domus forever, especially after all that had happened at Thrain’s den.
When the doors finally swung open and the council had ended, Alex was the first one out the doors. He went straight to Tabitha’s home. He ducked his head in and swept the small area with his eyes, knowing right away that she wasn’t there.
He was halfway out the door again when he heard Sarah say, “Just like my mom and dad.”
Alex quietly stepped back inside. Sarah was there, lying under a hide blanket with just her eyes peeking out.
“What?” Alex asked her. “What did you say?”
“You’re just like my mom and dad,” Sarah revealed her sullen face. “You’re going to go away and never come back.”
“Oh honey,” Alex replied, surprised to hear his voice crack. Did she really think that? Did everyone? “No, Sarah,” he assured her, kneeling down next to her and smoothing her hair back. “No, that is not what is going to happen.”
“My mom and dad never thought it would happen to them either,” Sarah answered. She pulled the covers back over her mouth. “They were always trying to be nice. To help people. Just like you are doing now. And then they were gone. They were gone forever because they were trying to be nice.”
Alex rubbed his eyes. He was so tired. “Sarah,” he rested his hand on her shoulder. “I never told you this, but my mom went away too. One day, she was gone. Just like yours.”
Sarah shifted under the blanket, her entire face coming back into view. “She did?”
“She did,” Alex nodded. “And then my dad disappeared too. He came here, but I didn’t know that. And I was scared and alone, and all I could think to do was find him and bring him home. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing him too.”
Sarah listened with wide eyes.
“So I came here after him because he was the only person left in my life that I loved,” Alex continued. Sarah shifted again, sitting up a little. “But now I know you and your sister, and Jonathan and Abner, and so many other people here—and now I care about all of you, too. I care about you a lot. And I won’t leave you, Sarah. I will come back, because just like you, I know what it feels like to be abandoned by someone you lo—”
Alex couldn’t get the last word out because Sarah flung herself forward and wrapped her arms around him, hugging him around the neck so hard he almost choked.
“The lake,” Sarah whispered.
“What?” Alex disentangled himself from her small arms.
“She’ll be at the lake. It’s her special place.”
Alex found Tabitha crouched on the rocky shore of the Great Lake just as Sarah had told him he would. Her special place was on the outskirts of the city, far away from any homes. She stared morosely out at the calm water, openly weeping. He could see that she had been for quite some time.
Before he was able to say a word, she told him that she loved him. She told him that she understood why he’d killed her father. She didn’t look at him as she spoke, but somehow it made her words feel truer than if she had, as if she were admitting it not just to him, but also to herself. Allowing feelings that she’d long since given up hope of ever finding to re-emerge.
When he moved to take her into his arms, she raised a cautionary hand and finally met his eyes.
“Do not go back to the surface,” she pleaded. “Stay. We will find some other way.”
Alex knew she would never say the words.
She would never say, I don’t believe I’ll ever see you again.
But he could see it in her eyes.
“Tabitha, can’t you see? There is no other way. None that I know! We just don’t have the time! We have to do something now, and I can do this! I can give our warriors the advantage.”
Tabitha smiled bleakly. “Are they our warriors, Alex? Are they truly as much a part of you as they are of me?”
“Yes,” he insisted. “Yes, they are!”
Tabitha didn’t answer. Instead, she turned back toward the Great Lake and stared out over the water again. Alex took a seat beside her and she didn’t object, not even when he put his arm around her, but there was a sadness to their time there. As if it might be the last moments they ever spent alone.
He tried everything to make her believe it would be okay, that he would be back before she knew it, and although she tonelessly assured him that she believed him, it was all too clear that she didn’t.
In the end no one truly believed he would come back except Winston.
And Abner, of course. When he got back to the city many hours later, Abner slapped him on the back and chuckled, as if Alex were just going to be running down to the corner store and back.
Twelve of Domus’s finest warriors stood in a cluster, eyeing Alex with hopeful skepticism. Six of them had been his escort to the Antechamber, the other six were at the tail end of a tour guarding the Core. Directly over Alex’s head, the Core’s red glow shimmered on the ceiling.
All of the other warriors had returned to the city. He didn’t know anyone standing before him. They’d never seen him fight against a Nocuous, but had heard the stories. He could see in their eyes that they wanted to believe in him, to believe he was going to save them all. But what Winston had said in his chambers was true: if Alex was smart, he would simply vanish from the Under forever. A quick flick of his wrist was all it would take to leave the struggles of these people behind—and every one of the warriors standing before him knew it. Looking back into their frightened eyes, he wondered how many of them would take the opportunity to flee if they were given the chance.
“I’m gonna come back,” he assured them, almost plaintively. Hearing it in his mind before he’d said it, he was sure he could deliver the words with the right degree of conviction. But there in the Antechamber, facing the stoney-eyed gaze of so many people who clearly were struggling to have faith in him, the words had sounded weak, false.
“I’m gonna come back,” Alex insisted again. “I promise.”
Still the warriors remained mute, as if patiently just waiting for him to get on with it.
Frowning, feeling more disappointed than he probably had a right to, Alex switched on the laser. He aimed for the shimmer on the ceiling and, with one last look at the somber group, closed his hand into a fist.
Alex had used the suit enough times now that he immediately noticed a difference in the journey. Going from one point to another, such as he had when he was practicing with his rock-man, was a lateral move. He didn’t know how it mattered, or why it did, but going through the shimmer was up, vertical, and didn’t feel the same. He knew he was traveling in a tiny, thin, ray of light, at the speed of light, but still it felt like it took longer and pulled harder in the shimmer. He didn’t feel any physical exertion from it, the suit did all the work. Possibly gravity was playing a part.
And then, in a matter of seconds, it was over.
He arrived on the surface out of breath and disoriented. When he felt his body stop moving he tried to open his eyes, but was immediately blinded. Thinking he was getting run down by another car, he flung his arms up to shield himself, but it was just the late-afternoon sun shining on his face. He frantically blinked his watering eyes, trying to adjust to a level of brightness he hadn’t been exposed to in months.
Squinting at the horizon, Alex took solace in the knowledge that it would be dark soon.
But then his blood ran cold. His mind began to race. The only way he could get back to the Under was through a shimmer, and for that he needed the sun. Not only that, but how was he going to find a place to buy swords in the middle of the night? What if he couldn’t get the weapons quickly enough and it got dark again before he could go back? He’d promised Winston no more than sixteen hours. What if it rained all day tomorrow and the sun never came out?
All the ways things could go wrong suddenly rained down on him in a jumble. Why hadn’t he considered all of this before he left? There were a hundred obstacles that could prevent him from getting back in time, but he’d been foolish enough to promise a quick return, as if he had complete control over what happened up here.
Alex closed his eyes, berating himself for being so foolish.
A cold wind blew down from the mountains. He shivered and looked around, feeling a sudden and irrational fear. He was back in the world now, back on the surface, where everything was wide open and anything could come at him. Down in the Under, things were so much more finite. He’d gotten used to it, possibly even liked it better there. It certainly wasn’t a comfortable or welcoming place, not by any means, but in the Under you only had to concern yourself with what you could see, and that usually wasn’t very far. Even Domus, as large as it was, was contained within its own cavern. You could see the boundaries of the city no matter where you stood in it. But up here, up in the great wide open, anything could come at you from anywhere. Alex felt a vulnerability that had never even occurred to him before his stay in the Under.
He gritted his teeth and forced himself to calm down. This was stupid. He’d only been gone a few months. This was his home. The surface was where he came from, where he should feel most comfortable.
Setting his jaw, Alex pushed his paranoia to the back of his mind. He needed to focus on the task at hand and get back to the Under as quickly as possible. Nothing else mattered. He couldn’t afford to waste time on these thoughts, it might cost too many lives if he did. Sunlight, nighttime, rain—it didn’t matter what obstacles got in the way, he’d just have to figure it out. People were counting on him.
Weapons—he had to find a way to get a mass amount of swords and bring them to the airstrip or somewhere similarly isolated. On the journey to the Antechamber, he’d mulled over the idea of bringing back something more modern. Guns had come to mind immediately, but the more he considered it, the more he realized that for tunnel fighting, in such close quarters, guns were definitely not the ideal weapon. To kill thralls and Nocuous, their heads had to come off. Guns just couldn’t do that. And in a place where silence was a key factor to survival, a gun would make no sense at all.
So swords it would be, but to get enough of them Alex would need money, a lot of it. And to get that kind money he needed Silas.
Alex frowned, knowing he had his work cut out for him. Silas was another subject he’d thought a lot about on the hike to the Antechamber. The last time they’d been face-to-face, things had not gone well. Whether Silas’s tactics had all been in an effort to keep Alex safe or something else entirely, the tall, pale man had scared the bejesus out of him and was the last person on earth Alex wanted to go to for help.
But until Alex’s father was safely back home, Silas controlled EMIT. And that meant Silas controlled the money.
The sun continued its descent toward the horizon, the shadows becoming longer, and it strengthened Alex’s resolve.
There was only the occasional car passing by on the main road, so Alex used the suit at first. In small, quarter mile jumps, he “zapped” his way into town, stopping when he reached the “Welcome to Beaver” sign. From there he jogged to his house, knowing he couldn’t run around wearing just the suit and a jean jacket without drawing some curious stares, even in the dark. And after his disappearance, it was likely people were on the lookout for him.
Staying in the shadows, Alex crept to the front door of his darkened house. It was locked tight, no surprise there, but that wouldn’t be a problem. He’d always left the window of his bedroom unlocked, mostly because he’d been too lazy to worry about it. Of course, back when he’d thought he might need to sneak into the house he’d been thinking more along the lines of a “keep-from-being-grounded” scenario as opposed to a “save-a-city-from-invading-monsters” one.
Keeping low and close to the wall, Alex skirted the perimeter until he was at one of the front corners.
Alex was up on the first-story roof in no time, crouching low as he slinked to his window, muttering a relieved “thanks” when he found that it was still unlocked.
In seconds, Alex was standing in his bedroom, the window closed behind him.
It was surreal.
Nothing had changed, everything was exactly as he had left it.
And yet it no longer seemed like his. Not anymore. What had once seemed like a too-small space now seemed enormous and wasteful. All his things, his gadgets and trinkets, were nothing more to him now than accumulated crap.
What use did he have for the iPad he’d insisted he needed?
The television that hung on his wall and the gaming console that was plugged into it now seemed like such a colossal waste of time, just mere clutter.
With a thin-lipped smile, Alex shook his head. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t that person anymore. He just needed some clothes.
He yanked on his favorite pair of jeans and pulled a thick, comfortable sweat shirt over the suit. The jeans would be great protection against scrapes and cuts in the Under and the sweatshirt would keep him warm at night. It might even double nicely as a pillow. Either way, they should keep from drawing too many stares for the time he was on the surface.
As an afterthought, Alex shoved a handful of clean underwear into one of his jean jacket pockets—Lord, how he had missed having clean underwear every morning.
Checking himself in the mirror, Alex did a double take. He was sure no one in Beaver would give him a second glance, but seeing himself after so long in the Under made him feel positively odd. He reached up self-consciously and took a swipe at his ratty, long hair but he knew anything short of an entire bottle of shampoo and a barber wasn’t going to help. There just wasn’t any time for that now anyway.
The last thing he did before leaving his room was to rummage through his desk in hopes of finding some spare money. In the end, he came away with less than seven bucks.
Definitely not enough to outfit an army.
With the intention of leaving out the back door, Alex went downstairs but decided at the last minute to duck into his father’s study. Maybe he would have better luck finding a little cash in his Dad’s desk or even better—his checkbook.
He stopped cold in the doorway.
The room was ransacked, files strewn everywhere. Where his father’s computer used to be was an empty square surrounded by a thin line of dust. Every file cabinet drawer was open, every file folder wide open and empty.
Someone had come and removed every note, every bit of research this room had contained.
Gooseflesh broke out across Alex’s back as he remembered the noises he’d heard in the house the day he’d fled to the Under. Had this been what they were doing, or had people come in the house after he had left?
What if they were still watching the house—waiting to see if Alex came back?
Alex turned and sprinted for the back door, flinging it open and running for all he was worth. He never looked back.
Alex stood on Leeann’s front doorstep with his hands in his pockets, his jean jacket clutched tightly to his sides. It wasn’t cold, but he felt exposed out in the open like this. Inside, he could see the flickering glow of the television in the family room. Someone was still awake.
He rang the doorbell again, the sound startling on the quiet block. Alex could imagine Leeann’s parents giving each other questioning looks. At the Choi residence, Alex knew it was unheard of for anyone to come unannounced this late in the evening.
“Leeann, could you get that?” Alex heard Mrs. Choi through the closed door. “I’m in my night gown!”
Alex waited, but no one came to the door. He glanced over his shoulder at the empty street, irrationally feeling as if there were eyes everywhere in the darkness, watching him.
He rang the doorbell again, twice.
“Leeann!” Mrs. Choi called out again, her tone irritated now.
Finally, Alex heard someone stomping sullenly down the steps.
The deadbolt was turned and the door yanked open, and there stood Leeann, who looked ready to faint when she saw who was at her door.
Alex waited quietly, a hopeful look on his face. He raised his eyebrows and gave her a tiny shrug with a small, helpless smile.
When Leeann finally spoke, she looked as surprised as him by what she said.
“What the hell?” she hissed, one hand going to her mouth.
“Leeann!” her mother called out from the living room. “Who is it?”
“Hi,” Alex replied quietly.
“What are,” Leeann started to say, but apparently changed her mind. “Are you okay?” she asked instead. “Where have you been?” She leaned toward the door, looking out into the night behind him. “How did you get here?”
“Leeann!” her mother called again.
“Can I come in?” Alex asked.
Leeann blinked. “Of course,” she opening the door wide. “Of course you can.” Alex stepped over the threshold and she awkwardly moved to give him a hug, but something made her hesitate. They shared a tense, silent moment before Alex closed the distance between them and wrapped her in a careful embrace.
She hugged him back, tears spilling down her cheeks. She clutched him tightly, her face buried in his chest. “Is it really you?” she whispered.
“I’m alright,” he told her, stroking her hair. “I’m fine.”
Leeann took a deep, shuddering breath and composed herself, pulling away. A thin line of spittle stayed attached to his jacket where her face had been pressed. They both stared as it lengthened without breaking. Then they looked up at each other and the gravity of the moment was broken. They started laughing.
And then Leeann slapped Alex across the face, hard enough to rock his head back.
“What was that for?” he cried.
“Seriously?! The last time I saw you, you beamed down into my yard with the cops chasing after you! You couldn’t call? You couldn’t send me a text?” Leeann demanded. She swung to slap him again for good measure, but he easily grabbed hold of her wrist. She looked down at the hand that held her, surprised.
“No, I couldn’t text you,” Alex told her, and something about the way he answered gave her pause. “I would have if I could have, I swear,” he assured her, “but I couldn’t. I was…”
Alex’s voice trailed off and he looked away, his expression growing hard.
“You… what?” Leeann asked.
“I was very far away,” Alex said finally. “And I have to go back. As soon as possible.”
“What? No!” Leeann exclaimed. “Everyone is looking for you and your dad. Do you know what this is doing to the town? EMIT has been shut down for over a month and they’re talking about making it permanent. My dad doesn’t have a job right now, Alex!” She blinked. “Wait. Did you find your dad?”
Alex pursed his lips but didn’t answer. He looked at her apologetically.
“Alex!” Leeann’s mother came sweeping into the room, interrupting any reply Alex might have given. She wrapped her arms around him unabashedly, night gown and all. “You gave us such a scare!” She cupped his face in both her hands and called out, “Jin! Jin, you won’t believe who is here!”
Mr. Choi came around the corner and missed a step, his typically-impassive demeanor momentarily broken. He took a breath and straightened his back.
“Well now,” Mr. Choi chided his family, “give the young man some room to breathe.” Grasping Alex by both shoulders, he said, “You look well. I am very pleased.”
Alex bowed his head slightly. “Thank you, sir.”
Leeann squinted at Alex. Thank you sir?
“Please,” Mr. Choi urged, “Come into the dining room and we will speak. Can we get you something to drink, some food perhaps?”
“Water would be fine,” Alex said, following Leeann’s father into the dining room.
“How long how you been home?” Mr. Choi asked, settling into the seat at the head of the table.
Alex paused, uncomfortable. “Only tonight,” he replied evasively. There was another uncomfortable pause before he added, “Mr. Choi, I went to my house and it looks like somebody broke into it. Leeann tells me they closed EMIT down. What’s going on?”
Mr. Choi glanced at Leeann briefly. “I warned you,” he told Alex. “When you were looking for your father, I told you that without him there would be no company.” He shook his head and continued grimly. “That is exactly what has happened.”
“But Silas?” Alex asked. “Surely EMIT could continue to run for longer than this!”
Mr. Choi frowned. “Silas was the one who closed it, and he did not wait long. He did it exactly one week after the night you came to our home and disappeared.” Mr. Choi gave Alex a searching look. “The night you disappeared in a flash of light.”
Alex pressed his lips together in a thin line, but didn’t respond to Mr. Choi’s unspoken question.
“Alex,” Leeann couldn’t take it any longer. “Did you find your dad or not? This is important!”
Alex took a deep breath, considering how best to answer. Mrs. Choi came in and placed a tall glass of water on the table before him.
“Thank you,” Alex murmured. He raised the glass to his lips and took a tiny sip, but lowered it almost immediately. After drinking so much of the pure water from the Great Lake at Domus, the taste of city water didn’t agree with him. He placed his hands flat on the table and looked up, squarely meeting Mr. Choi’s eyes. “I need help,” he said.
Leeann’s father blinked. “Are you… in trouble?” he asked.
“Kind of,” Alex answered truthfully. “But not in the way you probably think. I…” he bit the inside of his lip. “I need money, Mr. Choi.” Leeann’s father jerked his head back in surprise. “I need it because I need to help some people, and if I can do that I might be able to bring my dad home. It…”
Alex took a deep breath. He was having trouble finding the right words.
“It’s very complicated and probably very unbelievable unless you’ve been where I’ve been, but I…” Alex looked helplessly back and forth between Leeann and her father. “I just need help. I can pay you back, I promise, I just really need the help.”
Mr. Choi had both hands folded together on the table in front of him and was rubbing his right hand with the pointer finger of his left. To anyone who didn’t know him it probably looked like a calm, comforting gesture that he didn’t even know he was making. For Alex, who had known the Choi family most of his life, he recognized it as a gesture that Mr. Choi was considering his options very seriously.
“Why would you not go to Silas for this money?” Mr. Choi finally asked. “I am sure he could get it for you, as he is your legal guardian.”
Alex was already shaking his head. “I can’t,” he replied. “I don’t think he would help me.”
Alex watched as Mr. Choi’s finger began moving faster, now a clear nervous tick. “And why is that?” he asked. Leeann gave him a furtive look, trying to caution him not to push her father.
“Because I think he wants to take something away from me,” Alex replied. “I think he wants to take the personal transport suit, the thing my dad made that I used that night when I teleported out of Leeann’s window.” He swallowed loudly, deciding his best course was to tell the absolute truthful. “I think he’ll do anything to get it, Mr. Choi. I think he knew about it before my dad disappeared.” He paused. “Sir, I think he’s the one who called the police the night I ran away.”
Mr. Choi stood abruptly, his chair legs scraping noisily on the dining room floor. Leeann and Mrs. Choi both jumped up, startled.
“Alex, you must leave here now,” Mr. Choi said. He moved to the front window and peered out into the street, looking both ways.
“What?” Alex exclaimed. “Why? You don’t have to give me any money, Mr. Choi. I was just asking…”
“No,” Mr. Choi answered tersely, “you do not understand. Under his instructions, I called Silas as soon as I heard you come into our home. He will be here soon.”
Alex was lost.
Not in the sense that he didn’t know where he was. Unfortunately, he knew exactly where he was, which was up a creek without a paddle.
He had no idea if Silas had shown up at the Choi’s, he hadn’t waited around to find out. He’d taken Leeann’s father’s advice and left immediately. Leeann had protested, arguing that surely they could talk to Silas, make him see that Alex needed help, but Mr. Choi had adamantly refused, his face paling at the thought of disobeying Silas. Leeann had then insisted they could hide Alex. If he was going to run anyway, couldn’t they just say he had, and then wait until Silas left? Again, Mr. Choi would have nothing to do with it. He was clearly afraid of Silas, and that only fueled Alex’s resolve to leave.
He’d shaken Mr. Choi’s hand, saying he understood and there were no hard feelings, and it wasn’t just platitudes—the Choi family had always been very good to him. The last thing he wanted to do was put them in danger.
Leeann had cried, asking him where he would go, making him promise to call when he was safe, but all he could manage to say was that he would try. Although he couldn’t tell her at that moment, he knew he never be able to tell her where he was going.
Now he wandered through his dark town with no idea where to go or how he was going to get the weapons he so desperately needed. It was past ten in the evening now and in Beaver, Utah that meant most businesses had been closed for hours already.
It was getting cold, cold enough that Alex knew he needed to find some place indoors for the night.
He really was out of options. He’d spent the past six years alienating everyone around him. Aside from Leeann, there was no one he could turn to. If only he had some way to know for sure why Silas was so hell-bent on finding him and the suit. Silas might truly be interested in protecting him, but Alex couldn’t be sure, and with something as valuable as the suit at stake he wasn’t going to risk it. The basement lab, the way his dad had gone about telling him via the NanoPhone app—Alex just couldn’t believe Silas had known about it before Alex did.
And yet… it sure seemed that way.
Unfortunately, the only way he was going to find out the truth about Silas was to confront the man himself and that, even in his desperation, seemed like a very bad idea to Alex.
Hugging his jean jacket close to his body, he trudged onward, feeling as lost and alone as he’d ever felt in his life.
The golden arches of a McDonald’s shone ahead, the only place in town showing any sign of life. They were open twenty-four hours, which to Alex had always seemed a little ridiculous in his small town, but tonight he was extraordinarily grateful.
Alex’s stomach was growling as soon as he caught his first whiff of hamburger blowing on the breeze. After weeks of nothing but fish and fungus, the deliciously familiar aroma nearly made his knees buckle with longing.
He pushed through the front doors, the few crumpled dollars he’d scrounged from his room already in his hand. He jogged to the counter, practically breaking into a run. It smelled so good.
“Four cheeseburgers and a Coke,” Alex blurted out before the bleary-eyed woman behind the counter had a chance to greet him. He thrust the money at her eagerly.
He paced the lobby until his food was ready, carefully carrying the plastic tray to a seat at the front of the empty restaurant like it was filet mignon.
The first bite was sheer heaven. Alex closed his eyes in ecstasy, nearly swooning. He’d eaten the entire burger and had the second one in his hand before he knew it. He chewed the next one slowly, savoring every second. If only Tabitha and Sarah were here. He could only imagine how they would react to food like this.
And then suddenly the food didn’t taste so good. Alex thought of all the people in Domus, scared, knowing it was only a matter of time before war would be waged against them. The fragile existence they’d been living for all these centuries was now, more than ever, in danger of complete annihilation and it was all because of him. Alex could justify every decision he’d made since his father disappeared, but that didn’t change the level of danger he’d put them in.
And here he sat stuffing his face with cheeseburgers at McDonald’s.
He should be doing something—anything—to get the weapons he’d come here for. What he was doing now was self-indulgence.
Guiltily, Alex finished what remained of the now tasteless burger and stuffed the other two in his jacket pockets.
Resolve fortified, Alex decided then and there that he would find a way, money or no money, to get the weapons. If he had to steal them, that’s what he would do. The need far outweighed the risk, and surely he could outrun any pursuit using the suit.
Alex’s head jerked up at the sound of the familiar, scathing voice. PJ stood just inside the front door with two of his goons, staring at Alex disgustedly.
“The whole county is out looking for this guy,” PJ sneered to his friends. “They think he’s dead, and here he sits without a care in the world.”
PJ was just about the last person Alex wanted to run into. He didn’t have time to deal with it. Carefully, he sank back down into his chair and placed both hands flat on the table.
“So what do you think?” PJ asked his goons, keeping his eyes on Alex. “Call the cops, or drag him to the police station ourselves?”
PJ grinned maliciously, his implication clear. His buddies chuckled, cracking their knuckles in anticipation.
“PJ…” Alex began.
“I bet there’s some sort of reward,” one of PJ’s friends opined.
Alex closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath and shook his head.
PJ squinted, confused. It was clear he’d expected a different reaction.
Alex wasn’t worried about a fight, not after all the training he’d received in Domus. If he had to, he knew he could take all three of them. What he was worried about was having one of the restaurant workers call the police. If the public eye was turned on him, there was no telling how long it would be before he could get back to the Under.
“PJ,” Alex said again, careful to keep a level tone. “Just order your Big Mac and pretend you didn’t see me. Please.”
PJ made a face, eyeing is buddies sidelong. Behind him, the door opened and he and his goons were forced to make room for the person coming in.
At first Alex didn’t pay any attention to the newcomer. His focus was on PJ. But the newcomer stayed just inside the door, right behind PJ’s group and as PJ turned around to give him a glare, Alex got his first good look.
Staring back at him with those cold, black eyes was Silas.
Alex jerked back in his chair and shot to his feet, instinctively raising his right arm before he realized he wasn’t carrying his weapon.
“You will come with me,” Silas told him in his strange, quiet voice.
Alex didn’t answer. Instead, he frantically took stock of the restaurant exits. His best bet was across the lobby, a side door that led out near the drive thru. It wasn’t close, but it was farther away from Silas than it was from him. If he moved fast, he could make it.
“I am not the enemy,” Silas told him tonelessly.
Sure you’re not.
Alex was sure that Silas only wanted the suit. Why else would he have closed down EMIT so quickly? If Silas cared anything about Alex or his father, his first priority should have been to keep the family business alive.
Silas tried to take a step forward, but PJ and his goons hadn’t moved and were in his way.
“Pardon me,” Silas told PJ coldly, his tone of voice making it clear he wasn’t asking for their pardon, but demanding it.
PJ looked back at Alex and his eyes narrowed. His face expressionless, he gave the tiniest of nods.
“I don’t think so,” PJ told Silas arrogantly. “Not unless you can tell me what you want with my friend.”
Although they looked anything but confident, PJ’s buddies stepped up shoulder to shoulder with him, forming a human barrier between Silas and Alex.
Alex, meanwhile, had no idea what to do. Now PJ was protecting him?
Silas looked past PJ’s shoulder, fixing Alex with a flat, malevolent glare. Without shifting his gaze, Silas flung an arm forward, palm first. The goon on PJ’s right caught the blow directly in the sternum and shot backward, his feet leaving the ground. He landed in a tangled mess as he slammed amidst tables and chairs more nearly a dozen feet away.
“Sir!” A wide-eyed worker had run up to the counter. “Sir, I’m calling the police!” Indeed, although her voice shook with fear she already had a phone held to her ear.
Silas paid her no mind. Instead, he fixed his flat gaze on PJ.
“Run, you stupid bastard!” PJ shouted at Alex, just before he too was thrown by a blow from Silas.
What the… Alex didn’t have time to finish the thought. He had to get out of that restaurant. He burst into motion, running for the door on the far side of the lobby.
“Alex!” It may have been the first time Alex ever heard Silas shout. He ran even faster, nearly breaking the glass as he shot through it and out into the parking lot.
A driver laid on his horn as Alex ran in front of his car, but Alex didn’t take the time to acknowledge it. He concentrated on two things: putting one foot in front of the other as fast as his body would allow, and activating the suit’s laser. Behind him, he heard the lobby door slam open, only seconds after him.
“Alex!” Silas shouted again.
Silas had been all the way on the other side of the restaurant. Tables and chairs and a divider wall had been blocking his way. How could he have crossed it so quickly? No one was that fast. And the way he’d thrown PJ and his goon across the lobby…
Alex had seen strength like that in the Under.
That thought almost caused him to stumble and fall.
It was impossible!
Heart in his throat, Alex pumped his legs even faster and raised his arm, pointing out into the darkness directly in front of him. The laser danced jerkily, wildly cutting through the black with the gait of his sprint.
He was in the middle of town. People would see, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t worry about that. At any second, he would feel Silas’s long, cold fingers on the nape of his neck if he didn’t use the suit.
In a burst of light, Alex teleported himself into the darkness, not knowing how far or where the suit would take him. All he knew for sure was it would be one step ahead of Silas, who could only be a Nocuous.
It was a long, miserable night spent constantly on the move. Alex only stopped when he grew too tired to continue. At those times he found dark corners or wide open, empty spaces to rest, but only for as long as it took to regain his strength.
As dawn broke over the Utah skyline, he began heading back toward the airstrip test site. He had no other option but to return to the Under empty-handed. It wasn’t safe for him on the surface anymore. Silas would find him no matter where he hid. With both he and his father missing, Silas had the vast wealth and resources of EMIT at his disposal. It would only be a matter of time until he tracked Alex down. The only place he could be sure Silas wouldn’t be able to get to him was in the Under.
Alex had failed. He was going back to Domus without a single weapon. He could only imagine the disappointment that awaited him. He’d promised Winston an arsenal, weapons the likes of which the people of Domus had never seen before.
Alex wasn’t just failing to deliver what he’d promised, he was delivering nothing at all.
And the bad news didn’t stop there—what about Silas? If Silas was a Nocuous, then everything the Domites had been doing, everything they’d based their existence on, was for nothing. They believed that if just one Nocuous escaped it could mean the end of the world. But right there in Alex’s hometown, working side-by-side in the same company his father had built, it seemed one already roamed free.
Alex struggled to make sense of it all. Why had Silas never made a bid for power? Why hadn’t he created his army of thralls and taken over the world?
His housekeeper, Rosa, certainly seemed to fit the profile of a thrall, but Alex had never seen any others like her. Not in Silas’s house, and certainly not at EMIT.
Had Silas simply been waiting for the right time? Had he been helping to build EMIT for all those years in order to use its wealth to augment his takeover? But that didn’t make any sense. Why would he need money at all? If he did, he could just find someone rich and put them in thrall to him.
None of it made any sense.
Alex approached the airstrip cautiously, squinting through tired, burning eyes in the dim, pre-dawn light. He was absolutely exhausted. He just wanted to get back, to take a moment to rest, maybe with Tabitha beside him. He wanted to feel safe.
Out on the main road, a minivan cruised past. Alex watched until he couldn’t see its taillights any longer, and then scurried forward in a crouch until he reached the utility shed. Putting his back to the rusty wall, he looked up into the sky and waited until he caught his breath again.
It wouldn’t be long now. The sun was just beginning to crest the horizon, a thin band of golden blaze becoming larger by the second.
At that moment, Alex realized he may never have watched a sunrise before. If he had, it certainly hadn’t had the same effect on him that it was having now. It was stunning. The sun was something he’d always taken for granted, but now it meant so much more to him. It represented salvation, escape, and—ironically—was the catalyst that would take him back to a place where there was no sun at all.
The line of the horizon already bisected the sun at the perfect halfway point. Had it always risen so quickly? How was the sun able to fully reveal itself in just a matter of minutes, and yet take so long to travel across the sky? Alex took a deep breath and savored the moment.
His stomach rumbled. He ran his tongue across dry lips that had grown chapped and cracked from spending the night out in the cold. Digging in a pocket, he pulled out one of his two remaining cheeseburgers and unwrapped it. It wasn’t warm, but it was still better than cold fish.
The sun had fully risen by the time he took the last bite, not a cloud in the sky.
It was time.
Alex took slow, hesitant steps out on the airstrip. He turned in a full circle and scanned the horizon. At this point, it probably didn’t matter if anyone saw him use the suit. He’d be long gone by the time they could get to him and they’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone of what they’d seen.
Alex scanned the road one last time. There were no cars in sight.
He switched on the laser. This is it, he thought, I’m headed back to the Under with nothing to show for my trip except a cheeseburger, a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans.
He didn’t have to go back. He could stay until he found a way to get the weapons—steal them if he had to—like he’d been considering the night before.
But he knew the longer he stayed, the easier it would be for him to take the coward’s way out. The longer he stayed, the easier it would be to let time create a buffer against his feelings for Domus and all its people.
Would that be so bad? His dad would want him to choose that course. And for all Alex knew, his dad was already dead.
But what if his dad was alive? What if he was being tortured, in terrible agony with every second that passed and, by suit and sword, Alex could bring him home, with or without better weapons? His dad had always been there for him. After Mom had disappeared, it was him and Dad.
If it was Alex who was trapped in the Under, Dad would move heaven and earth to get him back, and he wouldn’t stop unless he knew that Alex was dead. Alex could do no less.
And of course there was Tabitha.
There was only one choice he could live with, even if that choice might kill him.
He turned resolutely to face the airstrip, but when he looked up he recoiled in shock, his knees nearly buckling beneath him.
There, just past where the shimmer glazed the concrete of the airstrip, was Silas, facing him down like a gunslinger in an old western. He stood impassively, his tall, lanky frame lending him the appearance of casual indifference.
Alex knew better—Silas was anything but indifferent. From his previous battles with Nocuous, Alex knew very well that they could seem the most calm right before an attack.
If Silas was what Alex believed him to be, the next few moments might be the most important of his life.
Neither of them moved. The wind picked up, blowing sideways across the airstrip. Alex squinted against the dust and grit. Silas’s coat billowed out and his long, black hair blew out to the side. Alex gave a start, squinting harder. There was something strapped to Silas’s back. Two handles rose up from behind both of his shoulders.
Silas had come here to hitch a ride—to use Alex and the suit to get to the Under, undoubtedly to get to the Core in order to grow his power. Alex could not let that happen.
He didn’t hesitate. He swung his arm up and pointed the laser.
Silas knew enough to bring swords with him, which meant Silas knew everything he needed to know about the Under.
And it meant that Alex was right about Silas being Nocuous.
The instant Alex moved his arm, Silas surged forward, coming at him in a blur of inhuman speed.
Shaking with fear and adrenaline, Alex steadied his wrist, pointed into the shimmer, and clenched his fist tightly closed.
The entire movement couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but to Alex’s terrified mind, time slowed to a crawl. He watched, horrified as those moments played out.
The laser was aimed directly into the center of the shimmer. He watched his fingers clench together as if they belonged to someone else. The suit lit up, the wire mesh inside the fabric slowly engulfing him in its familiar dull glow.
All the while, Silas’s black silhouette sped toward him, growing closer and closer.
At the last moment, right before the suit’s glow reached its zenith, Alex felt bony fingers clamp down on his shoulder.
And then he was falling, falling through the wormhole created by the shimmer, unable to do anything except wait while it took its course.
He landed hard, falling backward onto the unyielding stone floor of the Antechamber, struggling to disengage himself from Silas’s arms and legs.
They’d come together. The suit had brought them both. The same way that any clothing he wore came through with him, the repulsive contact from Silas’s hand on his shoulder had forced Alex to bring him too.
Scrambling and twisting, Alex scurried away on all fours and rose into a crouch, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the dim red light of the cavern.
“Alex!” Tabitha ran into the Antechamber from one of the side tunnels, followed by two others. Core guard. On the other side, three more Domus guards led by Jonathan cautiously stepped into the chamber.
Everyone froze as soon as they realized that Alex hadn’t come alone.
Silas crouched warily at the far edge of the room, his back to the wall and both palms held up in front of him in an entreaty for peace.
“Alex?” Tabitha whispered.
“Stay back,” Alex replied, not just speaking to Tabitha but to all of them. He never took his eyes from Silas. “He is Nocuous,” Alex told them. His lips twisted into a sneer. “Aren’t you, Silas?”
Silas didn’t answer. Instead, he reached over a shoulder with deliberate slowness and slid one of his swords free, brandishing it for all to see. It was a beautiful, gleaming, steel weapon.
“To arms!” Jonathan cried out. The two groups came together, forming their defensive arc and effectively blocking any escape for Silas.
“Alex,” Jonathan said tersely, “slowly back along the wall.”
But Alex didn’t move, and neither did Silas.
“Please don’t do this,” Alex whispered.
Silas’s impassive gaze didn’t waver.
“These are good people,” Alex told him. “They don’t deserve this.”
A flicker of emotion crossed Silas’s face. It wasn’t much, just a tiny narrowing at the corners of his eyes, gone so quickly that Alex wondered if he’d really seen it at all.
Carefully, slowly, Silas let the point of his sword tip downward until it hovered just above the floor. He held Alex’s gaze for the space of a half dozen breaths and then bent at the knees. In one smooth movement, he sent the weapon sliding across the floor until it skidded to a stop at Alex’s feet.
And then, in the blink of an eye, Silas was gone.
He slammed through the warriors’ arc and fled out the side tunnel that led away from Domus.
Alex’s arrival back in Domus was met with absolute silence. As it had been so many weeks ago when he’d first been led through the city, people lined the road to watch him pass, their looks inscrutable. Alex met their stares for as long as he was able, but eventually the weight of their condemnation became too much to bear and he was forced to lower his eyes.
He didn’t blame them. How could he? The arrival of Alex and his father in the Under had heralded the beginning of the end. Simply by coming here and bringing the means by which any Nocuous could get to the surface, they had unwittingly put the entire society of Domus in jeopardy. And then, in a desperate attempt to undo the damage he’d done, Alex had promised salvation in the form of weapons, weapons that he’d failed to deliver. Not only had he failed to bring them, but had also brought along a man who might very well be more dangerous than any foe that previously existed in the Under.
Alex could not have made things any worse for the people of Domus if he’d been trying.
Tabitha remained steadfast, walking by his side with one arm locked around his waist. The two of them hadn’t spoken more than a few words, not yet. There hadn’t been time and besides, Alex was so tired he was barely able to string two coherent sentences together. In the stunned silence that had followed Silas’s flight from the Antechamber, Jonathan had been the first to regain his composure and make the decision that the Core guard would end its tour early and return to the city. Alex had been only too glad to comply.
But for the first time in the history of its people, the Core had been left unguarded—yet another thing for which the blame could be laid directly at Alex’s feet.
All these thoughts tumbled through Alex’s sleep-deprived mind as the small contingent approached Sanctuary. Winston stood on the top step, awaiting their arrival with cool, piercing eyes. Alex saw the Marshall’s gaze sweep over the group and he knew that Winston was hoping for a glimpse of the weapons he’d been promised. It only took a few moments for Winston to see that Alex had come back empty-handed. Winston made no move, he did not so much as blink, but Alex was close enough to notice the disappointed clench of Winston’s jaw just before he lifted his eyes back to face his people.
Alex stumbled, his tired legs giving way. It was too much. He should have stayed on the surface until he had what he’d gone there for. How could he have allowed Silas to return with him? Tabitha tightened her grip around his waist and kept him upright, helping to salvage what little dignity he might still possess. Behind him, the roadway had swelled with all those he’d passed, people who still hoped for their future.
Jonathan called a halt at the base of the steps and the six members of the Core guard lifted their blades in salute to Winston. Alex followed suit with the blade that Silas had given him.
Winston paused briefly, eyeing the steel blade, and then saluted back solemnly. Wordlessly, he held out a hand to Alex, palm up.
Alex swallowed back a rush of emotions; guilt, worry, fear, humility, all of it mixed in with a terrible, mind-numbing fatigue. How long had it been since he’d slept?
He squeezed Tabitha’s hand once and disengaged from her grip, swaying slightly as he was forced to find his own center of balance. Putting one foot carefully in front of the next, he climbed the steps like an old man. He knew he was tired, but he hadn’t realized how near he was to collapse, nor how heavily he must have been leaning on Tabitha.
Winston waited patiently, his hand still extended. Alex looked at it as if he didn’t understand, and really—he didn’t. He didn’t deserve to take such a great man’s hand. Did Winston even know how dreadfully he had failed in his mission? When Alex looked back up, Winston nodded once, encouragement for Alex to accept his support.
Alex lowered his eyes and reached out shamefully, feeling like a fraud as he slipped his small hand into Winston’s giant one. The big warrior shifted his stance, taking on some of Alex’s weight.
“I have you, son,” Winston spoke quietly. “You’re alright. You’re home.”
Alex blinked blearily. I have you, son?
Carefully, Winston pulled Alex to stand next to him on the top step and wrapped him in an embrace. Quietly, but with great conviction, he told Alex, “You came back. That is what matters most.”
Winston turned Alex to face the crowd.
“He has returned,” Winston’s voice boomed. “As promised, he has come to aid us in our most desperate hour!”
There was no cheering. The crowd’s only reaction was a few low murmurs and shuffled feet. Every citizen of Domus could see that Alex had indeed come back, but without the weapons he’d promised. Alex looked morosely out over the crowd, seeing in the eyes of the people gathered that they were terrified, that they’d hoped against hope for him to come back with the means to save them, but knew as surely as his hands were empty, his promises had been too.
Woozily, Alex mumbled, “I failed. I didn’t get the swords.” He blinked up at Winston. “I didn’t get the swords, Winston.”
And then the world went black.
Alex jerked awake with a start, gasping as he sat up.
“It is alright.” Tabitha was by his side, stroking back his hair. “You are safe,” she soothed. “They have not breached the cavern, and they won’t. Our warriors are strong.”
“What?” Alex croaked, his voice scratchy. He swallowed painfully against a dry throat. Putting a hand to his aching forehead, he wiped the sleep from his eyes. He was in a shelter, but not his. It was bigger, with personal items lined neatly on carved-out shelves. Tabitha turned to one of those shelves and filled a bowl with water from a pitcher, holding it for him to drink.
“Not too much,” she told him gently.
“Where am I?” The water was so good. He was greedy for more.
“I brought you home,” Tabitha told him. “To my home.” She blushed and put the bowl down on the floor, turning away. Alex immediately picked it back up and drank more.
“Mine and Sarah’s, I mean.” Tabitha had her back to him, unconsciously rubbing her arms as if she were cold. “Being so close to the tunnel entrance, they… everyone agreed it would be unsafe for you to remain in your shelter. And now that…”
Tabitha trailed off, looking back at him and biting her lip. She hadn’t meant to say what she’d said.
“Now that what?” Alex asked, sitting up straighter. “Tabitha, how long have I been sleeping?”
“Nearly a full day,” Tabitha replied, looking apologetic. “You collapsed on the steps of Sanctuary and no one could rouse you, not even when we doused you with lake water.”
Alex blanched, not liking the idea of having been so far gone.
Tabitha went to the far side of the room and began organizing some of the items on the shelves, her back to him again.
“Tabitha?” He said her name like a question, but she didn’t turn around. Instead, her hands began moving faster, putting things back where she’d just moved them from.
“Tabitha,” Alex repeated firmly, and climbed unsteadily to his feet. He swayed slightly as he worked to get his balance, grasping the wall of the shelter for support. He gave a start when he saw the sword that Silas had given him propped up next to the door. He blinked. Why would Winston have left such a lethal weapon with Alex?
“Now that what?” Alex demanded again. “You need to tell me what happened.”
Tabitha blew out a frustrated sigh and turned to face him, her hands clasped tightly together. “They have seized control of the Core. It has been taken,” she told him tremulously. “It must have happened right after we left to bring you here.”
“But how… how do you know for sure?”
“Just after you fell unconscious, Winston sent a guard party back, but there they were attacked by a band of thralls outside the Antechamber. They were pushed back, nearly to the city, but guards at the entrance heard the sound of their fighting and came to their aid.”
Alex stiffened. It had begun. “And the city?” he whispered.
“They have not breached the Cavern of Domus,” she told him. “Winston has rallied every warrior and they have begun taking back the caverns one section at a time, establishing a guard station at every intersection. Our warriors are bravely pushing for the Core, but we do not know what they will find when they reach it. It could be that just one Nocuous and its thralls, or it could be Rasmus’s entire army.” Her mouth tightened into a thin line. “We simply do not know.”
Alex groaned. In his heart, he already knew that it had to be Rasmus. It could be no coincidence that the Core had been taken on the same day he brought Silas to the Under with him.
Did this mean Silas was in league with Rasmus and working to liberate him to the surface?
“How many?” he asked.
Tabitha furrowed her brow, confused.
“How many warriors of Domus have died?”
Tabitha frowned and bowed her head. “Three,” she responded sadly. “But it could be more. The fighting has gone on unabated since it began.”
He’d slept through an entire day of fighting?
“I have to go,” Alex said firmly. He still felt weak, but he was getting stronger by the second, his body waking up with his mind. It didn’t matter, anyway. Even if he had never slept at all, he would still need to go. He had the suit and he had the blade Silas had given him. He could help. “Where is Winston? Where is Jonathan and Abner?”
“At the front, pushing toward the Core,” Tabitha answered. “It is Winston’s duty as Marshall, and as Winston’s second, Jonathan is with him. I have no doubt Abner will be there as well.”
“I have to go,” Alex repeated. He reached out and took hold of the sword, lifting it to eye level. It really was a beautiful weapon. Why had Silas given it to him? Was it some sort of honor among enemies thing? From the experiences Alex had had with other Nocuous, honor didn’t seem to be very high on their list of priorities. He frowned and put the thought aside. Right now it didn’t matter. Right now, he needed to help his friends. Maybe he hadn’t been able to get them the weapons they needed, but he could still fight by their side. Domus might fall today, but not before Alex himself fell too.
He turned to say goodbye to Tabitha but she was right behind him, blade in hand. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“I am a warrior of Domus,” she replied, her tone allowing no rebuke. “As ordered by my Marshall, I stayed behind to be certain that you came to no harm. I have done that. But now my place is in the tunnels, with my fellow warriors. I am going with you.”
Alex knew better than to argue. Their relationship, having moved on to something much more than either ever expected, was still rooted in the teacher-student dynamic. She was still his superior as far as the ranks of the Domus warriors were concerned, and he knew she would have no problem reminding him of it. Her demeanor may have significantly warmed, but at her heart she would always be a warrior first. He could no sooner force her to stay here than she could force Winston.
“Alright,” he said. Secretly, he was glad that she would be with him. He did not relish the thought of traversing the tunnels alone. He ducked his head to leave the shelter, but a cool hand on his arm held him back. “What?” he asked, confused. “I thought you said…”
“Your father,” Tabitha said.
Alex froze. “What about my father?” he demanded. “Is he okay?”
Tabitha shook her head. “I do not know if he is alright,” she replied. “We have not seen nor heard anything of his whereabouts.”
“Then—?” Alex began.
“If we do find him,” she cut him off, “and it is determined that he is… like my father…”
Alex took a deep breath. He knew what Tabitha was trying to say. “If my father has been made a thrall—if he has,” he emphasized, pressing his lips into a grim line, “I will do what is right.”
Tabitha held his gaze. “As will I,” she promised, searching his eyes. “You gave me a gift, Alexander Croatoan, when you slayed my father.”
Alex raised a hand to halt the discussion. He wasn’t ready to consider this, not yet. “We don’t have to talk about this,” he said. “You owe me nothing. Not now, not when we might not live through the day.”
“That is precisely why we need to talk about this,” Tabitha replied. She stepped up close and wrapped both arms around him. “You gave me a gift,” she repeated. “I had two choices in those moments. One was to end the life of my father, a man I loved more than any other. The other was to allow him to end mine. Had I been the one to kill him, a part of me would have died. I cannot fathom the depths of despair I would be feeling today if it had been my blade to make that cut.” She leaned forward and kissed him tenderly. “By saving my life, you saved my life,” she told him. “And I can do no less than return such a gift.”
Alex could only pray it would never come to that.
They hurried through the tunnels recklessly, heedless of the sound of their passage. Alex kept the laser on to provide what little illumination he could. It felt surreal, as if the two of them were throwing caution to the wind, a suicide mission in the pitch-black. Alex could only imagine that it felt doubly so for Tabitha, whose whole life had been spent in preparation for the danger these tunnels represented. It was a measure of the peril the city was in that she didn’t relent from their frantic pace.
At every intersection, they came upon a six-person guard, every one of them wild-eyed and wary. Each time Alex and Tabitha came into view, the guards let out a collective sigh of relief and relaxed the tense grips on their swords. They looked ragged, exhausted, and scared.
Their haunted eyes deepened the guilt Alex felt for having slept through so much of the battle. It spurred them onward even faster.
A journey that normally took many hours to complete passed in just one. They reached a final intersection and were brought up short by a guard who informed them that the main contingent of warriors was just ahead, still fighting. Four warriors lay prone on the tunnel floor. One of them moaned painfully, the other three silent and still. Two young warriors worked feverishly to staunch wounds that had created a large pool of blood on the floor.
“How far are we from the Antechamber?” Alex asked breathlessly, eyeing those on the floor. A soiled rag was pressed up against a stomach wound, and one of the warriors who Alex had thought was unconscious or dead cried out in agony. Alex ground his teeth together in guilt. He needed to get to the battle. He needed to help.
“Not far,” came the answer. “But it is bad, very bad—
“Can you stop them, Alex?” One of the wounded warriors asked from the floor.
Alex had already turned away to hurry onward, but stopped short when he realized that the warrior who’d spoken was one of the Divinites who’d been part of the mission to Thrain’s den. “Jedidiah.” He reached down and clasped the young warrior’s wrist. “I don’t know if I can stop them,” he answered truthfully. “But I am going to try,” he promised. “And I won’t stop trying.”
Jedidiah gave Alex’s wrist a final squeeze and released it. “May God be with you, Alexander Croatoan.”
Alex blinked back an unexpected onslaught of tears. Somehow, even in the face of all he’d done to put them in danger, they still believed in him. They still believed he could save them. He swallowed a lump. He knew he should say something, but was afraid that anything he said would probably come out all wrong. He was on the verge of simply turning away and leaving, but Tabitha gripped his elbow and cleared her throat.
“May…” Alex stammered. He looked for help from Tabitha but got none. “May He be with us all.” It nearly came out sounding like a question. The words felt disingenuous, at best, coming from his mouth. But Jedidiah’s eyes hardened with resolve and he gave Alex a grateful nod, as if Alex had already fought back Rasmus and his entire army. Jedidiah crossed his wrists over his chest and closed his eyes, seemingly at peace.
Not trusting himself to say anything further, Alex turned and left the intersection, already in a run before he was back in the tunnel.
They hadn’t far to go. The sound of fighting reached their ears before they rounded another bend, and then they were upon it.
More than twenty warriors were crowded into an intersection where two tunnels met. They had formed into the typical Domus arc, but with so many of them working at once their arc was more of a three-sided box.
Winston’s voice carried clearly over the din of clashing weapons, commanding the battle in his deep, confident baritone. Warriors responded to his orders in terse, single-syllable replies, changing tactics with an instant precision born from a lifetime of training.
Past the Domus warriors, surging and receding in waves as they pushed back their assailants, were at least a dozen thralls, silent harbingers of death. Raging in their midst, Alex could hear the unmistakable voice of a Nocuous as it spewed unceasing curses and threats, lashing its thralls into battle.
Alex had no trouble finding him—this Nocuous was known to them all.
“Phineas,” Tabitha whispered in horror.
Phineas, now a full-fledged Nocuous with thralls under his command, strode amid the fray arrogantly, as if he knew nothing could harm him. Although paler and perhaps more arrogant, he looked no different than the day he’d left them in the Antechamber.
But he was different. He bellowed commands without remorse or hesitation, sending his thralls into combat against people who’d been his friends and family until only very recently.
Such was the power of the Core, and such was the unquenchable thirst for dominance that it instilled into those it changed. The young man fighting against them was no longer Phineas—he was Nocuous.
Alex turned to Tabitha and put one hand on her shoulder. With his other hand, he activated the laser on the suit. “I can end this,” he told her. Phineas roared an order, his voice resounding in the cavern, accentuating the need for haste. “Phineas would want me to,” Alex told her. “I know he would. I can end this right now.”
Tabitha gave him a single, resolute nod and stepped back.
Alex shifted his sword to his other hand and pointed the laser, taking aim behind Phineas. He waited patiently, for the perfect single moment when the battle would shift and give him a clear line of sight on which to travel.
One by one, the Domus warriors saw the red pinpoint as it danced amid the fray and they turned exultantly, knowing before they looked who had joined the battle.
“Make way!” Winston roared, swinging his black blade over head at those who stood in the path of Alex’s laser.
And at that moment, friend and enemy alike gave him the opening he needed. Alex closed his fist and suddenly he was in the thick of it. As soon as he appeared, he lashed out with the blade that Silas had given him, but Phineas had already spun to deflect the blow, raising his copper blade to take the brunt of the strike.
Phineas glared with a defiant sneer, possibly ready to curse Alex’s foolish attempt, but he never had the chance.
Alex’s new steel sword sliced cleanly through Phineas’s copper blade, hardly losing momentum as it continued its trajectory onward and through Phineas’s neck. Even Alex, who knew he wielded something far superior to anything in the Under, was taken by surprise and nearly lost his footing as Silas’s blade sliced clean through and beyond.
There was a great pause of both man and thrall as Phineas’s head thumped dully to the floor of the tunnel.
Alex caught his balance and righted himself, stumbling a little, hopping on one foot as he worked to regain his center of balance.
By the time he’d brought his blade back to bear, the warriors of Domus had already issued a collective battle cry and surged forward with renewed vigor. Alex only hesitated a moment before joining them, swinging his blade at his closest enemy.
Another head dropped.
He swung again. And again.
And again, until the floor was littered with the bodies of the enemy.
It was bloody work. The entire intersection was soon coated in the slime and gore spilt from so many thralls. Alex felt none of the glory that was depicted in songs and stories of battles such as this, just revulsion and overwhelming fatigue. A burning guilt welled up in his gut, a dislike for himself and what he’d brought down on a people who’d taken him in, even accepted him, despite who they knew him to be.
When none of the remaining thralls came to him, Alex went to them, hacking them down as they attacked his fellow warriors.
It was over so fast, Alex wasn’t even aware when it had truly ended. He felled a thrall and turned, his blade raised in search of another, only to find Jonathan backing away, both hands raised in surrender. Alex lowered his arm, recognizing his friend.
“You are well-met,” Jonathan told him with a wide smile. His face was barely recognizable beneath all the spattered black and crimson.
“Indeed,” boomed Winston, who came forward and placed a bloodied hand on Alex’s shoulder.
“Was that it?” Alex asked, panting as he surveyed the carnage. “Is that all? Have we won?”
Winston raised one eyebrow. “Not by half,” he replied, his mouth twisting as if he tasted something bad. “I am displeased to report that these few represented nothing more than a forward scout sent to test our defense and resolve. Their main force is holed up in the Antechamber and at the Core itself.”
A forward scout? Alex surveyed the dozens of headless bodies on the floor. There had been so many!
“It is our intention to press ahead and clear the Antechamber,” Jonathan added, receiving a nod from Winston. “We then hope to draw what remains of Rasmus’s force from the Core, out into the Antechamber, there to engage in a final battle.” When Alex didn’t answer, Jonathan clarified, “We cannot do battle at the Core itself, it is too dangerous.”
Of course. Alex hadn’t considered the idea that they couldn’t approach the Core. Any thralls or Nocuous who remained by it would essentially be in a safe haven. To send Domus warriors anywhere near it could mean losing them to the Core’s siren call.
But the Nocuous weren’t foolish or stupid, in fact they were exactly the opposite. It wasn’t like the Domus warriors could just holler taunts toward the Core and hope the enemy would come out fighting.
“What if that doesn’t work?” Alex asked, earning a frown from Winston. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t mean to say that it won’t, but what if… I mean, they could stay in there forever, couldn’t they? Just wait us out? I can’t imagine time means much to them, especially if they’re spending it at the source of their power.”
“We are open to suggestion,” Winston told him candidly. “We can conceive of no better option.”
“We have guarded the Core for centuries,” Jonathan reminded him. “And we will continue to do so after this day. If a thrall or Nocuous were to remain there, hiding at the Core, we would be there when they emerged, no matter how long it took.”
Jonathan made a good point, but his end-game strategy involved setting up shop in the Antechamber again, posting warriors there until the end of time. Alex had no intention of stopping after the Core had been retaken. Going back to the old status quo, sixteen hour shifts, in fear of being attacked every day—it was simply not acceptable to him. It was no way to live.
Unless Rasmus was waiting there with his father, Alex would continue the battle forward until he found him. Now was the time. Now, when so many thralls and Nocuous had already been slain. Their forces were weaker than they might ever be again.
Alex shook his head.
“Alex,” Winston told him, “we will find your father, but today—”
Winston made a small sound, like a cross between a choke and cough, and his eyes grew wide. He stiffened, standing up straight, nearly on his toes.
Alex squinted, confused. “Winston?” he asked.
Winston opened his mouth, but no words came. A trickle of blood dribbled out, sliding down his chin in a thin rivulet. Woodenly, he turned, looking back over his shoulder. He moved so slowly, unhurried, as if someone had called his name and he had no wish to answer.
And that was when Alex saw the copper blade that had been thrust into the center of his back, and the thrall that had silently slunk up to plant it there.
Winston saw the thrall too, and worked to lift his blade, but only got it half-raised, as if it suddenly weighed much more than his great arm could bear. He coughed once, blood frothing on his lips, and sunk heavily to his knees.
The thrall leered at them with its back hunched, arms bent forward and eyes wide as if it, too, was shocked by what had happened.
“Nooooo!” Into the stunned silence, an anguished cry rang out. Alex’s blade was already over his head and swinging down through the thrall’s neck when he realized the cry was his own, his despairing lament continuing on even after the thrall’s life was ended and its body slumped to the floor.
Winston was still on his knees, but his entire body had slumped forward, his chin on his chest. He didn’t appear to be breathing.
Still holding his blade over his shoulder from the back-swing, Alex stared down at the quivering body of the thrall, wishing he could kill it again. His own body shook with fury as he knew that, ultimately, Winston’s death would be his fault.
“Alexander,” Winston’s voice was barely a whisper.
He was alive!
Alex spun and knelt at the Marshall’s side.
“We will get you home,” Alex promised in a tight voice. Winston slowly lifted his left hand. It was covered in blood and grime, but Alex took it without hesitation. “You’re going to be fine, sir.”
Alex felt a soft, sad hand on his shoulder. Tabitha. He looked up at her and she shook her head, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Winston pressed his lips together painfully. “I have seen too many others pass before me to believe I could survive a wound such as this.” He closed his eyes and swallowed once, grimacing. “Jonathan…” he rasped.
“Jonathan!” Alex called out, but Jonathan was already there, kneeling on the other side of the fallen leader.
“I am here, my Marshall.”
Winston took a shuddering breath and, with a groan, lifted his right hand, which still clutched tight to the black blade of his office. With a final push, he thrust it into Jonathan’s hand. “It will be you,” he said.
Jonathan said nothing. He bowed his head in prayer. Slowly, silently, the warriors in the tunnel gathered and bowed their heads with him.
“Do not,” Winston coughed again, more blood spraying from his mouth. “Do not blame him,” Winston gasped, letting his eyes slide toward Alex. “His heart is pure and he may yet be the salvation of us all.”
The corridor, which only minutes before had rung with the sounds of a battle that held a promise of victory, was silent as a grave.
“Do not…” Winston said, but his words failed him. He began to breathe in quick, shaking gasps. “Do not…”
Something loud sounded from inside the tunnel leading to the Antechamber, followed by a low, steady sound. One by one, the Domus warriors lifted their heads and peered into the darkness.
Alex lifted his head, loathe to miss a single one of Winston’s last moments, but something was coming.
It was a rhythm. A cadence that was quickly gaining in volume.
The sound of footfalls pounding toward them in a dead run. A great many of them.
Jonathan met Alex’s eyes, confused.
“To arms!” one of the warriors yelled, and as one they backed away, forming the Domus arc.
Jonathan, Tabitha, and Alex were left alone on the cold stone floor, kneeling by Winston’s side, knowing they could never in good conscience leave their fallen leader, even in death.
Alex looked at Jonathan and nodded grimly. He curled his fingers around the hilt of his blade.
The first thrall burst from the darkness soundlessly, pounding toward them with unrelenting ferocity. Following closely on its heels was an unending torrent of many, many more.
One of the warriors called out, “Twin scars on its jaw!”
Another shouted, “It belongs to Rasmus!”
Jonathan, Tabitha, and Alex rose to their feet, watching in silent dread as the flow of thralls stretched out endlessly behind the first one, every one of them wearing the scars that marked them as Rasmus’s property. These thralls were not of a lesser caste. Theirs was the cruelest master in the Under. They were accustomed to pain. They were accustomed to torment. They would not fall easily.
The tide raced directly for them, so many that there would be no way to count their numbers even if there was time. The three of them shifted their stances.
“I am proud to fight at your side, Alexander Croatoan,” Jonathan told him tersely, eyes locked on the flood rushing toward them.
Alex swallowed a dry lump of fear. The first thrall was almost upon them.
“Yeah,” Alex answered. “Ditto.”
He glanced askance at Tabitha, wishing he could tell her to back up and join the other warriors, but he knew she would not.
Behind them, the rest of the contingent also locked their stance, shifting so they were braced and ready.
There were just… so many.
Alex zeroed in on the thrall he thought would reach him first. He lifted his blade to the ready…
And the tide of thralls parted, streaming past as if he were but a stone in a river.
Alex moved to strike anyway, but checked his swing. The thralls weren’t slowing down, and they were moving fast. They ran past the Domus warriors as if they weren’t even there and disappeared into a side corridor, away from the city. Even if Alex swung, there was every chance he’d miss. He turned and raised his blade again, but it was pointless. They just weren’t stopping.
The same was happening with Jonathan and Tabitha—not one thrall even looked their way as they careened past. In a rush, the thralls barreled through the arc of warriors waiting at the tunnel intersection, a few of them tumbling to the floor on impact, but they jumped right back to their feet and were running again before the warriors could react.
“What is going on?” Alex yelled.
The sound of the thralls’ pounding footfalls was deafening. They kept coming, and kept going, easily a hundred of them disappearing into the darkness.
Jonathan still held his blade aloft, as if he thought he should strike or believed that at least one of these awful creatures would double back and attack. “I do not know!” he yelled. “But look at them! They are terrified!”
Jonathan was right. What had at first seemed to Alex to be a look of feral rage on the thralls’ faces was actually a look of unfettered fear. These thralls weren’t attacking—they were fleeing.
But from what?
They streamed past until their numbers began to dwindle and then finally there were just a few stragglers. Soon all that remained were warriors from Domus who’d come to do battle, confused and afraid with no enemy to attack.
The silence left in the wake of the stampede made Alex’s ears ring.
“What—” Alex began, but just then a cry erupted out of the tunnel leading to the Antechamber. It was loud, so loud that every single warrior spun and raised their blades in anticipation of battle.
The cry went on and on, finally ending in an exultant note of unholy triumph. It had not been a cry of pain, it had been a cry of rage, and there was no doubt that it had been from a Nocuous.
“To arms,” Jonathan commanded in a low tone.
They waited, tension radiating from every warrior in the corridor.
Seconds ticked past, and still they waited.
But nothing happened.
“Is it a trap?” someone whispered.
Jonathan’s only answer was to flex his grip on the hilt of his blade and squint into the darkness.
One of the warriors shifted from one foot to the next.
The cry burst forth again, the inhuman sound startling them all. It echoed through the tunnel and faded away behind them.
“It was no closer than the last,” Jonathan said quietly. He began inching forward on the balls on his feet.
Tabitha matched him, movement for movement.
Alex, on the other hand, had a natural inclination to stay right where he was, especially if whatever was making the sound wasn’t coming any closer. He had no desire to move toward an enraged Nocuous. Nevertheless, he followed after them. Behind him, he heard the rest of the warriors do the same.
Without turning, Jonathan whispered, “Six of you will return to the city with the Marshall.”
Alex didn’t need to look to know that six warriors had silently accepted the duty of bringing Winston’s body home.
They crept onward, each of them listening with their heads bent forward, as if by sheer force of will they could make themselves hear better.
“The Antechamber lies ahead.” Jonathan’s voice was barely a whisper. He turned slowly to face the warriors, now his warriors. “We will pass two bends and be upon it. Be on your guard, for I—”
Whatever else Jonathan had intended to say was drowned out by another bestial roar, but this time there was more than one.
The tunnel reverberated in a chorus of unholy umbrage. Hell itself could not have created a more inhuman racket. Following close on the tail of the roar, the ring and clang of weapons rang out. The sound of battle being waged.
“Who…?” Alex asked.
“Be prepared for anything,” Jonathan cautioned. “It is very likely Nocuous fighting other Nocuous for control of the Core, but they will turn on us in an instant.”
They rounded the first bend and the sound intensified. The red glow from the Core shone faintly, pulsating as darkened figures moved, casting shadows.
Jonathan quietly began issuing orders.
Meanwhile, Tabitha eyed Alex uneasily, doubt in her eyes, and Alex knew why. Jonathan believed it was Nocuous against Nocuous. But if that were the case, why had all of the thralls been running? Surely they would have stayed to do battle against one another, for the Nocuous that won would have its vengeance doubly on any of its minions who fled.
No, it had to be something else. Something the thralls were even more afraid of than their masters.
Now using hand signals, Jonathan urged them onward until they reached the final bend.
Carefully, an inch at a time, Jonathan leaned around the corner. He got one good look into the Antechamber and pulled back, as if he’d been poked with a needle. His face was pale and white. When he turned to face Alex and Tabitha, a cold sweat shone on his forehead. He stared at Alex, in particular, with something close to horror.
Alex waited for an explanation, but Jonathan only shook his head. In the Antechamber, the sounds of battle continued unabated, the roars and curses of Nocuous shaking the walls.
“We can’t just—” Alex whispered tersely, but Jonathan clamped his free hand over Alex’s mouth, shaking his head even harder.
Jonathan was afraid, and Alex had never seen Jonathan afraid of anything.
Jonathan removed his hand from Alex’s mouth and put a finger to lips. A few of the warriors behind them shifted uncomfortably.
They couldn’t just stay where they were. It didn’t matter how bad it was. If they tried going back to the city, there was every chance they’d be pursued, not to mention that there were an untold number of thralls loose in the tunnels now.
Alex pointed at himself and then toward the Antechamber, steeling his nerves, but Jonathan grabbed his arm.
“What?” Alex whispered in exasperation. “We can’t just do nothing!”
Jonathan blanched and shook his head.
“We have to go in there,” Alex hissed.
Jonathan swallowed and looked back the way they had come, weighing their options. When he looked back at Alex, he put a hand on his shoulder and nodded. “Let us proceed,” he whispered back.
Alex crept forward, his back against the wall. Jonathan followed directly behind him, inching along sideways, their shoulders touching.
Inch by inch, the Antechamber came into view.
At first, Alex saw nothing he didn’t already expect. There was black blood spattered on the floor and walls, bodies lying in twisted heaps, most of them headless. He could hear swords clashing and multiple, raging voices, but he still couldn’t see any of the fighting. It must be farther in, closer to where the chamber sloped toward the Core.
He inched further along the wall until the tunnel entrance on the other side of the Antechamber came into view. There, just outside that tunnel, a small boulder lay on the floor. A long twine had been tied around it and knotted off, a single length of it trailing away across the floor. It was tied like a leash around the neck of a man who sat with his head down, his back against the cavern wall, the remnants of tattered black clothing barely covering him from his neck down.
“Dad!” Alex yelled, startling himself, his dad, and every warrior in the tunnel behind him.
“Alex?” his father’s head shot up, using the wall behind him to scramble to his feet.
Alex made a small sound in the back of his throat and nearly went limp with relief. If his father could still shout, he hadn’t been made a thrall.
He could still be saved.
Alex flicked his wrist and aimed the laser.
“Alex, no!” his dad shouted with his hands outstretched, warding Alex away.
But Alex had already closed his fist and a moment later, was standing next to the boulder.
“I’m going to get you out of—” Alex spun, ready to slice through his father’s bindings, but was brought up short when he realized it wasn’t just him standing there.
“Oh, Alex,” Tabitha groaned softly. She sounded sick.
Alex whirled. She and Jonathan were standing there with him, both swaying on their feet.
“How did you…?” Alex asked.
“I was touching you,” Jonathan replied, panting. Alex remembered his first time using the suit. He remembered how disorienting it had been.
“And I was touching Jonathan,” Tabitha answered, sounding just as unsettled.
They must have teleported with him, the same way Silas had come through the shimmer. He frowned, but then his eyes went wide.
He could bring Dad home that way.
He could bring Dad home!
“Alex…” his father said. He sounded scared.
There was a tremendous roar and a chorus of enraged voices, the same roar they’d been hearing since the thralls had fled past them. Except now they were in the same room. The sound was so loud it was nearly unbearable. Alex wanted to drop his sword and clutch his head, cover his ears.
He turned, and that’s when Alex knew they were in trouble. Big trouble.
He had expected to see bodies. He had expected carnage. But what he saw transcended any horror he could possibly have imagined.
At the far end of the chamber where the floor sloped toward the Core were a group of Nocuous easily ten thick, possibly more. They stood amidst such a pile of headless corpses that Alex knew the sight would be ingrained in his memory forever.
The Nocuous had already noticed Alex. One of them roared an order, turning toward them while leaving the rest where they were. He stepped heedlessly on the bodies beneath them, crushing skulls and kicking aside appendages as if they were stones or branches simply in its path.
“Rasmus!” Jonathan roared.
There could no doubt that this Nocuous was Rasmus. He was a giant, easily as tall as Winston with a mane of dark, dirty hair cascading down his back. He was clad entirely in thick, black fur, all except his arms which were bare to the shoulder, enormous muscles rippling as he approached them.
To Alex, Rasmus looked like a giant, rabid bear.
Rasmus grinned hideously, leering though black-stained teeth. He all but ignored Jonathan and Tabitha, instead fixating on Alex and on the black suit he wore.
Jonathan brandished the Marshall’s blade. “Get your father to safety,” he ordered Alex. “Tabitha and I will hold the beast at bay.”
Alex gave a start. What? No! That was a terrible idea!
But Jonathan was already in a dead run, throwing himself at Rasmus with Tabitha right on his heels. They swung their blades as one, stalling Rasmus’s approach.
“To me!” Rasmus bellowed, easily fending off Jonathan and Tabitha’s attack, but unable to make any headway.
Three of the Nocuous near the pile of bodies moved to protect their leader, but just then the Domus warriors who’d been waiting in the tunnel poured out, screaming a challenge. They formed a barrier, blocking any Nocuous from coming to Rasmus’s aid.
“Alex,” Dad urged, “you need to go.”
“We are, Dad,” Alex told him. “Hold still.”
Using his sword, Alex carefully sliced through his father’s bindings and they fell away from around his dad’s wrists. He felt exultant.
He’d found him. He’d stayed the course and hadn’t given up. After so long, he was finally with his dad again, and his dad was okay. This was it, he had done it!
But something wasn’t right. His father should be overjoyed to see him too, overwhelmed with relief at the chance to escape, but he wasn’t even looking at Alex.
But his father wasn’t looking at him. Instead, his eyes were fixed on Rasmus.
“He is going to kill your friends.” Dad spoke the words as fact, without emotion. He turned to Alex. His eyes were insistent, piercing. “And you have to let him! He must not die! Do hear me, Alex? You cannot let them kill Rasmus!
Alex tried to sputter out a rebuke, but he was speechless.
“And then you have to leave, Alex! You have to go! Go through the shimmer and leave!”
Let Rasmus kill Jonathan and Tabitha? He would rather die, himself! What was his father talking about? Had he lost his mind?
“Dad,” Alex resisted the urge to slap his father, to bring him back to reality and force him to be himself. “Whatever Rasmus told you—it’s a lie! You can’t trust him! I’m not leaving without you, and I’m definitely not letting him kill my friends!”
Finally, his dad looked at him. He put both hands on Alex’s shoulders and gripped tightly, eerily similar to the way Winston had on the steps of Sanctuary.
“I went to him, Alex,” his father told him earnestly. “I went to Rasmus. Me. And I need him alive!”
“You went to him?” Alex parroted in disbelief. He didn’t understand, his father wasn’t making any sense. “Dad, you’re confused, you’ve been down here a long time. This isn’t your fault. You didn’t come here on purpose, it was the suit.” Alex opened his jean jacket wide. “Remember?” he prodded. “The suit?”
Alex’s dad spun him toward Rasmus. “I am not confused,” he said with conviction. “Look.”
Jonathan and Tabitha were locked in a standoff with Rasmus. They lunged and parried, but neither were able to get close enough to inflict any damage.
“Dad,” Alex was beginning to get frightened. This was not the rescue he’d envisioned. “I don’t understand. Just come with me. Please, just come with me.”
“Alex, look.” His father pointed, a hint of anger finally finding its way into his voice. Frustrated, scared, and mad, Alex followed his dad’s direction.
And then he saw.
Alex could only see the top half of his body, but it was definitely Silas. Even if Silas hadn’t been dressed different from every other Nocuous around him, Alex would still have recognized him.
Silas was a dervish, embroiled in a dance of death. His blade was a blur, lethally striking any foe within range. On either side of him bodies lay in a swath, as if he’d carved a path down the slope and was now working his way back up.
Had Silas been what the thralls were so afraid of? Why?
“Son, you need to go.”
How had Silas killed so many? Who was Silas? What was Silas? Even if he was Nocuous, he couldn’t hold out against so many of his own kind.
Alex shook his head. It didn’t matter what Silas was. Whatever the answer, he wasn’t going to wait for the answer. Not here, not now. Silas could rot in the Under forever as far as he was concerned.
“I won’t leave you, Dad. I just found you—finally,” Alex switched on the laser again and clasped one of the hands his dad had on his shoulder. He looked up at the shimmer. “We are going, Dad, both of us—together!”
“Alex,” his dad jerked away, breaking the contact. “You don’t understand! Rasmus knows where your mother is!”
Alex reeled. How could Rasmus possibly know anything about his mom? He couldn’t. Something must have happened to his dad while he’d been held prisoner.
“What are you talking about?” Alex yelled. “You’re not thinking straight! Dad, we have to go! Come on!” He grabbed his dad’s wrist and pulled, but his father planted his feet.
The cavern continued to ring with the sound of battle.
“Alex,” his dad yelled over the din of the fighting, “I know this is hard for you to understand, but I know what I’m doing. I’ve known about the Under for a long time. Silas told your mother and I about it decades ago. Why do you think Silas founded EMIT in the first place! To get here! To stop this! Alex—I came here to bring your mom home! She’s here! It was an accident, it should never have happened, but it did. It was Silas. It was always supposed to be Silas, but she came instead, by accident!”
Words failed him. It was like a bucket of ice had been poured down Alex’s back. He looked over his shoulder at the tunnel that led back to Domus, and then up at the ceiling. The red shimmer was there. He could take them both home. He could do it right now.
Alex looked down at his hand, the one that still had hold of his dad’s wrist. Realization started to set in. He’d been lied to for all these years? Dad—and Silas?—had known what happened to his mother from day one? Silas had funded EMIT? Why would they have kept such a thing from him? Why would they let him wonder if she was alive or dead, if she’d been kidnapped? Why would his dad let him think his mom might have decided he wasn’t good enough for her and wanted a new life? Why?
As if it suddenly burned, Alex let go of his father’s wrist. All that anger, all these years he’d felt so alone, so alienated from everyone around him because of what had happened to his mom… If he’d just been told the truth, it all could have been avoided.
Across the room, Silas was methodically working his way up the ramp while the warriors of Domus came at the Nocuous from the other side. Only a handful of the enemy remained on their feet. It would be over soon.
Rasmus must have seen the same inevitable outcome, because he suddenly roared and flung himself at Jonathan.
Jonathan, who had already begun to tire from the Nocuous’s relentless onslaught, wasn’t prepared for such fury and took the full brunt of Rasmus’s charge. Rasmus drove him backward, lifting Jonathan off his feet and flinging him into the cavern wall.
Jonathan didn’t make a sound. He just crumpled, limp, to the floor.
“Run,” Alex’s dad urged again. “Run now, while you can, Alex. Use the suit. Get out of this place! I will come home with Mom, I promise!”
Alex had never been so confused in his life. All the time, all the effort he’d put into finding his father and saving him had been for what? For nothing?
Rasmus turned, leering, and stomped toward Alex.
“Alex!” Tabitha flung herself in Rasmus’s path, but the enormous Nocuous treated her as if she were but a fly, swatting her with a vicious backhand and sending her to her knees.
“Alex, please!” his father urged.
Alex wanted to believe his father knew what he was talking about. He wanted to believe his old man wasn’t crazy.
He could use the suit and run.
But Tabitha was on the ground, unconscious and bleeding from her nose. Jonathan lay in a crumpled heap near the wall, also unconscious, possibly dead. If Alex left now, Rasmus’s wrath would land squarely on his friends. It was clear the Nocuous wanted the suit, which must be why his dad was still alive. It had to be the bargaining chip his father had been using to find out where Mom was.
Maybe his dad wouldn’t be harmed if he ran, but Rasmus would certainly punish the others to make a point. He was a Nocuous. It was his nature.
“No way, Dad,” Alex said. He switched on the suit and aimed the laser behind Rasmus. A moment later he was there, swinging his blade for Rasmus’s neck.
But Rasmus was far too quick. He’d already spun and brought up his own weapon, deflecting Alex’s.
Rasmus backed away, grinning. “You will make a fine addition to my pets, boy.” He cut the air with his blade. “After I peel the Magnosphere suit from your body, I will feast on you!”
Rasmus lunged, swinging with an overhead chop, but Alex flung himself to the side, rolling across the floor and springing back to his feet. Just in time, too, because Rasmus was already there, lunging for him again.
Alex blocked the next swing, but barely. Rasmus was so strong, Alex nearly couldn’t hold up against it.
Rasmus attacked again.
And again, relentlessly bearing down on Alex. His endurance seemed never-ending.
And then finally it happened. Rasmus swung and Alex blocked, but the force drove him off balance and he stumbled. Rasmus swung once more, and it was all Alex could do to block it. He fell to one knee, struggling to keep his sword up and in front of him.
Casually, almost as if he were bored, Rasmus swiped at Alex’s sword. It flew from his hands and went skidding across the cavern floor.
Rasmus looked down and sneered.
“If you kill him,” Alex’s dad shouted desperately, “I won’t help you! I will do nothing for you! Let him go and I will fulfill my promise!”
Rasmus frowned down at Alex. The battle raged on behind him, screams and roars echoing through the cavern as his fellow Nocuous were slowly eradicated. Rasmus paid it no mind.
“Why,” Rasmus mused aloud, “do I need you at all?” He leered at Alex, and tossed his head indifferently at Alex’s father. “This one still wears a functioning Magnosphere suit.”
“But he can’t make it work,” Alex’s father quickly countered. “Not for you, he can’t. That suit only works for him. But I can. I will do that—I will make it work for you, if you just let him go.”
In one smooth movement, Rasmus reached down and lifted Alex off the floor, holding him like a rag doll.
“Would you like that, boy?” Rasmus purred, holding him close. “Would you like me to let you live?”
Alex was more frightened than he’d ever been in his life. He wanted to curse the Nocuous, to spit at him and tell him he to go to hell. But the truth was that it was all Alex could do to keep from crying out. Rasmus’s mere presence inspired such terror, the Nocuous’s skill with the blade so evident that Alex knew he had no chance. Rasmus had been playing with him the whole time.
The suit was of no use, not now. Not when Rasmus was touching him. If he used it to escape through the shimmer and go back to the surface, he would take the Nocuous with him.
Alex looked helplessly at his father. He wouldn’t leave him. He couldn’t. He couldn’t let his father and his friends all die.
Rasmus pulled him closer, their faces mere inches apart. Such cruelty, such strength. Alex was drawn into Rasmus’s deep, soulless eyes. In those eyes, he could see the power that lay within Rasmus, the power that made him what he was—Nocuous.
And then he knew. There was a way. If he could remain strong, even were it only for a little while, there was a way he could end it all.
Alex set his jaw. There was only one way.
He shifted his gaze, staring toward the red glow of the Core.
Maybe he couldn’t use the suit to go back to the surface, but he could use it to take him to the Core. And if he did that, if he touched the Core—wouldn’t that make him Rasmus’s equal?
“Alex, no!” His father sank to his knees, recognizing the sacrifice Alex was about to make.
Across the room, another Nocuous fell under the blade of a Domus warrior. Soon they would all be gone and only Rasmus would remain.
Rasmus, meanwhile, still face-to-face with Alex, witnessed it all: his fellow Nocuous losing the battle, Alex’s father’s anguish, and the resolve in Alex’s eyes as he prepared to make his last desperate move toward the Core.
But what Rasmus didn’t see was Silas barreling down on him. Too late, Rasmus heard the sound of Silas’s blade whistling through the air. He turned, saw the blade, and watched with wide, unbelieving eyes as it sliced cleanly through the air and his neck, relieving him of both head and life in one fatal stroke.
At the other side of the Antechamber, the last two Nocuous suffered a similar fate, felled by the remaining Domus warriors.
Alex tumbled to the ground and scrambled back to his feet empty-handed. His sword still more than a dozen feet away.
Silas towered above him, staring down at him over Rasmus’s twitching corpse.
“Away from him, demon!” one of the Domus warriors moved cautiously toward Silas.
“Alex, no!” his father shouted. “No! He means no harm!”
The warrior, whose name Alex did not know, pulled up short, confused.
“I am not your enemy,” Silas told them.
Carefully, he knelt down and placed his weapon on the floor.
“Dad?” Alex asked, backing slowly away on all fours.
“He is…” his dad trailed off.
Alex finally twisted and scrambled to his feet. “He is what, Dad?”
“He is family.”
In total, Domus lost twenty-seven warriors. For Alex, the heaviest losses had been Winston and Abner. He hadn’t learned of Abner’s death until their return to the city, where vigils were already being held for the fallen. Abner had been among the first slain, having led the original assault on the thralls that had attacked the Core guard returning to the Antechamber after Alex’s arrival.
There had been no sign of the thralls who’d fled from the Antechamber. Nevertheless, the survivors, wounded and bone-weary, had traveled the tunnels with extreme caution on their way back to the city. After so much blood and chaos, the tunnels felt unnatural in the eerie silence.
No attack had come, whether it was because the enemy had scattered in an every-man-for-himself rush for safety, or perhaps simply because they were directionless without a Nocuous alive to command them. The only thing the Domus warriors knew for sure was that the thralls were out there in the tunnels somewhere.
Were there truly no Nocuous left alive?
That was the question at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Had Rasmus united them all? It seemed unlikely that there wouldn’t be at least a few Nocuous still in their dens, plotting and scheming, probably very pleased to know that so many of those they considered rivals had been slain.
Like most journeying back to the city, Alex spent a great deal of the trek casting sidelong glances at Silas, wondering if he might be the last living Nocuous. It had been no easy task convincing everyone else to allow the tall, pale man to accompany them. Of course, Silas had done nothing to ease their discomfort, remaining generally silent while the subject was debated.
Alex’s dad, also, had said precious-little else following his pronouncement of Silas’s relationship to them. He’d refused to allow Alex to return him to the surface, and demanded that Silas be allowed to accompany them to Domus. Aside from those two things, he would only say that he needed more time to think, more time to figure out what to do.
Jonathan had suffered three broken ribs and severe bruising. After much argument and a bit of swallowed pride, he allowed himself to be carried back to the city on a stretcher so as not to aggravate his wounds and to give the Domus healers a chance to properly treat them.
The city could not afford to lose another Marshall so soon.
Alex had tried to press Silas on whether what his father had said was true, but the only answer he’d received was, “We share the same goals, Alex.”
And so, having no desire to remain in the blood-soaked Antechamber any longer than necessary, Alex had conceded to his father’s wishes. There had been a fair amount of grumbling at the news, but with Winston dead and Jonathan on a stretcher, most of the decision-making fell to Tabitha and Alex. He took full advantage of his temporary status, finally convincing most of them that Silas posed no danger to the city or its people—although privately, Alex wasn’t so sure, himself.
Now, after pacing for hours up and down the streets near Sanctuary, a young Domite informed Alex and Tabitha that the Marshall had requested their presence.
The Marshall. Jonathan. Alex respected Jonathan a great deal, but he didn’t know if he would ever be able to hear anyone speak of ‘the Marshall’ without thinking first of Winston.
With the majority of the population in mourning and the remaining able-bodied warriors on constant guard rotations in the tunnels, the city was quiet, the streets empty. Still, it was eerie to walk in a place that normally teemed with the sound of daily chores and children’s laughter. Now, the only sound Alex heard was his own footsteps.
There was so much of the city Alex had never seen, so many people he had never met. He hadn’t been in the Under long enough for that to matter. But it was different now. Knowing Tabitha was beside him, it felt right to be in this place with her. Natural. It felt like home, and not because he loved the place, but because he loved the people.
Alex was no hero. He had no illusions about that fact. But maybe with his dad’s suit, just maybe, he could be a part of putting an end to the colonists’ exile. Maybe Winston had been right about him all along.
They stepped inside Sanctuary to find Jonathan sitting at the far side of the room. Alex’s father and Silas were seated on the front-row bench, both of them a stark contrast to everything around them. It was clear they didn’t belong in this place. Alex had to wonder if that was how everyone in Domus saw him. If so, it was a wonder that they’d managed to make him feel so welcome in so short a time.
Jonathan saw them and waved them over, wincing a little from the pain in his side.
“I have just finished with the most extraordinary conversation,” he told them when they neared. “One that I am sure you, Alex, will want to hear.”
Alex looked down. His father stared back, his eyes clear. Not the eyes of a man who’d been brainwashed by a Nocuous and gone mad.
Silas waited patiently with his hands in his lap, looking nothing like a demon who had almost single-handedly put an end to a war with the Nocuous. If anything, he looked frail. Thin. Pale.
Alex furrowed his brow. “Okay?” he finally prompted.
“Alex,” Jonathan already sounded like he was trying to mediate an argument, which immediately put Alex on guard.
“Please,” Alex’s dad stood up. “Allow me.”
“Of course,” Jonathan said, clearly relieved.
Alex’s dad sounded calm and in control. Like his old self.
“I’m sorry I never told you about this place.” His Dad faced him squarely, looking him directly in the eye. “I’m sorry I never told you what really happened to your mom. I…” A solitary tear dropped from the corner of one eye. For some reason, it infuriated Alex. “Thank you for coming to save me,” his father told him in a choked voice. “I have never been so proud or felt so loved in my—”
“You’re sorry?” Alex interrupted incredulously. “You’re sorry?” He was shouting now.
“At my insistence,” Silas spoke softly from his seat on the bench. Despite the lack of force in his tone, everyone went silent and stopped moving, even Alex. “It was at my insistence that he not tell you, both for your protection and because the world can never know that this place exists.”
Alex blinked. “Who are you?” he asked incredulously and then shook his head. “What are you?”
Calmly, as if they were discussing family business over Sunday dinner, Silas replied, “I am Silas Croatoan, son of Benjamin Croatoan, and your grandfather many generations removed.”
Alex swallowed, his mouth suddenly gone dry.
Silas spoke the truth, Alex knew it in his heart. None of this had been an accident. Everything Alex had ever thought he’d known about himself simply wasn’t true. His whole identity was gone in an instant, replaced by the one Silas had been holding on to for him. His knees felt weak and he swayed a little. His dad jumped up and took his arm to steady him, but Alex jerked it away.
“Son,” his father pleaded. “I couldn’t let you find out where your mother had gone. I knew one day I might have to go after her and I couldn’t risk you knowing enough to follow. I couldn’t risk this. I wanted you to have a chance for a normal life!”
“Are you kidding me?” Alex shouted, waving his arms. “Are you freaking kidding me? You were going to give me a normal life by lying to me and then sending me to live with Frankenstein, who just happens to be my long-lost, should be long-dead grandpa?” Alex spit a curse. “How did Mom know about all this?”
“I told them,” Silas answered in his infuriatingly calm voice.
“He came to us when we were still in college,” his father explained, “told us who he was.” Dad paused. “Convinced… us…” He frowned and swallowed like he had a bad taste in his mouth. “…of what he was.” He looked at Silas. “He told us about the Under, told us what his father had done so many years ago, what he’d become, and how he’d done it.”
“How is this even possible?” Alex demanded of Silas. “That would make you, like… hundreds of years old.”
Silas ignored the question, but took up where Alex’s dad had left off. “I told your mother and father that if they would devote their considerable intellect to creating a means of instant conveyance, I would provide the financial support for them to do so.” Silas’s teeth shown briefly, a lame attempt at a smile. “I am afraid I do not share the mental aptitude for technology that my father and your father possess.”
Alex didn’t want to have anything in common with Silas.
“What about Mom?” he asked. “How did she end up here? And where is she?”
Alex’s father looked down at his feet. “Rasmus knew,” he answered heavily, “or at least he said he did.”
Finally, Alex understood. His anger deflated and he sat down on the bench, suddenly very tired. His dad hadn’t been crazy at all. He’d offered himself up as a hostage in order to find Mom.
And Silas had been forced to kill the only one who knew where she was in order to save Alex.
“Oh, Dad…” Alex breathed. “I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t know,” his Dad answered, an awkward silence filling the room.
Alex twisted his hands in his lap.
“I’ve always told you nothing is more important than family,” his father finally looked up. He swept across those gathered with a somber glance. “These people, this place, they exist here because of the mistakes our family has made. We are not our ancestors, Alex, we did not make these terrible choices—they made them. But we can work to atone for them.” His father stood and squared his shoulders. “After all,” he finished. “If not us, then who?”
Abruptly, startling them all, Silas stood—a quick, decisive movement.
He strode for the exit, but stopped and turned back when he reached the center aisle.
“From the day I realized I was an abomination like my father,” he announced, “I have dedicated my life to finding a way to come to this place. Once here, I vowed that I would find Benjamin Croatoan, kill him, and destroy the Core.”
Turning stiffly on his heel, Silas strode to the heavy outer doors of Sanctuary. He shoved them open as if they weighed nothing.
“Killing my father and destroying the Core is still what I intend to do,” he told them over his shoulder. “But first we must find your mother.”
VOLUME TWO OF THE LOST COLONY OF ROANOKE
COMING JUNE 2017
Silas, son of Benjamin Croatoan, endures centuries of misery and heartache until his only purpose left is to kill the monster who gave him life.
About the Author
Matthew Keith is originally from Michigan and now lives in Kentucky with his wife, two children, and their dog Elvis.
In his lifetime, Matthew has been author and a restaurateur. He is an amateur musician, sings and plays bass (badly) in a garage band, and writes music in his spare time.