A Dark Grave
A DARK GRAVE
Copyright © Jessica Souders 2012
Cover by Eithne O’Halon
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Also by J.A. Souders
Available from Tor Teen:
“Grim, vicious, riveting. RENEGADE is a haunting, unforgettable debut.” –ANN AGUIRRE, National best-selling author.
“RENEGADE is a dark tale of deceit, with twists that will keep you turning the pages, and an ending that will have you on the edge of your seat.” –LISA DESROCHERS, Author of Personal Demons.
November 13, 2160
The house is as quiet as a tomb. Not a good thought on the day I’m hunting on a supposedly haunted island.
I shudder at the chill that runs through my body; haunted or not, I’m hunting that island and I’m coming back with a boatload of meat.
As quietly as I can, I grab my rifle, my bow, and double-check my pack. Plenty of ammo? Check. Arrows, extra nocks, tips and quiver? Check. First-aid kit? Check.
I pause as I pass my brother’s room, and then move on quickly before he notices I’m leaving. He was upset when he found out I wasn’t taking him on this trip. I used the “too dangerous” excuse, and in all fairness, it’s true, but I really just needed to get away from his incessant chatter. There’s only so much a guy can take.
Mom’s got it in her head that I’m not “social” enough. That I need to spend more time with kids my age and, better yet, get a girlfriend.
“A nice, pretty girl from a good family,” she keeps saying.
Right. It’s not that I don’t want a girlfriend, just that they usually want things I don’t want to give. Like time. And attention. Besides, I learned long ago that friends are more dangerous than enemies.
On my way to the door, I stop when I see a package on the kitchen table with a note.
Just a few things for your trip.
I’m so glad you’re finally spending time with friends!
Don’t worry about us; we’ll be fine while you’re gone.
Tristan will get over it.
Have fun and be careful.
Grinning, I tuck the bag into my pack. I know what’s inside -- the same thing she’s made every time I go on long hunts: cookies. She knows it’s just about the only thing I can’t get in the Outlands.
Except this time, I’m not going to the Outlands. But if Mom knew where I was going, she’d never let me go.
I automatically glance up above the door as I walk out and press my fingers to my lips, then to the picture hanging there. Just like I do every time I leave, though today, I only hope he understands why I had to lie to mom about where I’m going.
Dad’s been gone eight years. Mom says he was killed in the Outlands on a hunting trip, which left only me, the only one skilled enough to hunt, to take care of the family. But I know better.
With a sigh, I look to the sky as I make my way to the beach on the other side of the cove to wait for my hunting partner. The stars are all gone and the moon has set, but the sun won’t be up for another hour or so. The crickets have long ceased their songs and the birds aren’t stirring yet.
It’s the perfect time of day.
No one will see us sneak our way over to the island, which is why we’re leaving now; we’re not exactly supposed to go there. Because it’s “haunted.”
I don’t believe that. I do believe, however, in all the fresh game I’m sure flourishes over there. It’s ripe for hunting and I plan to come back with so much meat that my family, and Conn’s, won’t have to worry about food for a long time.
I’m not going to let a few ghost stories get in my way.
Footsteps in the sand pull me from my thoughts and I glance over to see Connor making his way toward me.
He’s not my normal hunting partner. Usually it’s no one or, if I want company, Tristan. But with the possible danger of the island, I needed someone I knew could take care of himself -- who could also make sure I didn’t end up dead like my dad. My family would starve if I disappeared, too.
Conn has been hunting for as long as I have. We used to go out as kids with our fathers. Besides me, he’s probably the best hunter our village has. He’s also the only other person besides Tristan and my mom that I trust.
He stops next to me, peering out over the water to the island, shading his dark eyes with his hand. “You sure about this?”
“What?” I grin at him. “You’re not telling me that you’re scared of a teeny tiny island.”
He snorts and tugs his pack higher on his back. “How we gettin’ over there?”
Instead of answering, I lead to where I stashed the makeshift raft I made out of driftwood. I’d been working on the damn thing for the better part of six months. It may not look pretty, but it floats.
I drop my pack onto the raft and bend to push it into the softly lapping waves. At least the water is calm.
I glance up to Conn.
He twists the little silver loop in his ear and gives the raft an uneasy look before he sighs and tosses his pack next to mine. He knows as much as I do that the potential game on the island is worth the risk.
Together we shove away from shore. He gives me another look and I just grin at him, before we each grab one of the long poles we’ll be using for oars and drag our way toward the island.
It takes longer than I expected to cross the expanse. Even though the water looked calm on the surface, there was a strong current underneath that kept trying to push us back toward the cove. The sun is coming up over the horizon when we finally drag the raft onto the shore.
The trees are all covered in fog thick as smoke. It’s not surprising. The island is always covered in fog. The pink dawn makes it seem surreal and a bit eerie.
I shudder, but brush off the spider webs of dread clinging to my skin. The forest should be like any of the wooded areas near the village, but overflowing with animals.
The dread starts to come back when we land and, besides the birds, there’s no other sounds on the island.
Why aren’t there any more sounds? There should be something in there making noise. Deer. Squirrels. Bugs for God’s sake.
Is the fog sucking up all the sound? Or are there just not any animals? The thought makes my stomach hurt, but I brush it off. There have got to be animals here.
Conn and I glance at each other. There’s only one way to find out. We grab our supplies, shouldering our packs before dragging the raft further away from the shore. It would completely suck if a wave washed it away before we got back. I still hope to have a ton of meat to haul home.
We take a few moments to hide the raft, combing the beach for debris. Just in case. Don’t expect anyone out here to steal it, but can’t be too careful.
Just as I drop my last armful onto the raft, Conn calls my name. There’s something in his voice that makes me nervous. I turn to see him frantically waving me over from halfway down the beach, panic in his movements.
Conn isn’t one to jump at shadows; something is definitely wrong. I rush over; his face is pale and he looks like he’s going to be sick.
I see something lying on ground by his feet.
The feeling in the pit of my stomach tells me I probably don’t want to know it is. But even as I tell myself I don’t want to know, I already see.
It’s a body.
I lean down, trying to see if I recognize the person. I’m hoping beyond all hope that it isn’t one of the hunters we lost a few months ago. Honestly, I hope it isn’t someone I know at all, but I realize the chance is slim. Who else would’ve died on this strange little island?
I hold my breath as I inspect his face. He’s young—older than Tristan, but younger than Conn and me. I feel a weight lift as I realize it’s quite evident that this person isn’t a villager. He’d been in the water awhile before he washed up here, but nothing about him is familiar.
The skin is pale, as if it’s never seen a ray of sunlight. The short blond hair is a strange yellow, nearly…too perfect of a blond. It makes me think that this boy—whoever he was—never saw the sun, but I don’t even know how that’s possible. Or how he’d end up here on the island.
The cause of death is easy to see. I’d recognize those wounds anywhere. Two gunshots to the chest. If the shots didn’t kill him, considering how much blood is still staining his shirt, he bled out. I’m just surprised he didn’t end up dinner to any of the sea life. With that much blood floating around, I’m sure a shark would have noticed.
Then again, I think, taking a closer look at the body. It does appear something nibbled on him. Maybe he doesn’t taste good.
I bark out a laugh, then suck it in when Conn gives me a look.
Yeah. Probably not a good idea to laugh at a dead body.
I glance around quickly, wondering if the person who killed him is around somewhere, but the only footsteps I see are ours.
“No footsteps,” Conn says, echoing my thoughts. “More than likely the body was dumped somewhere else and washed up here.”
I nod. “We should stay alert, just in case,” I say.
I stand, brushing the sand from my hands. I glance over to the woods and see a shadow pass through the fog. Shuddering, I think of all the superstitious bullshit regarding ghosts.
“They say if a body isn’t buried properly the soul walks around haunting the place it died because it can’t find peace,” Conn says.
A chill runs over my skin, making goose bumps pop up all over, but I say, “That’s crap. When people die, they just die. They don’t come back to haunt other people, especially some stupid island.”
I glance down at the body. “But we’d better find a spot to bury him. Doesn’t seem right to just leave him out here.”
And that’s the only reason. Because it’s the right thing to do, not because of some stupid ghost story.
Conn makes a face, but helps me drag the body closer to the trees. We have only our hands for shovels and the sandy beach is much easier to dig in, so we don’t go farther into the forest.
We quickly dig a shallow grave and cover him with sand. Conn disappears for a second, returning with a somewhat large and unusually shaped rock that we use as a grave marker.
We stand quietly for a minute, paying our respects to a boy we never met. I think how glad I am that I didn’t bring Tristan.
Ever since Dad died, I’ve been responsible for him, and the family, taking over where Dad left off. Tristan had been just a baby. I’d helped feed him, change his diapers, learn his alphabet, shoot his first rifle. I was even there with mom for his first day of school.
I would never admit it, but seeing him sit in that little bitty classroom, the same one with the same teacher I had, made me a little teary. Maybe it was because he was growing up or, more than likely, because my dad would never get to see it and I had to stand in his stead. Tristan had never really known our dad; he’s always looked up to me. And it was hard enough on me to see the body; I can’t imagine what it would have done to him. Especially if the killer is still on the island somewhere.
The thought makes me grip tighter to my rifle and take one more glance around. Even though it’s obvious Conn and I are the only humans alive on this island, I can’t shake the feeling we’re being watched.
Feeling a little creeped out, Conn and I silently grab our gear and make our way into the foggy forest.
Despite how promising the wooded area looked, we’ve spent all day hunting without so much as a rabbit to our name. It’s not that there aren’t animals; there’s a ton, but each time we get close to one, they seem to just…disappear in the fog. As if they were never there in the first place -- not even any tracks to prove we saw anything at all.
If it wasn’t for Connor seeing them too, I would wonder if I was delusional.
We cross the island several times setting traps. I’m not going home empty-handed. I refuse to. We’ll catch them one way or another.
We eat lunch on the far side of the island, where the forest ends in a sudden drop off at a set of cliffs that overlook the ocean. The fog has settled over the water far below.
Where is all this fog coming from? Is the ground temp and the air temp that different?
The spot between my shoulder blades itches and I turn to look around. I’ve got the feeling we’re being watched again.
Connor does a whole body shudder and looks away from the forest to me.
“I didn’t really believe the stories about this place, but I’m seriously reconsidering. Maybe we should just get out of here.” I don’t say anything and he sighs. “My father says he came here as a kid. He and his friends wanted to stay here all night, and whoever was still here at dawn would prove how much of a man he really was.”
“So? Did he win?”
He looks up and meets my eyes. “None of them made it all night. And one didn’t come back at all. He just disappeared.”
He gives me this look, and I lift an eyebrow. “They lost him?”
“Dad said he was with them when they went to sleep, but they heard noises, like people talking, and when they woke up, he wasn’t anywhere to be found. They looked for him, but when they heard this horrible scream, like someone was being torn apart, they panicked and ran.” He looks down. “They came back the next day with a bunch of adults, including some hunters and the kids’ parents. They couldn’t find him or the camping gear they’d left. I always thought he was making it up. But this place,” he moves his hands to gesture to our sitting place, “is almost exactly as he described it.”
I shake my head. “It is really freaky here, but I came to do a job and I will finish it. No ghosts—real or imagined—are going to scare me away.”
He nods, as if he expected that answer. “Well then, we should check those traps.”
For the next several hours, we work without talking, but I have to admit, Conn’s story has shaken me. I wish he’d never told me, because now I keep checking over my shoulder. The feeling of being watched is growing stronger.
We still come up empty. The traps have been sprung, but not one holds an animal. I really, really don’t want to go back empty-handed, but I don’t see that I have much of a choice. We’re losing the sun and, given Conn’s story, I’m not staying here past dark.
Besides, a rainstorm is coming—I can hear the rumble of thunder in the distance—and we didn’t bring anything with us to keep us dry and sheltered.
Lightning flashes, followed a few seconds later by a huge thunder crack, which shakes the air around us, causing me to jump. Without any warning, the heavens open, unleashing freezing rain.
“Damn it!” I yell.
“We need to find shelter,” Conn yells over the roar of the rain. “We’ll never make it back across now. We need to get away from the trees!”
I nod. Trying to get across that slip of ocean would be a death sentence, as is standing under nature’s lightning rods, but I’ve no clue where to go. We never came across anything that could even remotely be shelter.
“Maybe the cliffs have something,” I shout back.
Thunder crashes again, and this time we both jump. We run toward the cliffs.
Too late I realize how slick the ground has become. I try stopping before the steep downward drop but slide. Instead of falling onto my ass, I fall forward -- over the edge of the cliff.
Before I can even yell, I’m hitting something. Hard. Pain erupts in my right shoulder, making stars flash behind my eyes seconds before my head follows suit and I black out.
When I wake, the rain is still pouring, but I’m not in it and I have no idea where I am.
I try pushing myself up, but an intense pain in my right arm makes me collapse. I blink in and out of consciousness.
When the world stops spinning, I blink open my eyes again and see Conn leaning over me, his flashlight reflecting light onto his face. He looks relieved.
Using my left hand to take his, I let him pull me to a sitting position, but wobble a little as the room spins and my head pounds.
“Where am I? How did I get here?”
“In a cave I found. You fell onto a ledge and when I finally managed to slide down to you, you were unconscious. I couldn’t drag you up by myself, so I dragged you in here.”
I nod, then hiss when the movement makes my head pound even more.
“I guess,” I say, when the pain ebbs, “that this place is as good as any to wait out the storm.” At least it’s dry. “How long was I out?”
“I have no idea. My watch broke when I slid down the cliff and it’s still raining, so I can’t see the moon or stars. It’s been at least a few hours. I was starting to get worried.” He gives me a sideways look. “You sure you’re okay to wait?”
I give him a crooked smile. “Unless you can turn into a bird and fly me out of here, I’m pretty sure we don’t have a choice.”
We sit quietly for a few minutes as the wind howls and lightning flashes outside the cave. Conn leans against the wall, his hat covering his eyes, so it’s difficult to tell if he’s sleeping or not. I take an inventory of all my injuries. It appears to be mostly scrapes and cuts. Some of the cuts are fairly long and deep, covered in dried mud. I’ll need to clean them before they get infected; they look pretty nasty already. And considering how much my arm hurts to just move it, it’s possible I have a broken arm.
While those are bad, it’s nothing that’s going to kill me right this minute.
However, if it gets much colder in here, I’ll end up freezing to death. I didn’t survive falling off a cliff just to die from the cold. Besides, the flashlights won’t last very long, we’ll need something for light soon.
I shove myself to my feet and look for anything to start a fire.
Conn looks up and I say, “Fire wood,” in response to his questioning look.
He nods again and pushes himself to his feet without speaking.
That’s Conn’s best quality. He doesn’t have to talk just to hear his own voice. Unlike my brother.
Which reminds me again how glad I am Tristan didn’t come. There’s no way he’d have been able to help me. I’d probably still be bleeding on that ledge. And he’d have probably fallen off and broken his neck trying to help me.
We spend the next few minutes gathering every stray thing we think will burn, tossing them, into a pile. Just as I get to the farthest part of the cave, I find a pile of sticks.
I stare at them for a minute. They’re set up just like the pile we set up in the center of the cave, but it’s made from sticks instead of scraps. That’s when I notice the silver object lying a few inches away. When I pick it up, I see it’s a compass. And I recognize it. But I haven’t seen it in months.
Not since its owner disappeared while hunting on the island.
Sam. My father’s old hunting partner -- and my mentor after my dad’s death. Like me, he felt there was a lot of game up this way. He’d come to the island by himself just after winter passed. We never saw him again. We sent a rescue party, but no one found him. I always thought something must have happened -- which is why I didn’t want to come alone. And now I know.
This is definitely his. Only one person in the village and probably what’s left of the world had a compass like this. From the outside it looks like a normal pocket watch—made of gold and etched in black. But when you open it, instead of a watch face, you have a compass. The face is entirely black, but the numbers are a greenish color that glows in the dark.
On the backside of the lid is a picture of Sam’s wife. She died long before I met him.
Maybe there’s something here that will point me in his direction. If he’s still alive, we have to find him.
I start searching for more.
It doesn’t take me long. Next to the compass, but mostly buried, is a really old set of binoculars with a broken lens. They seem like they’ve been in the dirt longer than just a few months, maybe even as long as Sam’s been alive, though.
A few feet from that, I find a pocket watch. Sam used to carry one, but I don’t think this is it. It looks like it’s been here awhile, too. Not quite as long as the binoculars, but definitely longer than the compass. It’s stopped working, but when I wind it, the second hand spins easily.
Conn sidles up next to me and I show him the instruments in my hand. His whole face scrunches up when he sees the compass.
“Isn’t that Sam’s?”
I nod, folding my fingers over the compass. “He’s got to be here somewhere. We have to find him. Even if all we find is his,” I swallow, “his body, we need to find him and bring him home. I owe him that much at least.”
Conn nods and helps me search the rest of the cave. But we don’t find anything else. The cave is just too dark, and our flashlights only help so much. But we do find something that could explain why no one came back.
On the far side of the cave my flashlight shines into some sort of opening. I gesture for Conn to join me as I study it. It’s fairly decent sized, not large enough for a bear to fit in, but we could easily fit through.
Our flashlights light up the space and show us the opening is actually a tunnel. A fairly long one if the deep darkness that lays beyond my flashlight beam and the chill coming from it is any indication.
The walls of the tunnel look just like the walls of the cave. Golden yellow limestone, quite obviously cut out by water. Maybe even filled with water during the wet season, which, thankfully, is months from now.
That has got to be where the missing villagers went. Maybe even Conn’s dad’s friend. The scream could have easily been him falling off the ledge like I did.
A shiver zippers up my spine and I turn to Conn. “I’m positive that our missing villagers went through this tunnel. We need to go find them.”
Conn doesn’t look convinced. “I don’t think we should. You’re hurt. It would be better if we let people know this is here. That way if something happens, they’ll know where to look.”
“There’s no way we can just leave them here, if we can help.”
“Gavin, think realistically. We have no real proof they’ve gone down there. And even if they did, it’s been months. Is there really any chance they’re still alive?”
“Even if they are dead, we need to find them. To give their families a sense of closure if nothing else.” As soon as I say it, I know I’m thinking more of my father and how we don’t really know what happened to him. From Conn’s face, I can tell he’s thinking the same thing.
Finally, he nods. “Let’s go check it out.”
After only a few hundred feet, the tunnel opens up enough to stand up in and walk side-by-side with Conn. We don’t talk, except to decide which route to take when there’s a fork in the tunnels.
We leave markings on the ground so we know which turns we take.
At several of the junctures we find more objects from whoever came before us. We race forward, more excited each time we find something new.
It isn’t long before we realize that we were so excited about finding the artifacts that we forgot to keep marking the paths we took. But we barely have time to worry about that – suddenly there are footprints everywhere. We can’t tell whether we’re coming or going and now we’re thoroughly lost.
My head and shoulder pound from the fall, and my body aches everywhere. It feels like I’m coming down with the flu. I really just want to lie down in my bed and sleep.
We wander for hours—at least I think it’s hours. I’ve lost all track of time. I have to wonder if we’re not wandering in circles. It’s so damn hard to tell which way is which; everything looks the same.
I find myself stumbling more and more with each step I take. Several times, I have to stop and lean against the wall as the entire world spins around me and darkness bleeds into the sides of my vision.
Finally, Conn stops. “We should rest awhile,” he says.
I don’t argue. I’m not sure I have the energy, even if I wanted to, to go on.
I use the wall to slowly lower myself to the ground. Even then, the entire room spins and I’m pretty sure I black out for a minute or two, because when I blink Conn goes from standing to kneeling next to me and I never saw him move.
“What’s up?” I ask.
He shines the flashlight over my arm. “I’m checking out your wounds. You look really sick.”
I open my mouth to protest, but he gives me a look and I sigh. “I feel like shit.”
He doesn’t say anything until he’s looked at all my cuts and scrapes.
“You probably have a concussion.”
I groan. “Wonderful.”
“We need to get out of here.”
“So…how do we do it?”
My head pounds and I fight the urge to close my eyes. “Do you think I would be wandering around here if I didn’t have to be?”
As soon as I say it, I regret it. Conn’s face hardens before he looks away.
“Um. I’m sorry,” I say. “That was uncalled for.” Especially since it was my bright idea to start wandering around the tunnels in the first place.
“Whatever, man.” He shrugs.
I don’t know what else to say, so I don’t say anything. My eyes fall closed again and I force them open.
Connor is now sitting across the tunnel from me, his legs stretched out, his arms crossed behind his head. He appears to have been sitting there a while.
I blink again and then he’s tugging on my arm. “Come on. I don’t think you’re supposed to be sleeping with a concussion.”
“I wasn’t sleeping,” I protest, but it’s only half-hearted.
He laughs and pulls me up to my feet. “Whatever you say, Sleeping Beauty.”
Grateful he doesn’t appear to be angry at me anymore, I lightly punch him on the arm. At least, that’s the intention, except instead of tapping his shoulder, I miss by several inches and pitch forward.
“Whoa!” He quickly catches me and keeps his arm under mine to steady me.
“We should keep walking. Find a way out of here.” My voice is barely a whisper because of how tired I am. “The sooner we get out of this cave, the better.”
Connor nods and starts forward, keeping his arm around my waist. I’m grateful he’s not mad at me anymore. There’s no way I’d be able to keep walking without his support.
I don’t know how long we spend walking, but it feels like days. I’m feeling sicker by the minute, and I’m sure we’re no closer to finding our way out than we were when we first got lost.
Damn wounds. Damn fall. Damn, effing island!
Half the time, it feels like my whole body is boiling, the rest of the time I’m freezing. My shoulder and head scream at me to just stop. To give up. But I can’t. I have to get home and take care of my family.
If I die, there’ll be no one to bring home food for them. Tristan’s still too young to bring back the big game and I haven’t spent enough time teaching him what he needs to know.
I make a promise to whoever’s listening that I’ll take the time as soon as I get back. And that I’ll do more to make Mom happier. I’ll even try to spend more time ‘working on my social life.’
Just as I think I can’t walk any further, we hit a dead end. I want to groan.
Connor shines his light at the dead end and I blink when I see that the dead end isn’t a dead end at all. It’s a door!
The question is, where does it lead?
Conn places his hand on the handle, and feeling of dread erupts in the pit of my stomach. But before I can stop him, Conn’s tugging on the door.
“Conn!” I yell as he slowly pulls the door open.
Loved this prequel? Then read on! Find out what’s behind the door in:
RENEGADE (Tor Teen)
Available now wherever books are sold!
Since the age of three, sixteen-year-old Evelyn Winters has been trained to be Daughter of the People in the underwater utopia known as Elysium. Selected from hundreds of children for her ideal genes, all her life she’s thought that everything was perfect; her world. Her people. The Law.
But when Gavin Hunter, a Surface Dweller, accidentally stumbles into their secluded little world, she’s forced to come to a startling realization: everything she knows is a lie. Her memories have been altered. Her mind and body aren’t under her own control. And the person she knows as Mother is a monster.
Together with Gavin she plans her escape, only to learn that her own mind is a ticking time bomb… and Mother has one last secret that will destroy them all.
And don’t miss book two of the Elysium Chronicles, REVELATIONS (Tor Teen)
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About the Author
J.A. Souders was born in the heartland with an overactive imagination and an over abundance of curiosity that was always getting her into trouble. She first began writing at the age of 13, when she moved to Florida and not only befriended the monsters under the bed, but created worlds for them to play together.
Because she never grew up, she decided she’d put her imaginary friends to work and started writing. She still lives in the land of sunshine and palm trees with her husband and their two children and is an active member of the RWA, CFRW, YARWA and SCBWI.
Visit J.A. Souders at her website or on twitter @jasouders.
An Elysium Chronicles short story: the beginning. There is only one place forbidden to the people of Gavin's village; the island just off the shore, rumored to be haunted. Cursed. All who venture to the island disappear. But Gavin doesn't believe in such things. He is a hunter; since his father's death, he is the only one who can provide for the family. Silly rumors of ghosts aren't going to stop him from crossing the dark waters to the island in search of fresh game...