I was so tired of picking up fantasy books that always had something to do with vampires,...
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Beginning of the End
My eyes had been shut tight and my head rested hard against the pillow when the darkness crept into that shoebox of an apartment. Sleeping, I let myself call it. The lumpy matchbox and dingy rags I’d pulled out of a drawer were the closest things I’d had to a bed and blanket in a long time, and while I listened to the sound of the city fade into the background like white noise I allowed myself to believe that I’d taken a much-deserved siesta. I swallowed the stink of still air and shut out
the nasty thoughts of the bed bugs and worse creatures that could be crawling around in this grimy wasteland in the pits of New York City; I meant for myself to enjoy this.
I caught the overly-sweet, pungent scent of his presence, bare instincts digging down into rational thought.
“Rise and shine.”
Shivers crawled up my spine in response to the deep-toned booming in his voice, echoes of it reverberating off of the paper-thin walls. I imagined the air shaking.
His laugh quaked the ground beneath me. “Careful, young one. That weapon of yours could give someone a paper cut.”
I turned to face him then, shifting underneath the layers of scratchy wool to peer into the shreds of orange light falling in from the busted window shade in the corner, his dark skin reflecting with an odd iridescence. He nodded to my pillow, grinning.
Realization swept over me. Cold metal burned into my fingers, my joints locked in an iron grip around the knife tucked away under my pillow case. I recoiled from the temptation, prying it from my grasp. “You’re lucky I didn’t slit your throat,” I grumbled, glowering behind groggy, half-closed eyes. I sat up.
He chuckled. “That pig sticker couldn’t save your life in a fight with a paper lantern,” he said, his voice challenging. I was too tired to snap back. Instead, I mumbled with less acid than I imagined, “Stop spying on me.”
His face pulled into a simper, eyebrows raised. “Stop running away.”
I hoped he could see the scowl etched plainly into my face through the hazy shadows. “What do you want, Seamus?” I was tired of playing his games. I wanted a warm bed, a quiet place to rest my eyes, and some silence.
He shifted in his seat—a folding chair I’d found while I’d been busy getting a feel for the place. The rusty legs raked against the worn out floorboards, the dilapidated structure moaning against his weight. I remembered there’d been a hole somewhere behind him in the darkness, one that if you stood right over it you could see three floors down. Silently, I hoped that he would find it.
I felt the air tense, smile falling from his face. “Master needs to see you.”
“At four. In the morning.”
Seamus shrugged, the outline of his shoulders rolling up in the shadows. “He says it’s urgent.”
Urgent. Right. If time were the pressing issue, the useless mind reader wouldn’t have been the one sent along to fetch me—I would’ve been rolled out ass over face by way of Salvatore or Erik and their hulking strength, gun to my head or knife at my throat. Everyone knew how the Master worked; there was no room for free will unless he wanted it to be so. He manipulated his underlings like pawns on a playing board, watching the moves they made, figuring out the ones they would make two and three turns after, and then using them to his advantage.
And he knew that I considered Seamus the appendix in my life—a waste of space and easily disposed of.
I grimaced at all six feet of the spineless creature as he rose from his chair, brushing the imaginary dust from the tailored suit that never got dirty and holding his head up high like he was worth something. With a grin he shifted his jacket around a bulge in his left hip—a gun, I assumed, by the way he looked on me with haughty self-satisfaction as I slid my knife into the sheath strapped to my wrist. I had half a mind to reach over and snatch it from him, using it to bust his lip.
“Let’s get this over with,” I muttered, pushing myself off the busted four poster, letting my tired joints crack into place. I grabbed my gun from the makeshift bedside table I’d pieced together with scrap what felt like not long enough before, stuffing it into the ass of my jeans. The unsteady furniture rocked unstably across the uneven flooring.
And then it fell to pieces.
Seamus laughed mockingly. “Nice place you’ve got here,” he said. He appraised the holes in three of the four walls—bullet holes, they’d looked like to me—and scuffed at the grimy floor. I couldn’t quite tell in the darkness, but it looked like his nose upturned at the faint stench of mildew and body odor. It made me happy to see him suffer.
“I do what I can,” I said. Did what I could to get away from them, that is. If I spent one more minute holed up at headquarters I was going to blow my head off, and so I sought desperate—even hiding out in a druggie’s abandoned studio—measures. I thought it would take them hours to find me; I’d made my getaway clean and without a trace, just like they taught me. And I’d gone through the trouble of mixing up the pattern, making false leads, three different trails that led to three different ends of town—something else they’d drilled into my training.
But I never counted on that they’d bring in a mind reader.
Seamus made a slight humph under his breath, marking the end of the conversation. Thank God. If I breathed anymore of the air polluted with his condescension, I might’ve just thrown my head into the wall. If I died, who cared? He’d have to lug my dead body back to the Master, of which he and I both knew would mean his inevitable death. I was Sacred, and no one wasted divinity unless they wished to be wasted as well…
We climbed down the stairs together in silence, the night burning into my skin as my feet touched the pavement and I tracked into the depths of my own little corner of Hell.
There isn’t much to tell, he echoed in my thoughts, it was a run-of-the-mill call. Two teams swept the perimeter; Salvatore and his men searched the bottom floors while the rest of us cleared the stairwells. We had some guys tether in from the roof—all came up clear. They must’ve gotten the tip that we were closing in, and split before They could finish the job. By the time we found him, he had already been badly beaten, almost unconscious. He had the Mark, Jules. On his arm, same spot and everything. We called it
in to the Master, who sent out the order to bring you in while we transported him back here. He thought you could help.
I felt the faint memory of his fingers pressing into my upper arm with his strong grasp. His voice dipped into a low murmur, tone pleading. We don’t have any definitive answers yet. Don’t go in there and get your hopes up, Jules. Don’t disappoint yourself again.
And yet the anticipation cloyed as the door to the interrogation room shut with a solid click behind me.
I looked on him with a sense disbelief and pity, the words falling out of my mouth before I could stop them: “My God, they’ve got you handcuffed.”
He didn’t need them. He was barely staying upright in his chair, his breathing labored and his eyes gazing at me in that glazed over, unfocused way. At least they’d bandaged him up, I thought, eyeing the bits of gauze taped to his forehead and the dressing on a nasty cut that was already beginning to bleed through lining his jaw. His bloody knuckles rested against the metal tabletop, silver cuffs binding them there.
He shifted, and locks of grimy brown hair fell into his eyes—a knot growing in my throat at the sight of how much of it was caked in blood.
Relax, I told myself, you can do this. Nothing makes this time any different. Pull it together, he’s the same as all the rest.
Except every part of me was praying that he wasn’t.
I forced myself to sit in the chair across from him. The folder fell out of my shaking hands and landed with a thump in front of me, echoing in the silence. My fingers pressed into the icy surface of the tabletop, hoping that the frigid shock to my system would steady them.
For one long moment I looked into the set of eyes across from mine, letting the buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead swallow my words while I struggled to control my breathing and slow my rapid heartbeat.
“What is this place?” he said, wincing like it hurt. Purple bruises were beginning to crop up on the left side of his face.
“This is H.Q.” I said, surprised at his lucidity. “A command center deep underground the streets of New York City used as the northeastern hub in the fight against the Shifters. A safe haven for people like us.”
Small rushes of breath burst from his lungs in what I assumed to be laughter, lips curved into a hint of a smile. “Well that’s promising.” I noted the hostile bite behind his words. “A safe haven for people like me, and yet I sit here in handcuffs.”
I dropped my gaze from his. “They—they handcuffed me too. The first time I came here.” Painful memories burned for a moment. I pushed them back. “They say it’s for your own safety—that you may harm yourself while you try to digest all the information we’re throwing at you.”
He chuckled bitterly. “I don’t think I’m gonna assault myself any more than I have already had done to me in the last eight hours, thanks.” Silence, and then: “Why am I here? Who is this us? Who are you?”
Anger rose in my throat. I drifted into faint, quickly disappearing visions of the ghost of myself reaching over and punching the look of contempt off his smug little face, knocking his teeth back in his throat so that he swallowed them and his tone. My fists balled up on the table, tongue glued to the roof of my mouth just so I wouldn’t say something that I would totally regret later.
“Your parents are dead, aren’t they.” I didn’t mean to put it gently.
His forehead wrinkled, confusion spreading across his face. “What does that have to do with any—”
“Mine are too.” His gaze locked into mine, something between fear, puzzlement, and anger playing out behind his eyes. “You have a birth mark on your forearm just above your elbow—looks something like an encircled crescent moon if it’s in the right light, or a sickle if it’s not.”
“How did you—”
I rolled up my right shirt sleeve, the blood pounding in my temples. Rage hit my bloodstream and reacted in the wrong way with adrenaline.
Maybe I should’ve been the one put in handcuffs.
I flashed the traces of pink skin in his face, throwing my fist down on the table with more force than I should have. He jumped. “Because I have the same one. You, me, and eight other kids we’ve found over the last year all have it. No parents. Same age. Same scar. The Mark, they call it. We’ve all got the same story, and you’ve been brought here to keep your sorry ass from being tortured and hung out to dry, so that you can at least live to see eighteen.”
He seemed to recoil from the wave of fury rolling off of me, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. The chains rattled as his gaze dropped from mine. “And my name’s Julia, FYI. Try to refrain from using it, though. I don’t want it soiled with your…disdain.”
I forced myself back into my chair after finally becoming aware that I had been standing, towering over him in my outburst. I swallowed, hard, trying to regain some form of composure. The fit of rage passed as the drumming of my heart behind my temples slowed, an irritated exhaustion settling in.
He cleared his throat. My eyes snapped back to his.
“Look, I—” I held up my hand to stop him, and his voice died in his throat.
“Bottom line is that I know how it feels to sit where you are right now. You’re freaking out on the inside, not knowing what’s going to happen next, looking at a bunch of strangers who won’t answer any of your questions. Believe me, I understand the fear in your eyes. But right now these guys think you’re our only hope; our only connection to what’s going on out there. You’re going to have to trust me when I say that this is the best place for you to be right now. They know what they’re doing.”
The ridges of anger softened in his face. His pupils dilated to reveal a small ring of brown iris around two black bottomless pits of fear. His hands loosened from their balled up fists, whitish skin around his bloody knuckles fading into an angry red. His shoulders shook.
“What am I supposed to do?” he asked.
I pushed my chair away from the table, rising to my feet. I scooped up the file in my hands. “For now, nothing. Someone’ll be in shortly to lead you to a room where you’ll get some rest and heal. You’re going to need a few days after the trauma you’ve experienced.”
I put my hand on the doorknob. “When do I get to meet the others?” he asked to my back.
“You met most of the ground team tonight, Salvatore might introduce you officially—”
“No, I mean the others. The ones like us.”
I went cold. Every muscle went rigid. My grip locked around the doorknob.
“They’re all dead.” I muttered, my tone ice, “We couldn’t save them in time.”
I was out the door before he could articulate a response.
“Master needs to see you.”
My gaze emptied into the depths of the bottomless black pool and into the pair of tired green eyes staring up at me. Red rimmed, I noticed they were. Bloodshot. Heavy bags, and dark circles. I looked down on that poor pair of eyes with pity, feeling the exhaustion weigh down their very existence with each heavy lidded blink that matched my own.
Shudders of irritation turned in my stomach as ripples broke the glassy surface, the unfortunate gaze lost underneath the waves of murk.
“Master can wait until I’ve had my goddamn coffee,” I grumbled, pulling the cup off the table with tired hands and resting it against my lips.
He made a small sound of amusement under his breath, and I shot a glower at him from over the rim. His grinning face came into focus in between wisps of steam drifting in front of my eyes. “Ooh, sounds like someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” he said, sliding into the booth opposite to me. He motioned for the waitress.
“Kiss my ass,” I mumbled into the black lake, and took slow sips as the warmth of it spread down my throat.
Levi smiled up at the waitress as she set down a cup and saucer in front of him. She disappeared, and he spun the cup between his fingers. His index finger grazed the rim.
“You should drink that before it gets cold,”
With a smile he lifted the cups to his lips, took a long pull off the top, and set it back down with a clink against the table. He raised his eyebrows. “Happy?”
“Very,” I said, even though on the inside I was more tired than I’d ever been before in my life. I slumped against the slicked back of the booth, closing my eyes and fighting back the urge to take a nap in my drink.
He appeared to be reading my mind. “How much sleep have you gotten?” he asked, seriousness burning in his sapphire eyes. They wore the same tired expression of my own.
“An hour. Tops.” I mumbled. He let out a low whistle. “You?”
He shrugged, veiling his look of exhaustion with a mask of nonchalance. “I grabbed a couple of minutes in between bringing the kid in and you questioning him.”
Worry snaked like bitter ice in my chest, anxiety crawling up my spine. “Levi,” I said, “You know that’s not—they said—with your condition—”
He put a hand up to silence me. “Relax, Julia. I’m fine. As much as they might say, sleep doesn’t do much in the way of my condition.” He smiled. “Only an end to this madness will.”
I looked away from his face, and for the first time that morning I noticed the quiver in his fingers. He folded them down into the flat of his palm, the muscles in his fist tense and strained as he fought to hide it. The muscles rippled into his arm, and I watched the waves of rigid flesh map into his shoulder, into the length of his neck, and along his jaw. His Adam’s apple bobbed as his throat constricted in an attempt to swallow. The blue of his eyes were lost behind two darkened eyelids, and deep shadows swallowed his pallid, clammy complexion. His breathing was labored.
“When was the last Shift?” I asked, my voice lost in my throat.
“Julia, it’s not—”
“When.” I looked him dead in the eye.
The sapphire smoldered in his gaze before it dropped from my own, and he cleared his throat. He lifted one shaky finger to the rim of his glass. “Twelve hours.” He muttered, his voice barely above a whisper.
Frigid panic trickled down my spine. My heart dropped into my stomach. “My God,” I whispered, reaching across the table and sandwiching one of his hands between two of my own. I tensed at the feeling of cold clamminess pressing into my warm fingers. “What were you thinking? You shouldn’t be here. You know what they said.”
Again he grinned. “Since when did you become my mother?”
Irritation sparked in my chest. “Since I seem to be the only person here who understands what could happen because of your stupidity.” I dropped my voice low so that the man and his wife in the booth behind us couldn’t hear me. “Do you realize that this could kill you? That every Shift weakens you? That, even if the change itself didn’t end you, your obsession to prove yourself to those people will? You ignore the warnings; you go and fight when you’re too weak to even stand—”
“Those people are our people, Julia; I’m doing this for—”
“Is changing into a stray really worth it?” My voice shook. Spots of heat rose on my cheeks. “Are you really willing to die all for the glory of being someone’s lapdog?”
I felt the air stiffen. His jaw set tight as it snapped shut around his words, the burning blue in his eyes flickering with rage. His hands balled into fists under mine. He took a deep breath. The corner of his mouth twitched.
He leaned forward so that his face was just inches from mine. He opened his mouth and just let it hang there, a look on his face like he was trying to choose his words carefully. His body heat pressed into me like a wave. “I’m doing this,” he started, “To save you. You, and all the others like you, so that goddamn humanity might stand a chance.”
I shivered at the dangerous edge to his tone. The once-comforting smell of coffee rolling off his lips suddenly turned in my stomach. His eyes froze my soul—the blue glowing with hatred.
I fought to form words through the shame that constricted my throat. “Levi, I—I didn’t mean—” I reached for him, but he pulled away.
“I know what you meant,” he whispered, now looking out the window, “But I don’t need you to tell me what’s best for me. You’re not my authority figure, and you don’t get to tell me how to do my job.”
His words came to me like a smack in the face—dismissive, harsh. I felt myself physically recoil, the back of my skull thumping against the booth. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I couldn’t look at him.
“Go see the Master, Jules. You know the man doesn’t like to wait.”
“You should know that I’m taking a big risk in doing this,” I said, “I’m breaking the Cardinal Rule.”
I fumbled with the lock until there was a sharp click beneath my fingers, and the silver cuffs slid from around his wrists and landed with a thunk against the table. I stiffened instinctively as the sound rebounded off the walls, casting a casual glance over my shoulder as I stuffed the keys into my back pocket. I knew no one had heard me, but even so, I couldn’t help but watch the doorknob and pray it wouldn’t jiggle.
I let out the breath I’d been holding when it didn’t, and sank into a heap in the chair across the table.
He rubbed his wrists gratefully, eyeing the extent of his injuries—raw stripes of skin, darkened with deep purple bruises wrapped around his wrists. He winced through a slow sigh of relief. “Why did you do that?” Confusion spread across his face as his gaze connected with mine.
“A simple ‘thank you’ would suffice,” I said.
He licked his lips, nodding. He still had a hand wrapped around one of his wrists. “Yeah, sorry. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really grateful…I just—we didn’t exactly end on the best of terms. Why would you break the Cardinal Rule on me?”
I tipped my chair back, throwing my feet up on the table. “Let’s just say that I consider my unending servitude to the Master more of a…suggestion than actual orders. That ‘sir, yes sir’ stuff just isn’t my style—takes all the fun out of being a savior of humanity or the Marked or whatever the hell it is we are. We’re prized, but we’re not animals—and we don’t need to be locked up like ones.” I shot him a grin over my combat boots, to which he returned only slightly so that he didn’t re-split his healing busted lip. “Plus, I’d like to believe that if you were going to try and rip my throat out, you would’ve done it already. I think it’s safe to say you’re not the enemy.”
“The enemy?” He looked at me with curiosity.
I slid my boots off the table, rocking forward so that my elbows rested on the edge of the tabletop. “How much do you know about the Shifters and the Marked?”
His eyebrows knitted together in concentration. His shoulders rolled up, and he shook his head as if he had no idea as to what I was talking about.
“Wonderful,” I muttered under my breath, flipping open the stack of papers filed and rubber-banded together underneath my arms. “It seems as if I’m going to have to go through the whole story with you.”
I shut the file and pushed it to the end of the table. “How much do you remember?”
“Well,” He squinted his eyes as if he were digging deep into the depths of his mind, plucking out important details. “They dragged me in here, handcuffed me to a table, forced bandages all over my body and painkillers down my throat, and introduced me to a charming young lady who in the first five minutes scared the living shit out of me with talk of birthmarks and secret headquarters and death. Then she left, and I was hauled into another little tiny room—” His voice trailed off, dripping with sarcasm.
“Cut the crap, smart ass,” I said, “How much do you remember of the Outside?”
“You mean, my life before I was forced to flee for the sake of my existence and I woke up bloody and bruised in an abandoned warehouse?” Silence smoldered as he paused to consider this thought. “I blocked out most of it.”
“How old were you when you became an orphan?”
Something I couldn’t quite distinguish flashed in his eyes. In a moment it was gone, smoothed over with raised eyebrows and a look of boredom. “Eight.” He said, “The same year my life went to Hell in a hand basket.”
“Your Mark became visible just after that, didn’t it?”
He nodded. “It became slightly more vivid just after then, yes—before you could barely make out the edges of it. I don’t understand—what does any of this have to do with anything?”
“Because,” I said, taking a deep breath. Tiny sparks of a blossoming headache were beginning to tap along the back side of my brain. “With you, we’re able to pull more pieces of the puzzle together. Before, we weren’t sure; nothing added up because there was nothing to add up. The theory’s starting to prove more promising than we originally thought. I mean, of course—”
“Hold on!” He waved his hands in front of my face, signaling a time out. I snapped back from my stream of consciousness and into reality. “Just…freeze for a second. What pieces? What puzzle? What do I have to do with any of this?”
“According to them,” I motioned towards the door and to the shifting shadows that filtered in through the drawn shade, “we have everything to do with this. We’re the ones meant to put a stop to all this chaos.” He gave me a blank look. “Or supposed to, anyway.”
He blinked his eyes. Cleared his throat. He dropped his forehead into his hands, running his fingers through his hair. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he mumbled, his head lifting just enough so that I got a look into his fretful brown eyes, “You can’t possibly be telling me that this bullshit stems from a birthmark.”
Voices were raised in the hallway. I glanced over my shoulder, staring into the harsh movements of the silhouettes of those ordered to stand guard outside. An argument, it seemed, had sprouted between the two husky masses, and muscled limbs were beginning to fly in some sort of outrage while muffled distinctions of profanities slinked into the silence of the room. I felt tension crawl up my spine.
“Please tell me that that is the type of chaos you’re expecting me to fix,” he muttered, his voice joking.
“Trust me,” I said, turning back to him, “You’d be better off taking on a hoard of Shifters than dealing with some of the hot heads walking around this place.”
“’Roid rage?” A smirk played on the edges of his lips.
I shook my head. “Nah, just rage. Things get kinda tense around here when no one sees sunlight for a while and we’re forced to look in each others faces twenty-four seven.” I grinned. “Especially for the poor bastards who’ve been cooped up here for their entire lives—leave it to one bad game of cards and all Hell breaks loose around here. Takes a full division just to break them up.”
He lifted his head out of his hands. “Their whole lives? There are people who’ve never left this place?”
I nodded. “This conflict between the Shifters and humans has gone on for hundreds of years. Sometimes whole generations of warriors dedicate their lives to this thing—husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, best friends go out and fight for each other. They develop a bond with the others of their division. Then kids are born, and before they can even make a choice as to whether or not they even want to be a part of this lifestyle they’re saying ‘yes, Master’ and ‘no, Master’ and wielding a sword.” Something that looked like panic flashed only for a moment on his face. “That is, of course, if they’re even allowed to.”
“What do you mean?”
“This sect is highly selective in its choice of which warriors get to go out into the field. Generally they are highly trained, and they usually have some sort of asset under their belt—”
“Assets? Like what, quick reflexes or impressive hearing?”
I bit my lip. “No. Warriors fighting against the Shifters need much more of an advantage than that. Those in combat are usually born with…abilities that aid them in a fight.”
He shook his head as if he were in disbelief. He blinked, and bit down hard on his tongue so that the muscles in his jaw jumped. “Are you seriously trying to tell me that you have superheroes working black ops missions?” A grin slid across his face, crazed laughter erupting from deep within him. “What, is Spiderman gonna debrief me on a raid set to take place in Chinatown?” He tipped his head back in a cackle that echoed through the room.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said, “Peter Parker wasn’t born a super human; he was bitten by a radioactive spider. And the people here could take him down with a flick of the pinky if they really wanted to.” I dropped my voice a tone lower, so that he had to lean in to hear me. “Things around here are more like X-Men than anything else.”
Comprehension flickered in his eyes. His pupils dilated. He let out a slow breath, pulling away from me and throwing himself against the back of his chair, his hands again running through his lank of grimy brown hair.
Silence passed. The fluorescents buzzed and the fight rose in volume outside. “These Shifters must be some hard core bad asses,” he mumbled. “Mind freaks. Holy shit.” He voice was so low it was almost as if he were talking to himself.
I shifted in my chair, an uncomfortable feeling winding inside me. It hadn’t been long enough since I'd been in the exact place he was, chewing on the same bit of craziness they’d thrown at me. The fear plucked at me in the same way it did that day, the panic driving rods of ice down my spine. My tongue swelled in my mouth, heart hammering fast against my chest cavity. I felt the rhythmic drum of my pulse against my temples.
Memories of Levi’s surprised face as I came at him from across the table swallowed my consciousness.
“What can they do?” he asked.
I forced down the faint recollections of his cold hands binding around my wrists, his strong arms driving me to the ground with practiced stealth and precision. I blocked out the roar of his voice, intelligible words drowned out by the distress booming in my ears and the cacophony of my own screams…
“Their abilities are just as their name implies,” I said, slightly breathless, “They have the ability to shift into creatures at their own will.”
“Any creature?” His face went pale.
I shook my head. “By and large they’re typically confined to the shape of one animal—a wolf, snake, bald eagle, what have you. But rumors go that there are a few that can change into anything they want, and rare as they might be, equal the power of hundreds of the others. None have ever been found, though. We’ve got a small team of researchers stationed at top secret bases around the world keeping a look out for them—watching the headlines, looking into anything that looks suspicious—while the rest of us in facilities like this take out the much more prevalent scum that roam the streets, looking for bloodshed.”
“And how do we tell them apart from the hundreds of other people and animals milling around the streets at the same time?”
“Warriors born with the Shifter gene have the ability to catch their scent and track them. They lead the ground teams in their animal forms—but usually we just follow the blood trail.”
He looked as if he were about to puke. I watched him close his eyes, covering them with trembling fingers. His shoulders shook with every ragged breath that escaped his lungs.
Empathy swelled in my chest for the poor bastard.
“You mean to tell me that those things are what did this to me?” He motioned to the purple marks smudged across his cheek bones, to the gashes in his eyebrows and the deep lacerations that sloped from his jaw into his neck. He pulled down the collar of the hospital grade V-neck they’d given him fiercely, turmoil burning in his eyes as the jagged red lines staining his chest caught the light of the room. The black etchings of stitches puckered over his heart and down into where the shirt had kept hidden. “That we’ve got a couple of crazed mutants on the loose who would’ve killed me if they got the chance and that you’ve got some of them working for you?”
My mind involuntarily floated back to Levi, but this time with the memories of him crouched in the corner of his room, on all fours and eyes rolling back in his head as he struggled to remain conscious. The endless sound of his retching as he dry-heaved for hours, slumped over the toilet with sweat slick on his face. On the floor in a heap, screaming in agony. His body in a hospital bed, tethered to machines and unresponsive to my voice while the medics told me they didn’t think his body could take the transformations…
“No,” I whispered, my voice firm but lost somewhere in my throat, “No. True Shifters, the ones that feed on human flesh and need life force to survive, aren’t brave enough to come here. Our warriors are still human—their hearts beat in their chests the same as ours.”
“And what about us, then?” His tone was urgent, demanding. “What do we have to do with this war? Why were we chosen? Where are the rest of them? Where are the others with the Mark?”
I sighed, chewing on the inside of my lip. I thought of a million ways to answer, each of his possible reactions playing out in my mind—all of which ended in aggression, violence, and the final vision of the brutality in his brown eyes as he lashed out. The regret of the handcuffs strewn across the table burned as I stared into his unbound hands.
I prayed that no matter what happened, he just wouldn’t go for the face.
“When I was eight,” I started, choosing my words very carefully, “A group of men invaded my home with a pack of feral hounds. Trackers, I remember them being called. They forced their way through the front door at three in the morning with no weapons and no masks to disguise themselves. They didn’t even trip the security system. They had one demand—hand over the Marked, and everyone would live.”
His face was ashen, pupils dilated to two pools of black swirling among the whites of his eyes. He held my gaze in silence. “Of course,” I said, “My dad said that he didn’t know what they were talking about—that he’d give Them money, the entertainment system; anything as long as They would leave. He offered himself as a sacrifice, begging Them to take him instead, to leave his wife and child alone.” I heard myself from what seemed like far away, my tone icy and distant. “That got Them interested.
“My mom had just gotten finished tucking me inside the coat closet when They came for her, throwing her onto the floor next to my dad and cinching the ropes around her wrists. They yelled for the two of them to stop crying, to hand over the child or both of their throats would be ripped out. Too hysterical to get an answer out of them, They sent the dogs after me.
“The worst part wasn’t knowing that I was probably going to die, or that they were going to take me away from my family—it was the fear; the pure, unadulterated terror burning in my lungs that was so intense I couldn’t even think clearly enough to form a scream. It was the fear for my parents, and what was going to happen to them. I couldn’t bear to think that, should something go wrong, it all was because of me. And then—”
I stopped. He lifted his head out of his hands. “What?” he asked, a mixture of emotions etched into his face, “What happened?”
I closed my eyes, shaking my head. The pain crashed into me, faint visions of what I’d seen through the wooden slats in the door that night playing out behind my eyelids. I tried to shake them, tried to push them down, but they held firm.
With a deep breath I regained my composure, and opened my eyes again. A look of sympathy blazed in his eyes. “They did exactly as they promised,” I said, all emotion gone, “They ripped their throats out.”
He turned green and all the air flew from his lungs in a rush. He looked like he was going to puke. “Jesus,” was all he could manage to say.
I swallowed, hard. “When They finished having their fun with them, They sat down among their dead bodies and started to talk.” I remembered the booming in their voices, how the echo of it off the walls matched the beat of my heart. “They said something about how they hadn’t expected this change of plans—how things weren’t supposed to go this way. ‘The Hunters were supposed to be dead,’ they said. ‘We killed off the last generation.’”
“That’s what they call those of us who have the Mark,” I said, “Hunters of the Moon.”
He looked at me like I’d just birthed a sack of potatoes. His mouth hung slightly open, jaw slack, his eyes blinking in what appeared to be disbelief. I looked into his face, and a sickening feeling plunged deep into the pit of my stomach.
I knew then why Levi always acted as if he owed something to me. He pitied me—the guilt in his throat at the look of how screwed up my life had become so thick he nearly choked on it. He pitied himself, having to see me everyday and know that what I’d become was all his fault. He’d been the one that had to sit me down and explain that my entire life had been a lie, and for that he could never forgive himself.
I was starting to realize where he was coming from.
“Look, kid, I—”
“Devon. The name is Devon.” Irritation sparked in his eyes, his chin lifting and chest being forced outwards in an exhibit of defiance. Or bravery, if no one counted the fear painted plainly across his face.
“Devon. I’m really sorry about—”
He shook his head. My voice died in my throat. “Is that what they told you to say?” The hostile edge to his voice was gone; sorrow evident in every word as his body sank as if deflated. “Did pity help the others, too?”
Shame locked the words in my throat. “The others didn’t even make it into our facility,” I said, not looking into his horror-stricken gaze, “The Shifters had already gotten a hold on them by the time we found them.”
“And how many are left?”
No one knows, I wanted to tell him. It would’ve been the better-accepted answer, would’ve helped him sleep at night knowing there was a possibility another one of us could be found tomorrow, next week, six months from now. It would’ve given him hope—something I’d forgotten the feeling of when they’d drilled into me that such things didn’t exist.
It would’ve been a lie.
“Two,” I whispered. “You and me.”
Something flashed in his eyes. Bulges of muscle visible underneath the sleeves of his shirt tensed, and his jaw dropped open. There was an audible click of his teeth clinking together as he snapped it back into place.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I wish,” I said, “But the story goes that Heaven Marked ten of God’s children to protect the world from evil—ten, and only ten. When the first batch were killed off, God made the executive decision to attempt at one more try to save his creations, thus our generation of Hunters. Eight have been found over the last year. Dead. And that means-”
“That we hold the fate of the entire world in our hands,” His face was ashen.
Silence buzzed in the air, his eyes losing focus and staring off into the corners of the room. Devon chewed on his lower lip, hands rested limp on the table, shaking.
“How long do we have?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
“As long as we stay under the protection of the guard and follow their orders, the Shifters can’t get to us. As far as anybody knows, we’re just ordinary humans—and we’ll age like ordinary humans as long as—”
“No, not in terms of life,” His voice was sharp, a strong sense of emotion coating his words, “How long until we—we have to—” Devon stopped and swallowed hard. “Until we save the world?”
I bit my lip. “A year, at the most,” I said, “But no one knows for sure.”
That seemed to be the breaking point for him. His body went limp, doubling over until his face rested upon the tabletop, face angled away from me. Not a muscle moved. I waited, expecting to hear the sound of his haggard breathing, but only the sound of the fluorescents buzzing overhead interrupted the silence. His crumpled form molded into his surroundings without so much as a raising in his chest to signify that he was breathing.
The panic sank in, my insides turning to ice.
He’s not breathing, I realized, He’s unconscious and he’s not breathing. He’s not moving. He’s…
And then the air exploded from him in a rush, his shoulders sinking as his lungs deflated and the tension falling out of his muscles as they melded to the table like limp noodles. I watched his entire body quiver as a choking sound fell from his lips, a gurgling sound in the back of his throat. His back arched against the table as if he were fighting for control over the muscles spasming along his shoulder blades, rocking his body.
A small sniffle broke free from him.
Sympathy welled behind my rib cage. The room had suddenly become oddly confining—the small, windowless space now teeming with an overwhelming mix of despair and a grim sense of hope. It’s me, I thought, the sickening realization burying itself deep within my pounding heart, I did this. This is my fault. I choked on my heavy breathing, around the guilt that felt like an iron bar weighing on my chest.
“Devon. Devon—” My hand reached out for him, falling onto his trembling shoulders.
I felt the expanse of muscle under my fingers tense. It was almost as if he was recoiling from my touch, the sniffling sealing up inside his throat and the room getting plunged into silence.
He was holding his breath again, but managed to pull his body off the table. And away from me, I thought, but let it die before it could make me feel guiltier than I already was. Devon turned to face me, his eyes rimmed red and the look of a dead man etched into his face.
“Please,” he said, his voice pleading, “Please. Just go away.”
There they were. The words—ones I’d been waiting on, expecting, feeling them hang in the air and yet going unsaid. Ones I’d used so many times, thrown them in the faces of almost every member of the Guard—even, as much as I hated to say, Levi—ones I’d brooded over and hoped that anyone who was unfortunate enough to hear them would taste the acid in my words, feel the hatred behind my eyes. Hearing them now, with the distant echoes of the phrase burning in my ears and the memories of the wounded faces of all that I’d hurt playing behind my eyelids, came as a bit of a shock coming from someone else’s mouth. They stung like a slap in the face; I felt deflated, my last bit of dignity cut from my body.
It was the look in his eyes that did it—there was no anger, no pent up masses of rage that just happened to let loose when I was in the room. What I saw hidden deep in his pupil was desperation. Like it was his one wish for me to go the hell away and to never come back.
Nothing I could’ve said would’ve changed that.
I heard the distant sounds of chair legs scraping against the linoleum, the hollow reverberations of heavy boots slamming against the floor. My breathing rasped in my chest as I did the one good thing I could’ve possibly done.