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Chapter 1: The First Families

One

The colony was always there.

Through the barred window, Lincoln and Aeron Arokson gazed upon their home, Vale, the settlement between mountains. Fluorescent green lights danced in the night, spinning through the empty marketplace streets like the ghosts of patrons who had gone home hours ago. They frolicked through the commons, the great field at the center of town where only the wind now rocked the swings in the playground. They soared over the rooftops of darkened homes, and they crept over Arokson Hall and its looming bell tower. Beyond the colony center, they dashed through the farmlands, teasing the livestock. They even covered the colony’s concrete perimeter wall at the edge of the wild. The lights, no doubt, blanketed all of that too.

Above it all, the aurora danced like electric flame, like Lumen, the planet goddess herself, was twirling a dress in the heavens. The aurora lit Vale in a colorful dusk that lasted all night, every night, for as long as Lincoln and Aeron could remember.

Perched on the mountain in the distance, Vale’s Pillar of Dawn coughed an endless supply of atmosphere, the occasional lightning bolt crashing through the clouds, kissing the air like irradiated sparks. Even as the pillar lifted life-bringing gases into the sky, the aurora curled around the tower like ghost serpents.

In nothing, though, was the aurora’s presence stronger than Lincoln and Aeron’s glassy, captivated eyes.

“It’s dying.” Lincoln blinked, and the aurora was still there, imprinted on the backs of his eyelids. He was no stranger to penance for drinking shine, and the first ache squeezed behind his brow.

“It has to.” Aeron shifted on the cot that was bolted to the wall, and the wood groaned under his solid weight. Even though he spent most of his days behind a desk, wearing collared shirts and wool pants, meeting with colonists, no one in Vale was estranged to physical labor. But Aeron’s hands were soft, and he rubbed them together to remove the gritty dust that had rubbed off of the cot’s wooden frame.

Lincoln took a deep breath of the cool night air. “I know,” he said. “Still, it’s always been there.”

“I remember when it wasn’t such a comfort for you.”

Lincoln turned toward his big brother with a smile that, despite the years, still held hints of resentment. “Because of you. You were so mean when we were kids.”

Aeron winced. “You know I’m sorry for all that, the way I treated you when we were young.”

“It’s all right.” Lincoln waved a dismissive hand and returned his attention to the aurora in the sky. “Children do childish things.”

Aeron was silent for a moment and then laughed. “I remember when I convinced you that nobody could see anything but clouds and stars in the sky and that sometimes people said they saw the aurora before the earth opened up and swallowed them.”

Lincoln grunted.

“I had to stop you from running into the wild,” Aeron said. “You cried about not wanting anyone else to get hurt because of you. My little brother. Selfless even then.”

“Yeah? Maybe I should have gone into public service.”

Lincoln’s stare lingered out the window. Aeron’s thin lips flattened. The air between them thickened.

“We’ve been through this,” Aeron said. “It isn’t what you think.”

Jaw muscles bulging, Lincoln faced his brother. “Let me tell you what I think. If Dad hadn’t—”

“Warden!” a female voice called from the hall, accompanied by running footsteps and jingling keys. “Aeron!”

Sheriff Regina Ballard skidded to a halt at the cell door, her fingers clutching the bars made from precious iron. Her narrow, hard blue eyes shined like ice, and the gold star embroidered on her shirt pulsed with the rise and fall of her wiry chest.

“You better come quick.”

Aeron rose on the cot. “What is it?”

“It’s Dani Hines, and the Bellman boy, James. They’re missing. James’ sister said they were sneaking out past the wall tonight.”

Aeron grimaced and leaped to his feet. “How long have they been gone?”

“A couple hours at least.”

Sheriff Ballard opened the cell door for Aeron and cast a stern gaze toward Lincoln. Her hard expression pulsed with strength and a kind of welcoming malice. She wanted Lincoln to try to leave so she could bring the full weight of her fury down on him. He’d done more than broken a few of the colony’s laws. He’d invited her wrath, and it was only because of those laws that he was safe from her.

“You,” she said. “Stay.”

Aeron sensed her anger and knew it went beyond her charge of law and order. He eyed them both and shook his head. “Stay here, Lincoln.”

“I can help.”

Aeron paused, considering it. “No. It wouldn’t look good to the others after what happened. Stay here and sleep it off.”

The iron door banged in its frame. The rattling keys locked it again. Lincoln leaned against the bars and listened to Aeron and Ballard’s heels kick down the hallway.

“Watch for Shane,” Lincoln called after them, but Aeron and Ballard were gone, out into the night and a rising tide of voices.

The colony, it seemed, was not always there for everyone.

Two

By the time anyone realized Dani and James were gone, they were deep in the wild. The aurora bled through the thick tree canopy, but Dani hadn’t known such darkness in all her young life. She had never been outside of Vale’s walls and never been without the aurora’s glow. With wide, curious eyes, she looked up at the pinpricks of light that peeked between branches and leaves, and she thought of stars, wondrous jewels in the night sky her parents had told her about.

Hacking passage with his bush knife, James led her through the thick brush. She showed the way with a flashlight, gripping his muscular shoulder.

“It isn’t much farther,” he said.

His breathing was labored from swinging the blade, but Dani felt in his tight torso that he was far from tired. The young man was strong and full of vitality. Dani liked the way his bicep rolled as his arm bent. She liked the sharpness of his jaw, the cut that was not quite a man’s. She liked his broad chest and shoulders, his tanned skin from the long days working in the farmlands.

A breeze sighed through the trees, and Dani went along sighing with it.

“Soon, the pillar won’t need so many workers,” James said. “The colony’s going to open its gates, and people are going to be free to leave and find their own place. I’m talking real towns, Dani. Land to call our own. Everything within those walls, we could be free of all of it.”

“But it’s home.”

“Home is wherever we make it. Besides, it isn’t what the First Families meant to be our permanent place. We came here to make a new home, and that’s the spirit of the wild. We came here to grow.”

James hacked through tree limbs and led Dani forward. They pushed on through severed vines and around bushes. Finally, after hours of trusting James to guide her through the darkness, Dani stepped onto a trodden path. Deadfall covered the ground. The trail cut straight ahead and curved around a hill.

“Here we go.” James sheathed his bush knife on his hip.

The dead foliage felt like dried corn stalks beneath Dani’s leather shoes. It hadn’t rained in weeks, another sign that Lumen would soon be ready at last. It had stormed all the time when Dani was a child. She remembered storms so bad parts of the colony flooded up to her knees.

“I’m telling you,” he said. “We can leave. You and me. Explore the wild. Find a piece of land to call our own. Start a family. I could provide for us by growing our own crops. And I can hunt. We could live off the land. We could do it.”

James looked into Dani’s eyes, and she could feel him wanting to pull her close. She sensed that the time wasn’t right. Not just yet.

“Hunt?”

James smiled. “Come on.”

He led her farther down the path until the forest’s darkness opened, the end of a tunnel coming into view. Ahead, lights and shadows danced. The aurora showed the way.

James pulled her along faster until they were running. Dani found herself giggling. She didn’t understand it other than she knew she was happy and might not ever be so happy again.

They halted at the end of the path. James beckoned. She reached for his outstretched hand, and the boy who was not quite a man pulled her, spun her around, and caught her in his powerful embrace. He turned her so that she looked out upon a rolling field that went on as far as she could see, running straight into the distant mountains. Tall grass waved, pushed and pulled by Lumen’s breath.

“This is where they landed, Dani. Where the First Families touched down on Lumen. The land’s changed, though. Back then there was nothing, no life at all. Now it’s alive.” He scanned the field and pointed. “Look.”

Atop a crest of the rolling hills only a hundred meters away, five animals grazed in the field. She had never seen anything like them. They stood on four legs and craned long necks toward the ground. Their muscular shoulders pumped even as they stood still, silent, graceful in their idleness. Thick, bony antlers bucked into the air when one of them bent toward the sky and made a sound like a cough.

“What are they?” Dani asked.

“I have no idea.”

“I don’t understand. There shouldn’t be any wildlife out here.”

“But there is.”

She glowed. The possibilities were gloriously endless.

“There’s a whole world.” James squeezed her like he’d never let her go. “Lumen’s a whole world, and it’s for us. It’s ours.”

The animals in the distance perked up. Their phosphorescent blue eyes beamed in frantic search. Dani and James were still. They held their breath, and for a moment, the animals froze, honing in on Dani and James’ direction. Then the animals bolted toward the tree line.

“Must have spooked them,” James said.

A strong breeze crept over the field and through the forest, urging the world into motion. A chill set into Dani’s bones. Barely detectable at first, the earth beneath their feet trembled. Dani and James looked at each other, unsure what they were sensing. The tremble grew into a bouncing roll, and the wild erupted into battle, quivering trees going for each other’s throats.

James pushed Dani behind him and gripped the hilt of his bush knife.

Three

The sound of screaming outside pulled Bernice Arokson out of a world of knights, orcs, and dragons. She set the book on her bed.

In her pink pajamas and bunny slippers, she raced to the window and found her Uncle Aeron in the street illuminated by the globe streetlamps. He was rubbing Mrs. Bellman’s back as she sobbed into the gravel. Lights in other houses were turning on, and people were coming out of their homes and onto their porches to watch their warden console Mrs. Bellman.

Bernie’s bedroom door burst open. The young girl’s brother, Shane, peered at her from the threshold. “What’s going on, Bern?”

Her face flushed, and she growled, “Get out of my room!”

Shane raised his hands in placation. “Take it easy. I’m technically still in the hallway.” He teased her with a toothy grin.

Bernie huffed. “You could have at least knocked.”

“I’m just checking to see if you’re all right. I heard screaming.”

“It’s outside. Sera Bellman’s mom. Uncle Aeron’s with her.”

Shane’s boyish face hardened. He crossed the room, not without noticing Bernie’s dramatic sigh, and joined her at the window.

Uncle Aeron was talking to Sheriff Ballard now, who was nodding dutifully. Bernie and Shane couldn’t make out what their uncle was saying, but they could tell Sheriff Ballard was saying, “right” and “yes, sir,” over and over. Ballard whistled into the distance and waved her hand in the air. One of her deputies raced down the street. Ballard spoke to him, and he nodded, said, “Yes, ma’am,” then rushed off toward Arokson Hall.

The bell tower bellowed.

Bernie choked a gasp. “Shane, where’s Dad?”

Shane hushed her, his attention glued outside. “Quiet.”

She tugged on his sleeve. “I’m scared.”

“Dad’s not coming home tonight. He’s locked up again.”

“Oh.” Bernie fidgeted with her golden hair.

“Stay here. I’m going out there.”

Bernie’s eyes shot open. “No! Don’t leave me alone!”

Shane grasped her shoulder. “It’s okay. Whatever it is, you’re safe here. If you weren’t, Uncle Aeron would be taking us somewhere else. Just stay here, and you’ll be able to see me from this window.”

Bernie released a quivering breath. “Okay.”

“Besides,” Shane said as he walked out of her room, “when have we ever needed Dad for anything?”

Shane left his young sister alone in a dark and lonely house. She glanced to the sanctuary of her book, longing to submerge herself in the world that allured her instead of the one that frightened her. However, she returned to the window, her portal to as much of the real world as she could handle on nights like this.

Four

As Shane walked toward his uncle, another deputy ushered Mrs. Bellman away. She looked as if she’d aged twenty years in twenty minutes. Her shoulders were hunched, and her face was a wet mess. When she met his gaze, she looked haunted, as if she didn’t even know who he was.

The bell tower continued to ring. Neighbors stood on their front steps, peering down the street at Arokson Hall, tying knots in robes or buckling belts, each of them meeting curiosity before being fully dressed.

Shane neared his uncle and Sheriff Ballard.

“Regina, I hear you,” Aeron was saying. “But we have to wait until sunup.”

“But they’re kids, Aeron. Kids. They’re probably lost and scared. What if they were yours?”

Aeron sighed. “We have to wait.”

“Why?”

“You, of all people, are asking that question?”

“To hell with the law, Aeron. Is that why you left your brother in my jail? Because you knew he wouldn’t stand to wait?”

Aeron and Ballard saw Shane, and as adults do, they changed their demeanor and tone as if they weren’t just ready to tear each other’s throats out. Shane was old enough to recognize it and to wonder when they were going to stop treating him like a child.

“Hey there, Shane,” Aeron said.

“Hey, Uncle Aeron. Everything all right?”

“Fine, Shane. Everything’s fine. Why don’t you go on back and see to your sister?”

“She’s okay. See?” Shane pointed to the window in which Bernie’s pale face looked out on them. She waved, and they waved back. “I figured I’d come see if there was anything I could do to help.”

“That’s real noble of you, Shane, but we’ve got everything under control. If there’s anything that needs doing, you can bet I’ll let you know.”

Another part of being Shane’s age was he was smart enough to know when someone was patronizing him.

Shane stayed even as his uncle turned back to Sheriff Ballard. He felt the lines of communication beginning to sever, and he hadn’t gotten the answer to the question that was plaguing his mind.

“Is Sera Bellman all right?” Shane asked. “I saw her mom was real upset.”

Aeron turned back to Shane with a grim face. “I won’t tell you again, Shane. Go home.”

Aeron and Sheriff Ballard walked down the street toward Arokson Hall, their voices blending in with the bell tower’s singing.

For the first time in his life, Shane saw in his uncle a man that was too much like his father.

Five

Dani tripped over a tree root and fell into a bush that welcomed her with open arms. She struggled to get free, but her coat sleeves were caught in the branches of the bush. Thorns dug into her arms like clutching fingers. The earth trembled around her.

“James!”

In the darkness, the thick foliage of Lumen’s wilderness left her with no sense of direction. She’d lost the path James had cut through the forest. Moments before, she’d lost her love.

“James!”

Something had found them both. She didn’t know what it was. She knew only that she’d never seen anything like it before. It moved through the trees. It tunneled under the earth. The planet had come to take them.

Dani slipped her arms from her coat and pushed it up over her head. That left only her legs, and with her adrenaline pumping, she didn’t even feel the thorns biting into her thighs, tearing them to shreds. She pulled with all of her strength and broke free.

On her feet again, she heard the thing that pursued her getting closer. It was no longer strictly a pounding within the ground. Now there was a chittering sound, a clicking like the train that took the workers to the Pillar of Dawn, only this was much faster, like a giant drumming its fingers on a table.

“James!”

More branches struck out at her, lashing her neck, face, and arms. More roots threatened to take her down again. The forest only got deeper and thicker. She couldn’t even be sure she was running back the way they’d come. There was nothing but darkness and forest in every direction.

Then a bright red flare, like a miniature star, shot into the sky. It hovered with the aurora for a moment and then went out. In spite of the trembling behind her, she stopped. She heard the ringing of the bell tower and a human voice. She ran for it.

Another flare burst into the sky, confirming that she was headed in the right direction. The pounding weakened and stopped near where she’d changed her direction. A second later, it was chasing after her again.

She ran and ran, pushing away every branch that reached for her, jumping over the short bushes, punching through the foliage that was too tall. She never looked back because she knew to look back would mean falling again. If she fell, the trembling earth would take her. The ground would open and swallow her whole like a nightmare from her childhood.

“DANI HINES, JAMES BELLMAN, IF YOU CAN HEAR ME, FOLLOW THE SOUND OF MY VOICE,” a man on a loudspeaker said.

She ran until she could finally see the clearing before Vale’s wall, the exterior lighting pouring through the tree line. All she had to do was get into the open where the sentries could see her and she would be saved. They would protect her.

Dani leaped over a small bush and hooked around the trunk of a great tree. She crashed through a net of branches, and then she touched the edge of the wild.

She gave everything she had left to make the clearing, but as she tried to jump out of the forest and onto the groomed grass, something wrapped around her waist.

The thundering grew. The chittering rose like static.

“Help me!” Another flare went up. A trio of spotlights on the wall honed in on her location.

“There’s the girl!” someone cried.

They could see her, but unless she made the clearing, they couldn’t help her.

Struggling, she turned to face the darkness of the wild. It was going to get her. She was so close to home, but Lumen was going to take her. She would never see her mother or father again. James. Where was James?

Lumen showed Dani mercy, and the vines around her waist snapped. She stumbled into the clearing and scurried toward the wall. Finally, she saw it, the trees waving as if a gust of wind surged through them, the soil coughing into the air, the forest coming forth.

It reached nearly to the edge of the clearing, almost to where she could see it, shadows dancing through the leaves, and in the spaces between, the aurora’s light hit a glossy, wet surface, like polished black bone.

Just before it came into the spotlight, it stopped.

“STAY WHERE YOU ARE, DANI. WE’RE COMING TO GET YOU.”

She got to her feet and sprinted for the gate, the spotlights following her. The soil where she’d fallen opened and sucked down ever so slightly as though something beneath it had collapsed. When the spotlights returned their beams to the tree line, the trembling in the wild stilled.

Dani raced toward the gate. When she reached it, she pounded on it with clenched fists, screaming. The sentries on the wall froze and gazed into the quiet wild.

Six

Lincoln was lying on the cot in the jail cell. The pounding in his head grew, and he massaged his brow in a futile attempt to soothe the pain. At this point, he couldn’t hope to sleep. He’d passed through the drowsiness and spins and into the hangover. Aeron probably had come to visit him just so Lincoln wouldn’t be able to sleep. It would have been just like his brother to try to work a lesson into tonight.

“Lyle,” he called, “you got any battensoft?”

“That’s not going to make your pain go away,” a female voice said.

It wasn’t Reggie. Her voice was colder and harder, like a sheet of ice. This voice was soothing and warm.

Lincoln opened one eye and found a familiar blur. Lucy’s red hair spilled over her shoulders like wine.

She wrapped her fingers wrapped around the metal bars. “You’re just going to have to man up and take it,” she said. “You made a mistake, and now you have to live with it.”

“What mistake?”

“Drinking that shine Gill put in front of you.”

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“That’s your problem. You never think beyond the next hour. That’s all shine’s good for, and then it hits you. An hour of fun for a night of suffering.”

Lincoln made a show of rolling over in his cot away from her. “Deputy, I’m being harassed.”

Deputy Lyle Albright was asleep, his feet on his desk pushing his chair back at a precarious angle. His head lolled, and his mouth was agape

“You wake him up,” Lucy said, “I don’t think he’ll be liable to care.”

Lincoln sat up and rubbed the back of his neck. “What do you want, Luce?”

“For you to get off your ass and out of that cell.”

Lincoln sighed. “In case you hadn’t noticed, those bars are iron.”

A jingling sound bit into Lincoln’s ears. Lucy was holding the keys to the jail.

“You’ve always had control, Lincoln, even when you weren’t in control. Just like right now. I’ve got the keys, but you have the power to use them.”

Lincoln grunted. “Tell me what I gotta do this time.”

“Why do you think I want you to do something?”

“There’s a cost to everything with you. Always has been.”

Lucy’s brow narrowed. “I’m not the devil, Lincoln.”

She pushed the key to his cell into the lock. She turned it, and the latch boomed. The hinges whined when she opened the door. “Your children need you.”

“Ah, hell, Luce, I—”

“They need you, Lincoln.”

He got off of the cot and stepped forward. Lucy tossed the keys onto Lyle’s desk. The deputy stirred and fell, crashing onto the wooden floor.

He looked up and saw Lincoln. “What the hell?”

“Watch your mouth,” Lucy said.

Lyle stood and picked up his chair. “He’s not supposed to be out till morning. Sheriff said.”

“That so?” Lucy said. “We’d better not tell her then.”

“When she finds out, she’ll—”

“Reprimand you for allowing someone to walk in here and take the keys off you.”

Lyle gawked at Lucy and lowered his head to avert her gaze. “I’m sorry, ma’am. It’s just—”

“Just what?”

“The sheriff said she don’t want people thinking the warden’s family gets special privileges.”

“Lincoln won’t be any more trouble.”

“I think he means you, Luce,” Lincoln said.

“Is that so?” she said.

Lyle gazed sheepishly.

“Huh.” Pondering the thought, she turned and walked through the jailhouse door into the street. Lincoln followed, his headache gone.

Seven

Shane had seen the flares in the night sky, and he’d heard the sentries’ shouts on the wall. His neighbors were marching down the streets in droves, dispersing across the open field of the commons and the marketplace toward the main gate. He heard their confused chatter but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Hundreds of voices rumbled, none of them singularly decipherable.

He ran down the street against the direction of traffic, taking blows from elbows and hips. The Bellman house was dark, but he ascended the steps anyway and, after a moment of consideration, beat on the door.

“Sera?”

No one answered.

He skipped back down the steps into the crowd and followed everyone into the commons where the people flowed around him like a river. He searched for a friendly face who could tell him what was going on; however, absorbed in their own curiosity, none of them took notice of the boy standing in the crowd. Shane focused his attention up at the adults rushing past, and someone more his size crashed into him and took him to the ground.

“Get off!” With a grunt, he pushed the person off of him and glanced to his side to find his cousin Gabe rolling onto the grass.

Dazed, Gabe shook his matchstick head and grinned at Shane. “‘Scuse me, cuz.”

“What are you doing out?”

“Same thing as you, obviously.” Gabe got up, brushed his pants off, and offered a hand to Shane.

Shane took it and got to his feet. “Your mom let you out?”

Gabe grinned again. “Not home. Something about helping your dad, who I assume isn’t home either.”

Shane shook his head. “You know what’s going on?”

“I heard some kids went out past the wall and that a girl’s been hurt.”

“I saw Mrs. Bellman crying.”

Gabe’s face slackened as the realization set in. “Oh man. Sera?”

Shane grimaced. “That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

“Only one way to do that. Come on.”

The boys followed the crowd across the commons to the main gate. When they got there, a line of towering adults stood between them and the entrance to the colony. They could barely see the top of the great wooden door as it began to descend and close. With a loud clank, the iron latch caught each tooth of the cog that allowed its mechanical control, and the door settled into place with a boom.

Shane and Gabe slithered between the people in the crowd toward the front, pushing through the crowd until they met the unyielding arm of Alain Ducard, a monolithic sentry who looked at them with a disapproving gaze.

“No way, kid,” Ducard said.

The sentries had done what they did best and created a perimeter. Instead of guarding the wall between the colony and the wild, they stood between the people and the girl Shane desperately needed to know the identity of.

“Sera!” Shane called, leaning over Ducard’s arm.

The sentry tossed him back into the crowd.

Shane looked to Gabe and found that grin again.

“I’ll distract him,” Gabe said.

The boy pushed up toward Ducard. “I think I’m gonna be sick.” He shoved his index finger into the back of his throat and vomited all over the sentry’s boots.

The seething crowd of people gasped and pulled away from the sentry, who gazed down and groaned in revulsion. Someone asked if Gabe was the warden’s kid. Someone else said they thought so.

“Sorry,” Gabe said, spitting a long string of mucus onto the ground. He stared innocently up at the sentry and grinned.

Ducard grabbed Gabe by his shirt collar. “Let’s see what your daddy thinks about you being out after curfew.”

Easing through the crowd, Shane met Gabe’s eyes again. Gabe shrugged as the sentry dragged him away and disappeared into the crowd. Shane hoped his cousin wouldn’t get in trouble, but right now, he needed to see who was at the gate.

In front of the closed gate, Sherriff Ballard, several deputies, and some nurses were all helping someone. Shane spotted inky hair for an instant, and then it was lost again. As they dispersed, there was the girl. Sherriff Ballard was covering her with a blanket and pushing her matted and tangled hair away from her tearstained and dirty face. Her body trembled with sobs. As Ballard ushered her forward, she struggled to be free, as if she were trying to go back out the main gate, back out into the wild.

It wasn’t Sera. It was Dani Hines.

The nurses laid Dani onto a pushcart with a gurney on the front, the colony’s ambulance, and the crowd made way for the cart to roll toward the infirmary. Their curiosity satisfied, most of the people at the gate cleared out and turned to their homes, but Shane trailed the ambulance.

When he got to the infirmary, they’d already taken Dani inside. More sentries were holding crowds back and denying entry.

Then they were ushering Mrs. Bellman toward the infirmary. And finally, Sera.

“Sera,” Shane called. “Sera!”

When she saw him, she gasped, rushed to him, and leaped into his arms.

“He’s out there, Shane! He’s out there, and they can’t find him!”

Shane held her tightly, pressing the warmth of her tears into his chest.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” he said over and over, brushing her midnight hair.

Sera’s mother approached, her eyes drained of strength but glancing expectantly at the people who’d gathered. She laid a hand on Sera’s back. “We should go inside.”

Shane relaxed his embrace but felt no give in Sera’s grip. A moment later, she turned to her mother, and Mrs. Bellman’s stone gaze faltered.

“Shane, you can stay with Sera a while.”

“Are you sure?”

Mrs. Bellman nodded.

He felt compelled to verify Mrs. Bellman’s permission because, less than a year earlier, Sera and James had lost their father, and the last thing Shane wanted to do was cause that family any more pain.

Eight

In the infirmary waiting room, Sera had fallen asleep in Shane’s arms. His shoulder ached, and his right hand was dead, but he didn’t care. Sera was safe, and after fearing the worst, this was the greatest feeling he’d ever experienced.

Raised voices erupted in the hallway. Although Shane couldn’t make out what they were saying, someone was sobbing.

A moment later, Mrs. Bellman came in from the hall, her face flushed, and stopped just beyond the doorway. She placed a hand on her chest and stood there for a moment, breathing. Shane was brushing Sera’s tear-dampened hair behind her ears.

Shane could sense a smile in Mrs. Bellman, even if she didn’t show it. Having heard the shouting, he was about to ask if everything was all right, but he knew the answer. After a moment, she approached him.

“You should go home and get some rest,” she whispered in his ear.

Shane nodded and did his best to slide Sera off of him without waking her. She stirred, but with all of her emotions drained, Shane didn’t think she would wake anytime soon.

The boy stood, looking toward Sera as her mother covered her with a blanket and stepped back. Shane shoved his hands into his pockets and yawned. Mrs. Bellman wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close, her chest shuddering.

Surprised, Shane returned the embrace. “They’re going to find him.”

She regained her composure and pulled away, wiping her eyes. Her breathing steadied, and she forced herself to nod. “I know. You’re a good friend to Sera.”

Though disappointed at the label Mrs. Bellman had given their relationship, Shane gave her a comforting smile and left her in peace.

Hunched over on a bench outside the waiting room, Aeron was being briefed by Sheriff Ballard and a large man Shane didn’t recognize. The man wore a sentry uniform, but it was different. It had stripes on his shoulders, and he held a hat with a flat top.

“We’re holding the perimeter and leaving the spotlights on all night as you said,” the large man said. “Other than that, I’m not sure what else we can do until morning.”

“Flares,” Ballard said. “Send one up every half hour.”

Aeron nodded. “Do it.”

“Warden, those are intended for emergencies,” the man said. “The watch doesn’t have many in supply.”

“Use what you have,” Aeron said. “We’ll make more.”

Shane let the door click closed, and they noticed him.

Aeron sat up. “Hey, Shane.”

“Hey.”

“Rough night.”

“Yeah.”

Aeron noticed Shane’s wary looks at the man he didn’t know.

“This is Ezra Barrow. He’s captain of the Sentry Service.”

Captain Barrow nodded and extended his beefy hand in greeting. “Pleased to meet you, son.”

Shane shook the captain’s hand and was taken aback by the respect the man showed him.

“He and his men are going to find James,” Aeron said.

“Me too,” Ballard said. “I’m going too.”

“Point is we’re going to find him, Shane.”

Shane saw in his uncle’s eyes, heard it in his voice, that this was more a reassurance for himself.

“I know.” Shane nodded and moved past them, then stopped. “Don’t tell my dad I was here. He finds out I left Bernie alone tonight, I’m dead.”

Aeron grinned. “Don’t worry. It’s our secret.”

Shane left them in the infirmary’s quiet gloom, expecting his uncle to come through for the Bellman family but not really sure how he would.

Aeron didn’t know either.

Nine

The streets had cleared, and the Arokson household stood silent against the dark row homes. Shane rocked in a swing across the street from his house, gazing up at the second floor windows. Bernie’s bedroom light was off. She was probably asleep. Their father’s bedroom light was off too.

For a while, Shane listened to the creak of the chains, ticking and groaning in the silent colony. The wind whipped over the grounds, stirring the dry, cold air. The aurora hung like clouds in a snaking pattern, a glowing river in the night sky.

The spotlights still scanned the edge of the wild, casting the top of the wall in a warm glow, but all other search attempts had ceased. Apparently they were content with finding one of the children at least until morning. No one was going out there at night. The wild scared the colonists enough during the day. The truth was, while they claimed a victory, only luck had returned Dani to them, and the people of Vale didn’t have the guts to go looking for James. James was on his own.

He decided the order to stop the search until morning was why Mrs. Bellman and his uncle had been arguing. Shane’s Uncle Aeron had always been a caring, compassionate man. Shane had turned to him before turning to his father, sometimes because he couldn’t turn to his father at all. He’d never seen this side of his uncle. He didn’t understand why someone would ignore the compulsions of their heart. It frustrated him when the people in power did nothing.

Shane sighed and hopped off of the swing. It swayed in the breeze as if some part of him remained. He set off, the gravel in the street crunching underfoot. The row homes were at peace. Although everyone knew one of their own was missing, they took solace in the knowledge that they could do nothing for James. Shane didn’t have that luxury. He felt like he could do something, but he was just a kid.

“Just another night for you all, isn’t it?” Shane said, feeling like it was a scream, but his words died in the wind.

For Sera and her mother, their powerlessness was the source of their grief. For Shane, it was becoming a source of anger. Sera was not physically harmed, but she was hurt nonetheless, and no one seemed to care.

Dwelling on his frustration, he ascended his home’s front steps, fumbling his keys. Before he could unlock the door, it burst open. Shane’s eyes met his father’s broad chest, and he noted the labored rise and fall. The boy didn’t have to look above his father’s sharp neckline to know those eyes were burning. He didn’t have the courage to meet that gaze. He just stood there, dumbly holding the key out in the air.

Lincoln’s strong, calloused hand grabbed a fistful of Shane’s shirt and pulled him into the house. Shane spilled into the hallway and turned to his father with downcast eyes.

Lincoln restrained himself enough to close the door quietly so as not to wake his daughter, who’d come to him in tears when he’d returned home. He leaned against the door for a moment and tried to breathe, to think about what he was going to do with Shane, a problem he’d seethed over since he got home hours ago.

“Do you know what time it is?” he finally said, trying to sound concerned, but he sounded angry, his voice cutting the air. “Where have you been? Half the colony was out looking for two missing kids, and you go and become a third? Bernie didn’t know where you were, and I had no idea what was going on. I almost had to go to Sheriff Ballard and report another missing child.”

“Not my fault,” Shane mumbled.

“What?” Lincoln pushed off from the door. “What did you say?”

Shane shook his head, recoiling. “Nothing. I’m sorry, okay?”

He moved to walk up the stairs, and Lincoln’s hand clamped onto his arm. Shane struggled, and Lincoln squeezed until he was still.

“You can’t just disappear like this. I need you here.”

Shane’s lips quivered, his mouth threatening to erupt.

Lincoln pulled his son down from the steps, taking him with both hands in a stern, powerful hold.

“I need you to be responsible, to look after your sister.”

“Yeah, you need me here because you can’t be.” Shane was hearing himself say these things, but he was no longer at the controls. “You need me here in case you can’t make it home because you’re locked up for drinking and fighting again.”

“Watch your mouth.”

“Why are you taking this out on me? I wasn’t the one in jail.”

Lincoln looked at his son with something like reverence. “My failures can’t be an excuse for you. You have to be better than me, Shane.”

“I am better than you.”

Shane saw the hand reel back and knew it was coming, but he never expected it to connect. The knuckles crashed against his jaw and split his lip. His head rattled, and his cheek bloomed with warmth.

The boy stumbled. Blood trickled down his chin. In defiance, he let it.

Lincoln released his hold on his son, and Shane adjusted his shirt.

His eyes no longer downcast, Shane and his father matched each other’s gaze in the darkness of the hallway for what seemed like an eternity, something in both of them unwilling to let go.

Then Shane turned his back on his father and stepped calmly up the stairs. He went quietly so as not to disturb his sister.

Lincoln didn’t stop him this time.

***

This is only the beginning. The story continues with a character-driven narrative, a fantastic world, engaging mystery, political intrigue, thrilling action, terrifying horror and much more. It releases Dec. 8. Click here to learn how to get your copy.

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