Fated (Talented Saga #8)
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Talia and Erik thought defeating TOXIC was enough.
They were very wrong.
With enemies approaching from every direction, they're fighting for the existence of their species.
Not everyone will survive....
Scroll down to read the entire Prologue, Chapter One & Two of FATED
Warning: The following contains spoilers for earlier books!
“Can’t this heap of metal fly any faster?” Penny Crane demanded.
The hover pilot, Agent Miles DeSanto, shot her a wry smile over his shoulder. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist, girlie, we’re all but breaking the sound barrier. Just ten minutes until we reach the Isle of Exile,” he soothed.
“Bryn Wellington might not have ten minutes, Miles,” Penny snapped.
The hover’s comms unit crackled, signaling an incoming message. Miles pressed a button on the console.
“Traffic control to 4928,” a male voice said through the speaker. “Please confirm your identity 4928.”
“Agent Miles DeSanto, UNITED ID 230,” Miles replied, furrowing his eyebrows. “I have two injured civilians onboard and have already been cleared to land. A medical emergency team should be standing by to meet us, over.”
Anxiety shot through Penny. Victoria Walburton, head of the UNITED Council, had assured them that the staff on the islands would be awaiting their arrival. Why was traffic control asking for confirmation?
“We need to reroute you, 4928,” the speaker replied.
“Why would we reroute?” Miles demanded. “We have two passengers in critical condition, they need immediate medical treatment.”
“That information is classified,” the voice answered shortly. “No aircrafts are cleared to land on any of the islands. Your orders are to proceed to the States. There is an airstrip eleven miles outside of D.C. on the Virginia side. We will have a medical team standing by at that location, over.”
Penny shoved Miles out of the way and pressed the image button on the console to see the man on the other end. A holo of a guy with big brown eyes and closely shaven hair appeared.
“The hell you’re rerouting us,” Penny shouted into the intercom.
The traffic control agent widened his eyes, taken aback by the venom in her voice.
“Agent Crane…,” the man began tentatively, trailing off when something behind him caught his attention.
The internal intercom on the hovercraft screeched. It was followed by the voice of the head medic, Agent Carolyn Rice, who was treating Riley and Bryn in med-bay.
“Wellington is coding, we need to get her on the ground now,” Agent Rice insisted.
“We’re doing our best, Carolyn,” Miles growled.
Both Penny and Miles turned their attention back to the holo screen, but the traffic control agent had disappeared.
“What the hell?”
As Miles spoke the words, the radar screen lit up like a holiday tree. Red and green blips appeared all at once. The dots were moving steadily, all converging on one target. It happened to be the same destination that Miles was trying to reach, The Isle of Exile.
Penny and Miles exchanged nervous glances.
“Traffic Control, this is 4928, come in,” Miles barked into the intercom.
“Miles?” Carolyn called. “What’s happening up there?”
Miles muted the internal intercom and turned to Penny. “Go back there. Tell them not to panic, but I think we might have company. I’ll keep trying to get some answers.”
Penny nodded. “Okay. I’ll get my uncle on the line, too, and make sure his people are prepared for our arrival. Maybe he’ll know what’s going on.”
She hurried through the main passenger cabin and down the stairs to the hover’s med-bay. Agent Rice met Penny on the landing.
“What’s happening?” she demanded.
Sparing a glance toward the teams of medics swarming the two gurneys—one with Bryn Wellington and the other with Riley Wyld—Penny pulled Carolyn to one side by the doctor’s scrub top.
“Look, Miles doesn’t want to cause a panic, but traffic control wants to divert us.” Carolyn began shaking her head adamantly. Penny held up a hand to silence her. “I know. We told them Bryn doesn’t have that much time. They’re still insisting no aircrafts can land.” Penny lowered her voice before continuing. “We’re picking up a lot of activity on the radar. I think….” She hesitated, not wanting to voice the suspicion.
“What? What is it?” the doctor demanded, her voice raising an octave.
“An attack on the Isle is imminent,” Penny whispered. “I think we’re flying right into the danger zone. We might take some fire.”
On cue, the hover tilted sharply to the left. Penny and Carolyn both lurched a step. Medical instruments flew through the air. Without conscious thought, Penny used her telekinesis to freeze the objects before they caused any injuries. Syringes, vials, and bloodied cloths hung in midair, as did several of the medics who’d lost their footing when the hover banked.
“Miles?” Penny never spoke to the other agent mentally, but they’d spent so much time together lately that reaching his mind was a cakewalk.
“Get up here,” he returned, stress evident in his voice.
The hover stabilized, and Agent Rice let out a sigh of relief. Penny didn’t share her sentiments. They were under attack. She didn’t need Miles to tell her as much—she read the truth in his thoughts.
The hover dipped dangerously low. Carolyn screamed, arms flailing as she desperately clawed for a handhold. The gurneys were secured to the walls, and both Bryn and Riley were strapped down. Still, Bryn’s body bucked. Her back arched and head lulled to one side. The machine monitoring her brainwaves flat lined. Penny’s heart dropped.
“I need you now,” Miles roared inside her head. Somehow, he managed to steady the craft again.
Riley moaned and turned his head. He vomited, then passed out.
“Carolyn, I need you to listen to me,” Penny began, her own stomach feeling as though it was on the spin cycle. She swallowed the bile burning her throat. “Get Bryn stable. Now. That’s an order.”
Penny’s words carried physical weight. She didn’t like using mind manipulation on the doctor, but the situation was dire. And Carolyn Rice was on the verge of losing it.
“You will keep Bryn and Riley alive until we reach Virginia.”
Agent Rice nodded, her eyes wide and glassy.
“Girlie, I’m not screwing around,” Miles sent. “I can’t keep dodging shit.”
Penny took a deep breath and used her best “Talia” voice on the doctor. “Bryn and Riley are not dying today.” Without waiting for a response, she sprinted to the cockpit.
“What’s going on?” Penny demanded, sliding into the copilot seat.
On the radar, the dots had multiplied like rabbits in springtime. Penny zoomed in. Over a dozen fighter hovers were directly over the islands, represented by the green dots. The red ones were heat signatures and signified people.
“They’re so many of them.” Penny pointed to the red dots on the radar. Turning to Miles, she added. “And they’re flying sideways and upward.”
“Maybe they’re morphs? You know, like the kid—they change into birds,” he suggested.
Penny shook her head. “Birds wouldn’t show up on this screen, even human morphers. Those are people flying.”
The radar screen began blinking. A warning siren blared through the medi-hover’s internal intercom.
“One of those fighters is coming for us,” Miles yelled, his voice barely audible over the noise.
Penny bit her lip and swore. Carolyn’s voice screeched through a speaker on the dashboard. “This craft isn’t equipped for a fight,” she insisted.
This wasn’t news to anyone. The only weapons they had onboard were the Talented.
“Secure the patients and strap in,” Miles sent back, his gaze straying toward Penny. “We aren’t defenseless, Carolyn. I’ll do my best to get us out of here quickly.”
Muting the intercom, he cut off any response Agent Rice might have made. His eyes were still on Penny, even as the alarm continued. With a deep breath, she nodded in answer to his unasked question. For good measure, she added, “I’m ready. I can do this.”
Miles turned his attention back to the controls. “I know, girlie. Believe me, I’ve seen what you can do.”
On another day, Penny might have blushed at the compliment. She had twelve talents—twelve—and knew how to use most of them. But Penny wasn’t a trained assassin like Talia and Erik, her skillset was more covert. Undercover work? No problem. Fighting to the death? Not so much.
Glancing at the radar screen again, Penny’s insides lurched at the sight of the red dots.
So many people are going to die.
“We’ll die if we try to help them,” Miles told her, fingers fiddling with buttons and knobs until the alarm ceased.
The silence was almost worse for Penny. It left her mind free to wander, to wonder, to contemplate their situation. She understood the consequences of actively joining the battle. In a way, she’d be sacrificing Bryn. Her friend needed more advanced treatment than was available on the medi-hover, and she didn’t have much time.
While Miles was correct that they weren’t defenseless, they also weren’t prepared to go on the offensive. Not only was Penny not a trained fighter, neither were the medics.
“I’m sorry, girlie. It hurts me too,” Miles said softly.
He took his eyes off the windshield for only a second, just long enough to miss the red dot zooming toward them. The attacker landed on the hover’s hood with a loud thump and a flutter of shining silver. Penny jumped in her seat, and Miles fought for control of the craft.
Poised like a sprinter about to start a race, the assailant stared up at them with dark, expressionless eyes.
You can do this, Penny thought. Filling her lungs to capacity, she summoned so much energy that several of the lights on the dash blinked out. Penny directed her power at the attacker. His mouth formed a large O as he flew backward, like an invisible hand had punched him the gut.
The assailant was strong. Penny felt his untamed power, wild as a stud yet to be broken. Large silver wings sprang from between his shoulder blades, keeping the attacker from falling to his death. He hung three feet in front of the craft, a wicked grin on his lips. His dark gaze was blank from behind a shining white face shield. A silver mark curved down one side of his face, stretching across his throat like the head of scythe.
What the hell? Penny wondered, blinking rapidly to make sure she wasn’t imaging things.
The boy raised his palms toward the craft, but Penny was ready for him. Their powers clashed in midair. Gold and black sparks erupted over the hood of the hover. More lights on the dashboard went dark. Screams from med-bay reached Penny’s ears as she unleashed another tidal wave of power. One of the attacker’s wings crackled and went up in flames. He dipped briefly out of view, but his head and torso reappeared quickly.
“Nice hit, girlie,” Miles said through gritted teeth. He struggled to keep the hover level. “Think you can take out the other wing?”
Sweat beaded Penny’s forward and pooled in her armpits. She sucked in another breath, absorbing more of the hover’s electricity. The boy was quicker this time, but his aim wasn’t great. A wave of power hit Penny’s shoulder and pinned half her body to the seat. Instead of fighting his hold, she drank in the energy, replenishing her own supply while depleting his.
Miles did a double take, his eyes growing impossibly wider as he stared at her. Penny looked down at her arms and chest. A soft glow coated her body, growing brighter by the second.
“Penny?” The use of her name from Miles snapped her into action.
Raw power filled the cockpit. Penny felt drunk on her talents as she directed all her energy toward the attacker’s good wing. Her aim was true. Flames from the wing licked the nose of the hover briefly. The assailant disappeared for good but left a parting gift.
The hover’s windshield splintered, spider-web cracks obscuring Miles’ view. He swore loudly. Without thought, Penny’s fingers flew over the controls. A navi-screen appeared over the broken windshield.
Miles blew out a long breath and looked over at Penny. “Nice work. Try not to suck so much out of this bird next time.”
She managed a smile. “I’ll do my best.”
On the radar screen, dozens of fighter hovers dotted their flight path. One broke away from the pack and headed in their direction. Still high on adrenaline and power, Penny gave herself over to her talents. Her mind was focused on one thing: annihilating the threat.
Talia could take down an entire craft. So could Erik. In theory, Penny was capable of the same.
The radar screen flashed with another warning. This time the alarm was only audible in the cockpit and not nearly as deafening as before.
Kinetic bombs, Penny thought as the weapons appeared in the distance.
“They’re locked on us,” Miles said through gritted teeth. Before he could even start diversionary tactics, Penny focused on dispersing the bombs. The weapons exploded into tiny, confetti-like pieces that floated in a spiral formation.
The fighter craft was still close, though. If it rammed the medi-hover, they had no chance of survival. Miles spared a quick glance at Penny, whose face glistened with a mixture of sweat and tears. A slight tremor ran through her body. Then, he felt it. Her power washed over him like clouds parting to allow the sun to shine through.
Penny gasped and started panting. Miles chanced another look, his grip tightening on the controls. Focused, she looked like she was hyperventilating while in a trance.
“Girlie? Talk to me,” he tried. Penny didn’t respond.
As he looked forward again, a nearby explosion rocked the medi-hover. Miles’ head hit the side window. He saw stars from the impact. At least, he thought he did. The bright spots in his vision were truly there, though. The fighter craft was gone.
“They’re all dead,” Penny whispered into the deafening silence. “But I can hear their screams inside my head.” Tears streamed down her face and dropped from her chin. She didn’t wipe them away.
Miles wanted to comfort her but couldn’t find the words. The truth was, Penny had killed everyone aboard the attack hover. No placation would change the fact she’d have to live with that. It was something UNITED agents learned early on—sometimes it was kill or be killed.
But Penny wasn’t trained as a UNITED agent. The coalition had trained her as a spy, not a front-line fighter. She wasn’t practiced in compartmentalizing when it came to casualties.
Finally, Miles simply reached over and patted her shoulder. Penny didn’t look at him. Instead, she gazed out her window at the Isle below. They were far enough away that the attack hovers looked like shining toy models. Except those toys had caused absolute devastation. The islands were fiery masses. More flames rolled on the waves that lapped the shores.
“We’re at war,” Miles said quietly. “Our kind is under attack from all sides. Before this is all over, we will all have to make some very tough decisions. Try to remember that what you did saved a lot of lives.”
Penny turned her face to him, expression blank. Her voice was soft and sad when she gestured to the window.
“I can hear their screams, too. So many of us will die before this ends.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Emma Montague asked me, pointing to Kenly Baker. My former mentee was sitting cross-legged on the floor, pitching back and forth like a rocking chair on overdrive.
“I don’t…,” I started to say. Images flooded my mind, cutting off the answer. Fire. Blood. Billowing clouds of turquoise smoke. People rushed to the surface levels of the Isle of Exile as enormous chrome-winged figures descended from the heavens above.
“Alex!” I screamed to no one in particular.
“Tals? Tals, what’s wrong? Talk to me!” Erik Kelley’s voice broke through the nightmare, his jewel-toned gaze penetrating the hellish slideshow inside my head. He gripped my shoulders and shook me. At first, I was too dazed to respond. Erik shook me hard enough that my teeth rattled.
“Natalia!” he snapped.
“The Isle is under attack.” I fought to see the McDonough’s home in the real world in front of me along with the hazy scenes playing out thousands of miles away.
“You’re sure?” Erik demanded, his gaze widening.
“Noooo,” Kenly moaned from the floor. Her boyfriend, James Wellington sat behind her, Kenly’s back pressed against his chest. He stroked her hair. “No,” she moaned again.
Erik’s eyes became unfocused as his mind joined with Kenly’s. Or maybe it was mine, I wasn’t certain. The color drained from Erik’s tanned skin when he saw the same scene I was witnessing. The flying beasts—people with glider wings attached to their backs, I realized—rained down balls of flame as they landed on the islands. The attackers’ suits were apparently fireproof, because they walked through the burning wreckage and remained unscathed. Even the waves lapping the shores of the island were not immune; twisted flames danced atop the roiling sea, providing no escape for the citizens of the Isle.
Erik managed to pull free from the vision before I did. Calm determination replaced the fear leaking from his pores. “It hasn’t happened yet,” he said softly, eyes sparkling.
“What?” I stuttered. I blinked rapidly, until the McDonough’s house came into view again.
My question went unanswered. Erik was already gone. I caught a flash of movement near the kitchen. “It hasn’t happened yet.” The words played inside my head, and I chased after Erik.
“What does he mean?” Emma called after me, panic in her voice. The faint sound of her feet hurrying behind me barely registered.
“Can she see the future?” her boyfriend, Kip, asked. He sounded as scared as Emma.
With events unfolding quickly, I spared only a second to feel bad for the duo. They were from Pelia, a small island in the middle of an ocean that was untouched by our modern times. This world of war and destruction was as far from their icy sanctuary as night was from day.
You shouldn’t have brought them. They don’t belong here. I shook my head to clear the thoughts. No use torturing yourself over the past. They are here now. It’s up to you to keep them safe.
“Talia?” Kip whispered my name. He and Emma were right behind me when I caught up to Erik.
He’d understood the significance of Kenly’s vision faster than me and was was already punching in a contact on the house communicator.
I turned, my attention torn between Erik and the duo from Pelia. “Hmm? Yes, Kenly is a Visionary.” There was no point in mentioning that future-gazing was one of Kenly’s created abilities and she wasn’t born with the gift.
“Like a seer,” Kip replied. “We have a few on Pelia, but the skill is rare.”
Already tuned out of the conversation, one word registered in my frantic thoughts: rare. Visionaries were rare. So were Teleporters. In fact, Kip was the only one I’d ever met.
“Wait,” I met Kip’s gaze, “you can take me there. To the Isle. You can tele—”
His expression crushed the spark of hope that flitted through me. The trip from London to the McDonough School had exhausted all his energy, I already knew that. It was sort of a miracle he was still upright. My desperation had made me ask the question, my frantic thoughts focused only on keeping Alex McDonough safe. Kip shook his head.
“I’m so sorry, Talia…I can’t. I don’t have it in me to make another trip so soon,” he told me, looking genuinely distraught.
Erik spared a glance in my direction, terror in his turquoise gaze. I turned my full attention to the communicator in his hands. Mr. Kelley’s holo image appeared. Alex, I thought. The tiniest bit of relief mixed with my utter panic, and my stomach did flip flops. I’d never felt so helpless.
Kip opened his mouth, but I held up a hand to halt the words. I wasn’t mad or even upset with him—there was no room for those emotions, not with the panic and worry coursing through my veins. Aware of the way talents and energy worked, I knew it wasn’t Kips fault that didn’t have any steam left. None of that mattered. All that mattered was getting Alex off that damned island before the attack.
“You need to evacuate!” Erik shouted at his father’s hologram.
Mr. Kelley stared at his son, mouth agape. He began to sputter a response, but Erik didn’t let him get a word out.
“There isn’t time to explain,” Erik continued, his voice calmer and more commanding. “I’m with a Visionary.”
That was all Mr. Kelley needed to know. His holo image began moving frantically around the apartment on the Isle of Exile, throwing clothes into a bag haphazardly. Darting into the kitchen, Mr. Kelley picked up a second communicator. His fingers flew across the screen. An instant later, loud blaring sounded in the apartment, followed by Victoria Walburton’s prerecorded voice.
“This is not a drill,” she recited. “Activate Evacuation Protocol Alpha. I repeat, this is not a drill. Activate Evacuation Protocol Alpha.”
My gut cramped, the sound of her voice nearly reducing me to tears. Victoria is dead, I thought numbly. Who else will I lose before this is over?
Over the alarm, Mr. Kelley yelled back to his son. “Where should we go?”
Victoria’s voice played on a loop, as though speaking to me from the great beyond. As annoying as the alarm was, I liked hearing Victoria’s clipped British accent.
She always knew an attack on the islands was likely, I realized. Of course she had. Victoria was the type of woman who prepared for every possibility.
“Where it all began,” Erik screamed to his father. The answer was purposefully cryptic for anyone who might intercept the comm.
Mr. Kelley paused just long enough to meet Erik’s eyes. “I’ll see you soon, son.” Then, Erik’s father disconnected. All I could do was hope the warning would provide the residents of the Isle enough time to evacuate, that it would allow Mr. Kelley enough time to get Alex to safety.
Erik turned to me as he dialed another contact on the communicator without looking at the screen.
“He’s going to be fine,” my boyfriend mentally sent to me. “They will make it off the island.”
A shaky breath slipped through my clenched teeth. Alex. Donavon’s son. The child I’d vowed to protect at all costs. Though I wanted everyone on the islands to escape, Alex’s safety was my primary concern. The fact that Erik chose to call his father, Alex’s current guardian, first made me love him all the more—if that was even possible.
Frederick Kraft’s holo image appeared on the comm. Tearing his gaze from mine, Erik spoke in that same calm, authoritative tone he’d used with his father—the one that made compliance certain. “Frederick, I need you to listen to me….”
I didn’t hear what he said next. Without warning, the McDonough’s kitchen disappeared, replaced with the Isle of Exile as I was once again pulled into Kenly’s vision. This time, instead of being an omniscient observer, I was standing on the beach. It was like I was truly there. One of the winged women landed on top of me. I shrieked and punched instinctively, my fist going straight through her. My form was not corporeal, it merely felt that way.
I didn’t fight Kenly’s pull. Her emotions were out of control, and she was projecting her thoughts so loudly that it was hard to resist. Instead of struggling to return to Erik and our present surroundings, I embraced the vision.
Glancing skyward, I watched a second wave of assailants leap from hovercrafts. A third followed closely behind. Seeing the weapons in their hands, I acted on instinct and tried to yank a small blue sphere from an attacker’s grip. Pain split my skull, as though halving my brain. The small bomb flew to where I stood on the beach, invisible to everyone around me.
What the actual fudge? This wasn’t happening in current time, not to mention that I wasn’t physically there. How was it possible?
Shock made the vision fade. For a second, I was caught between the present and the future, in a no-man’s land where possibilities swirled like ghosts of events yet to happen.
The island materialized once again, and the pain in my head subsided. Another wave of attackers rained destruction on Eden, the island I’d once called home. Unlike Kenly’s original vision of residents dying as they scrambled for safety, few citizens were on the island’s surface level. Instead, UNITED agents dressed in tactical gear met the winged assailants. Janelle Longpre, a friend of sorts, was leading a group through the melee toward a waiting submersible pod. An agent I didn’t recognize brought up the rear, sending off strong electrical impulses that caused the bombs to explode in midair. When a boy who couldn’t have been more than fifteen grabbed the Electrical Manipulator’s arm, the UNITED agent gave him a jolt the kid wouldn’t soon recover from.
Janelle and her companion stood guard while the group boarded the watercraft, spraying cover fire at enemy combatants who dared approach. When the last man hopped into the pod, Janelle turned to signal their departure. It was a crucial mistake. In those few seconds, a shining flier appeared out of thin air. It landed on her shoulders, the attacker’s hands closed around Janelle’s neck. Again, I didn’t think before acting.
The rush of pain brought me to my knees, this time reverberating through my entire body. It was like being shot but worse. So much worse.
This isn’t real, I told myself. At least, not for me. It would be very real for Janelle. The vision was her future if I didn’t intervene. Fighting against the feeling of being ripped in two, I used telekinesis to wrench the hands away from her neck. The sickening crack of bone met my ears. The attacker wasn’t the only one who howled.
Her name echoed inside my skull. Grabbing my head with both hands, I sank to the floor and curled into myself. As swiftly as I’d been pulled into the vision, I was booted from it. Familiar fingers wrapped around mine, gently prying my hands from the sides of my head.
“Talia?” Erik’s voice was small and tight.
I couldn’t answer.
“Natalia?” He said my full name when I didn’t respond.
Slowly, the pain eased until I felt whole again. I opened my eyes and met Erik’s beautiful gaze.
“I’m here,” I said weakly.
Relief wafted from him like a pleasant ocean breeze. Erik took my hands, hauling me to my feet with ease. I was still shaky but didn’t need his support to stand, which seemed to be a good sign. He must have agreed, because Erik smiled faintly. Unfortunately, the mood didn’t last long.
“Talia! Erik!” James screamed our names from the living room.
Erik beat me there, my unsteady legs incapable of running. Emma and Kip followed at a much slower pace. Their emotions—mostly terror and confusion—radiated all around the pair.
The sight of Kenly slumped over James’ lap, her eyes rolled back in her head, nearly brought me to my knees again.
“Kenly,” I breathed, joining Erik by her side.
Pressing two fingers to her throat, James felt for a pulse. Tears streamed down his cheeks. His body convulsed, and I knew.
“No!” I screamed so loudly the single word echoed through the entire house.
This can’t be happening. She can’t be—no, no, not Kenly.
My heart turned to molten lava at the thought, searing in my chest until I couldn’t take the pain. I couldn’t lose Kenly. I’d just lost Victoria. It couldn’t happen. My mental shields dropped completely as I focused all my energy on Kenly’s mind. My skin tingled. The signal from my mentee was weak but present.
I must have gasped audibly, because every eye in the room turned to me. Even Emma, who was sobbing in Kip’s arms, looked up.
“I feel her,” I said, softly. “I feel her.”
Like me, Erik was impulsive. For both of us, it was a curse and a blessing at the same time. In our lives, we had to rely on instincts and act without thought to consequences.
That was exactly what Erik did.
He placed a hand on Kenly’s chest. Pure adrenaline shot through him and into Kenly, followed by a shockwave that knocked out all the lights in the living room. The power Erik exuded was both terrifying and exhilarating.
At first, nothing happened. I was about to insist Erik administer another jolt to Kenly’s system. The words were on the tip of my tongue, and I felt him gathering more energy. Kenly shot up, her back stiff as she flew upright.
James was leaning over her, and her forehead collided with his. The loud cracking sound made me worry that one or both might have a fractured skull. My mentee gasped, as though the air she breathed wasn’t reaching her lungs. Her eyes were wild, unfocused. The power Kenly emitted was erratic. Random parts of her body turned invisible for several seconds before reappearing.
She’s in fight-or-flight mode, I realized. Nudging Erik aside with my hip, I scurried closer to Kenly.
Contact wasn’t necessary, but I hoped my physical touch would soothe her just as much as the calm energy I was sending. James’ platinum eyes were still swimming with tears, but the look of utter despair was gone from his face. He stroked Kenly’s hair. His arms were ropes of tension, like he wanted to squeeze her but was scared to unleash the torrent of emotions on his recovering girlfriend.
“Thank you,” James whispered. The words were meant for Erik, though his gaze never left Kenly.
My mentee still hadn’t spoken since sitting up. Her mind was a vacant lot, though faint rumblings were beginning within it. I worried the vision had done permanent damage to her psyche.
Don’t borrow trouble, I told myself. Focus on the present. Worry about that if it comes to pass.
We had enough on our plates with what was certain about the future, I didn’t need to worry about all the unknowns. Only the promise of war was known—the first shot was about to be fired.
Locking away images of Victoria’s limp body—that wasn’t how I wanted to remember her, anyway—and thoughts of Alex’s safety and the battle on the islands that was the beginning of many more to come, I called upon all my training and focused on the problem in front of me: Kenly. Kenly needed my help, my attention. I owed her that much.
“Let’s take her to my room,” I suggested, then turned to Emma and Kip. “Can you….” I trailed off at the sight of Emma, who was still a pile of crying girl in Kip’s arms. Did she get pulled into Kenly’s vision, too?
Shaking my head, I turned to my boyfriend. “Erik, will you get Kenly some water? And see if you can find anything edible? She needs calories.”
Straightening to his full height, Erik looked down at the girl he’d once nearly killed. With a quick nod to me, he strode toward the kitchen.
James lifted his girlfriend as though she were weightless. I led him to my bedroom, trying to not think about the box of pictures in the closet. All the death, and near-death, of the last hour had brought Donavon to the front of my mind.
I shook my head again, willing the thoughts to disperse. This wasn’t the time. Donavon was gone, and there was nothing I could do to change that. Thoughts of my ex-boyfriend had to be relegated to the same locked chest as those of his son, among the other things I currently couldn’t do anything about.
“I’m going to stay with her,” James said, his British accent stronger than normal.
“Of course.” I smiled reassuringly and placed my hand on his shoulder. “She’s going to be okay.”
It was a promise I shouldn’t have made. This time, Kenly was okay. Thanks to Erik’s quick thinking. But next time…and there would be a next time….
How many more of my friends will die before this war ends? I wondered again.
Erik entered the bedroom. He set a glass of water and a granola bar beside the bed. “Sorry, it’s all I could find,” he said with a shrug.
“Thank you,” James replied softly. The two words carried physical weight and had nothing to do with the snack Erik brought.
“If you need anything—“ I started to say.
“I’ll let you know.” James didn’t look at me as he stretched out beside Kenly on the bed.
Erik slipped his hand in mine and pulled me gently to the doorway. Together, we returned to the living room and our other guests.
“You guys should rest, too,” I told Emma and Kip.
Emma’s sobbing had tapered to quiet crying, tears slipping silently down her cheeks in two perfect lines.
Kip nodded, agreeing with me. “If you don’t mind. With some sleep, I’ll be able to recharge. In case…in case you need me.”
His projected emotions swept over me. The guilt over not being able to take me to Alex still gnawed at his gut like a puppy with its favorite toy.
I managed a smile and started down the hallway, gesturing for the pair to follow me.
“You guys can use Donavon’s room.”
Just saying his name aloud, inside the house we’d both called home, was enough to crack my calm façade. Entering Donavon’s bedroom nearly paralyzed me. My lungs felt like they were encased in a straightjacket. For a long minute, standing in my ex-boyfriend’s doorway, I couldn’t breathe.
Donavon is gone. There is nothing you can do for him. Focus on Alex. He’s still alive, and he needs you.
“They’re on their way,” Erik sent, reading the worries floating through my head. “Alex is on a hover with my father. Frederick and Henri are gathering the UNITED agents still in London to fight the attackers.”
His assurances lessened the guilt chewing at my insides. I was supposed to protect Alex—I’d made that promise to Donavon and Kandice—and I was sucking hard in my new role as guardian.
Then another realization hit me, bringing with it a fresh wave of guilt. Erik was reading my thoughts. He knew my heart was aching over Donavon, that the tears I refused to cry were for another guy.
Not only am I a crappy guardian, I’m crappy girlfriend.
My mental barriers fell in place as Erik reached for me, his expression and his mind unreadable. His arm curled around my shoulders like warm scarf staving off the cold. I leaned into his embrace and felt a little more in control.
“Talia?” Kip’s voice brought me from my thoughts.
“I hate to ask, but I really need to eat something.”
Kip’s expression was heartbreaking. It was as though he, like Erik, knew I was nearing a breaking point. “Anything you have is good. I’m not a picky eater.”
I nodded and forced a smile. “I’ll take care of it.”
Erik and I left in search of sustenance, neither of us speaking until we reached the kitchen. I went straight for the pantry, finding only fuzzy bread and shriveled, greenish fruit that might have been oranges once upon a time.
Strong hands settled on my shoulders. Lips brushed my ear.
“I’m here for you,” Erik whispered, hands moving down my arms to thread his fingers with mine. He wrapped me in his comforting embrace and dropped his mental shields.
“It’s okay to be upset,” he told me.
Was he talking about Donavon or Victoria or Kenly? Or was it a more general sentiment? I didn’t know, so I left my own shields in place. Opening only a narrow channel—a trick I’d learned while in prison on Vault—I allowed a thought out while keeping the rest hidden from Erik.
“So much has happened,” I sent finally.
“I know.” Erik bent and rested his head on my shoulder. “Victoria had her faults, but she was a good woman. I miss her, too.” Without looking, I knew his eyes were wet.
We’d both lost someone important to us, someone who had shaped our lives in more ways than I could count. But it wasn’t just the loss of life that cut to my core. Without Victoria, who would run UNITED? Who would deal with these so-called Privileged?
Turning around to face him, I locked eyes with Erik. As much as I wanted, needed, time to mourn my losses, there was still something that needed our attention. Someone.
“Gracia,” I sent.
“Gracia,” Erik repeated aloud.
The McDonough house was one sprawling level with a typical kitchen, living area, and dining room. There were also four not-so-typical bedroom suites. With seven people including our prisoner, space was tight. Options for a makeshift cell were limited, but the paranoia of Danbury McDonough and his wife helped with that—the master bedroom suite only opened with a blood lock. Luckily, it hadn’t been reprogrammed after Tals switched her allegiance away from TOXIC and the McDonoughs.Talia slid her right forefinger into an opening beneath the lock-screen, wincing when the needle pricked her skin. My girlfriend’s mental barriers were still in place, but emotions weren’t as easy to shield as thoughts. Tals’ were all over the place.
“Maybe I should talk to Gracia alone?”
I suggested as the security system verified Talia’s identity and the door slid open. She stepped into the suite’s sitting room, waiting for me to follow. When the door snapped shut, she rounded rounding on me.
“I’m fine. I can do this,” Tals snapped.
Anger darkened her eyes to the color of an overripe eggplant. Sliding my expression into neutral, I was careful to keep my tone as impassive as my features.
“I know you can,” I replied simply.
“But just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should.”
Tals’ temper flared, and the feelings radiated from her like a scorching sun. It burned white-hot for several seconds before diminishing to a more manageable simmer. Tears gathered in her eyes, though she blinked them back quickly. My brain searched for the right thing to say. I wanted to comfort her, to take away some of the pain that refused to stay down no matter how hard she tried. Instead, I
refrained. Tals didn’t appreciate empty platitudes, and that was all I had to offer at the moment. Victoria Walburton was the latest casualty of our war, and I knew it had struck deeply within my girlfriend. Unfortunately, Victoria wouldn’t be the last friend we lost.
Closing her eyes and rubbing her temples, Tals breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth several times. The temperature in the room dropped noticeably as she fought to control her stormy emotions. I felt the raw heartache inside her scab over.
When she reopened her eyes, Tals mind and expression were blank. This steely-nerved version of my girlfriend was the scariest, almost more mechanical than human.
“Ready?” she asked, already walking to the bathroom door.
Without warning, her steps faltered. Talia pitched to the side. She groped at the empty air as though searching for something to steady herself. My heart plummeted, and I covered the steps between us in an instant.
“Tals!” I cried, wrapping an arm around her waist to keep her upright. She dropped her head against my chest like the weight of it had become unbearable.
“It’s starting,” she whispered. “The attack is starting.”
I squeezed Tals tightly—her ribs too sharp beneath the baggy pullover from her old closet—and glared at the bathroom door. Gracia was locked on the other side. If the clone girl had answers, I’d rip them from inside her. I’d do whatever it took to find out, to spare my girlfriend from future loss and heartbreak. Tals shrugged out of my embrace and scrubbed at her face with her hands.
“Come on. Let’s get this over with,” she muttered.
The bathroom lock also required a blood sacrifice, which seemed like overkill in a house located on a secure military base. “Verified” flashed on the sensor, and the door opened with a soft click. Bright lights powered on automatically inside the bathroom,
and I met violet eyes that were identical to the ones I dreamt about every night. There was nothing of Talia—of my Tals—in those eyes, though.
Gracia Beaumont lay at an awkward angle in the oversized white porcelain bathtub. Her wrists and ankles were bound, and one of the former director’s power ties was wedged in her mouth. The gag was purely for my benefit; there weren’t any neighboring
houses and the school had been closed since UNITED defeated TOXIC. With one shitty thing happening after another, and more shitty things on the horizon, I had no interest in listening to Gracia whine and complain. Despite my best efforts, I could only focus on one shitty thing at a time.
With a quick flick of my mind, I yanked the tape off and wrenched the gag free. Gracia howled as tears pooled in her eyes. She tried to wipe them away with her shoulder but only managed to knock her forehead on the side of the tub. Crimson flushed the clone’s cheeks.
“Did you know the Isle of Exile was going to be attacked?” Talia demanded.
She took slow steps toward Gracia, stopping at the foot of the tub. Hands on her hips, Tals straightened to her full five-foot height.
“You don’t scare me,” Gracia sneered. Admittedly, it was a decent imitation of Tals’ don’t-screw-with-me expression.
“Are the Privileged responsible for the attack?” I pressed. Folding my arms over my chest, I levelled a hard glare on Gracia. She didn’t reply, and I repeated the question with emphasis on each word.
From a distance, Gracia was a dead ringer for Tals. Even up close, it would have been difficult for most people to tell the two apart. The doctor who’d programmed the parameters for Gracia’s facial reorg did their homework—from the slightly upturned tip
of Tals’ nose to the cluster of freckles over the dent in her chin, even the smallest details were included.
“Agent Kelley asked you a question,” Talia barked.
“Agent Kelley?” Gracia repeated with a snort. Her laughter sounded forced and unnatural.
The clone’s smug smile was one I’d seen more times than I could count. It was freaky to imagine Gracia studying photos and vids to learn the mannerisms, but she’d obviously practiced my girlfriend’s expressions and gestures. Still, there was something hollow about the impression. Despite the uncanny valley of physical resemblance, the clone was simply…lesser.
It was obvious that Gracia hadn’t been nearly as committed to honing and strengthening her talents. Tals’ demeanor wouldn’t have been so impossible to emulate if she had; Talia’s powers backed up her swagger in a way that Gracia could never match. Shooting a glance at Talia, her back rigid and hands clenched tightly, I knew I’dalways recognize the difference between an impersonation and the real thing.
Turning back to the cheap imitation, I glared.
“Yes, Agent Kelley. Is my name funny to you?”
The girl in the bathtub rolled her eyes. Okay, Gracia had mastered Talia’s flippant attitude. Even tied up, she managed a toss of her chestnut curls.
“What’s funny is that you two believe you’re in control here,” Gracia spat.
“What’s funny is that you both think you’re something special.”
Struggling to sit up, the clone cracked her elbow on the side of the tub. The fire in her eyes lessened as she bit back a groan. Tals snorted.
“That was funny.”
Gracia’s nostrils flared. Her lips twitched, like her thoughts were on the tip of her tongue. The clone decided against giving voice to them. Her features smoothed as she tried to hide her reaction behind a blank mask. Like that would work with two mind
manipulators around. Only exceptional talents could block either of us when we wanted to know what was happening in someone’s head, and Gracia didn’t have either. With little effort, I homed in on the clone’s emotional radar.
When we’d first arrived at the McDonough house, Gracia had been consumed with fear and little else. We’d just seen our friend’s dead body, Gracia worked for the enemy, and we were looking for revenge. Only an illiterate, agoraphobic luddite had the luxury
of believing they’d survive that encounter with Tals and me.
Yet, unless Gracia was a better manipulator than I gave her credit for, humiliation had trumped fear at some point. With a heavy dose of shame on the side. It was unnerving. Talia and I locked eyes. She’d clearly been wondering the same thing.
“Is she seriously not scared right now?” Tals sent uncertainly. “Shouldn’t she be a little more worried about getting out of this alive?”
“Maybe she’s projecting,” I replied. “Trying to throw us off.”
“Are the Privileged behind the attack on the Isle of Exile?” I said aloud.
It was the third time I’d repeated the question, so my irritation wasn’t fake this time. My father was already on a hover from the islands to the school with Alex, and it wasn’t a long flight. We didn’t have time for Gracia’s bullshit. I wasn’t in the mood for pithy
spars and just wanted the interrogation over with; Gracia had to be somewhere far away when the hover arrived. And secure, somewhere she couldn’t hurt anyone or impersonate my girlfriend while doing heinous things. Having her in the same house as
so many of our friends was already making me edgy.
“Did the Privileged attack the Isle?”
Talia added a sprinkle of compulsion behind the question to speed things along. Since Gracia had been asked several times already, her mind was primed for the manipulation. The answer fluttered to the surface before Gracia could contain it, a single word mixed in with nasty names she longed to lob my way. Yes.
“No surprise there,” Tals sent to me, never averting her gaze from Gracia.
“I have nothing to say,” the doppelganger insisted, her voice tremoring the slightest bit. Seizing the minute crack, I focused on Gracia. The stretches of silence between Talia and me unnerved her. More than she would admit, even to herself.
Our mental manipulation powers were common knowledge among clandestine organizations, so it was safe to assume Gracia knew what was happening when we fell silent. Whenever we stopped speaking to her, we were speaking to one another mentally. And she didn’t like it. I wasn’t sure how much she knew about Talia and me—my clone had known intimate details of our relationship and possessed a mental album with images that I’d previously believed only lived in my mind. The quiet stretched, until Cressa began to visibly squirm.
“You don’t have to say anything,” I intoned, smirking. Gracia’s cold smile was a pale shadow of the one Talia often wore.
“My mind is like hers,” the clone said, nodding to my girlfriend. “You can’t get in if I don’t want you there.”
Crossing my arms, I leaned against the sink and waited to see how deep she’d dig her smug little grave. Her violet gaze fixed on me, and satisfaction wafted from Gracia like cheap perfume.
“Like you haven’t you noticed you can’t get in?” the clone added, doing her best to point to her head with bound hands.
“She doesn’t know you already were,” Tals sent, tilting her chin to one side. I shook my head once. “I was just reading her thoughts, not digging through them.”
“I usually know when people are reading my thoughts,” she countered, her eyes searching mine. One of Talia’s dark eyebrows raised. “Don’t you feel it when you’re mimicking my powers? Or, I guess whenever, since you have your own mind powers
Talia didn’t make a secret of it when she was reading my thoughts, so I had to stop and consider the question. Was there a feeling I hadn’t noticed? I almost always knew when Talia was reading my thoughts. Boundaries weren’t really a thing when mind-reading was as ingrained in a person as breathing. She often peeked at people’s thoughts without meaning to, which I’d only fully understood after my own telepathic capabilities developed. Would I know if a random mind reader was in the area scanning my thoughts? I wondered.
“She knows we’re trying to read her mind,” Tals continued, connecting the dots for me. “She said as much. Gracia has my powers and at least some of my personality traits. She knows it’s the first thing I’d do.”
“So, she’s on high alert for mental intrusions…,” I added.
“Exactly. So why can’t she feel you inside her head?”
It was a good question, and I didn’t have an answer. We’d agreed not to invade Gracia’s mind immediately, not until we had a better sense of who she was and where she came from. After all, it was the first thing the enemy would expect us to do. An exact physical replica of Talia could not have any good purpose.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Why does Gracia believe she’s capable of blocking the strongest natural-born Mind Manipulator in decades? Why does she believe every word she says, yet her actions demonstrate a lack of self-confidence?”
“I don’t know…I hadn’t thought about it, but that is really weird,” Tals agreed as I studied Gracia through a different lens.
“I’ve been trained to withstand torture,” Gracia offered. The lie was merely to break the silence, which was raising her blood pressure with each passing second. I cocked an eyebrow but said nothing.
“Someone’s altered her mind I think,” Tals sent.
“What do you mean ‘altered’?” I replied.
Indignation floated from the bathtub like smoke from a cauldron, and Gracia’s thoughts projected loudly.
“My name is Natalia Lyons. My parents were Katerina and Francis Lyons. My parents were traitors. My parents were executed. My name is Natalia Lyons….”
I covered the distance between Tals and me in three long strides. Though I started to put my arms around her, I decided against it. Instead, I settled for resting my hand on her shoulder. Posture rigid, Tals relaxed slightly under my touch.
“My name is Natalia Lyons. I went to the McDonough School for the Talented. I am a Mind Manipulator with telekinetic capabilities. My name is Natalia Lyons….”
Tals was so still, I worried she might crumble if I squeezed her. Hearing her parents’ names spoken in the mind of a doppelganger was freaky as hell for me. It had to be exponentially worse for my girlfriend. Tentatively, I reached for her mind. What really bothered Talia was the spin on the Lyons’ deaths—Katerina and Francis Lyons had not been traitors, nor had they been “executed.”
TOXIC had murdered Tals’ parents.
Why is Tals’ clone programmed with alternative history? I wondered. For whose benefit?
Gracia didn’t have any natural talents, at least not that I could feel. Without those, the clone was likely an expendable cog in the overall machine of the Privileged. So why had someone uploaded lies to Gracia’s mind?
“What are the Privileged?” Tals asked. Her expressionless tone should’ve made the sweat on Gracia’s forehead freeze, but the girl was preoccupied with the thought loop in her head and barely seemed to notice.
My name is Natalia Lyons. I was a Hunter for TOXIC. I betrayed my adoptive family.
I know it was a mistake. My name is Natalia Lyons….
“Who are the Privileged?” Tals repeated, narrowing her gaze while keeping her tone
My name is Natalia Lyons. My parents were traitors. My name is Natalia Lyons….
“Who is in charge of the Privileged?” Tals tried.
My name is Natalia Lyons. My name is Natalia Lyons. The Dame is…. Gracia’s train of thought stopped abruptly.
“The Dame?” I sent to Tals. “Mean anything to you?”
She didn’t respond right away, but a name popped inside my head: Gretchen. Deep down, Tals and I had both suspected Danbury’s wife might be involved since learning of the Privileged. It was the only answer that made sense. Nightshade’s client wasn’t a new player; the game they were playing was too advanced. The puppet master had to be an old player with a score to settle.
Gracia’s awkward yet triumphant laughter drew my attention back to her. “People worship you because your powers are supposedly so incredible,” the girl said with loud, forced mirth. “And yet, you can’t even read my thoughts. You two are frauds.” Gracia’s violet eyes fixed on Talia. For the first time, I felt a trickle of my girlfriend in the doppelganger.
“The Dame promised me that I would be you, only better,” Gracia continued. “I’ll admit, I had my doubts at first. With all I’ve read on transference, the best result one can hope for is that the recipient is as strong as her source. But it seems I am the exception
to the rule. I am stronger than you.” She concluded the villainous speech with a challenging look, as if daring us to prove her wrong.
I stepped in front of my girlfriend and angled my body so that Gracia didn’t have a clear view of her. Some of the smugness disappeared when Gracia’s gaze transferred to me, replaced by a softer expression that made my stomach queasy. Gracia had Talia’s memories, or a good number of them. When she looked at me, some of those memories flashed in her mind. I felt Tals stiffen behind me. The air around us stirred.
“Easy, Tals. She’s doing this on purpose,” I sent.
“I know,” she snapped back. “That’s the problem, she’s just doing it to piss me off. If she couldn’t help her feelings for you, I might actually feel bad for her.”
Honestly, I was pretty sure Gracia really couldn’t help her feelings. I did sort of feel badly for her. To an extent. Not because she’d been programmed to love a guy she would never have, but because her only value to the Dame was her appearance. Once the Dame no longer needed a Talia lookalike, Gracia would no longer have a purpose.
“Who’s the Dame?” I asked. Enunciating each word, I laced the question with a hint of influence.
The interrogation wasn’t moving along as quickly as I’d hoped, and I no longer cared as much about gauging Gracia’s abilities and treading carefully. I wanted this over with. I wanted to lock her away where I’d never have to look at Tal’s doppelganger again. Gracia’s smile was meant to be coy, as though she had a secret. Like every other facial expression, she just couldn’t quite pull off Tals’ haughtiness.
“The Dame is the leader of the Privileged,” she said softly. “She is a brilliant woman with an inspired vision of the future.” The words came forth quickly, like she’d repeated them multiple times.
“An inspired vision of the future? That’s not how I’d put it,” I sent to my girlfriend.
“Me neither. But I’m sure those unstable enough—or brainwashed enough—to follow her think so,” Tals replied. “Remember what Mac did to the TOXIC soldiers? To Kenly? How he brainwashed them into following him?”
Of course, I remembered. It was the reason Kenly had attacked Talia. Why I’d nearly killed Kenly. I also remembered how Mac had injected trackers in his TOXIC operatives. The thought made my stomach drop with a leaden realization. What if Gracia’s handlers already knew where she was? How long before they showed up? We needed to finish the interrogation and ship Gracia far from the McDonough School.
“The Dame studied you, studied all of the Talented,” the clone continued. “She learned your weaknesses and decided where improvements could be made. She chose the perfect candidates for the future generation. We are stronger than Talented. We are more powerful than Talented. We are better than Talented.”
“Brainwashed,” I agreed with Tals. “Definitely brainwashed.”
Unfortunately, there was truth in Gracia’s words. I felt it. If I were a megalomaniac, I would’ve done the same thing—to convince all my minions of their superiority. Every natural-born Talent had weaknesses, if only that many of us relied on our abilities and couldn’t do much without them. If I made a drug that gave people abilities, I would definitely tweak the formula to account for those weaknesses.
Gracia’s smirk grew impossible larger. “I could break these restraints and kill you before you even say her name.”
Violet eyes flicked over my shoulder to where Talia stood as the doppelganger rattled the cuffs around her wrists. My insides twisted in anger, but my face remained passive.
“Do it,” Tals said coldly, the challenge plain in her voice.
“Easy,” I warned. “She’s finally talking.”
Talia had never been a fan of the conversational approach; I knew she wanted to pound the answers out of Gracia and be done with it. Answers given under duress were notoriously unreliable though, and we both knew it. Only that fact had stopped her from
pushing forward with forced answers, but my girlfriend was running out of patience with Gracia’s bullshit.
As if demonstrating my point, Tals made a guttural noise that sounded like a growl. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of bared teeth.
Gracia tried to hide the strain it took, but breaking the cuffs required ore telekinetic energy than she’d anticipated. Almost more power than she possessed. Talia took advantage of the weakness.
Tals sliced through the bonds with one quick thought. When they broke, Gracia’s shoulders sprang apart and she toppled forward, hitting her forehead on the side of the tub before she could catch herself. Next, Tals broke apart the shackles on Gracia’s ankles. Shit. It was a no-holds-barred challenge.
“Come on, Gracia,” Talia taunted. “If you’re such a badass, let’s see it.”