Heart of Dread, Book One
“As fearless as a futuristic Game of Thrones.”— MARGARET STOHL, New York Times bestselling co-author of the Beautiful Creatures trilogy
From New York Times bestselling author Melissa de la Cruz and Michael Johnston comes this remarkable first book in a spellbinding new series about the dawn of a new kind of magic.
Welcome to New Vegas, a city once covered in bling, now blanketed in ice. Like much of the destroyed planet, the place knows only one temperature—freezing. But some things never change. The diamond in the ice desert is still a 24-hour hedonistic playground and nothing keeps the crowds away from the casino floors, never mind the rumors about sinister sorcery in its shadows.
At the heart of this city is Natasha Kestal, a young blackjack dealer looking for a way out. Like many, she's heard of a mythical land simply called “the Blue.” They say it’s a paradise, where the sun still shines and the waters are turquoise. More importantly, it’s a place where Nat won’t be persecuted, even if her darkest secret comes to light.
But passage to the Blue is treacherous, if not impossible, and her only shot is to bet on a ragtag crew of mercenaries led by a cocky runner named Ryan Wesson there. Danger and deceit await on every corner, even as Nat and Wes find themselves inexorably drawn to each other. But can true love survive the lies? Fiery hearts collide in this fantastic tale of the evil men do and the awesome power within us all.
Some say the world will end in fire,
It’s time to begin.
THE VOICE OF THE MONSTER
They were coming for her. She could hear their heavy footsteps echoing in the concrete hallway. In a way, the sound was a relief. For days upon days she had been left in the room, alone, in total silence, with little food and water, the weight of solitude becoming ever more oppressive, the silence a heaviness that she could not shake, punishment for refusing to do as she was told, punishment for being what she was.
She had forgotten how many days, how many months, she had been left here, alone with only her thoughts for company.
But not quite alone.
I warned you about waiting, rumbled the voice in her head. The voice that she heard in her dreams, whose words echoed like thunder, thunder and ash, smoke and flame. When it spoke, she saw a beast through the inferno, carrying her aloft on black wings through dark skies as it rained fire upon its enemies. The fire that raged within her. The fire that destroyed and consumed. The fire that would destroy and consume her if she let it.
Her destiny. A destiny of rage and ruin.
Fire and pain.
The voice in her head was the reason her eyes were not brown or gray. Her clear tiger eyes—hazel-green with golden pupils—told the world she carried a mark on her skin, one that she kept hidden, one that was shaped like a flame and hurt like a burn, right above her heart. The reason she was imprisoned, the reason they wanted her to do as she was told.
The girl did not want to be different. She did not want to be marked. She did not want to be what the voice said she was. What the commander and the doctors believed she was. A freak. A monster.
Let me go—she had implored the first time she had been brought to this place—I’m not what you think I am. She had insisted they were wrong about her from the beginning of her captivity.
What is your talent? they had demanded. Show us.
I have none, she had told them. I have no ability. I can do nothing. Let me go. You’re wrong. Let me go.
She never told them about the voice in her head.
But they found ways to use her anyway.
Now they were coming, their heavy footsteps plodding against the stone. They would make her do what they wanted, and she would not be able to refuse. It was always this way. She resisted at first, they punished her for it, and finally she gave in.
Unless . . .
Unless she listened to the voice.
When it spoke to her, it always said the same thing: I have been searching for you, but now it is you who must find me. The time has come for us to be one. The map has been found. Leave this place. Journey to the Blue.
Like others she had heard the legends of a secret doorway in the middle of the ruined Pacific that led to a place where the air was warm and the water was turquoise. But the way was impossible—the dark oceans treacherous, and many had perished attempting to find it.
But perhaps there was hope. Perhaps she would find a way to do what it sought.
In New Vegas.
Outside her window, far away, she could see the glittering lights of the city shining through the gray. Before the ice, night skies were supposedly black and infinite, dotted with stars that shone as sharp as diamonds against velvet. Looking up into that dark expanse you could imagine traveling to distant lands, experiencing the vastness of the universe, and understanding your own small part in it. But now the sky was glassy and opaque at night, a reflection of the bright white snow that covered the ground and swirled in the atmosphere. Even the brightest of stars appeared only as faint, distant glimmers in the blurry firmament.
There were no more stars. There was only New Vegas, glowing, a beacon in the darkness.
The city lights stopped abruptly at a long arcing line just a few miles out. Beyond the line, beyond the border, everything was black, Garbage Country, a place where light had disappeared—a no-man’s-land of terrors—and past that, the toxic sea. And somewhere, hidden in that ocean, if she believed what the voice said, she would find a way to another world.
They were closer and closer.
* * *
She could hear their voices outside, arguing.
The guards were opening the door.
She didn’t have much time . . .
Panic rose in her throat.
What would they ask her to do now . . . what did they want . . . the children most likely . . . always the children . . .
They were here.
The window! the voice bellowed. Now!
Glass smashed, broken, sharp icicles falling to the floor. The door burst open, but the girl was already on the ledge, the cold air whipping against her cheeks. She shivered in her thin pajamas, the arctic winds blowing sharp as daggers as she dangled on the knife-edge, two hundred stories in the air.
I will hold you.
Her mark was burning like a hot ember against her skin. It had awakened, as a rush of power, electric as the sparks that lit up the sky, snaked through her limbs, and she was warm, so warm, as if she was bathed in fire. She was burning, burning, the mark above her heart pressing on her like a brand, scorching her with its heat.
Let us be one.
You are mine.
No, never! She shook her head, but they were inside now, the commander and his men, raising their guns, training their sights on her.
“STOP!” The commander stared her down. “REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE!”
She was dead either way. Fire and pain. Rage and ruin.
She turned from the room and toward the city lights, toward New Vegas, frozen city of impossible delights, a world where everything and anything could be bought and sold, the pulsing, decadent, greedy heart of the new republic. New Vegas: a place where she could hide, a place where she could find passage, out to the water, into the Blue.
The commander was screaming. He aimed and pressed the trigger.
She held her breath. There was only one way to go.
Out and down.
Up and away.
Fly! roared the monster in her head.
The girl jumped from the ledge and into the void.
PART THE FIRST
Am I just in Heaven or Las Vegas?
It was the start of the weekend, amateur night; her table was crowded with conventioneers, rich kids flashing platinum chips, a pair of soldiers on leave—honeymooners nuzzling between drinks, nervous first-timers laying down their bets with trembling fingers. Nat shuffled the cards and dealt the next hand. The name she used had come to her in a fragment from a dream she could not place, and could not remember, but it seemed to fit. She was Nat now. Familiar with numbers and cards, she had easily landed a job as a blackjack dealer at the Loss—what everyone called the Wynn since the Big Freeze. Some days she could pretend that was all she was, just another Vegas dreamer, trying to make ends meet, hoping to get lucky on a bet.
She could pretend that she had never run, that she had never stepped out of that window, although “fall” wasn’t the right word; she had glided, flying through the air as if she had wings. Nat had landed hard in a snowbank, disarming the perimeter guards who had surrounded her, stealing a heat vest to keep herself warm. She followed the lights of the Strip and once she arrived in the city it was easy enough to trade in the vest for lenses to hide her eyes, allowing her to find work in the nearest casino.
New Vegas had lived up to her hopes. While the rest of the country chafed under martial law, the western frontier town was the same as it ever was—the place where the rules were often bent, and where the world came to play. Nothing kept the crowds away. Not the constant threat of violence, not the fear of the marked, not even the rumors of dark sorcery at work in the city’s shadows.
Since her freedom, the voice in her head was exultant, and her dreams were growing darker. Almost every day she woke to the smell of smoke and the sound of screams. Some days, the dreams were so vivid she did not know if she was sleeping or awake. Dreams of fire and ruin, the smoldering wreckage, the air thick with smoke, the blood on the walls . . .
The sound of screams . . .
Nat blinked. She had seen it so clearly. The explosion, the flashing bright-white light, the black hole in the ceiling, the bodies slumped on the floor.
But all around her, it was business as usual. The casino hummed with noise, from the blaring pop song over the stereo, the craps dealers barking numbers as they raked in die, video poker screens beeping, slot machines ringing, players impatient for their cards. The fifteen-year-old bride was the one who had asked for another. “Hit me,” she said again.
“You’ve got sixteen, you should hold,” Nat advised. “Let the house bust, dealer hits on sixteen, which I’m showing.”
“You think?” she asked with a hopeful smile. The child bride and her equally young husband, both soldiers, wouldn’t see anything like the main floor of a luxury casino for a long time. Tomorrow they would ship back out to their distant patrol assignments, controlling the drones that policed the country’s far-flung borders, or the seekers that roamed the forbidden wastelands.
Nat nodded, flipped up the next card and showed the newly?weds . . . an eight, dealer busted, and she paid out their winnings. “Let it ride!” The bride whooped. They would keep their chips in play to see if they could double their holdings.
It was a terrible idea, but Nat couldn’t dissuade them. She dealt the next round. “Good luck,” she said, giving them the usual Vegas blessing before she showed them her cards. She was sighing—Twenty-one, the house always wins, there goes their wedding bonus—when the first bomb exploded.
One moment she was collecting chips, and the next she was thrown against the wall.
Nat blinked. Her head buzzed and her ears rang, but at least she was still in one piece. She knew to take it slow, gingerly wiggling fingers and toes to see if everything still worked, the tears in her eyes washing away the soot. Her lenses hurt, they felt stuck, heavy and itchy, but she kept them on just to be safe.
So her dream had been real after all.
“Drau bomb,” she heard people mutter, people who had never seen a drau—let alone a sylph—in their lives. Ice trash. Monsters.
Nat picked herself up, trying to orient herself in the chaos of the broken casino. The explosion had blown a hole in the ceiling and pulverized the big plate-glass windows, sending incandescent shards tumbling down fifty stories to the sidewalks below.
Everyone at her blackjack table was dead. Some had died still clutching their cards, while the newlyweds were slumped together on the floor, blood pooling around their bodies. She felt sick to her stomach, remembering their happy faces.
Screams echoed over the fire alarms. But the power was still on, so pop music from overhead speakers lent a jarring, upbeat soundtrack to the casino’s swift fall into chaos, as patrons stumbled about, reeling and dazed, covered in ashes and dust. Looters reached for chips while dealers and pit bosses fended them off with guns and threats. Police in riot gear arrived, moving from room to room, rounding up the rest of the survivors, looking for conspirators rather than helping victims.
Not too far from where she was standing, she heard a different sort of screaming—the sound of an animal cornered, of a person begging for his life.
She turned to see who was making that terrible noise. It was one of the roulette dealers. Military police surrounded him, their guns trained on his head. He was kneeling on the floor, cowering. “Please,” he cried, collapsing into heart-wrenching sobs. “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, please don’t shoot!” he begged, and when he looked up, Nat could see what was wrong. His eyes. They were blue, a startling, iridescent hue. His lenses must have slipped off, or he’d taken them off when they burned from the smoke, as she almost did hers. The blue-eyed ones were said to be able to control minds, create illusions. Apparently, this one didn’t have the ability to control minds, or his tears.
He tried to hide his face, tried to cover his eyes with his hands. “Please!”
It was no use.
He died with his blue eyes open, his uniform splattered with blood.
And no one cared.
“It’s all right, everyone, move on, the danger’s passed now. Move along,” the guards said, ushering the survivors to the side, away from the corpses in the middle of the broken casino, as a sanitation and recovery team began cleaning up the mess, moving the tables back upright.
Nat followed the stream of people herded in a corner, knowing what would come next—ret scans and security checks, standard procedure after a disturbance. “Ladies and gentlemen, you know the drill,” an officer announced, holding up his laser.
“Don’t blink,” security officers warned as they flashed their lights. Patrons lined up quietly—this wasn’t the first bombing they’d survived—and several were impatient to get back to their games. Already the craps dealers were calling out numbers again. It was just another day in New Vegas, just another bomb.
“I can’t get a read, you’re going to have to come with us, ma’am,” a guard said to an unfortunate soul slumped by the slot machines. The sallow-faced woman was led to a separate line. Those who failed the scans or carried suspect documentation would be thrown into lockdowns. They would be left to the mercy of the system, left to rot, forgotten, unless a celebrity took a shine to their cause, but lately the mega-rockers were all agitating to restore the ozone. The only magic they believed in was their own charisma.
It was her turn next.
“Evening,” Nat said, as she looked straight into the small red light, willing her voice to remain calm. She told herself she had nothing to fear, nothing to hide. Her eyes were the same as the rest.
The officer was roughly her age—sixteen. He had a row of pimples across his forehead, but his tone was world-weary. Tired as an old man. He kept the beam focused on her eyes until she had no choice but to blink and he had to start over.
“Sorry,” she said, crossing her arms against her chest and struggling to keep her breathing steady. Why was it taking so long? Did he see something she didn’t? She would hunt down the lockhead who’d conjured her rets if he’d proven her false.
The officer finally switched off the light.
“Everything all right?” she asked, as she flipped her long dark hair over one shoulder.
“Perfect.” He leaned closely to read her name tag. “Natasha Kestal. Pretty name for a pretty girl.”
“You’re too kind.” She smiled, thankful for the invisible gray lenses that allowed her to pass the scan.
Nat had gotten the job with fake papers and a favor, and as they waved her through to the employee lockers so she could change into a clean uniform and get back to work, she thanked the unseen stars above, because for now, she was safe.
“I can’t take this job.” Wes pushed the slim manila folder across the table without opening it. Sixteen, with soft, sandy-brown hair and warm brown eyes, he was muscular but lean and wearing a tattered down vest over a threadbare sweater and torn jeans. His face was hard, but his eyes were kind—although more often than not he had a smirk on his face.
He had one now. Wes knew all he needed to about the assignment just from the words pacific recon typed in boldface Courier across the cover. Lately all the work was in the black waters. There was nothing else. He sighed, leaning back on the plush leather chair. He had been looking forward to a real meal, but the chances of that were slim now that he’d turned down the offer. There were white tablecloths and real silverware. But it was still inside a gambling hall and every corner blinked with tiny lights as slots clinked and beeped and coins dropped into buckets.
Wes was from New Vegas and found the sound of casino clamor soothing. The Loss was still recovering from that spectacular bombing that had torn the place in half a few weeks before. A grid of gas heaters were strung across the ceiling as a temporary fix; their fiery glow the only defense against the never-ending winter outside. Snow was coming down hard, and Wes watched the dense flakes vaporize, each flake sizzling like oil in a frying pan as it hit the grid. He brushed back his hair as an errant snowflake drifted through the mesh to land on his nose.
He shivered—he never could get used to the cold; even as a boy he’d been teased for being too warm-blooded. He was wearing several layers of shirts underneath his sweater, the ghetto way to keep warm when you couldn’t afford self-heating clothing powered by a fusion battery. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But I can’t.”
Bradley ignored him and motioned the waitress over. “Two steaks. Tuscan style, Wagyu. The biggest you got,” he ordered. “I like my beef massaged,” he told Wes.
Beef was a rarity, unaffordable to the general population. Sure, there was a lot of meat around—whale, walrus, reindeer, if you could stomach it—but only the heat-elite ate beef anymore. Especially since the only cattle left were nurtured in expensive temperature-controlled stables. The cow that died to make his steak probably lived a better life than he did, Wes thought. It had probably been warm.
He locked eyes with his dinner companion. “You need another CEO kidnapped? I’m your boy. But I can’t do this.”
As a former Marine sergeant, Wes had headed one of the most sought-after mercenary teams in the city. Correction: one of the formerly most sought-after teams. He’d done well in the casino wars until he got on the bad side of one of the bosses for refusing to torch a rival’s hotel during Mardi Gras. Since then, all the work came from the secret divisions of the military: protection, intimidation, kidnapping and rescue (more often than not Wes found himself on both sides). He’d been hoping for one of those gigs.
“Wesson, be reasonable,” Bradley said, his voice icy. “You know you need this job. Take it. You’re one of the best we’ve ever had, especially after that victory in Texas. Shame you left us so soon. I’ve got a hundred guys champing at the bit to take this gig, but I thought I’d throw you a bone. Heard you haven’t worked in a while.”
Wes smiled, acknowledging the truth of the man’s words. “Except some assignments aren’t worth the trouble,” he said. “Even I need to be able to sleep at night.” He’d learned as much from his stint in the army, especially after what happened in Santonio.
“These marked factions who resist treatment and registration continue to pose a danger, and they need to be dealt with accordingly,” the older man said. “Look what they did to this place.”
Wes grunted. Sure looked like they found someone to do the casino hit he’d turned down, but what did he know. He only knew as much as the rest of them—that after the ice came, dark hair and dark eyes were the norm, and the rare blue- or green- or yellow-eyed babies were born with strange marks on their bodies.
Mages’ marks, the gypsies whispered, fortune-tellers who read palms and tarot in Vegas’s dark alleys. It’s started. Others will come out of the ice and into our world.
This is the end.
The end of the beginning. The beginning of the end.
The marked children could do things—read minds, make things move without touching them, sometimes even predict the future. Enchanters, they were called, warlocks, “lockheads” and “chanters” in the popular slang.
The others who came out of the ice were smallmen, grown men the size of toddlers who were gifted with rare talents for survival, able to hide in plain sight or forage for food where none could be found; sylphs, a race of beings of luminous beauty and awesome power, it was said their hair was the color of the sun that was no more and their voices were the sound of the birds that no longer flew across the land; and finally the terrifying drau—silver-haired sylphs with white eyes and dark purpose. Drau were said to be able to kill with their minds alone, that their very hearts were made of ice.
The smallmen were rumored to live openly with their taller brethren in New Pangaea, but the sylphs and the drau kept to themselves, hidden in their remote mountain glaciers. Many doubted they truly existed, as very few had ever seen one.
In the past, the military had drafted the marked into its ranks, along with an elusive sylph or a smallman or two, but ever since that program ended in abject failure during the battle for Texas, government policy evolved to its current state of registration, containment, and blame. The marked were deemed dangerous, and people were taught to fear them.
But Wes was a Vegas native, and the city had always been a conglomeration of misfits living peacefully together for more than a hundred years since the world had been buried in sheets of ice. “It’s not that I don’t need the work, I do,” he said. “But not this.”
The stern-faced captain reached for the folder and flipped it open, paging through the documents. “I don’t see what the problem is,” he said, sliding it back across the table. “We’re not asking for much, just someone to lead the hired guns to clean up the rubbish in the Pacific. Someone like you, who knows the lay of the land—or the lay of the water, so to speak.”
The price was good, and Wes had done dangerous work before, sure, running people in and out of the Trash Pile, no questions asked. As Bradley said, he knew his way around the ruined seas, playing coyote to citizens seeking illegal passage all the way to the Xian Empire; or if they were particularly delusional, they’d ask him to find the Blue, the fabled nirvana that the pilgrims sought and no one had ever found, least of all Wes. But lately work had dried up for runners, as fewer and fewer chose to brave the difficulty of a dire ocean crossing, and even Wes was having second thoughts about his calling. He was desperate, and Bradley knew it.
“Come on, you haven’t even opened the folder,” his former captain said. “At least check out the mission.”
Wes sighed, opened the folder, and skimmed through the document. The text was redacted, black bars covered most of the words, but he got the gist of the assignment.
It was just as he’d guessed.
The waitress swung back with a couple of beers in frosted, oversize mugs. Bradley knocked his back while Wes finished reading the pages. This wasn’t his usual operation, a one-way ticket into the Pile where if anyone got hurt it was him and his boys. He could deal with that. A good run could keep his team out of the food lines for a month.
This was different. He’d done a lot to survive, but he wasn’t a paid killer.
Bradley waited patiently. No smile, no change in expression. His shirt was tucked a little too tight, hair clipped a little too short for a civilian. Even out of uniform, he had military written all over him. But the United States of America was not what it once was—no wonder everyone called it the “Remaining States of America” instead. The RSA: a handful of surviving states, and aside from its massive military machine that kept gobbling up new terrain, the country had nothing else and was hocked lock, stock, and barrel to its debtors.
The captain smiled as he wiped the froth from his lips. “Cakewalk, right?”
Wes shrugged as he closed the folder. Bradley was a hard man, one who wouldn’t blink twice before giving a kill order. Most of the time Wes followed those orders. But not this time.
In any other world, Wes might have grown up to be something else: a musician maybe, or a sculptor, a carpenter, someone who worked with his hands. But he lived in this world, in New Vegas; he had a team that counted on him, and he was cold and hungry.
When the waitress came back, she was wheeling a silver cart holding two wide platters, each one bearing a fat steak, charred on top and dripping juice over a bed of mashed potatoes. The smell of melted butter and smoke was tantalizing.
It was a far cry from the MRSs he was used to: Meals Ready to Squeeze. It was all he and his boys could afford lately: pizza squeezers, Thanksgiving dinner in a can. Some of it wasn’t even food, it came out of aerosol containers; you sprayed it directly into your mouth and called it dinner. Wes couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a hamburger, much less a steak, that smelled this good.
“So, you taking the job or not? Listen, these are hard times. Don’t sweat it. Everyone needs to eat. You should be thanking me for this opportunity. I came to you first.”
Wes shook his head, tried to get the smell of the steak out of his mind. “I told you, try someone else. You’ve got the wrong guy,” he said.
If Bradley thought he could buy him for the price of a meal, he was wrong. Wes styled himself after Paleolithic hunters he’d learned about in school, who kept their eyes trained on the horizon, always scanning, always searching for that elusive prize that would mean survival. But the tribesmen would fast for days rather than consume the meat of sacred animals. Wes liked that idea; it allowed him feel better about himself, that he wasn’t a vulture, one of those people who would do anything for a heat lamp. Wes didn’t have much, but he had his integrity.
The army captain scowled. “You really want me to send this back to the kitchen? I bet you haven’t eaten anything but mush for weeks.”
“Throw it in the garbage, what do I care,” Wes said as he tossed the folder back across the table.
Bradley straightened his lapels and shot him a withering look. “Get used to starving then.”
The casino was buzzing as usual when Nat arrived for work that evening. It had never even closed, not for a day, not for an hour; management didn’t care that there was a hole in the roof as long as the slot machines kept ringing. She nodded to Old Joe as she walked in and the wizened card shark smiled in greeting, his eyes disappearing into his cheeks. Joe was an anomaly, a rare bird, a man who had lived past his fiftieth birthday. He was also a legend at the casinos. Supposedly he’d been one of the smartest and most successful card sharks, and one of the most elusive—he’d brought down many a gambling hall, decimating coffers, staying just one step ahead of security. When he made his way to the Strip, the Loss offered him a job on the inside, rather than watch him walk away with their profits.
“You remind me of my niece who died in ’Tonio,” Joe had said when he’d hired her right off the felt, a skinny, starving thing who was on a winning streak at the poker tables. “She was like you—too smart for her own good.” Joe made her the same deal he gave all his fellow card counters. Work for me, help us turn in the other pros, I’ll give you a decent salary and keep you from getting beat up by the casino goons. He didn’t ask any questions about how she came to Vegas or what she was doing before, but he’d made good on his word, and got her set up.
Ask him, the voice ordered. Ask him about the stone. Do what we came here for. You have delayed long enough. The Map has been found, the voice kept telling her. Hurry, it is time.
What map? she had asked, even if she had a feeling she already knew the answer. The pilgrims called it Anaximander’s Map; it was said to provide safe passage through the rocky, perilous waters of Hell Strait to the island doorway that led to the Blue.
“Joe?” she asked. “You got a sec?”
“Can we talk privately?”
“Sure,” he said, motioning that she should follow him to a quiet corner, where a group of tourists were robotically feeding credits into the video poker stations. The smell of smoke was overpowering, and it reminded her of her dreams.
Joe crossed his meaty arms. “What’s on your mind?”
“What is that?” she asked, pointing to the stone he wore around his wrinkled neck. The one she had noticed the first time they had met, the one that the voice in her head demanded she ask him about the moment she had set foot in the city, and in this casino. She had put off the voice for as long as she could, fearing what would happen if she did as she was told.
“This?” the old man asked, lifting the stone to the light, where it shone brightly against the dim cocoon of the gambling hall.
That is the one! Take it! Take the stone. Kill him if you must. It is ours! The voice was frenetic, excited, she could feel the monster’s need thrumming in her veins.
“No!” she said aloud, shocking herself and startling a nearby gambler who dropped her token.
“What?” Joe asked, still admiring the shining stone.
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s pretty.”
“I won it at a card game a while back,” he said with a dismissive wave. “It’s supposed to be some kind of map, but it’s nothing.”
Take it! Take it! Take it from him!
“Can I hold it?” she asked, her voice quavering.
“Sure,” Joe said, slowly removing it from his neck. He hesitated for a moment before handing it to her. It was warm in her palm.
She studied the small blue stone in her hand. It was the weight and color of a sapphire, a round stone with a circle in the middle of it. She put it up to her eye and jumped back, startled.
“What happened? You see something?” Joe asked excitedly.
“No—no . . . nothing,” Nat lied. For a moment, the casino had disappeared and through the hole in the stone, all she could see was blue water, shimmering and clean. She peered into it again. There it was. Blue water.
That wasn’t all. Upon closer inspection she saw there was more, an image of a charted course, a jagged line between obstacles, a way forward, through the rocky and whirlpool waters of the Hellespont Strait.
The stone contains the map to Arem, the doorway to Vallonis, the voice murmured reverently.
This was why the voice had led her to New Vegas, to the Loss, and to Joe. It had facilitated her escape, it had brought her freedom, and it was relentlessly pushing her forward.
Come to me.
You are mine.
It is time we are one.
“There’s nothing,” she told Joe.
His shoulders slumped. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s just a fake.”
She closed her fist around it, unsure of what would happen next, afraid of what she’d do if Joe asked for it back and hoping that he wouldn’t.
She stared down the casino boss. The monster in her head was seething. What are you waiting for! Take it and run! Kill him if he stops you!
“Give it to me,” she whispered, and somehow she knew he would do as told.
Joe flinched as if she’d hurt him. “Keep it,” he said finally, and walked away from her quickly.
Nat leaned against the wall in relief, glad for Joe’s sake that he had given it freely.
Later that evening she was awoken by the sound of a scuffle. Joe lived two rooms down from her, and she heard them—military police? Casino security? Bounty hunters? Whoever had come had kicked open his door and was taking him from his bed. She heard the old man begging, screaming and crying, but no one came to his aid. No neighbors dared to peer down the hallway, no one even asked what the matter was. Tomorrow no one would talk about what happened either, or what they had heard. Joe would simply be gone, and nothing more would be said. She huddled in her thick blankets as she heard them tearing his room apart, throwing open closet doors, upending tables, looking . . . looking . . . for something . . . for the cold blue stone that she now held in her hand?
If they had found Joe, it wouldn’t be long before they found her as well.
Then what? She could not look back, she had nothing to go back to, but if she kept moving forward . . . She shuddered, and her mouth tasted of ashes and cinder.
She held the stone in her hand. The map to Arem, doorway to Vallonis.
From the window, she saw them take Joe away in a straitjacket, and she knew what awaited her if she stayed. They would send her back to where she came from, back to those solitary rooms, back to those dark assignments.
No. She could not stay. She had to leave New Vegas, and soon.
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