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The Beast

Ally Condie

  For Cindy, who took a chance on a wild idea, and even bought us a whiteboard


  The Darkdeep

  The Beast


  The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe



  The Matched trilogy





  The Project Nemesis series




  The Virals series






  Trace Evidence


  Part One: Freakshow

  Chapter 1: Nico

  Chapter 2: Opal

  Chapter 3: Nico

  Chapter 4: Opal

  Chapter 5: Nico

  Chapter 6: Opal

  Chapter 7: Nico

  Chapter 8: Opal

  Part Two: Torchbearers

  Chapter 9: Nico

  Chapter 10: Opal

  Chapter 11: Nico

  Chapter 12: Opal

  Chapter 13: Nico

  Chapter 14: Opal

  Chapter 15: Nico

  Chapter 16: Opal

  Part Three: Thing

  Chapter 17: Nico

  Chapter 18: Opal

  Chapter 19: Nico

  Chapter 20: Opal

  Chapter 21: Nico

  Chapter 22: Opal

  Chapter 23: Nico

  Chapter 24: Opal

  Part Four: The Rift

  Chapter 25: Nico

  Chapter 26: Opal

  Chapter 27: Nico

  Chapter 28: Opal

  Chapter 29: Nico

  Chapter 30: Opal

  Chapter 31: Nico

  Chapter 32: Opal





  Nico Holland was about to get eaten.

  Chewed up. Or maybe just chomped. There were a lot of unpleasant possibilities, but one thing was clear: the furious creature facing him was definitely going to bite.

  Nico dove left as razor-sharp jaws snapped right where his head had been. Yelping in terror, he rolled to his feet and swung his Torchbearer dagger wildly, but the figment leaped back. It moved faster than fast, and Nico had made the mistake of jumping out of the bushes in front of the charging creature.

  Dumb dumb dumb.

  But he’d had to cut off its escape. They couldn’t let whatever this snarling, red Creamsicle–colored lizard-thing was get away. The figment had appeared out of nowhere, casually strolling up to drink from the pitch-black pond. As they’d watched—slack-jawed and bug-eyed—through the houseboat’s bay window, the creation had scampered for the hidden tunnel leading off their secret island.

  Nico and his friends had raced from their floating clubhouse, chasing the monster down into the passageway, which burrowed beneath Still Cove and then climbed up the other side, to the clifftops surrounding the fog-choked bay. There Nico had watched in horror as the figment’s flaming tail disappeared into a dense stretch of woods north of town. Thankfully, the afternoon weather was absolutely terrible—a steady, cloying rain punctuated by icy gusts that snuck under your shirt—so no one else from Timbers was likely to be outside. They could still contain this disaster.

  “Nico, back up!” Opal Walsh shouted, her long black braid slung to one side. She was behind the creature, angling into the clearing from where it couldn’t see. To her right, Tyler Watson and Emma Fairington were huddled in the brush, keeping perfectly still. Nico spotted Logan Nantes creeping around on the figment’s opposite side. Soon they’d have it surrounded.

  Great. Then what?

  The creature glanced over its shoulder and spotted Opal. Its tail flame blazed like a welding torch. The temperature in the clearing shot up. Steam began rising off the grass.

  “Oh, it’s a Charmeleon all right,” Tyler said, pawing at the collar of his hoodie. “Maybe we let this one go, huh, guys?”

  The figment swung to face him, blinking luminous blue eyes. Ruby scales gleamed as the creature bared its fangs.

  “Okay, bye!” Tyler’s head disappeared in a whirl of snapping leaves. Emma’s bouncy blond curls vanished beside him. “You three have this covered, right?” she called from somewhere in the shrubs.

  “We can’t just let it go,” Nico grumbled, running a hand through his rain-slicked brown hair. “We don’t even know where this dinosaur came from.”

  “Charmeleon,” Tyler corrected, still cowering out of sight.

  The figment turned back to Nico and flexed its claws. The blue eyes narrowed.

  Nico retreated another step, then called out in a shaky voice. “Did anyone go into the Darkdeep again?”

  “No,” Opal said immediately.

  “Of course not!” Logan snapped. Emma and Tyler both called out denials from their hiding places within the bushes.

  “Then how is this guy here?” Nico muttered, as the hairs lifted on the nape of his neck.

  Figments came from the Darkdeep—a black, swirling pool hidden in the basement of the abandoned houseboat they’d discovered. When someone entered its inky water, they were spit out into the pond on which the houseboat floated. And whatever they’d imagined while inside the Darkdeep would suddenly appear on the island with them, like a dream come to life. At least for a little while. It had been fun at first, but Nico and his friends quickly learned how dangerous these creatures could be. They’d inherited the risky job of controlling them.

  But if no one entered the well, how’d this monster appear out of nowhere?

  “What is a Charmeleon, exactly?” Opal asked, as the creature stamped and hissed in the center of the clearing. It seemed to be considering how to rip Nico’s head off.

  “Come on. I tried for years to get you guys to play Pokémon.” Tyler’s face reappeared behind a pine tree a dozen yards farther back, his dark skin slick with sweat. “Now I’m the only one who knows anything useful!”

  “It’s a nasty fire creature, maybe level thirty,” Logan said, not moving a muscle. “Not a fully evolved Charizard or anything, so we’re lucky there. But watch out for those claws. It’s got a long reach, and this species is always looking for a fight. Plus, that’s a healthy tail flame.”

  Tyler stared at Logan. “How did we never hang out?!”

  Logan shrugged uncomfortably. Son of the richest man in town, he’d only recently stopped being a jerk to Nico and his friends, initially to impress Opal. Nico had avoided him for years—their fathers did not get along—but the battle with the Darkdeep had brought the five of them together. They were all Torchbearers now.

  “Can we focus, please?” Opal gripped her dagger with both hands. “Same as last time?”

  Nico shook his head. “This bad boy’s way bigger than a rogue gingerbread man. We need a new strategy.”

  The Charmeleon shifted, glaring around the circle, muscles tensed as if ready to attack. This was the third figment they’d had to chase down since sealing off the Darkdeep weeks ago, and by far the most deadly. Nico racked his brain for a way to get close enough to use his dagger without losing a hand in the process. Cornered figments were testy at the best of times. This one looked ready to chew nails.

  “I … I have an idea,” Nico stammered, wiping the back of his hand across his brow. “Logan, can you get it to look at you?”

  “Yes. But, um … I don’t want to.”

  An instant later, Nico’s half-formed plan went up in smoke. Tail-flame flaring, the Charmeleon launched itself over Nico’s head, raking for his eyes as he dropped to the dirt. Th
e creature landed behind him and prepared to bolt into the woods.

  But Emma stepped from the trees directly in front of it. The figment froze, growling as she held out her hand. The Charmeleon tilted its head, then sniffed. Its tail fire died down abruptly, like a burner switched to low. The creature hopped forward and snuffled Emma’s fingers.

  “Emma, what the heck?” Tyler hissed, darting from the bushes. Nico’s heart skipped a beat as the figment snatched whatever was in Emma’s hand and held it up with a squeal of delight.

  It was a package of M&M’s.

  “Candy,” Logan breathed. “That’s how they evolve.”

  “Don’t let him eat it!” Tyler shouted, waving his hands. He stormed into the clearing despite his fear. “We don’t want any part of what comes next!”

  But Opal had slid up behind the creature, which was now glaring at Tyler. She tapped her Torchbearer dagger against its red scales. “Sorry, friend. But this isn’t your place.”

  The Charmeleon made a disappointed noise, then disappeared from sight. The M&M’s dropped to the grass.

  “Nice job, girls.” Nico was slowly picking himself up off the ground. He wiped dust from his sweatshirt and blew out a long breath. “That worked great. Maybe clue in your buddy Nico next time though, okay?”

  Tyler narrowed his gaze at Emma. “How did you know to give it candy? You’d never play Pokémon cards with me.”

  Emma rolled her eyes. “You have a very selective memory, doofus. You made me go through your collection like every day after school, no matter how much I whined. I just never liked it.”

  “Well, you’re welcome,” Tyler said smugly, buffing his nails on his sweater. “I saved your life, no big deal. But maybe listen to me more in the future.”

  Emma snorted.

  Opal pocketed her dagger and crossed her arms, staring at the crushed grass. Nico caught her eye and nodded in thanks, and Opal nodded back, but worry lines marked her forehead. Getting that close to a fully present figment—one able to manipulate the world around it—was always dicey, even if they were getting pretty good at stopping them.

  Nico knew they didn’t need to actually stab a figment to dispel it, or maybe even use the daggers at all. The weapons only served as a focus. When facing their nightmares, they’d learned to accept their fears as real, and then push back against them. That was enough to banish an imaginary creature scanned from their minds. That’s what Torchbearers had been doing since forever—monitoring the Darkdeep and catching whatever came out of it. It was their responsibility now, and they embraced it. But from whose mind did this guy spring?

  Opal must’ve been thinking the same thing.

  “That’s three stray figments now,” she said. “Too many to be leftovers from the radish festival disaster. Which means these are new imaginings. Which means someone is creating them. But who? And how?”

  Nico blew out a breath. A few weeks back, their hometown of Timbers had decided to honor the area’s most popular crop by throwing a big festival celebrating radishes. But the night before the festival, the Darkdeep overloaded and a gang of figments invaded the sleeping town and trashed everything. Nico and the others had barely been able to lure the creatures away in time. The town remained in an uproar about it, with crazy theories flying everywhere.

  Nico scratched his cheek. “I checked on the Darkdeep two days ago. It was totally quiet and not moving at all. I’m sure the creature who’d been manipulating it from the inside is gone, Opal. We severed the link.”

  Opal turned a critical eye on the rest of the group. “There haven’t been any private experiments, right?”

  Everyone shook their heads. Nico and Tyler both stole a glance at Emma.

  She didn’t miss their attention. “How rude!”

  Nico held up a placating hand. “No one is accusing you of anything, but—”

  “I haven’t touched that pool since it tried to kill me,” Emma said indignantly. “Believe me, the sparkle wore off after that.”

  Emma had initially been enamored with making figments, likely because of her obsession with movies and special effects. She’d gone into the Darkdeep more often than anyone. But Nico believed her now—Emma might crave excitement, but she wasn’t crazy. To defeat the Darkdeep, they’d been forced to face the things they feared most. No one escaped unscathed. Nico had a hard time believing anyone could dive back into that frigid pool after seeing what it could do.

  “Maybe someone else discovered the Darkdeep?” Logan suggested, his expression souring at the thought. “I found the island on my own, so it’s possible a stranger came across the houseboat without us knowing.”

  “You found it by spying on Opal,” Nico snapped.

  “Does it matter how?” Logan fired back. He was taller than Nico, with glossy black hair and dark eyes.

  Nico winced, then rubbed a hand over his face. Sometimes he and Logan still had a hard time getting along. They were wired so differently. Nico loved being outside, and communing quietly with nature, while Logan liked to tear around on his ATVs and play action sports. Plus, their fathers’ feud always simmered just below the surface. Nico’s dad worked for the National Park Service—his report on endangered spotted owls had made business tougher for Logan’s dad, who owned the timber mill employing half the people in town. In retaliation, Sylvain Nantes tried to get Warren Holland transferred away from Timbers, and the matter wasn’t settled yet. Logan and Nico had managed to work out their differences, but the bad blood sometimes threatened to resurface.

  Nico sighed. “You’re right. My bad. I just don’t understand how figments keep escaping the Darkdeep while it sits there, totally inactive. I thought we were done with this problem.”

  “The fact that the Torchbearers were a thing at all makes me wonder if the problem might not go away,” Tyler said quietly. “Maybe random figments popping out of the Darkdeep now and then is just how it is.”

  Everyone fell silent. They were the new Torchbearers, had even signed their names in the crumbling record book. But for all their commitment, it didn’t mean they understood the job. They were guessing at pretty much everything.

  “Figments have to come from somewhere,” Opal insisted stubbornly, pulling her rain jacket tighter. “They don’t just appear out of thin air.”

  “Let’s check the Darkdeep again,” Emma said. “The well chamber might have clues about how this one came to be.”

  Tyler shivered. “I hate going down there. I feel like it’s watching me.”

  Opal shifted, eyes uneasy. She scooped up her backpack off the muddy ground and hoisted it onto her shoulders, hooking her thumbs tightly under the straps.

  Nico understood her agitation. The Darkdeep’s shadowy lair gave him the creeps, too. “We’ve been lucky so far,” he said. “Nothing’s gotten past us.”

  “That we know about,” Logan countered darkly. “We aren’t watching the island around the clock. An airplane full of glowing chicken monsters could materialize while we we’re in school one day, and we’d have no clue.”

  “We’d know,” Tyler said doggedly, then shrugged at Logan’s flared eyebrow. “If we hadn’t spotted the Charmeleon lapping up pond water, it would’ve gotten loose in the hills. Eventually, someone would’ve seen the thing, or its tail flame would’ve burned down the forest. The fact that Timbers is still in one piece means we haven’t missed any yet.”

  “Yet,” Logan muttered under his breath.

  “We need better answers,” Opal insisted. “We need to locate the source of these monsters.”

  Nico exhaled deeply. There was no way around it.

  “Let’s go see the Darkdeep. Let’s make sure it’s really asleep.”



  Opal stared at the inky black pool.

  “It’s not swirling.”

  Her words echoed in the houseboat’s gloomy lower chamber, where she and the others were cautiously examining the Darkdeep. When motionless, its surface looked both smooth and hard at once, l
ike silken glass.

  “It’s freaky seeing it like this,” Logan said, shoving his hands into his pockets.

  They’d come straight from the woods to the houseboat, heading downstairs immediately to check on their charge. Emma and Nico stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Opal, as if remembering the battle they’d fought here not long ago.

  Tyler waited at the foot of the spiral staircase. “Okay,” he called out. “We’ve seen enough. Come back up now.”

  Opal didn’t blame him for being scared. Admittedly, Tyler was afraid of most things, but the Darkdeep chilled her blood, too.

  No one moved.

  “Guys?” Tyler urged. “No point in hanging around.”

  Emma knelt before the pool and peered into the still liquid.

  “Emma,” Nico warned, “there’s no reason to get that close.”

  “It’s like obsidian,” Emma said. “Almost … solid. But it’s not. I think water is still moving somewhere below. Not in an unnatural way, though. Just in a weird-hole-in-the-pond sorta way.”

  Tyler chopped both hands down to his sides. “Do. Not. Touch. It.”

  “I won’t!” Emma sounded annoyed. “I’m not even tempted, honest.”

  Opal glanced at her friend, surprised. Because despite everything, she was.

  Didn’t the others feel it? An urge to reach out and skim the surface, just to see what it was like. Wasn’t their skin tingling with some kind of inexplicable electricity? It can’t just be me.

  Opal linked her hands behind her back. Touching the well could only lead to trouble.

  “Well, this is good news, I guess,” Nico said slowly, scratching the back of his head. “I mean, we still don’t know where that Charmeleon came from, but the Darkdeep seems under control.”

  “Upstairs,” Tyler insisted, tapping his foot on the bottom step. “We can discuss this upstairs.”

  Nico nodded. The group clomped back up the rusty metal staircase.

  “Maybe the Darkdeep is coughing out old figments,” Tyler suggested, as they filed through a trick wall panel into the houseboat’s main showroom. Logan had repaired the figment-smashed entrance the week before, using boards from his dad’s scrap yard.