Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Torchbearers

Ally Condie

  For Soman,

  best friend, best hair, best human


  The Darkdeep

  The Beast

  The Torchbearers


  The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe



  The Matched trilogy





  The Project Nemesis series




  The Virals series






  Trace Evidence


  Part One: Doom

  1. Nico

  2. Opal

  3. Nico

  4. Opal

  5. Nico

  6. Opal

  7. Nico

  8. Opal

  Part Two: The Message

  9. Nico

  10. Opal

  11. Nico

  12. Opal

  13. Nico

  14. Opal

  15. Nico

  16. Opal

  Part Three: The Hunt

  17. Nico

  18. Opal

  19. Nico

  20. Opal

  21. Nico

  22. Opal

  23. Nico

  24. Opal

  Part Four: The Void

  25. Nico

  26. Opal

  27. Nico

  28. Opal

  29. Nico

  30. Opal

  31. Nico

  32. Opal





  Nico Holland kept his head down.

  Someone was following him.

  Or something.

  He shook off the disturbing thought. Nico walked fast, shoulders hunched, his jacket collar swept up to avoid as much notice as possible. A frigid November wind dug under his shirt and twirled his light brown hair. Nico ignored it, making his way from the park area above Otter Creek toward the heart of downtown Timbers.

  He was headed for the waterfront. Specifically, the old Custom House, and the secret Torchbearer office he and his friends had discovered hidden beneath it.

  Maybe this time we’ll actually get inside.

  Their last attempt had been thwarted by too many prying eyes. After the inexplicable creature attacks over the past two months—including the mass destruction on Halloween—the town was on permanent high alert. Getting anywhere unnoticed was becoming impossible.

  As Nico hustled along the empty blacktop, a long shadow stretched across his path ahead. Nico slowed to a stop, nervously eyeing the tree line.

  Nothing. Swirling pine needles. Green branches.

  And something black and sinuous, scurrying up the trunk of a longleaf pine.

  Nico swallowed. Twice in two days.

  Was it a raccoon? Way too big for a squirrel. Then Nico tensed. He didn’t want to run into a black bear cub. Or, more accurately, the cub’s mother, which wouldn’t be far away, and wouldn’t like human company crowding its young.

  From the upper boughs, Nico caught a flash of yellow eyes. They pulsed once, then winked out. He shuddered, peering into the murky canopy. But whatever had been there was gone.

  Just an animal. Keep moving. You’re being paranoid.

  Nico turned down a two-lane road cutting through the woods surrounding his neighborhood. Minutes later he reached town square, sighing in relief as he spotted Tyler Watson sitting alone on a park bench. His friend was fidgeting nervously beneath a giant papier-mâché turkey hanging from a light post. The gobbler held a sign that read HAPPY THANKSGIVING!, but the H and both Gs had blown off in the wind.

  Short and slender, with dark skin and bright, inquisitive eyes, Tyler was doing the worst job of acting natural Nico had ever seen. Their eyes met. Tyler nodded stiffly, then rose and did a rigid power-walk over to join Nico on the corner of Main Street.

  Tyler glanced left, then right—the caricature of a secret agent. “Anyone see you leave?”

  “No, but …” Nico shot a glance at his back trail. He shook his head roughly, mainly to convince himself. “I saw something in the trees, but it was probably nothing. This is stupid. I’m getting all in my own head about an overgrown woodchuck.”

  Tyler frowned as deep as the Pacific Ocean. “Hey, I’ve seen weird stuff too, lately. There were wet tracks on my driveway this morning. Paw prints. Big ones.”

  Nico grunted. “That could be a stray dog, though.”

  “Or a stray figment. It’s happened before, dude. Plus, Emma thinks something’s been prowling around her yard at night. Heck, even Logan is spooked—said he heard a scratching sound outside his kitchen window right before bed. He did not investigate.”

  Nico didn’t respond, mostly because he feared the same thing. As the new Torchbearers, he and his friends were tasked with controlling figments that escaped from the Darkdeep, a terrifying black well they’d found in the basement of their houseboat clubhouse. If new imaginings really were emerging again, without warning, it’d be the worst news possible.

  Tyler shook his head. “I’m just saying, we’ve all had prickling feelings lately. And whatever I saw climbing over my back fence yesterday didn’t move like a golden retriever.”

  Nico was about to respond when he noticed an old woman in the park, wearing a long raincoat. She was standing a dozen yards away and not moving, watching Nico and Tyler as they huddled on the street corner. Playing it cool, Nico gave the stranger a friendly nod.

  The woman didn’t respond. Or blink. She continued staring at Nico with gleaming eyes.

  Nico felt a tug on his elbow. “You know that lady?” Tyler whispered.

  “Nope. And she’s creeping me out. Probably thinks we’re vandals. Let’s get out of here.” He and Tyler started toward the docks, leaving town square behind. Nico cast an anxious glance back over his shoulder. The old woman was gone.

  Nico’s foot caught on the sidewalk and he stumbled. Tyler steadied him by the elbow. “Watch your step, slick.”

  Nico ignored the jab, scanning the now-empty plaza.

  Did she run somewhere? Or hide behind a tree? Man, this town has gone bonkers.

  And Nico hadn’t told Tyler everything yet.

  “There’s more bad news,” Nico reported sourly as they headed downhill. “Carson and Parker were loitering a block from my house, pretending to fix a flat. But I saw them both mount up as soon as I rounded the corner.”

  Tyler squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Carson is convinced you meet with monsters. For lunch dates, I guess.”

  “I cut through the woods and jumped a creek. I might have lost them, but we should be careful.”

  Tyler nodded, zipping past a crate of squashes and corn outside the general store. “Any trouble getting out of the house?”

  Nico shook his head. “My dad’s been at work since seven this morning.” Nico’s father, Warren Holland, worked for the Park Service, which was headquartered in the very building they intended to infiltrate. Focus on that problem. We’ve got enough to worry about.

  Tyler frowned. “So he’s at the Custom House right now? That’s suboptimal.”

  Nico shrugged. “He’ll be upstairs in his office. We just need to sneak into the basement.”

  Nico suddenly heard the squeal of bike tires. He grabbed Tyler by the front of his hoodie and yanked him under the awning of Ms. Alikhan’s flower shop. Holding his breath, Nico watched as Carson Brandt and Parker Masterson coasted by—Carson wearing a deep scowl, Parker looking bored.

  Tyler sighed as the boys disappeared from sight. “They won’t leave it alone, will they?”

  “Would you? Carson was on the beach during Dark Halloween. He saw the worst of it.”

  A church bell rang three times, startling them both. The flower-shop door began to creak open behind them and they lurched back onto the sidewalk.

  Hazy sunlight burned low and orange over foam-crested waves that stretched to the western horizon. A few locals were out and about on the main thoroughfare. Mr. Taylor was sweeping the front steps of his ice-cream parlor, casting dark looks at anyone he didn’t know. Mrs. Campbell was peering through the blinds of her nail salon, notepad in hand, ready to record whatever she deemed suspicious. A choking tension filled the air, one that never quite went away.

  Dark Halloween had definitely left its mark.

  That’s what people called the night when a horrifying army of figments marched from the sea and rampaged through the streets of Timbers. Half the town swore that the beach attack had been a complete hoax, masterminded by the awful YouTube personality Colton Bridger. Those people believed the creatures were fake—either costumed hooligans or fancy special effects to get footage for Colton’s megahit online streamer, Freakshow.

  But the other half—those who’d faced ravenous figments on the dunes, or encountered walking nightmares in their driveways later that evening—knew the monsters had been very real. And they were thoroughly freaked out about it. Carson Brandt was definitely in that camp.

  Mayor Hayt was as well—she’d been at ground zero when the figments swarmed. As a result, the local government had now adopted a siege mentality. There was a curfew for kids after dark, and the Turkey Trot had been cancelled. Timbers didn’t seem to have much luck with public events. Paranoia was infecting the town like a slow poison, but no one had any idea what to do.

  Only the five Torchbearers knew what really happened, and Nico and his friends weren’t about to reveal their secrets. Not if they could help it.

  But everyone in town agreed on one thing—they hated the reputation Timbers had acquired, both as a fake-monster haven and as a dangerous, haunted backwater. Outraged citizens were looking for someone to blame. Which made getting around undetected a chore.

  Tyler stopped abruptly, squinting in the glare of the dipping sun. “Crap, they’re coming back.”

  “This way!”

  Nico ducked into a dark alley behind Piro’s Deli, jogged to a pair of rusty dumpsters, and darted behind them. Tyler slid in close beside him, his mouth curdling. “Oh man, these things stink like month-old ham. I’m dying.”

  Nico slashed a hand for quiet in the gloom. “Shhh! I hear something.”

  A moment later, Carson’s voice carried down the narrow, foul-smelling lane. “I’m telling you, they went in there. I saw Nico. Who else wears a jean jacket?”

  Parker’s response echoed off the brick walls. “Who would hang out behind Piro’s? That guy hates kids. And do you smell that? Those dumpsters are full of moldy cheddar. I’m never eating a hoagie again.”

  Carson’s voice held the tinge of obsession. “I bet Nico’s meeting his creature friends back here. This is the perfect place for it.”

  Nico heard the rapid tick of walked bicycles. He gritted his teeth. How would he and Tyler explain hiding behind a dumpster? Parker was bigger than both of them put together, and Carson didn’t seem all there these days.

  Nico began to sweat.

  “There’s no such thing as monsters, dude.” Parker sounded annoyed. “Face the facts—you got duped by Freakshow. Stop being a drag and let’s go play video games.”

  “I know what I saw, okay? You weren’t there. Whatever jumped me on the beach was not a special effect. There were … that thing … I could see it drooling! If Logan and Nico hadn’t—”

  “Those guys were part of the act,” Parker interrupted. “Look at Emma. She was working for the show! The whole thing was a prank to make the town look crazy. What we should be thinking about is how to get back at those losers. Everyone at school feels the same.”

  A door screeched open with a flood of fluorescent light. Nico pulled Tyler between the grimy dumpsters just as Piro Gekas emerged from his deli, carrying massive bags of trash. He moved past where the boys hid, tossing the garbage bags up and over the top. Then he jerked to a halt and glared down the alley.

  “Hey!” Piro snapped. “What are you two doing back here? Rooting in my waste bins?”

  “Nossir!” Carson squawked. “We, uh … we were looking for my, um … my football.”

  “No footballs here!” Piro growled, jabbing a finger. “Go! Now. This is no place to play.”

  “Yes, Mr. Gekas!” Parker said hastily. “Sorry to bother you!”

  Nico heard the boys awkwardly backing their bikes out of the tight space. Piro glowered their direction a moment longer, shaking his head and muttering. Then he stomped back inside.

  Nico slid out from between the dumpsters, gasping for fresh air. “Ugh. Gross. Let’s bail.”

  Tyler made a gagging noise. “Oh man, the hot-ham stench got in my mouth. I’m burning this sweatshirt when I get home.”

  The door closed behind Piro, returning the alley to semidarkness. But in that murk, something moved.

  Nico froze, adrenaline pumping into his veins.

  A shadow was hugging the wall just beyond Piro’s door. The form was vaguely human-shaped. As Nico stared in astonishment, an odor like hot peppers tickled his nose. Nico thought he glimpsed a wrinkled face—the old woman from the park?—but it disappeared in a wispy swirl of dark fur and gleaming yellow eyes.

  Nico stumbled backward into Tyler and the dumpster.

  “Hey, watch it!” Tyler griped. “You made me touch something wet!”

  The shadow flitted down the alley and disappeared. Nico was left blinking in the half-light.

  “Something wrong with you, man?” Tyler asked. “I think we can slip out now.”

  “Did you see that?” Nico whispered.

  “See what? The bag of expired mayo? Yes, and I can’t unsee it.”

  Nico squeezed his nose. Was he seeing things? Had his brain gone on temporary vacation?

  “Let’s get out of here,” Nico said. “I need to clear my head.”

  “Amen to that.”

  They eased back onto Main Street. There was no sign of Carson and Parker. Or eerie shadows.

  Nico sighed, then rubbed his eyes. Stress is getting to me. He dug out his phone to see if he’d missed any messages.

  He had—a text from Logan Nantes. The message wilted Nico’s mood even further.

  “You talk to Emma?” Nico asked, putting his phone away.

  “She’s not coming,” Tyler grumbled, scratching his forehead. “A group of Emma-mazing! fans are camped out in the woods across from her house. She says they usually get hungry and bug off at lunchtime, but not today. Until they leave, she’s a prisoner.”

  Nico grunted. Emma Fairington had played a starring role on Freakshow: The Beast as Colton Bridger’s blue-eyed, local-cute-kid helper. The popularity—or notoriety—she’d gained from the show had helped launch a hit YouTube channel of her own. But fame had a price. Emma now found it harder than any of them to fulfill her Torchbearer duties. This was the third time in two weeks she was going to miss a meeting.

  “Logan can’t make it either,” Nico said. “He just texted the group. Said he bailed on his shift at the houseboat yesterday, so he’s going there now to make sure everything’s okay. And since my dad refused to let me out of the house all weekend, that means no one’s been to the island in almost four days.”

  The boat in Still Cove was their clubhouse and secret hideout, and home to a mysterious force the Torchbearers were sworn to protect—the Darkdeep. Hidden in the houseboat’s bottommost chamber, the Darkdeep was a swirling black well that, if entered, scanned your mind and brought figments of your imagination into being for a short period of time. Some were delightful. Others, not so much.

creatures had threatened to overrun Timbers more than once in the weeks since Nico and his friends found the vortex lurking there, unattended. They’d learned that the Darkdeep itself was even more dangerous than the figments it created, but they still didn’t know all the answers. Or even most of them.

  Which made it doubly important to keep a close eye on it.

  A task they’d been failing at miserably.

  “Heads-up. There’s Opal.” Tyler nodded toward the docks. “Oh man, I hope she doesn’t run into the Doofus Bros. They might’ve pedaled that way.”

  Nico started, his mind still lingering on that unsettling shadow in the alleyway. He glanced up to see Opal Walsh’s long black braid swish out of sight as she strode downhill ahead of them. He and Tyler got moving, trailing her, keeping a safe distance. Groups attracted attention these days, and they didn’t want to be noticed.

  “Think we can sneak in under the stairs?” Tyler asked in a hopeful voice. “I hate that trapdoor, but I like the sewer route even less. I already hugged a dumpster this afternoon.”

  Getting into the Torchbearer office the easy way—through the Custom House lobby—had been tough since Timbers became a police state. Logan solved the problem a week ago by finding a large drainage pipe accessing the building from below, but it was not a pleasant trip. Nico got shivers just thinking about the cold, dank passage.

  Better than getting caught by Dad, though.

  He glanced at his watch. “The lunch rush should be over, but I’m not sure the foyer ever clears out in the middle of a workday. And we can’t stand around in there, waiting.” He grimaced. “I think we have to go in ugly.”

  “Parker’s not wrong about the kids at school,” Tyler said abruptly. “Lots of people gave me the side-eye today. If we were unpopular before, we’re outcasts now. Half our classmates think we’re in league with legit monsters, and the others think we lied to embarrass everyone. What a mess.”

  Nico shook his head. “Let’s catch up with Opal.”

  They reached the waterfront and found Opal waiting a block from the Custom House. The building’s front entrance hosted steady foot traffic as workers briskly entered and exited Timbers’ largest office building. Opal’s dour expression confirmed Nico’s fears.

  “We’ll have to go the back way,” Opal said. “Are the flashlights still down there?”