It’s dark. I’m no longer in a house in the mountains with Nine. I no longer feel the painful effects of the blue force field. My head is finally clear, although I don’t know where I am, or how I got here. When I shout for help, I can’t hear my voice even though I feel my lips moving. I shuffle ahead, hands out in front of me. My palms suddenly start to glow with my Lumen. The light is dim at first, but quickly grows into two powerful beams.
‘John. ’ A hoarse whisper says my name.
I whip my hands around to see where I am, but the light reveals only empty darkness. I’m entering a vision. I angle my palms towards the ground so my Lumen will light my way, and start towards the voice. The hoarse whisper keeps repeating my name over and over. It sounds young and full of fear. Then comes another voice, gruff and staccato, barking orders.
The voices become clearer. It’s Sam, my lost friend, and Setrákus Ra, my worst enemy. I can tell I’m nearing the Mogadorian base. I can see the blue force field, the source of so much pain. For some reason, I know it won’t hurt me now, and I don’t hesitate to pass through it. When I do, it’s not my screams I hear, but Sam’s. His tortured voice fills my head as I enter the mountain and move through its mazelike tunnels. I see the charred remains of our recent battle, from when I tossed a ball of green lava at the gas tanks at the mountain’s bottom, sending a sea of fire raging upwards. I move through the main cavernous hall and its spiraling ledges. I step onto the arched stone bridge Sam and I so recently crossed under the cloak of invisibility. I keep going, passing through tributaries and corridors, all while being forced to listen to my best friend’s crippling howls.
I know where I’m going before I get there. The steady incline of the floor lands me in the wide room lined with prison cells.
There they are. Setrákus Ra is standing in the middle of the room. He is huge and truly revolting looking. And there’s Sam. He’s suspended inside a small spherical cage next to him. His own, private torture bubble. Sam’s arms are stretched high above his head and his legs are splayed, held in place with chains. A series of pipes are dripping steaming liquid onto various parts of Sam’s body. Blood has pooled and dried under the cage.
I stop ten feet away from them. Setrákus Ra senses my presence and turns around, the three Loric pendants from other Garde children he has killed dangling from his massive neck. The scar circling his throat pulses with a dark energy.
‘We missed each other,’ Setrákus Ra growls.
I open my mouth but nothing comes out. Sam’s blue eyes turn in my direction, but I can’t tell if he sees me.
More hot liquid drips from the pipes, hitting Sam in the wrists, chest, knees and feet. A thick stream flows onto his cheek and rolls down his neck. Seeing Sam tortured finally gives me a voice.
‘Let him go!’ I shout.
Setrákus Ra’s eyes harden. The pendants around his neck glow and mine responds, lighting up as well. The blue Loralite gem is hot against my skin, and then it suddenly bursts into flames, my Legacy taking over. I allow the fire to crawl along my shoulders.
I glance quickly over at Sam and see that he has lost his battle with the pain and has blacked out, chin resting on his chest.
Setrákus Ra points to Sam’s withered body and says, ‘You must decide. If you don’t come, I’ll kill him and then I’ll kill the rest of them. If you do, I’ll let them all live. ’
I hear a voice yelling my name, telling me I have to move. Nine. I sit up with a gasp and my eyes snap open. I’m covered in a thin layer of sweat. I stare through the jagged hole of broken drywall and it takes me a few seconds to get my bearings.
‘Dude! Get up!’ Nine yells from the other side of the door. ‘There’s a ton of stuff we need to do!’
I get to my knees and fumble around my neck for my pendant. I squeeze it as hard as I can, trying to get Sam’s screams out of my head. The bedroom door swings open. Nine stands in the doorway, wiping his face with the back of his hand. ‘Seriously, bro. Get your shit together. We need to get out of here. ’
The air is thick and heavy as we leave the airport in New Delhi. We walk along the curb, Marina’s Chest under Crayton’s arm. Cars inch past on the congested roadways, horns blaring. The four of us are on the alert for signs of trouble, even the slightest indication we’re being followed. We reach an intersection and are jostled on all sides. Women shove by with tall baskets balanced on their heads; men with buckets of water draped over their dark shoulders shout for us to get out of the way. The smells, the noise, the physical proximity of the busy world around us could overwhelm us. We stay vigilant.
There’s a bustling market on the other side of the street that looks like it stretches for miles. Children crowd us with trinkets for sale, and we politely turn down their wood carvings and ivory jewelry. I’m amazed by the organized chaos of it all, happy to see life moving along in what seems to be routine, happy for this moment away from our war.
‘Where do we go now?’ Marina asks, raising her voice to be heard above the noise.
Crayton scans the crowd crossing the street. ‘Now that we’re away from the airports and its cameras, I suppose we can find a –’ A taxi skids to a stop in front of us, a cloud of dirt billowing from its tires, and the driver pushes the passenger door open. ‘Taxi,’ Crayton finishes.
‘Please. Where can I take you?’ the driver asks. He’s young and looks nervous, like this is his first day on the job. Marina must either relate to his mood or be desperate to get away from the crowds, because she jumps right into the back of the car and scoots all the way over.
Crayton gives the driver an address as he folds himself into the front seat. Ella and I pile into the back, next to Marina.
The driver nods, and then promptly slams his foot down on the accelerator, throwing us all back against the cracked plastic seat. New Delhi becomes a blur of bright colors and fleeting sounds. We zip past cars and rickshaws, goats and cows. We take corners so fast I’m surprised it isn’t on two wheels. We miss clipping pedestrians by a hair’s breadth so many times I lose count. Then I decide it’s probably best if I don’t look so closely. We’re tossed back and forth against each other. The only way we keep ourselves from falling onto the car’s dirty floor is by clinging to one another and anything else we can grab.
The taxi jumps a curb at one point, shooting down a stretch of narrow sidewalk to avoid stalled traffic. It’s totally crazy and I admit it I love every second of it. Years of running, hiding, and fighting have turned me into a total adrenaline junkie. Marina plants her hands on the headrest in front of her, refusing to look out the windows while Ella leans over her, trying to take it all in.
With no warning, the driver jerks the taxi violently down a road that runs behind a long row of warehouse buildings. The street is flanked by dozens of men with AK - 47 s. Our driver nods at them as we fly past. Crayton looks over his shoulder at me. His concerned face makes the knot in my stomach grow larger. The road is suddenly and noticeably absent of traffic.
‘Where are you taking us?’ Crayton demands of the driver. ‘We need to go south and you’re headed north. ’ Marina’s head jerks up and she and Ella look over at me questioningly.
All of a sudden the car screeches to a halt and the driver dives out the door, rolling away from the taxi. A dozen vans and covered trucks surround the car. Each vehicle has a similar smudge of red paint on the doors, but I can’t quite make out what it is. Men in street clothes jump out of the vans, machine guns ready.
Now the adrenaline really starts to flow. It always kicks in before a fight. I look over at Marina and see the terrified look on her face, but I know she will take her cues from me. I keep myself calm. ‘You guys ready? Marina? Ella?’ They nod.
Crayton puts his hand up. ‘Wait! Look at the trucks, Six. Look at their doors!’
‘What?’ Ella asks.
‘What’s on their doors?’
The men come closer, their shouts growing urgent. I’m too focused on the imminent danger to consider what Crayton is talking about. When people with guns threaten me, or the ones I love, I’ll make sure they regret it.
Marina looks out the window. ‘Six, look! Are those number –’
I finally see what they’re all staring at just as the door next to Marina is whipped open. The red smudges on the truck doors are all eights.
‘Out!’ the man yells.
‘Do as he says,’ Crayton says under his breath, voice calm. ‘For now, we do what they want. ’
We carefully get out of the taxi, our hands up, all four of us transfixed by the red numbers painted on the truck doors. We must be moving too slowly because one of the men leans forward and impatiently yanks Ella forward. She loses her balance and falls down. I can’t help myself. I don’t care if they’re with Number Eight or not, you don’t knock a twelve-year-old girl to the ground. I heave the man into the air with my mind, tossing him onto the roof of a warehouse across the street. The other men panic, whipping their guns around and screaming to one another.
Crayton grabs my arm. ‘Let’s find out why they’re here and if they know where Number Eight is. If we need to, we’ll strike with full force then. ’ Still furious, I shake off his hand but I nod. He’s right – we don’t know what they want with us. Better to find out before they’re unable to explain.
A tall bearded man wearing a red beret steps out of one of the covered trucks and slowly walks towards us. His smile is confident, but his eyes are wary. A small pistol sticks out of his shoulder holster.
‘Good afternoon and welcome,’ he says in thickly accented English. ‘I am Commander Grahish Sharma of the rebel group Vishnu Nationalist Eight. We come in peace. ’
‘Then what are the guns for?’ Crayton asks.
‘The guns were to convince you to come with us. We know who you are and would never engage in a battle with you. We know we’d lose. Vishnu told us you are all powerful like him. ’
‘How did you find us?’ Crayton demands. ‘And who is Vishnu?’
‘Vishnu is the all-pervading essence of all beings, the master of the past, present and future, the Supreme God, and Preserver of the Universe. He told us you would be four in total, three young girls and one man. He asked me to convey a message to you. ’
‘What’s the message?’ I say.
Commander Sharma clears his throat and smiles. ‘ ’His message is: “I am Number Eight. Welcome to India. Please come and see me as soon as you can. ” ’
The sky is gray and heavy. The woods are dark and cold. Most of the leaves have fallen from the trees and lie dead on the ground. Nine walks ahead of me, scanning the landscape for game. ‘You know, that rabbit was better than I thought it would be. ’ He produces a short piece of vine from his pocket and pulls his shaggy black hair into a ponytail. ‘I’ll make it again tonight if you’re interested. ’