THE FOURTH BOOK IN THE E SERIES
Less than one second: how long it takes for everything to change. The story rewritten. The answers lost. The world turned upside down.
Eden’s life is in tatters. Too many questions. Too many answers she never would have chosen. With no time to think or mourn, she struggles to take control of her fate once again. There’s one thing that Eden has always wanted— find Oscar. One solution— ask for Matt’s help. So begins a frantic journey with high stakes and savage battles. Buoyed by friendship, hardened by experience, Eden fights her way through endless obstacles with the single goal of reuniting her little family.
But does Outpost Three still exist, or have the Sentries destroyed it, along with the last of Eden’s hopes?
Chapter 1: Kick
“It was kind of a kick,” Apollon says, regarding his nipple rings. He flashes a sparkling white smile down at me, making me blush at his lechery. But I’m not supposed to be blushing. Boys don’t blush. Do they?
This was a stupid idea. A stupid, stupid, stupid idea.
“Keep moving,” Charlie mutters under his breath, nudging me forward. We snake through the crowd, but the going is incredibly slow, packed as it is. Luckily, everyone in Wynwood is too preoccupied to be looking at me.
“It feels like being in one of the other cities,” Apollon murmurs, close behind me, and he’s right. The bodies here are packed so tightly that there’s no room to breathe. We’re definitely not the only ones who have come from other tribes to see this spectacle.
I glance back at Apollon to share a worried look, but his appearance catches me off guard. Even in the past five seconds I’ve forgotten his incredible transformation. His blue eyes peer at me from behind thick black eyeliner, adding a startling intensity to his gaze. His hair is bright blue, in loads and loads of tiny braids. There’s a large hoop of a nose ring to match the nipples that are proudly exposed on his shirtless chest. And the big ‘E’ on his forehead? Gone. They’ve done a good job of hiding it under some kind of makeup. Yep, the girls definitely had a lot of fun with their little project.
Me, on the other hand— not so fun. My breasts are bound tightly in a long strip of cloth wrapped round and round my chest to hide the fact that I’m a girl. I had to wear a substantial shirt to hide the loads of cloth, and long trousers to conceal my girly legs. I’ve got a cap on my head with my hair tucked up underneath, steaming. It’s freakin’ hot out here, so it all just adds to the fact that I can’t breathe, and thinking about what we’ve come to see makes it all that much worse. If I make it through this day, I’ll be surprised.
Apollon’s hand, on my arm, squeezes reassuringly. If I make it through this day, it will be because he held me up, no doubt. That’s what Apollon does— he keeps me going.
We squeeze through to the back of the stands— huge wooden structures rigged up just for this occasion. Row upon row of stairs leave standing room only for people to pack in and watch the event. We’ve come early, by Charlie’s advice. It’s already crammed full inside, so I can’t imagine what it would have been like if we’d waited. We keep sliding into the small spaces between people and eventually get to the front where we can climb up the stairs, though it’s much the same drill. After a lot more creeping and elbowing, moving upward, we finally shuffle into a little gap that we stake as our own viewing territory. It’s pretty far up, so it’s not the closest of views, but we’d rather be behind people than in front of them. Not that long ago, Apollon and I abandoned Wynwood and made Brickell our home. But we’re well-known here. No need to bring ourselves to attention.
“How long will it be now?” I ask, glancing at Charlie, to my right.
He frowns, looking utterly comical in his shoulder-length wig and padded pot-belly. In reality, Charlie is long and lean, so seeing him stand here with his hips angled forward to emphasize the bulge makes me want to laugh. I press my lips together and contain myself.
“Not long,” he says, nodding toward the huge ring below. “Looks like the preppers are early.”
My eyes scan over the field, spotted with people who are… doing things. Whatever smile was inside me, it’s utterly gone now.
“Remember,” Charlie says, his voice grave, “it’s going to be ugly.”
I nod, swallowing. He must have warned me a thousand times, but I insisted on coming anyway. This was a stupid, stupid, stupid idea. Is it too late to leave?
I quietly consider the things on the field. A wall encloses the entire arena, except for four small gaps in the corners by which the players will enter. The entire circumference of the wall protrudes with a slew of blades sticking through from the other side, gleaming in the sun as if to announce how freshly sharpened they are. Around the edges of the field, I count twelve towers. A skeleton scaffolding supports a series of huge nets above. Inside the nets, boulders of broken concrete, jagged compilations of metal, and god knows what else. Some of the preppers on the field are digging holes, placing things inside, and covering them over. They back away carefully. There is a fence of razor wire in a circle around a group of twenty huge poles that tower into the sky, their tops above even our high vantage point. Each one holds a small flag at its pinnacle— a flag that signals victory, if a player can keep it. A chance to pass to the next round, live to see another day, and maybe even be the next ruler of Wynwood. Why Jonas gave that up when he already had it is beyond me. Randomly, here and there, are pits so deep that I can’t see what their bottoms hold. Three small mountains of bones are spaced equally in a triangle. At one end of the arena, ropes crisscross at odd angles, creating a huge web-like obstacle course. This is only the beginning of what I take in before I notice the row of people filing in along the top of the wall, all carrying tanks on their back attached to gun-like hoses.
I push my chin toward them, nudging Charlie with my elbow. “What’s inside?”
His eyes dart sideways, his jaw tight. He doesn’t want to answer, but he tells me anyway. “Aether.”
Despite the sweat dribbling down the side of my face, despite the stale current of heated air and the clothing sticking to me, I press closer to Apollon, seeking comfort.
His arm twitches against mine, and I feel his bicep tighten against my shoulder as he restrains himself from putting his arm around me. I’m a boy now, and it certainly wouldn’t do for our disguises. He glances at me, meets my gaze, and his mouth tightens, the corners turning down. He looks worried. I’m sure I look worried, too. Panic flits around inside of me, and some horrible wash of emotion that’s a combo of fear, sorrow, loss, regret…. But no. If Charlie has spent days warning me about what I would see here, Apollon has spent days fortifying my reaction. It’s out of your hands. His choice, not yours. You have no responsibility here. There’s nothing you can do. These phrases bounce around in my head, now, and I remind myself of their truth. But they don’t stop the emotion from existing. They just help me to place it in a tightly sealed box.
I swallow and focus on the arena below us. Before I’m ready, before I’m prepared, a cry sounds out, making me cast around to find its source. At the top of each of the towers, a man’s lips are pressed against the mouthpiece of some ungodly horn, creating a multiplicitous sound that swamps the entire stadium in a noise that can only be described as dread. But the answering cry from the people is excitement and eagerness and bloodlust. Fists are in the air. And on the field, a swarm of players pours from the four gates.
There’s no limit to the amount of contestants who may enter. But only one will win. That means the others must be eliminated. The most effective and common method of elimination is death. So out of this swarm of what… hundreds? Not many will live to see next week. Possibly only one. I close my eyes, and pray that it’s the right one. Please, please, don’t let him die.
Then my eyes snap open and narrow on the scene before me, my jaw clamping, teeth grinding. Me being here might be stupid, but Jonas agreeing to have The Contest and then insisting on participating in it— there’s not even a word for that. If he dies, it’s his own damned fault. And maybe he deserves it, after everything he did to me. Kidnapping me, stealing me away from my tribe, messing with my head, who even knows what else? Just because he’s not Jason anymore doesn’t mean he’s excused. And then there’s all the things he kept from me. And the journal. Could it really have just fallen into the water, or did he make it happen?
I grind my teeth, but I don’t realize that I’m shaking until Apollon bumps my shoulder with his. I glance at him, no attempt to hide the bitterness in my expression. Apollon gets it. If nothing else, I can be thankful for that.
He glances at me again, but his eyes are quickly back on the field. Searching.
I focus on the mass of running bodies below us, looking for the same thing that Apollon’s looking for.
Probably two-thirds of them are men, but there is a decent showing of women as well. They’re all fit as can be— you’d have to be insane to enter The Contest if you weren’t. The contestants are in their prime, ranging from teenagers to twenty-somethings. Not that anyone ever grows old around here. And every single one of them is buck naked. They can’t carry weapons onto the field, so they start with only their bare hands. The nakedness ensures that the one rule is followed; that everything is fair. Once they’re on the field, anything goes. Twenty people will end up with flags and proceed to the next round, with a chance to rule Wynwood. The rest…. I don’t want to think about the rest.
“There,” Charlie says quietly, beside me. I follow his gaze to the left end of the field where a group of players is scrambling up one of the bone mountains, shoving each other, struggling for ground. I squint to make out the different players.
WHOOMPH! Dirt spews upward directly in front of us, erupting into the sky. We throw our arms over our faces as we’re bombarded by a hail of pebbles; we cough and spit out mouthfuls of dust. My tongue is dry and gritty, and I’m blinking furiously to clear my eyes of debris in order to be able to see anything. Around me, people are screaming a mix of emotions. I blink my vision clear just in time to see a severed leg tumbling from the sky… slowly, taking its time, spinning as it falls…. But no, it’s not headed back for the field. A shriek goes up in front of us as the bloody limb splats between viewers, missing one of them so narrowly that it leaves a gory streak down her shoulder. She recoils as her companion reaches down, picks up the dismembered piece of flesh— yep, it’s a leg— and chucks it down the stands toward the field. The people below them pass it along, and eventually, it gets dumped back into the arena.
At first, I’m just staring at the shoulder of the girl in front of us, gaping at the blood streak and thinking that if this were Outpost Three, she’d be shedding her clothing, running for her life before a Sentry could get her. But here, the tribes have teams of people who deal with the Sentries, especially during important events like this one. So she’s not even bothered, except by the gross factor. Can’t blame her for that.
I turn my eyes back toward the field, but then I’m thinking… what if that was Jonas’ leg that they just chucked over the wall like it’s nothing?
A wave of repulsion moves through me, making me want to vomit. I try to choke it down, but I half-curl in on myself, grabbing my stomach, before I manage to force everything down again.
“We don’t have to stay,” Charlie says. When I glance at him, his face says that he would, in fact, love to get the hell out of here. I’m inclined to agree with him, but my eyes are drawn back to the field. Back to the pile of bones.
Beside me, Apollon is shouting, and I just make out his voice above the crowd: “That’s right! Let him have it! Again! Again!”
My eyes find Jonas, legs spread wide, bracing himself on the side of the pile. He swings a long piece of bone, bashing someone in the head. His attacker drops a knife and slumps forward, sinking into the pile. Before he’s all the way down, someone else is running over him, attacking Jonas again. Another one comes at his back from over the top of the pile. And two more are running toward them from the ground to the side. He’s being targeted. Of course he is. Jason won this contest before, so this time, Jonas is one of the ones to take down. There’s no way he’s going to make it out of this alive.
The woman at the top of the pile leaps. The man below Jonas thrusts a jagged, broken off piece of bone toward Jonas’ face, but he’s under it, ducking and rolling down the pile. In his place, the woman lands in the middle of the thrust, the bone skewering her through. Blood bubbles out of her mouth. And Jonas is off, running like hell as the two others chase after him. My one-time lover zigs and zags, dodging through bodies, around weapons, over corpses, and I’m right there with him, running, running. Please god, let him live. Just let him live.
“Run, run, run!” Apollon is shouting. “RUN! Wh—”
There’s no time for a warning—not that Jonas could hear him. The net above him comes loose and a hunk of fused-together sharpened metal bits falls from the sky. Jonas pitches to the side at the last instant, but he’s down. I can’t see him on the other side of the metal chunk… or is he under it?
My fingernails slice into Apollon’s arm, and he grips me back with his other hand.
Movement from behind the other side… Jonas’ head sticks out. But he’s on the ground, sliding back on his hands and backside. The two guys who were chasing him catch up, running toward him with axes— where the hell did they get those?— raised over their heads. There’s no time for Jonas to get away. No time to get up… if he even can.
My nails dig deeper.
Jonas leans forward and grabs at the metal chunk that waylaid him. A sheet of metal comes off in his hands. Then he’s spinning into a half-roll, half-pushing himself up, and he flings the metal like a frisbee toward the men who are still running at him. Then they’re falling forward, dropping the axes, both of them sliced halfway through with the same sharp chunk of debris.
Jonas is left standing on one leg. He tries to move, but he’s limping. His foot is bleeding. His face goes dark and he puts his foot down and moves, scooping up one of the fallen axes before he stalks off along the edge of the arena where I can no longer see him.
In the center, there’s a battle— a twist of arms and legs and swinging, hacking blades and spurting blood— focused around the perimeter of the razor wire. It’s such a writhing mess that it’s hard to make out individuals, but then a body separates itself as it is flung into the air and lands tangled in the top of the wire. A woman— she jerks and kicks at first, but quickly learns that the movement is tearing her body to shreds. There’s an instant of panicked stillness, then someone throws a knife that severs her jugular. Her blood pours down the razor wire, creating a red carpet for the next bodies. A mass of men are chucking people onto the wire. Not just disposing of the competition, but creating a path over the barrier so they can make their attempt for the flags.
It’s terrible, sickening, but Miami eats it all up. These people are friends with Death. They welcome him in, sacrificing themselves when they get too old. There’s no greater glory, here, than to die for your tribe… and apparently even this counts.
I tear my eyes from them and look again for Jonas, but he’s still hidden from me. I think he’s still along the wall on our side. Off to the right, a group of people at the front of the stands are going wild, leaning over the railing, shouting, cheering. I force my fingers to release from Apollon’s arm and I steady myself, taking deep breaths. Whatever it is, Jonas can—
A battle cry— a raging collective shriek goes up from the area and a group appears, running toward the center. They’re carrying something between them, like they mean to ram the razor wire in the center and knock it down. My knees turn to jelly. It’s Jonas. They’re carrying Jonas.
Gunshots blast through the arena, and people start dropping like flies, everywhere. At the tops of each tower, a rifleman is randomly shooting through the crowd, picking people off. They’re all wearing frosted goggles, so their vision is impaired. They can’t make out who’s who— in order to keep it fair. But they can track blurry movement, and it’s not like there’s a lack of targets. Contestants scream and ditch into the dirt. At least some of them. Some of them don’t seem to give a damn, and they’re going for it anyway, despite whatever bullets are flying. Among those who don’t seem to care— the group charging with Jonas. They’ve been taken by some sort of berserker frenzy.
Even the battle around the razor wire parts at their enraged, screaming approach. The group speeds forward. One of them drops off the side, clutching his chest as blood spurts out, but his loss doesn’t affect the others at all. They run forward, and as they make it to the razor wire, they fling Jonas into the air. His body flies toward the wire.
He tucks in on himself, into a tight ball, as he hits the top of the wire… and his momentum carries him forward, scraping across the top, off the other side, though an arc blood trails, crimson in the air, after him. The wire blocks most of my view, but I can see him stumbling on the other side. Half hunched over, he hobbles forward, toward the poles. Behind the barrier, the group who threw him shriek their anger and start adding to the bodies that will pave their way over the sharp restriction. One of them throws knives through the wire, aiming for Jonas, but either he’s not proficient, or his anger is messing up his game. He missed widely, and now he’s given Jonas another advantage.
Jonas plucks the knives from the ground, makes it to the first pole, and stabs them in, using them to help him climb. And in no time, he’s up the pole, above the razor wire, now, so I can see that his backside is absolutely shredded. But he refuses to feel it— maybe it’s some sort of shock— and he keeps on climbing, though blood is dripping down the pole below him.
The gunshots are still blasting everywhere. Contestants ditch to the ground as another explosion at the other side of the arena clouds the air with dirt. I can’t see much of anything. Then there’s his shape, standing on the top of the pole holding a flag in the air, waving it at the very pissed off masses who are starting to uncover themselves from their dodging of debris. They begin their ascent over the wire. Meanwhile, smaller battles are raging everywhere, and at one side of the arena the people with the packs open up, spewing aether over anything in reach. Screams of agony fill the air with the horrible scent of burning flesh as a mass of bodies are roasted to a crisp, staggering, stumbling, trying to flee something that cannot be fled. It lasts far too long before they finally succumb, black and smoldering. Wisps of smoke trail off a scattering of corpses.
Apollon is now gripping my arm, and when I look back at the poles, Jonas is on top of a different one, and he’s plucking a second flag from its top.
“That could not have felt good on the man parts,” Apollon says, but I’m too busy feeling it as Jonas leaps, knives extended, for the next pole. He smacks into the side, but the knives stick, and he’s climbing for the top, snatching another flag and adding it to his collection. Then he does it again.
“…Idiot,” I say, my voice filled with disbelief. “They’re going to kill him.”
“They’re certainly going to try,” Apollon agrees, but there’s a tentative grin on his face when I glance at him.
I swallow hard. There’s no way Jonas is going to make it out of this. Not now. Not with that move.
The numbers below are seriously thinned out, but there’s still a mob of enemies, and he’s just made it personal. He’s taken two more flags now, and a mass of warriors are swarming over the corpse-paved wire. Check that. Body-paved wire. Some of them are still alive enough to cry out as they’re trampled on. There’s nowhere for Jonas to go but down, and he’s about to be surrounded. And if he doesn’t come down… they’ll go up after him.
My heart nearly explodes in my chest at the thought.
A crash from one end of the arena momentarily grabs my attention. A group of contestants have toppled one of the towers, and they’re duking it out in the rubble, obviously grappling for control of the rifle. But my eyes are pulled back toward the center where Jonas has yet another flag. How many is that now? The others have made it to the poles, and they’re beginning to climb, though they’re fighting each other simultaneously, so maybe that will buy him a moment. Not that it will do any good.
Movement catches my eye just outside the razor wire. A woman has a crossbow, and she’s aiming it at Jonas. Apollon and I scream at the same time, but no one is going to hear us over the roar of the crowd.
Jonas, grinning with a fistful of flags, turns just in time to see the bolt loose. He twists sideways, bending. The bolt flies past him toward the ceiling. Jonas stumbles and lurches, arms out, clinging to his knives and flags, but he’s off balance. Wobbling. He almost has it. But then he doesn’t. As he falls, he thrusts himself away from the pole and toward the next one.
This time, he’s a third of the way down when he smacks into the wood, and not at the best angle. But he manages to have his knives in, and he’s climbing slowly for the top, looking dazed, wincing like each move brings him incredible pain.
“That was his ribs,” Charlie narrates.
I’m nodding grimly, feeling a searing buzz of panic in my brain even as sickly acceptance settles into my gut. How long can he go on like this?
Noise surges through the crowd— a massive cry of excitement. I blink around to see what I’ve missed. At first, I can’t figure it out, but a small jerk of movement above catches my eye.
A chunk of concrete, suspended in the netting above Jonas, inches downward, stops, spins slowly. Now I see it. Part of the netting has been severed, probably by that crossbow bolt. The whole thing is about to burst at the weak link.
Meanwhile, Jonas has made it to the top of the pole, but he interprets the noise of the crowd and looks up. His mouth drops open. The pole below him is crusted with a mass of enemies. Jonas grabs the flag off the pole, glances up again, then looks doubtfully at the next pole. No. It’s not far enough away to provide any amount of safety. And Jonas is moving slower now, coated in blood, with bruises starting to show around his ribcage, even from the distance. He’s moving with a sort of stiffness that gives away how incredibly beat up he is. But above him, the net jerks again. The crowd screams. Jonas ditches toward the next pole, swings himself around it, and lunges toward yet the next. The concrete smashes into the place he was standing only a second ago, splitting the pole, sending it crashing into the next one… knocking it sideways toward the place where Jonas is hanging, immobile….
A mass of dust and debris settles, and below, bodies are smashed, legs sticking out from under pieces that have broken off the main boulder. Jonas is still. Hanging. Breathing. Fingers like a death grip on those knives. He looks like he might not be able to move. Below him, survivors are climbing out of the mess, and at the other end of the poles, two people have gotten flags and are now engaged in battle as they hang on. Back on the first pole that Jonas climbed, a woman is standing, knives in hand, and she copies Jonas’ move, leaping across to the next pole… only she manages to make the distance and land on top. She slams on the brakes, teetering on the pinnacle, but manages to regain her balance. She looks in Jonas’ direction. She’s going after him.
And Jonas still isn’t moving. The crowd screams and writhes and cheers.
Finally, Jonas looks around, taking stock of the situation. There’s nowhere for him to go. Except… he looks up.
The net is still dangling there, open and broken. A piece of rope hangs down from it, teasing. No. It’s too far. No way.
Jonas drags himself up the rest of his pole, looking heavy and sore. There are two men only a few feet below him and closing the distance quickly. He makes the top. Flings the knives into the skulls of the two men below him, who drop away. He stuffs the flags into his mouth. No way. Don’t—
He’s in the air. Reaching. Feet treading nonexistent support. His fingers stretch toward the dangling piece of rope. His body makes the top of the arc….
Apollon and I are clinging to each other, everything else forgotten. My whole body tenses, my mind stretching to push Jonas toward that rope. Please, god, please, please, please.
And he has it with one hand. His body jerks at the end of it, and then he spins, dangling. Slowly, as if it takes every ounce of effort, he reaches up with his other hand and finds the rope. Then he’s swinging his legs up, into another bit of the net. He’s in the net and climbing up into the scaffolding over the arena. One of the riflemen from the towers has noticed him and is taking pot shots, but Jonas is on the move, now.
Below, a lot of the contestants have given up on Jonas in favor of fighting it out for the remaining flags. It’s tooth and nail— as vicious as anything I’ve ever seen. These people are serious about ruling Wynwood. The whole arena is soaked in blood, now. The dirt is red, littered with bodies and pieces of bodies, except where it’s black and burnt. Absolute carnage. The skirmish at the center of the arena draws my attention as more and more contestants join the feeding frenzy at the poles.
There’s a scream and a blur at the far side. A spiked ball of scrap metal falls from above, crushing a small group engaged in battle. Jonas swoops down on a cut rope, but he’s not landing in the arena. He’s on the edge, by the people with the aether guns. He darts along the line behind them, a flash of sharp metal in his hand; he must have broken a piece off the ball of scrap when he was still in the nets above. Aether floods his wake, spilling and swirling around the feet of those who wear the packs. Flames burst around them and climb them as they jump, shrieking, into the arena. But he’s left one hose uncut at the end. He clocks the guy in the face before he even sees what’s coming, and liberates him of the tank and the attached gun. Hopping into the arena, clear of the massive burn he’s caused, he paces around to get a clear shot and… The center of the arena— the poles and the epicenter of the battle and most of his enemies— WHOOMPH. It’s one big fireball. Screams reach far into the sky as his enemies are literally consumed. Adding to it is the din at the side of the arena, where the burn is now expanding into the stands and spectators are ditching, running for it, trying to escape the blaze. That whole set of stands is emptying out in a trampling flood of panicked bystanders.
The last few contestants on the field are staring at Jonas, looking completely dumbfounded. Shock is written on their features as they gawk at him. There is a moment when everything is frozen in time.
Jonas plants his feet, takes it all in, then raises a fist full of flags into the air.
Anyone who is not paralyzed by fear or running for their life is busy losing their fucking mind cheering for him. Throats are shredded with applause. The noise is so overwhelming I can’t hear a damned thing anymore. There’s just this not-noise. This thing that has gone beyond what my ears can handle and turned into something like enormous pressure pushing inward on me from every direction. Beside me, Apollon is bouncing on his toes, and we’re gripping each other’s arms, and we’re screaming and shouting, and I don’t even know what all is coming out of me, but I don’t care. Tears are pouring down my face, and this amazing sort of relief is only just starting to trickle into the back of my brain.
Pop. Just a little pop that makes it through the not-noise and into my deafened ears. Jonas drops.
At the far end of the arena, a dark-skinned woman strides forward. With a rifle braced against her shoulder, and wearing her nakedness like armor, she doesn’t look like she’s afraid of anything. She advances in a no-nonsense manner and aims the rifle at another contestant. Pop. Another few steps. Pop. Pop.
And it’s a kick in the gut as it dawns on me what just happened.