Friday, November 15, 2013

First Chapter Reveal: INTO THE FIRE

Happy Friday, friends! As promised, there's only one week until the release of the sequel to After The EndingInto The Fire, and LP and I are giving you the first chapter early! We hope you like it. Only seven more days... :)

CONTENT WARNING: some adult language and themes beyond this point.


CHAPTER 1
ZOE
March 14, 1AE


No! No! This can’t be happening!

“Dani!” My voice carried throughout the eerily quiet field as I sprinted along the pasture fence, away from the barn and toward Dani’s bone-chilling scream. Jake was right behind me, the light from his flashlight dancing around my bare feet. Each breath was so loud, so raspy, it was like I could hear nothing else.

My mind started to feel odd, momentarily distracting me as I ran, but I ignored the feeling along with the frigid air biting at my skin and the jagged rocks poking the bottoms of my feet. My eyes blurred with unshed tears, and I stumbled over something, barely catching myself before colliding with the unyielding ground. I shook my head, trying to dispel the disorienting fog that was steadily creeping into my mind.

In the darkness a few yards ahead, I could see Jason’s shadowy form. His flashlight and gun were pointed in front of him as he swept into the forest with Jack, Dani’s German shepherd, leading the way.

I slowed, hesitating at the edge of the forest. Seeing Jason’s pistol raised scared the shit out of me. Did he find something? Who’s in there? What’s in there?

“D!” I cried out.

In an instant, a strong hand wrapped around my arm. I whipped my head around to face Jake. “What—”

“We have to be quiet, Zoe.” His voice was low and severe. He pointed into the woods, and I realized all I could hear was the sound of flapping wings and a hoot from an owl off in the distance. Jason wasn’t calling out for Dani; there were no voices.

I nodded, feeling stupid, but I still wanted to call for her. I needed her to know that we were nearby…that we would find her. Why is this happening to us? Why can’t we catch a goddamn break!

Turning back to the woods, I concentrated on controlling my breath and regaining some clarity. Why can’t I focus? Sanchez, Harper, Chris, and Carlos passed me, bouncing flashlight beams lighting their way into the dense forest. I vaguely noticed Biggs, Ben, and Ky following them, Biggs muttering curses under his breath. My head started to throb under the massive influx of foreign emotions. I shuttered myself against the onslaught and rushed into the woods, hardly feeling the scraggly branches poking and scratching me.

“What was she even doing out here?” I rasped. I stopped inside the tree line, wishing I had been levelheaded enough to grab a flashlight and a pair of boots like everyone else.

Jake stopped beside me, but Cooper trotted passed us, his nose skimming the ground for a scent. He locked on to a trail and began to follow it. I heard a barrage of whispers around me before everyone broke off into groups, but I focused on the dogs; they were following two different scent trails.

After what felt like an hour of following, searching, and waiting for Jack or Cooper to find some sign of Dani, both dogs’ trails converged at a narrow, jagged tree stump. Jack whined, and Cooper sniffed the pine needles around the base of the stump. The dogs had found something. Instinctively, my gut balled into a knot.

Ben, who was helping to keep his brother upright, began to say something. “I think—”

“Here,” Harper said, aiming his flashlight at the exposed roots of the stump. Crouching, he shifted a fist-sized stone and picked something up.

Chris stepped up behind him and peered over his shoulder. “Jason,” she said ominously, glancing at my brother.

He moved to her side, and hesitantly, I followed. I stopped almost instantly. Jason’s dread washed over me, a wave of nausea making my insides lurch, and I had to close my mouth and hold my breath to avoid vomiting. Every hair on my body stood on end at the thought of what they’d found. “What is it?” I croaked. Please don’t say a body part…

Stiffly, Jason squatted beside Harper, taking whatever Harper had found from his hand. A yellow piece of fabric?

“It’s just like the ones we saw back at Lewis-McChord,” Chris said quietly. Rising from his seated position next to Jason, Jack stretched out his neck to sniff the cloth and whined.

Chris glanced around at our confused faces and explained, “It’s an armband, or at least part of one. Some of the personnel were wearing these when they put our base on lock-down.” She shook her head. “We stole a few; it was the only way we could get off the base. The people wearing these”—she snatched the armband out of Jason’s hand and clenched it in her fist—“had something to do with the Virus.”

“I’ve seen those before too, on people from the Colony,” Jake said. He’d been trying to convince us that the supposed safe haven was dangerous since we first met up with him at Fort Knox. “It must’ve been them…”

An image of his sister’s dark hair and violet eyes flashed through my mind. He was remembering her. He was remembering the men who’d promised to help her, the men who had frightened her enough that she’d taken her own life before they could.

Everyone looked at Jake, including my dangerously quiet brother. “Why would they take Dani?” Jason asked as he rose and took a menacing step toward Jake. “How would they even know we’re here?”

I didn’t like Jason’s accusing tone, but Jake didn’t seem to notice. Never taking his eyes off the yellow armband, he answered, “I don’t know how they knew we were here, but if they wanted her bad enough to kidnap her…their resources are—were…” He paused. “It wouldn’t have been difficult for them to take her.” The images of his sister’s final breath played through his head…through mine. A gut-wrenching feeling of loss took root in the pit of my stomach.

“You seem to know a lot about them,” Jason probed, taking another step toward Jake. “Maybe you know more than you’re letting on. Maybe you—”

“You think I’d save Zoe’s life back at Fort Knox just to put her in danger again? You really are a piece of—” Jake inhaled and then emitted no further sounds, like he’d decided holding his breath for a while was the safer option. He was probably right.

He met Jason’s challenging stare a moment longer before turning his angry gaze on me. “I warned you not to come here.” His words stung with truth.

“Then how the fuck did they find us?” Jason’s voice was damning, his glare focused solely on Jake. I didn’t like it and felt a sudden desire to punch my brother in the face.

“How the hell should I know?” Jake snapped. “We’ve been here over a month and nothing. You get here and now they know where we are.”

Jason made a noise that was part exhale, part growl. “How exactly do you know so much about them?”

“Because they tried to take my sister, and now she’s dead,” Jake replied hotly.

The two men were standing less than two feet apart, Jason’s rage barely contained. He didn’t lose control often, but when he did…I shuddered, recalling the worst of the fights between him and our dad. Jason cracked his knuckles, an ominous sign I was all too familiar with, and I feared my brother wouldn’t be able to rein in his temper.

I stepped between them. “It’s not Jake’s fault, Jason, so back off!”

My brother ignored me, instead turning his aggression on Chris. “Stay the fuck out of my head,” he ordered, obviously feeling her cerebral fingers trying to manipulate his mental state into something more stable.

Jake and Jason weren’t the only ones on edge. Biggs was worrying about Sarah and their unborn baby, and Ky was in pain, practically folding under the weight of our collective panic. Ky’s Ability to feel volatility—to sense and internalize everyone’s destructive emotions—was physically debilitating him. He reached for the flask in his pocket without a second thought. Abandoning Jason, Chris ran to Ky’s side.

The weight and amount of negativity Ky was picking up on frightened me; it was as if he wasn’t just sensing our group, but all of the fear and hostility surrounding us. From Cañon City? From the Colony? Like Ky, I was pulled in all directions by the mounting unease and fear of everyone around us, as though I were being emotionally drawn and quartered. I wanted to scream.

The looming fog seemed to thicken in my brain, tangling with the barrage of emotions. What the hell’s going on? I searched my convoluted mind for something I could grasp on to—something other than anger and fear and resentment. I’d been so fucking naïve to think everything would be okay once we found each other. Keep it together, Zoe, Dani needs you.

Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of the forest—the sharp smell of pine needles, damp soil, and wood. The fog continued to spread its tendrils through my mind in a horrifyingly familiar way. I felt trapped in my own head, unable to escape the encroaching numbness. The only other time I’d felt such an overwhelming loss of mental control was when my mind had been invaded by Crazies in the hospital back at Fort Knox. What if we’re wrong? What if it isn’t the Colony?

Feeling a sudden jolt of panic, I opened my eyes. I could see the lichen coating the tree trunks in the dim moonlight, like spots on a leopard. But there were no snarls or howls or voices beyond our group. There were no fiendish sounds of Crazies cackling in the distance. There were no signs giving me cause to think anyone was there at all.

But someone took Dani.

A bolt of anger shot through me, jostling me from my statue-like state. I took a step toward my brother. “What the hell was she doing out here, Jason?” He’d always been big, bad, protective Jason—so why had he let Dani go outside, alone, in the middle of the night?

In the faint moonlight dappling his face, I could barely make out the hard set of his features. “Peeing,” he answered lamely.

“Peeing? Alone? In the woods?” My anger flared, fury consuming my disbelief and fear. “I can’t believe you, Jason! I just got her back, and now you—”

“Fuck you!” He pointed at me in warning, his eyes glinting silver in the darkness. “She was just peeing,” he muttered.

“I can’t believe someone was just standing here,” Biggs said and began pacing. “Were they just waiting for us this whole time? Sarah…the baby…” He looked up at Sanchez abruptly. “We need to get out of here,” he said evenly. “It’s not safe here anymore. We’ve—”

“Do what you want,” Jason growled. “I’m going after Dani.”

“You think you can just walk into the Colony and get her? We need a plan first,” Jake said, facing Chris and Sanchez. “We need—”

“Need to what? To wait for them to hurt her? To do worse?” Jason’s tone was scathing as, once again, he took a step closer to Jake.

“Calm down, Jason.” I placed myself between them again. “We need to come up with a plan first. I mean, what if it’s Crazies and has nothing to do with the—”

“It’s not Crazies,” Jake and Jason said at the same time. They exchanged an irritated glance.

I rolled my eyes. “If it is the Colony, they’ll outnumber us and—”

“Then you stay here and plan,” Jason said with a smirk. “I’ll go find Dani.”

“Get over yourself already!” I seethed. “You think I’m not worried about her? Like I haven’t been waiting to see Dani for months? Like I haven’t been worrying about her since all this bullshit started? Like suddenly I don’t care about her anymore because you’re in the picture? She’s my best friend, remember? Or did you forget that, since everything’s always about you?” My voice was riddled with bitterness and jealousy, and my words were laden with twenty-six years’ worth of resentment.

To my surprise, Jason remained silent.

Sanchez cleared her throat. “Look,” she said deliberately. “If we want to find your friend, we need to be rational. So grow the fuck up and stop arguing, and then we can come up with a plan that won’t get us all killed.”

“We can’t do much else in the dark,” Harper said, his voice breaking through the tension. “The sun’ll be up in an hour or so, then we can continue searching for signs of what happened.”

“I’m not finished looking for her,” Jason muttered and turned toward his tent.

“I wasn’t implying that any of us were finished looking for her,” Harper clarified, but Jason continued stalking away. The rest of us dispersed, some making their way back to camp, but Jake, Harper, and I stopped at the edge of the forest, watching…thinking.

“Look how close they were to us,” I said with a shaky breath. I gauged the distance between where we stood and the barn. Although far away, I could see the dim embers of the night’s fire and the outline of the hay bales and chairs surrounding it. I watched the dark figures of my companions as they moved around the camp. “We never even heard them.”

Suddenly, as if my skin had become animated, creeping over my bones and muscles, I shivered. The thought of never seeing Dani alive again after everything we’d been through—journeying across the country, surviving homicide attempts and Crazies—caused a rogue tear to roll down my cheek. Determination, Zoe, I told myself. I hurriedly wiped the tear away.

With my brother out of earshot, I turned to Harper. I recalled the fleeting look of unease that had flashed over his dark, handsome features when Dani had arrived the day before. Whatever he’d seen was startling enough to have made his green eyes flare with apprehension.

“You had a vision earlier…yesterday, when you were hugging Dani, didn’t you?” I knew I wasn’t going to like his reply the moment he closed his eyes in…regret?

Harper didn’t look at me when he spoke. “I saw her in darkness,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if she was sleeping or—”

“Unconscious,” I finished for him, refusing to hear him utter the word “dead.”

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