Release date August 16th, 2017! For an excerpt, see below.
If you’ve read Under a Caged Sky, then you might want to know that this is not a sequel to it, but the same story from Cascade’s perspective in the same time frame, so it starts where Anza’s deposition does, meaning it sort of goes back to the beginning, but you see what’s happening ‘on the other side’. Cascade’s story is a fair bit darker; my writers’ group members have been known to say she’s ‘seriously effed up’ (though actually I don’t think she’s all that messed up).
I was taken by shadows in the night when I was six and broken.
My father put me back together again, into something made of blood, sweat, and fight, but I broke again when the Coalition mutated us and gave us all wings with unexpected powers. Spiders swarmed from our professor’s wings, and I was lost, lost, lost. My new scarlet wings blazed into crimson flame, and it was over. Prof was dead and I was on the run with my dark boy-fantasy, the smirky guy who always watched me from scarred eyes.
Now I’m falling unexpectedly hard for my guy with his wings of knives while he and I wage an underground war against Coalition spies and mutants to find out why they mutated us – and to stop them from doing it again-
But I’m struggling to hold everything together: to protect my best friend, trust my secretive father, appease divisive rebellion members, and hold myself together—
To hold anything at all when my hands are slippery with blood.
You saw me after the mutation.
When I tore myself open.
When I stepped up to the edge of my demise and goaded it to come kill me.
Then Lunar seized that treacherous notion by the scruff of its neck, said, ‘Fuck you’, and hauled me back.
Here is what I knew of him:
When we were seven years old, he limped into class nursing a split lip and bruised cheek, a gash by his left eye stitched up so tight it nearly forced his eye shut. He was still wearing preppy clothes: a wine-red sweater-vest over a crisp white shirt and pressed beige pants, clothes that said, ‘My mother loves me. See this bowtie? See the polished shoes?’ At odds with that beat-up mouth and stitched forehead.
His gaze fixed on me.
Those eyes infested with threats.
He watched me all the time after that as if he knew what I was learning behind closed doors.
Our teachers scolded him, of course, fond of their chastisements: pompous lectures for him to stop eyeing the rich girl and pay attention. But he passed classes anyway and watched me still. His clothes grew shabby, his sweater frayed, his shoes scuffed, and eventually ripped white t-shirts and torn black pants replaced the tailored duds of Mother’s Love. But still he watched me with a gaze that swore he would spill blood without a second’s remorse or an ounce of mercy. He would watch it pool at his feet and then he’d spit in it, piss in it, shit in it.
I knew it, Anza, because I’d looked it up.
I’d found what had taken the primped and ironed high-class kid and reduced him to this unbrushed, ungroomed punk who wore unrelenting black and constant hate.
His father, high up in their luxury suite, had contracted the Vaxen Plague and descended into a sick core of madness. He’d taken up a knife and cut out his wife’s heart, then turned the bloody blade on his son.
But Lunar Adurian had no wish to die that day.
Eight stab wounds later, his father was dead.
Fifteen years after that, the Coalition mutated us all.
It happened in the middle of Chem class.
You could have painted it:
Sunshine. Bored students, their feet scraping the floor, eyes rolling. Creepy Hattie was tittering under her dark curly hair. You were falling asleep. Lunar was rolling a scalpel between his fingers: around and around and around; it flicked at the corner of my eye where he sat in the desk behind me. Swish swish swish…
Prof wanted to do a demonstration of scarlet fire, to show how it didn’t kill organisms, but altered them.
Lunar kicked my desk to volunteer me, as he always did, just so he could thumb his bottom lip and check out my ass while I walked to the front of the room.
But Prof had a spider in his hand.
That’s important, Anza, because that’s where my fear starts.
I wouldn’t touch it, so Prof handed me the red fire igniter instead.
That’s important, too, that I got the fire and Prof got the beast.
Because that’s when the mutation hit.
It slashed down our spinal cords like knives. Skin burst open above the pop of bones, and things rooted inside our marrow wriggled through our tissue, shifting the muscles inside our backs until they squelched against our spinal discs. We writhed on the floor, no breath, no scream.
Until feathers unfolded from our shoulders and whispered over our skin, their buoyancy tugging us upward.
Tottering, dazed, disoriented, we staggered up from our anguished collapse, each of us unfurling wings of different hues. My feathers were rubies in sunlight, scarlet fire. The lipstick-red of a faithless kiss.
Our bodies were battered but our clothes were intact, the wings having ghosted through the material. We didn’t understand their nature then, how they could alter from solid feather to airy wraith to deadly substance in less than a moment of instinct.
Then Prof rose. He, too, had become a victim, his hair awry, his hands aquiver. Panic ruled his darting gaze… and his beetle-black wings reacted to his fright.
His feathers began to move, to swarm.
Spiders tumbled off upon the floor, in legions, in droves.
I told you the spiders were important.
First come the pinpricks on my arms, the disturbances in my hair. Delicate legs over my eyelids and lashes.
Eight-legged bodies spill on my tongue; I taste insect and sweat; both glide in my mouth and crunch in my teeth; they crawl through my skin—no, they’re not real—they’re not—
But Prof’s spiders are; they skitter toward me in a mass. More tumble from his wings and plunge into the teeming host on the floor. The students beyond him go berserk and knock into desks as they scramble back. The smell of metal mingles with the salty secretion of fear.
The spiders at my feet swarm in a roiling ocean, and my feathers sear blistering hot on my back. Students are screaming as the squirming floor goes beetle-black. Tingles run down to my fingertips under my skin, and forked tongues snap over my shoulders.
Scorch shoots through my nerves as arachnids race up my legs.
The air erupts in fiery blast and boiling snakes, a dragon’s breath and—
Prof is no longer human when I emerge.
Lunar’s hauling me to my feet, and he has wings, too, of metallic silver that spit off sunlight like contempt.
Beyond him screams Prof, his skin like smoldering lava, fissures running in jagged webs across a blazing orange torso. His wings have been incinerated down to skeletal spines behind his shoulders: blackened tongs that open and close as if attempting to unfold an expanse of feathers already singed away.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I know I did this. I lost control. My new wings kindled into a conflagration that altered Prof into this living creature of fire.
I did this because I can’t control what’s inside me: the fear, the spiders—
Something has to stop me.
Prof could do it. I just have to make myself his victim.
It’s so easy, isn’t it?
Deciding to die. Goading a creature mindless with pain to do it for you.
All I have to do is open my arms.
Come do it, Prof, come kill me…
I’m not the only killer in this room, though.
Prof comes for me, but Lunar goes for Prof. He’s a streak of glossy black hair, leather jacket, and metallic feathers past my cheek, feathers that go misshapen and reform midair into sleek blades.
Sunlight stabs off them as they slice through Prof’s transformed flesh and sever burning limbs. Another sweep chops off Prof’s head. Ribbons of bloody pink tissue unravel from bones poking out of the remaining stumps. Prof’s shocked eyes still live for milliseconds after his head’s severed.
Then his momentum thumps him to the floor, his decapitated, armless body still glowing ember-orange.
And there, at the front of our sun-drenched classroom, he perishes.
In a fictional world, Lunar and I would bolt now, hand in hand.
We’d unearth secret passages threading under Haven, escape the oxygen strictures, and flee past the fiberglass forest into the sweltering wastelands. We’d scream defiance under the stars, screw till our minds atrophy, and get desert sand in our teeth while we live off mutant cacti… Happy Fucking Ever After, Hansel and Gretel. Minus the incest, of course.
But there’s no escaping a system set up by my father.
Its metal is entrenched in my bone, and I am the golden poppet of his world, the gilded doll whose hands and feet he manipulates just how he wants them… in uses I don’t always approve… for he is the master who shaped me, created me, and winds me up: click click click. Now go. Along with beautiful music only I hear in my head.
But that wind-up music doesn’t play here, only a chorus of loud, jabbering voices and stamping feet in a classroom where the pervasive sting of old chemicals and the scent of scorched flesh char the air.
Lunar steps through it, curls his hand around the back of my neck, and pulls me up against his chest.
I go light as a fiberglass leaf, pressed to his heartbeat, where sunlight warms his zippered leather jacket against my cheek and slants across his black pants and my jeans where our thighs touch. I breathe in the oasis of serenity in his embrace while one lone sunbeam casts a benevolent band of light over Prof’s burnt carcass. Powdery motes dust the radiance all around us, oblivious to the professor’s demise and the students’ cries.
They may as well be panicking in another dimension: pawing at their new wings and tripping over their desks in a futile sprint to escape a fate that has already ensnared them. They rant and spit, rage or panic, but I see no point in fighting.
Accept, adapt, abide.
Take everything in stride.
Father programmed me too efficiently for the cogs that click behind my fragile façade to alter my course, even on this spider-strewn floor.
But I’m shivering still, quivers like insects under my porcelain skin, though in the deep dark inside, I’ve gone as still as a hollow crystal figurine, my glass spun around one thought:
The smirky guy who always watched me from scarred eyes slew for me.
Now his fingers sift over the feathers of my folded wings. The glaring sun harshens his sharp-edged features even more, his youthful face carved by a ruthless god, one who snipped every feature from a bird of prey and altered them for this human visage: that hawkish nose, those severe lips, and cheekbones molded from all angles.
Intense black eyes that could bore straight into my abomination of a soul.
I want to invite him in: Walk the desolate horizon of my inner world and slaughter all adversity. Leave our foes in sprawled defeat and soaked in frothing blood.
But I’ve strewn enough bruised-petal glances at his feet over the years for him to know I want him: both the pathetic, timorous shell I pretend to be on the outside and the thing I am inside. Every aching look I aimed at him was her and, yet, me, too, our want inextricably bound up in one.
But he’s never asked me to register with him. We’re twenty-two, able to register in a relationship so we can screw in a month, and he’s not so much as touched me with anything other than his raking gaze.
And so I suppress my want, as I suppress so many desires, as I sometimes suppress the craving of my very essence, and I pull away from him.
I step around him and leave the yearning behind me.
Let my want cling to him without me having to look at it. Refuge and solace are for wounded birds with broken wings, not for those of us damaged and mended so often that the puckered layers of scars form their own armor… and their own prisons.
Prof’s gore awaits me just beyond him, and I stop there, here, studying the destruction of the chopped-up body on its lake of black spiders: the alien creature that had blazed bright but wept anguish after what I’d done.
The center of his torso still pulses a fiery red like a live ember, but the edges are blackening into charred meat. His decapitated head already resembles a lump of coal, and a rough, glistening black layer of char coats his teeth. It looks as if I could flake it off at the scrape of a fingernail.
I ruined him.
My fear. The spiders.
Even now I taste the dead, mashed bodies afloat in my saliva among squirming living ones. I swallow reflexively, but they clog my throat and eat away the inside of my trachea in small chomps, nibbles on the underside of my flesh—
“Cascade.” Lunar’s black-clad body blocks out the sunlight, and the memories fall away, severed back into exile.
His boots scuff closer until the leather of his jacket whispers against my arm. “You gonna be alright?” His silver wing feathers that were knives seconds ago now reflect the sunbeams; they throw slivers of light in the air around my vision and sparkle between my lashes.
He pulls me closer. “Cascade.” His narrow face fills my world, comes so close to my breath. My feathers unfurl against his leather. “Tell me you’re alright.” One of his hands glides up my arm, the sun turning his fingertips as warm as honey drizzling over my skin.
It makes me feel glazed. Like bygone days when Father’s training pushed me beyond the threshold of endurance and I lay drenched in aphrodisiacs and sweaty sheets, imagining Lunar with me in the sick sanctuary of my sick mind, my eyes shut on my panting breaths, my hands… Take me away from here.
But phantoms cannot save; figments merely disappoint the imagination, and fantasies can only keep one sane for so long.
I smile my way back to consciousness and give him a wobbly, just-shy-of-bitter laugh.
He asked if I’m going to be alright, so here’s my answer: “I’m going to be better than Prof.”
I won’t fracture.
I already did once, and Father put me back together oh-so-wrong.
I know, Anza.
You wanted to be the one I turned to when I needed to hide.
But after the stuff my father did, after what he taught me, what he made me, I couldn’t drag you into it, not even in my mind. Despite your fear and how you understand mine, you still live in a world untouched by my father, whereas Lunar lives in the world soiled by him. You lift me into fairy tales and light; Lunar takes me in taint and darkness. You hide me from nightmares. He butchers the demons that chase me there.
He battles at my side to survive the night so I can wake to you. Into your fleecy world and your cuddles of comfort.
Imagine it like this: I fight and endure in a space of stark delineations and cutting edges; that’s my reality, but when I turn a corner and see you, the saw-toothed rims yield and I reach for something not meant to be grasped forever.
But I can exist there with you for a while, no harm allowed, not here.
Here where your soft hand threads in mine, your laughter takes away my despair, and your hope and mine come as close as secrets.