Four months ago…
“And the Lord sayeth unto me, the offspring of the wicked shall perish.”
The chanted response echoes through the building, bouncing off of the metal walls. I sit in the middle of the congregation, my mom on one side and my little sister, Grace, on the other. My dad, a sheen of sweat glistening on the dark skin of his face, sits on Grace’s right, his hand clasping hers.
I glance over at Mom, her blonde hair perfectly styled and her dress perfectly pressed. Her usually pale face looks rosy, either from the heat of all the bodies in the building or her passion for the sermon. Whatever the reason, she looks beautiful.
Brother Earl’s voice brings me out of my musings as everyone in the crowd stands. My eyes drift shut as he begins the closing prayer. His words reverberate through me, warming me from the inside out.
“Grant us the strength, oh Lord, to follow your path. Grant us the understanding of your word, to know what is righteous and true. Grant us the power to enact your will. Amen.”
“Amen,” I say, a hundred voices joining mine in a chorus of praise and reverence.
This meeting of The Divine Church of Purity has come to an end, and people have started filing out of the aisles and heading for the exit. I turn to follow them, but my mother’s hand latches onto my elbow. She shakes her head and sits back down on the bench, pulling me with her. Dad and Grace retake their seats, as well.
“What’s going on?” I mutter, loud enough for only my mother to hear.
“Brother Earl wants to see you,” she whispers.
I suck in a sharp breath, excitement sparking through me. I nod, unable to speak.
Brother Earl has requested private meetings with my parents on multiple occasions. They are, after all, devout followers who live by his teachings. Not once have I been included. Nor have my parents ever explained what their meetings were about, other than vaguely describing them as “church business”.
As the last of the congregation slips through the doors, Brother Earl approaches us, one of his assistants by his side. A warm, fatherly smile lights up his face as he gazes down at my little sister.
“Hello there, Grace,” he says.
“Hello,” she replies, her voice sounding slightly intimidated.
“Maggie,” he says, indicating the young woman by his side, “was just about to go take inventory in the kitchen. Do you think you could go help her make sure we have enough snacks for the next children’s group meeting?”
My twelve year old sister arches a brow for a split second before her face goes blank and she nods. I have to stifle a laugh. She obviously knows she’s being excluded from our meeting and doesn’t like it one bit. But she won’t let Brother Earl see her disappointment. She’d be in trouble with our parents if she did.
Once Maggie and Grace leave the room, the preacher ushers us into his small office at the back of the sanctuary. He moves to sit behind his desk and motions for me to take the chair in front of it. My parents stand behind me, each placing a comforting hand on either of my shoulders.
“I need your help,” he says without preamble, his eyes searching mine. “Are you willing to assist me in doing the Lord’s work, Lizzie?”
My dad’s grasp tightens on my shoulder, telling me to be subservient and agree without argument, but I don’t need the warning that small gesture holds. I shrug, and my father’s grip loosens. He needn’t have worried.
I would do anything Brother Earl asks of me. The man is a prophet, a tool used by God to spread His word. I will assist him in any way I can.
“Yes, Brother Earl,” I say, nodding my head.
“Good, child. Good.” He pauses for a moment, staring into my eyes as I fight the urge to blink. “As you know,” he continues, “I have brought my nephews here to live with me after the death of their father, my twin brother.”
I nod again, tamping down my disgust. His nephews are identical triplets. Mysterious, gorgeous, angsty… they have everything going for them except for one, major problem.
They are Alts.
“I’m sure you’ve been wondering why I would bring those filthy creatures here to live in my home and corrupt your school.”
“Yes, sir,” I admit.
“It’s all because of Savanna James.”
My head jerks back involuntarily. Savanna James is the school outcast, a loner and a total bitch. Since their arrival, the Alts have taken her into their inner circle, making her the talk of the entire school, a fact that drives my best friend, Fiona, absolutely insane.
“She is one of them,” he adds, and my mouth falls open.
“What do you mean?” I ask, sure I’ve misunderstood him.
“Exactly what I said. She is an Alt.”
My father’s tightening grip silences any further objections, but…Savanna James, an Alt? It’s ludicrous. I have known that girl most of my life.
“I am sure you have your doubts,” Brother Earl continues, “so let me put them to rest.”
He opens the laptop in front of him and taps on the keys. When he finishes, he turns it around to face me. What looks like surveillance camera footage plays in the open window, an outdoor area, like maybe a backyard.
A figure moves into the frame, followed by three larger bodies. They stop and the first person whirls around, blonde hair spinning around her.
“Savanna,” I murmur.
And the other three are the Alts. Brother Earl’s nephews, Jett, Wyatt, and Beckett Patton. I can’t tell them apart, but two of them look angry and the other one just looks embarrassed.
The shout echoing from the speakers of the computer brings my attention back to Savanna. Her chest heaves as if she’s breathing hard while the Alts just stand there, unmoving.
“This is the second time you’ve broken your promise not to fight. If you can’t handle this situation, we need to end it.”
“What is she talking about?” I ask, completely confused.
“Just keep watching,” Brother Earl replies.
“I am seventeen years old. I’ve never had a real friend, much less a boyfriend, but I’m handling this situation better than the three of you. You made this deal! It was your idea!”
She starts to pace back and forth between them, her hands clasped behind her back as she shakes her head.
“Trust us, Savanna,” she says, obviously mimicking someone. “We won’t get jealous, Savanna. We promise, Savanna. If I want to make out with one of you, or all of you at once,” she says, her voice getting louder with each word, “you will damn well accept it! Do you understand me? I love you all too much…to…”
“Oh, shit!” I blurt out.
“Lizzie,” my mom gasps, her tone reprimanding.
“Sorry,” I mumble.
I keep my eyes on the screen as Savanna takes off running. She turns her head and calls out, “I release you,” and the boys jump into action, taking off in her direction. The video ends and I meet Brother Earl’s eyes over the top of the screen.
“She persuaded them to stop and they were frozen the whole time?” I ask, ignoring, for the moment, the fact that she is apparently dating them all at once…and is in love with them.
Brother Earl nods. “That is correct.”
Shock ripples through me. Persuasion is the main reason the Purist movement began. Alts can control people with their minds, making them do and say things against their will. The ability is unnatural. The possibility of using it for selfish, and even evil, purposes makes the members of our congregation tremble in fear and loathing.
“I didn’t know Alts could persuade other Alts,” I say.
“They can’t,” he replies to my statement, a smile turning up his lips.
“Savanna is special,” he says, cutting me off. “She is my greatest achievement. I treated her mother when she was pregnant with Savanna, injecting her with a serum that stunted the outward, physical traits of Alts. She doesn’t have the silver-rimmed eyes. She doesn’t need blood to survive. Up until a few days ago, she had no idea that she was anything other than a normal human.”
“So, you brought the Alts here to, what? Help trigger her abilities?”
He nods once more. “As smart as she is beautiful.”
My face warms at the compliment as I bask in his approval.
“What do you need me to do?” I ask.
“I need you to befriend her. Gain her trust. Once you do that, I will give you further instructions.”
“That may be easier said than done,” I mutter, causing him to arch a brow. “My friend Fiona is Savanna’s worst enemy,” I explain. “Has been since kindergarten. She’ll never trust me.”
“Then you must publicly distance yourself from this Fiona and work to earn Savanna’s trust.”
My dad’s hand tightens on my shoulder again, so I nod and mumble, “Yes, sir.”
“And one other thing,” Brother Earl says, pulling a syringe from the drawer of his desk and holding it up. “I need to give you this.”
I flinch, my head shaking in denial. I hate needles. And the dark red liquid inside looks just like… blood.
“What is it?” Mom asks.
“It’s blood,” Brother Earl replies.
Oh, hell no!
Before the thought can form words on my tongue, he continues, “It is Savanna’s blood, to be exact. I’ve discovered certain… benefits of having it in my system.” He pauses, an animalistic grin distorting his usually kind face. “It makes you immune to persuasion.”