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Harder Than Stone: The Next Generation of Power (Harder Series Book 1) by Jacey Ward, Chloe Fischer (1)

Prologue

Audrey - 12 years ago

Audrey

The heaviness had nothing to do with the driving rain pouring over their heads, even though it certainly didn’t help.

Audrey Conway gritted her teeth and shot her grey eyes toward the sky. For a strange second, the clouds parted to display a dazzling array of purple and white that didn’t belong in the storm.

“What do you see?”

She turned her head back toward her step-mother and shrugged almost indifferently.

“Colors,” she replied nonchalantly. “Just colors.”

“You need to come inside before you catch your death,” Sage told her quietly. “I think Ashtyn made stew.”

Before she could stop herself, the sixteen-year old’s face twisted into a scowl and she shook her head.

“I’m not hungry,” Audrey snapped, a sullenness enveloping her at once. “Especially not for Ashtyn’s shitty cooking. She should really just stick to stealing.”

“Audrey…”

“What?” the teenager grumbled. “Am I wrong?”

“Audrey,” her Sage sighed, ducking back under the eave which barely protected her from the driving rain. “I know you feel cooped up and trapped right now, but—”

“You don’t know anything!” Audrey barked back, but was instantly ashamed at her own behavior. It wasn’t Sage’s fault that she was in such a shitty mood. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, not really.

Actually, it is. It’s Oculus. They’re the reason for everything. They’re the reason we’ve been isolated on this compound for more than a decade, living like some post-apocalyptic family.

Not that she or her cousins were deprived of anything necessary. Each of the four families living in the compound, her father and his three brothers, had their own homes equipped with any comfort they could want or need.

The only thing we’re missing is other people, she thought sullenly.

Shame overcame her in a flurry. She knew full well that so many people in this world were worse off than her.

At least she now had an extended family. She had come to admire them all so much in the few years they had been together.

Her father was the youngest of the four brothers who had been re-united about a decade ago. They had been torn apart as very young children and hidden from each other, and even from their powerful father. Only as adults had their father finally tracked down each and every one of the brothers – thanks in large part to the special “abilities” each brother had.

Those abilities, though, were the very reason that Oculus hunted them all now. And even worse – now Oculus knew that the children of the four brothers were even more powerful than their fathers had been.

Audrey shook her head with resignation. The cousins hadn’t wanted for love or material things, but they had been protected fiercely by their parents and seldom had the freedom to leave the safety of the compound that their grandfather had built.

Sheer necessity had brought them together, but love and respect for each other saw them growing close and looking out for one another though.

“You’re entitled to feel whatever you’re feeling, but for now, I do wish you’d come in from the rain so we can talk about it.” Sage replied lightly, but Audrey clearly read the concern in her eyes.

Before following her step-mother inside, Audrey cast one last look at the heavens, her eyes narrowing as an unexpected shiver coursed through her body.

Purple indicates trouble. White, uncertainty. What’s coming at us now?

“What were you two doing outside?” her father demanded, narrowing his eyes as his wife and daughter entered the back door.

“I was just wondering if you had anything to do with this storm,” Audrey replied, shaking the rain droplets from her hair. Aiden snickered.

“You call this a storm?” he teased. “We all know I can do much better than this. No, my darling, this is an act of God. We’re expected at Ashtyn’s – get yourself ready.”

Audrey sauntered down the long back hall toward her bedroom. When she knew her parents thought she was out of earshot, she ducked behind a wall and listened.

“What’s wrong, Sage?” Her father demanded – concern hardening his tone. “What happened?”

“She’s getting restless, Aiden.”

“She’s a teenaged girl. Of course she is.”

“No,” Sage said flatly. “She’s not just any teenaged girl and you know it. You raised her to be self reliant – she feels trapped, lying in wait for God knows what’s in store, but wanting so much more.”

Aiden was quiet for a long moment, before sighing, “We have to do what we can to keep her safe.”

“You can’t keep her prisoner here.” There was no room for protest in Sage’s voice and goosebumps exploded on Audrey’s arms.

Was that something they’d discussed before? Keeping me here forever?

The knowledge shouldn’t have surprised Audrey, but it did.

Had they planned to keep her here forever? What else could she have expected? Oculus hasn’t been taken down despite the endless efforts of my uncles and grandfather. Her family had become complacent — believing themselves safe in their own little world. Was she the only one with an interest in seeing life outside this beautifully, lonely prison?

Idly, her mind flipped to her cousins, still too young to understand the danger they were in or the talents they possessed.

When I was their age, I was running for my life already, wasn’t I?

She shoved her kin out of her head and focussed her ears on the conversation in the kitchen.

“I have no interest in keeping her prisoner,” Aiden said dully. “But if that’s what I have to do to keep her safe—”

“Aiden, I don’t claim to understand half of what you and your brothers are capable of, but I know Audrey well enough to know two things ... Audrey is much more powerful than she even knows yet — ”

“I know that too,” her father sighed. “In this compound, we have abilities that Stan Lee himself couldn’t have created.”

“AND I know that if you keep her locked here when she wants to leave, Aiden, she’ll find a way out – and not one of you will be able to stop her.

A silence fell over the house and Audrey tried to tap into her father’s thoughts, but he’d gotten better at blocking her now.

“I will always do what’s best for my family. You know that.” Aiden stated.

“I do. That’s why I think we need to prepare her for the future she wants to explore as well as for what’s coming outside of this safe haven. She’s determined to break free of here – with or without our blessing. I think it’s important that we stay unified, don’t you?” The calm tone and inherent wisdom of Sage’s words seemed to give Aiden pause.

And it can’t hurt that my step-mom’s a child psychologist too, Audrey thought with mounting excitement.

“We can’t wait for her to pack a bandana on a stick and disappear into the wilderness, Aiden. That will put her in more danger than if we educate her properly. She’s gotten military-grade training under Drake. You and your brothers have helped her to see the full potential of her powers. I’ve done my best to give her life skills. If and when she’s ready to go, she needs to go with confidence and without looking over her shoulder.”

“Shouldn’t we just cross this path when we get to it?” Aiden mumbled weakly, and at that point Audrey knew Sage had won.

“She needs to stay out of the public eye, Sage,” Aiden sighed, trying one final defense. “We all took on the Conway name when we came here, but she can’t be a Conway on the outside, not when Oculus is still searching for us all.”

A familiar chill of apprehension snaked through Audrey as it always did when she heard the name aloud.

“Then we change her name ... the point is she’s a teenaged girl who will become a headstrong woman. Anything you do to force her in one direction will ultimately push her in the opposite. We have to arm our child with everything we can.”

Audrey didn’t need to see his face, nor read his thoughts to know that her father was slowly giving in to what Sage was saying. The feeling of euphoria flowed quickly through her system. But then her father’s voice caught her attention again.

“You know, it’s not just me you’ll need to convince,” he said quietly. “The others—especially Drake, won’t be so amenable to letting her go.”

“Audrey is our child. I don’t give a rat’s ass what your father says about it.”

The ice in Sage’s voice chilled Audrey even from where she hid.

“Sage…”

“This is our daughter, Aiden!” she said heatedly. “It’s not all about Drake and what he wants anymore. He’s not God, Aiden, no matter how many rogue government connections he has or what he was once capable of. The fight against Oculus isn’t just his anymore.

“And he never had to raise children in this environment, because you and your brothers were already…gone,” she finished weakly, realizing at the last second how cold she must sound. “I’m sorry…that was too far.”

“It’s okay, love,” he said as he framed her face gently with his hand, “And you’re right. But let’s not rehash the past. Drake has lost some perspective. He’s fought hard for and won our survival —”

“And his war on Oculus has been passed down to you and your brothers,” Sage interrupted softly. But who do you think the torch is going to be passed to from there?”

“There will be no torch to pass,” Aiden hissed with shocking firmness. “Oculus will be eliminated.”

“That’s what Drake swore too.” Her voice softened with concern. “Oh, honey, you need to accept that if Oculus continues their hunt for you, Audrey needs to be just as ready as Drake has made you and your brothers.

“Audrey deserves the chance to grab her future by the balls,” Sage replied with confidence. “And maybe, just maybe, it will be her generation that ends this.”

“You’re putting a lot of stock into three children,” Aiden muttered and Audrey could almost hear Sage’s shrug.

“Once upon a time, four children, much younger than these three cousins, were torn apart from each other and their parents, they escaped independently and survived. They didn’t have the same capacity nor the knowledge that our children do. If those boys, you, could do it alone, what do you think three united and powerful cousins are capable of together?”

Sage’s words were both inspirational and terrifying, but they rang with truth and conviction.

She’s right. We’re not our fathers – separated and fighting to get back to one another. They’ve brought us together. We’re stronger, informed and ready for what’s coming. We won’t hide from Oculus. We’ll take them head on.

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