Ryder, Reece, Blaise, and I have been hiking on the trail between the cliffs for days now. We take occasional breaks, but our journey has mostly been filled with nonstop walking due to a long list of people and creatures tracking us, like the Forsaken. Although we haven’t seen any sign of them since we ran away from their camp a few day ago, Blaise insists we aren’t out of the clear yet.
We also have Trackers and the Grim to worry about. The longer I stay in the outside world, the more I realize it may be as dangerous as the channels. But I wouldn’t trade my freedom for anything, and I’m grateful Ryder, Reece, and Blaise saved me from being a prisoner.
I just wish I wasn’t so scared right now.
My knees knock together, my heart thrashes, and my skin dampens with sweat as I stand on the dusty path beneath the bleeding red sky with the nearly unbearable dry heat that beats down on me. My eyes are fixed on the narrow strip of land nestled between the cliffs and the drop off. My attention isn’t on the land, but the strange-looking creature hiding amid the dry dirt, the large rocks, and jagged cliffs.
With shimmering steel skin, glowing purple eyes, stubby legs, and pointy ears, it kind of reminds me of a robotic puppy. While I don’t think puppies are mean, this isn’t an ordinary puppy, so I don’t know how to react.
“Allura, it’s okay,” Ryder’s soothing voice chips away at my fear. “It won’t hurt you.”
“What is it?” I ask warily. “It’s not a tiny Chaser, is it?”
Chasers are horrible creatures made of assorted metals. They are drawn to objects that run off energy. I’ve been bitten a couple of times by them and the agonizing pain from the electrically-charged bite lasts for days.
“No, it’s not a Chaser.” Blaise steps up beside me, the corners of his lips lifting into a small, reassuring smile.
When I first met Blaise, I was afraid of him. With his blond hair shaved on one side, the metal barbells ornamenting his eyebrows and lips, and the tattoos on his neck, he looks rough and intimidating. I’m starting to realize my initial assumption of him was wrong. Blaise is the opposite of scary, at least to me. He’s done nothing but show me kindness, even when he discovered I might have Grim blood—all the guys have.
“Then, what is it?” I ask, gathering strands of my tangled brown hair out of my face.
He shields his eyes from the sunlight with his hand as he squints at the creature. “A compassbot.”
I wait for my mind to catch up and make the connection. It doesn’t.
“What’s a compassbot?”
Blaise’s brows furrow. “You don’t know?”
“Sorry, but I don’t think I do.” I feel silly for not knowing another thing about the red sky world.
Ryder drapes his arm around my shoulder. “You don’t need to be sorry for not knowing something.”
Like Blaise, he’s wearing a jacket with the hood pulled over his head, fingerless gloves, and baggy cargo pants tucked into unlaced boots. Unlike Blaise, Ryder’s clothes are stained with a few drops of blood from when a Forsaken stabbed him.
“It’s okay if you don’t know everything. No one really does,” Ryder says, his crystal blue eyes sparkle mischievously. “Blaise just hasn’t figured that out yet.”
My gaze skates to Blaise. While Ryder may be joking, Blaise tends to take most remarks seriously and sometimes gets mad at Ryder when he jokes around. I’ve learned over the last couple of weeks that, if Reece isn’t around to play mediator, their arguments can get heated. And Reece is currently searching for water, which leaves me to ease over the situation, something I’m not sure I know how to do. Still, I should try.
I part my lips, but before I can get the words out, Blaise scowls at Ryder and snaps, “I don’t think I know everything if that’s what you’re getting at. And I wasn’t being rude to her. I just wanted to be sure she didn’t know what a compassbot is so I can keep track.”
Question marks flood Ryder’s eyes. “Keep track of what?”
“The stuff she doesn’t know about this world.” Blaise flicks a glance at the compassbot that’s hopping back and forth between the tumbleweeds. “I’m also keeping track of the stuff she does know but doesn’t exist here.”
“That’s a little out of character for you.” Ryder fires an accusing look at Blaise. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Blaise exchanges a look with Ryder before redirecting his attention back to the compassbot, and Ryder looks away from us, frowning at the path.
I’ve seen the guys do this before when they were making an escape plan, or secretly trying to communicate something. I’ve often wondered if they have telepathy, but worry I might look stupid if I ask. I wish I knew what kind of secret conversations they’re having. I wish I didn’t feel so out of the loop. Then again, I don’t know why they’d include me in their private conversations. They hardly know anything about me, other than I’m considered a Nameless, barely have any memories of the red sky world, could possibly be a hybrid, and nearly drank the life from a Forsaken to protect Ryder.
“What’s wrong?” Blaise asks. “You look upset.”
Having no idea what face I’m making, I wiggle my nose to erase it. “I’m not. I promise.”
Blaise studies me with his intense eyes. “Then why do you look upset?”
I shrug, not wanting to tell the truth—that I’m feeling sorry for myself because I feel left out. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m tired.”
Ryder touches my shoulder, steering me around to face him. Lowering his head, he levels his gaze with mine. “She does look upset, doesn’t she?” he says to Blaise, keeping his gaze fixed on me. “What’s wrong? Is it the compassbot? I promise that thing won’t hurt you. They’re pretty harmless. A few people at the station even have them as pets. And besides, if they were dangerous, you should know by now that we’d never let anything hurt you.”
“I know that. I’m really not upset. I don’t know why I look that way, but I’m not.”
He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear then places his palm on my cheek. His skin is warm and rough, and I find comfort in his touch; a strange, newfound feeling for me. Touching was always something I dreaded during my time as a prisoner, the visitors’ and wardens’ touches always felt deathly cold and unnatural. Honestly, I used to wonder if I loathed being touched in general. However, when Ryder, Reece, and Blaise came along, I realized I only despised being touched by the Grim, which doesn’t make much sense since I might be half-Grim.
Shouldn’t I be less afraid of them?
I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything.
Ryder leans in to examine me closer.
Uneasy over his scrutiny, I tuck my hands into the sleeves of my leather jacket and shift my weight. A dry breeze picks up and sends a spray of dirt against my exposed legs. When I shiver from the sting, his gaze descends to my torn dress. Long in the back and shorter on the front, it leaves my skin vulnerable to the sunlight and wind.
“How are you doing with that dress?” Ryder stares at my legs for a beat longer before dragging his gaze to mine. “The sunlight isn’t burning your skin, is it?”
I shake my head. “Even if it was, it wouldn’t matter. The burns would heal quickly.”
“So what?” Ryder carries my gaze. “I don’t want you in any pain, even if it’s brief.”
“Really, I’m fine,” I reassure him. While the sunlight causes mild discomfort, the pain isn’t any worse than what I experienced in the channels.
With a frown, he parts his lips, but Blaise cuts him off.
“The compassbot’s heading our way.” Blaise’s steady, fearless tone should alleviate any of my worry about the compassbot, but he typically sounds unafraid, no matter the circumstances.
My gaze darts to the creature, and I stiffen. The compassbot isn’t heading our way; it’s looming right in front of us.
Ryder slips an arm around my waist and guides me to his side until our shoulders connect. Blaise’s gaze bounces back and forth between me, Ryder, and the compassbot, a pucker forming at his brow as his fingers curl into fists.
“Just relax,” Ryder whispers, his mouth close to my ear. “I’d never let something bad come this close to you. And neither would Blaise.”
I glance at Blaise, who’s glaring at the compassbot.
“Blaise seems mad at it,” I whisper to Ryder. “What does a compassbot do, exactly?”
Ryder slants forward to look at Blaise, strands of his blond hair falling across his forehead. “Blaise, you okay over there?”
Blaise doesn’t remove his attention from the compassbot, his lips remaining fused and jaw clenched.
Ryder sighs, reaches around me, and pokes Blaise in the arm.
Blaise flinches, his gaze snapping to Ryder. “Watch it,” he warns, his expression stone cold. “Or else.”
Ryder rolls his eyes. “You say that like something’s actually going to happen to me if I poke you again.”
Blaise scans the peaks of the cliffs then focuses his death glare back on Ryder. “Maybe something will.”
“What? You’ll poke me back?” Ryder teases. “That doesn’t bother me. Just you.”
“Maybe we should test out that theory.” Blaise elevates a clenched fist with his eyes narrowed at Ryder.
Uneasiness tremors through my muscles. While I don’t believe Blaise will hurt Ryder, he looks extremely angry right now.
I scan the area for Reece, knowing, if he shows up, the two of them will more than likely cool down. But he’s nowhere in sight, which worries me. He’s been gone for a while. I hope nothing happened to him.
My chest tightens. What if something did happen to him? Like the Forsaken captured him?
“No, there’s definitely something bothering you,” Ryder states, completely unbothered by Blaise’s withering glare.
“Nothing’s bothering me,” Blaise snaps. “Except for you.”
“Do you really mean that?” Ryder questions with his arms crossed. “Or are you trying to make a joke? Sometimes it’s hard to tell with you.”
“You’re really trying to piss me off today, aren’t you?” Blaise’s fists twitch, causing bad memories to pierce through my mind.
My breath gets stuck in my throat, and I instinctively cower back.
Ryder’s and Blaise’s heads snap in my direction, and then they hastily step away from each other.
“Sweetheart, we’re not going to hurt each other,” Ryder tells me at the same time Blaise mutters, “I’m sorry if we scared you.”
“We?” Ryder arches his brow at Blaise. “I’m pretty I’m not the one scaring her.”
Blaise shoots a harsh look at Ryder, but the rage in his eyes vanishes when he notes me watching him.
“I won’t hurt him, Allura. I’m just …” He huffs an exasperated breath then spins on his heels, storming off down the path in the direction we’ve been walking in since we escaped the Forsaken.
I watch him, feeling utterly horrible.
“I’m sorry I made him mad.” I turn back toward Ryder. “I feel terrible.”
“You didn’t make him mad,” he insists, giving my hand a squeeze. “I did.”
“Because you were teasing him?”
He thrums his fingers against the side of his legs, glancing from me to the path. “Not exactly.”
I open my mouth to ask him what upset Blaise, but the compassbot lets out an abrupt squeak, its purple eyes shimmering as an arrow on its back energetically sways back and forth.
I jump back, bumping my shoulder into Ryder’s chest. “What’s it doing?”
Ryder chuckles, wrapping his arms around my waist as his chest lines up with my back. “It’s trying to get your attention.”
My pulse hammers as the compassbot lets out another squeak then starts spinning in circles.
“Are you sure that’s all it’s doing?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” Ryder lightly tugs on a strand of my hair. “I think it likes you.”
I eye the compassbot warily. “Really?”
“Yeah, really.” Ryder playfully tugs on a strand of my hair again. “Which instantly makes me like it.”
“Because it’s clearly got good taste.”
I start to smile, but then my mouth curves downward. Ryder, Reece, and Blaise keep insisting they’re okay with the idea that I might have Grim blood, although none of them are fully convinced I do. I don’t entirely understand why they aren’t afraid of me. Not only are the Grim horrible monsters that feed off the lifespan of humans, they also ruined this world and destroyed their lives.
“You should pet it,” Ryder encourages, gently nudging me in the back.
“Like a dog?”
“What’s a dog?”
“They’re small and furry, and they bark …” I trail off as his face contorts in confusion. I sigh, frustrated with myself. “Maybe it’s another thing Blaise should add to his list.”
“Hey, don’t get frustrated.” Ryder grazes his knuckles across my cheekbone, and my eyelashes flutter in a strangely confusing way. “You’ve been through a lot. And like I said, it’s okay not to know everything.”
I take a breath to calm my heart. “I just wish I knew why I keep remembering things that don’t exist.”
“Maybe they just don’t exist here,” he says cautiously. “But they do someplace else.”
“You mean, like those burial places you guys talk about sometimes?”
“Maybe. Or …” He bites down on his bottom lip, hesitating. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, okay? But maybe, if you are different, then perhaps you came from someplace else, like some believe the Grim did.”
I recollect the blue sky that appears so frequently in my memories, the lofty trees, the sparkling stars, and the glowing moon. Then I think of the place I saw when I was near the Deorum.
Maybe Reece is right. Maybe I’m different because I’m not from here.
“You think I’m from where the Grim are from?” I ask quietly.
His eyes widen. “No. That’s not what I meant. I just wonder if you’re from some place different than our world. That’s it. God, please stop looking at me like that, Allura. It’s killing me.”
“Sorry.” I try to wipe my expression clean, still worrying if he could be right.
“It’s not a bad thing to be from someplace else. And I’m not one hundred percent sure if I’m right. I’m making a guess based on zero facts.” His lips quirk as he sweeps strands of hair out of my eyes. “Reece would have a shitfit if he heard the basis for my theory.”
I start to smile when the compassbot rushes up to me. I stumble backward, not getting very far as it plops down on my boot.
“What’s it doing?” I whisper, frozen in terror.
“I think it wants you to pick it up and pet it,” Ryder says through a chuckle.
When I make no move to do so, he steps around me, crouches down, and scratches the compassbot behind the ear. The robotic puppy’s eyes flash as it lets out a high-pitched yap.
“See? Completely harmless,” Ryder says with a smile.
Taking a deep breath, I lean down and tentatively trace my fingers along the top of the compassbot’s head. The arrow on its back wags back and forth as the robotic dog releases an excited, squeaky yap.
“It feels warmer than I thought,” I say, gently scratching it behind the ears. A memory tiptoes into the back of my mind of me petting a small, spotted puppy. A puppy that belonged to me. One that grew into a dog who tried to protect me
His name was Moondust …
“No, stay away!” I scream at my dog as two large men drag me away from the small log cabin I’ve been hiding out in.
Moondust barrels down the dirt road after me, barking at the men with his teeth bared. I want him to save me, but at the same time, I don’t want him getting hurt.
The man grasping my right arm jerks me forward as he quickens the pace. “If that damn mutt doesn’t shut up, I’m going to shoot him.”
I trip, trying to keep up, rocks scraping the soles of my bare feet, as tears stream from my eyes. “Please, don’t hurt my dog.”
He’s the only thing I have left.
“Shut your mouth,” the man holding my left arm warns then kicks the back of my leg with the tip of his thick boot.
I wince, but manage to keep the scream trapped in my throat and my feet underneath me.
I glance up at the man on my right, who’s wearing a hoodie pulled over his head and smells like pungent smoke. I can’t see his face very well, but as far as I can tell, I don’t know him. The man on my left, however, his voice carries a drop of familiarity.
I start to lean forward, hoping to get a good look at him, but he turns his head in the opposite direction, toward a tar road weaving through fields of dry grass.
I peer up at the sky, expecting to see blue, but instead I am blinded by an array of neon colors swirling together.
Where am I?
“Would you shut the damn dog up? I can’t take it anymore.” The man on my right grinds his teeth as Moondust reaches us and nips at his heels.
The man on my left shakes his head. “If you want the dog to shut up, make him yourself. I don’t hurt animals.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” the other man sneers, his yellowish fingernails stabbing into my arms. “You’ll kill a human, but you won’t kill a stupid little dog?”
The man on my right stares down at me with hatred burning in his eyes. “She’s not human.”
My heart misses a beat. Those eyes … So blue … Alarmingly blue … I know him … from somewhere …
“But she’s close,” the man on my right points out. “Closer than the dog is.”
“No, she’s not.” The other man keeps his gaze on me, a smile pulling at his lips. “Don’t let her looks fool you. What lies underneath those pretty, sad eyes is a horrible, murderous monster who needs to be killed repeatedly.”
“Allura, did you hear what I said?” Ryder waves his hand in front of my face.
I blink as I’m hauled back to reality, but the pain from the memory—or whatever that was—continues to sear my heart.
A horrible, murderous monster? I’m a murderer?
“No … What?” I blink again, trying to focus.
“I said, I think the sun’s heating up the metal on the compassbot.” Ryder peers up at the sky then at me, his brows furrowing. “Are you okay?”
I nod. “I’m fine.” Liar. You’re not fine. You’re a monster. A murderer.
But who did I kill?
“Are you sure?” Ryder asks, studying me with concern. “You seem … I don’t know, distracted.”
“I’m just thinking about some stuff.” I hate lying to him, but I can’t find the courage to tell him the truth.
I’m a killer.
Ryder sighs defeatedly. “If you don’t want to talk about it, then it’s fine. Just know I’m here.”
“I’m sorry.” I’m not even sure what I’m apologizing for.
“Don’t apologize for nothing. Ever. Got it?” He wags a finger at me sternly, but his lips pull into a smile.
I try to mirror his happiness, but fail epically. “Got it.”
He frowns. Then his eyes sparkle as he looks at the compassbot. “You know what? I think you should keep it.”
“Like take it back to the station with me?” I start to smile when he nods, but then frown. “Are you sure that’s okay? I don’t live there, so maybe I shouldn’t bring a pet back without permission.”
“You have my permission, which is enough. And besides, the station will be your home.” He scratches the back of his neck, seeming nervous, which is very out of character for him. He’s usually so relaxed and flippant. “At least, if you want it to be.”
“I want it to be.” I stare down at the compassbot. Its head is lowered and its eyelids are droopy, appearing so at peace, like a harmless robot who deserves a home. But me … If they knew the truth, about the stuff I see myself do in my memories, dreams—whatever they are—not everyone would welcome me. “I’m not sure everyone will want me to live there after they find out I might be half-Grim.”
“We don’t know you are for sure,” he reminds me. “And even if you are, no one would care.”
I stay silent. I know he’s trying to make me feel better, but I don’t agree with him. Not everyone thinks the same, carries the same opinions, or reacts the same way to situations, so I doubt everyone at the station will be okay with me if it turns out I’m a hybrid. Look at the Forsaken. They loathed hybrids. And for good reason. And everyone from my memories doesn’t seem too thrilled with my presence, either.
Ryder bends over to catch my gaze. “Look, I don’t believe anyone at the station would care if it turns out you’re a hybrid. We don’t have to tell anyone if it makes you uncomfortable.”
Guilt chokes at me. “Then you’d have to lie to everyone.”
“I don’t want you to have to lie to people you care about.”
“You say that like I don’t care about you.” He fixes his finger under my chin, forcing me to look him in the eye. “I do. So does Reece and Blaise. And Blaise doesn’t care about anyone, which says a lot about what kind of person you are.”
“You hardly know me,” I say softly. “For all you know, I could turn out to be as bad as those hybrids who killed all those Forsaken.”
His gaze never wavers from mine. “I know you aren’t.”
“How do you know that for sure?” I don’t.
His hand molds my cheek. “You don’t have a damn bad bone in your body, whether you believe so or not.”
“Not everything I’ve done is good.” Even if I can’t remember all the bad, sometimes I can feel it living inside the darkest parts of my mind.
“If you’re talking about what happened back in the tent, then you’re completely wrong. You were just trying to protect me. You were so brave, and I wish you’d realize that.”
His words make me feel warm inside, like melted chocolate. I don’t even know how I know what melted chocolate feels like, but that’s how I feel right now. And while I know I may be undeserving of the feeling, I can’t seem to force it to go away.
“Thanks for saying that,” I say so quietly my voice nearly gets carried away by the wind.
“No, thank you.”
“For being you.”
My lips pull into the tiniest smile, and he grins. But his happiness fades into puzzlement.
I open my mouth to ask him what’s wrong when he grazes his thumb across my lip, silencing me. Then his gaze drops to my mouth and his tongue slips out from between his lips, his eyes glazing over. I’ve seen a guy look at me this way before. A guy who haunts my memories, who whispers promises of loving me, and then later tries to kill me.
Ryder once told me he wanted to kiss me, even going so far as to graze his lips against the corner of my mouth. Then he told me he’d wait until later to kiss me. What if he tries to kiss me right now? Should I stop it? Or just let him?
Should I let him kiss me without him knowing the entire truth about me?
All my worries are cut short as the ground rumbles.
“Do you feel that?” I whisper, my eyes widening.
Ryder nods dazedly with his gaze fastened on my mouth. “I do.” Then he leans in.
I don’t know what’s going on—why he’s not panicking that the ground’s quaking—when fear courses through my veins.
“What if it’s a Tracker?”
Ryder pauses, his lips mere inches from mine. “Huh …?” His eyes enlarge as the ground gives another violent quake. “Shit.” His hand leaves my cheek, and he grasps ahold of my hand as his gaze skims the cliffs around us.
“What is it?” I search the area, fighting back the urge to panic.
“I’m not sure …” Ryder strengthens his hold on my hand as the dirt beneath our feet begins to splinter apart. “It’s not a Tracker. They won’t come near the fault.” Doubt crosses his face as he peers upward at the cliffs.
I hold my breath, waiting for a giant, metallic snake to burst through the dirt and dive straight at us. It never happens. Instead, a group of metallic vehicles with shiny black exteriors and no trunk or roof, wheel up to the ledge. My mind takes a second to connect the machines to a word I know.
Of course, the motorcycles I picture are much smaller and less bulky, but I’m rarely right about what things look like.
A person straddles each motorcycle, their heads shielded by helmets. I can’t tell if they’re men or women. Then my stomach clenches as another thought occurs to me.
What if they aren’t people? What if they’re Grim?
“Ryder … What are they?” My confusion doubles when a smile spreads across his face.
He glances at me, seeming more relaxed than he has since they rescued me from the channels. “That, sweetheart, is our rescue team.”