The world trembled.
Trembled and shook and shuddered and roared with a fury Jane Walker had never known. Here, underground, in this prison of stone, there was nowhere for the fire and force to go other than out, other than forward. It surrounded her, enveloping her, enveloping both of them – and it was all she could do to hold.
She’d felt it. The explosions sounding different, the ground around the mines making more of an echo the closer she got to where Matt had stood. She’d saw it, landed in the empty ruin nearby, seen a collapsed wall hiding a staircase covered in rock. And then she’d heard it – the cry for help. And she’d known.
Her hands searing ablaze, Jane Walker had burned through ten feet of crumbling rock to find Matt Callaghan cowering behind a table, and a suicide bomber ready to explode.
And in that single, hanging instant, she’d felt something she’d never felt before rise in her chest and she had known without thinking what to do.
Jane lunged forward, one hand grabbing Matt by his breastplate and pulling him behind her, one hand outstretched, streaming fire. All around them, unbidden, thick packs of ice rose from the ground, covering them, pressing down. Jane crouched over Matt and let out a wordless roar, and as her voice rose the world exploded, with noise, with force, with all-consuming sound, and fire whipped around them like a hurricane, writhing, burning, a vortex born from hell.
But she would not let it take her. And she would not let him die.
Force slammed into her and the ice cracked, her legs buckling, her arm staggered. Fire slammed into fire, heat searing her fingertips, and all around them the explosion howled, burning, mindless against its confines, swallowing air and earth and wall. Death came in a wave of flame and with soundless fury she forced it back, every muscle tensed, blood spinning on her tongue.
YIELD! she cried, and it was not a word but a thought, a primal, burning drive. She pushed, screaming against the impossible, as the world around them blazed with blinding, howling will.
The fire came to claim them and it was all she could do to hold.
And then, in a moment, it passed.
The light faded. The sound stopped. Jane’s chest sagged and her arm drooped, and she slumped to all fours. In front of them the flames of the explosion splayed up into the ceiling, the corners and far wall, washing fruitlessly against the rock, flickering, dying. Suddenly the room was empty, eviscerated, cleansed of all but the smell of ash. Heat radiated from blackened walls. Of the woman, the explosives, everything that had once been inside, there remained no evidence. Jane’s ears rang and her vision swam, and when she tried to breath hot smoke coughed from her lungs.
The empath turned to look behind her, let her legs and arms drop. She half fell, half rolled to face away from the destruction, sitting one leg crooked like a clumsy child. Her hands touched hot dirt and she had to blink to draw the blur from her eyes.
There, behind her, singed but unscathed, looking up at her with frightened awe, was Matt.
For a moment, they just sat there, looking at each other. Jane’s ears were ringing and she couldn’t quite see straight. Matt’s armour was covered in soot and there were burns on his fingers and cheeks. The ends of his hair were still slightly on fire. Neither seemed to notice.
Jane opened her mouth to say something, only to erupt in a fit of ashen coughs. She retched and spat out a chunk of something black.
“You alright?” she managed finally. Matt nodded, dazed, staring at her. Jane’s shoulders slumped, and she let out a relieved, rasping sigh. She closed her eyes and leant back on her hands.
And then suddenly in the darkness she heard a sobbing shuffle of movement, and felt two arms wrap tight around her chest. A face pressed into her neck and she felt a vast stretch of humanity.
“Thank you,” Matt whispered. And after a moment, though it was probably just the shell-shock, Jane unexpectedly hugged him back.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Jane.
They were alone, sitting on a low drystone wall in the middle of the farmstead; Jane occasionally coughing, Matt prodding tenderly at his burns. Neither was saying much. After their long, near‑death‑fuelled hug had ended, Matt and Jane had pulled apart, and the empath had resolutely blasted a path for them back up through the shattered rock. The west half of the basement had collapsed not long after, weakened by the explosion, but by that point they were long out. James Conrad and Natalia were down there now, the former clearing away the rubble, the latter looking for clues. Neither were likely to find anything.
The others had arrived of course, not long after Matt and Jane had pulled themselves to safety. After hearing the repeated explosions and Natalia sensing Jane’s sudden, distant panic, they’d come charging down – unharmed, thankfully, since Jane luckily seemed to have cleared most of the traps. They’d been warned now though and were cautious only to tread where Jane had already been. None of the other Acolytes had stayed put for long. James and Natalia were down in the cellar; Will and Giselle had teleported off to get a healer. And some water, Jane had requested, for her parched and ashen throat.
They’d be back soon. Alone in starlit darkness, in an ancient, ruined home, Matt Callaghan and Jane Walker sat burned and bruised and bloodied, and knew without saying a single sentence that now was their window to talk.
“What the hell just happened?”
“I don’t know,” Matt said quietly. A thin trickle of blood lay drying beneath his ears and a patch of his hair was singed. “I don’t know.”
Jane glanced at him, her soot-stained face twisting in a grimace. “I’m sorry I left you.”
“You didn’t know.” Matt shook his head. “And I don’t think it would’ve mattered. This was all set up.”
They lapsed into dark, starlit silence.
“What did she want?” Jane asked.
“I don’t know,” Matt answered truthfully. He leaned forward, resting his hands on his chin, then flinched at the touch of raw skin. “I don’t know. It was… she was saying all these things. About people and distractions and danger and… murder. She said I had some part to play. I don’t… I don’t understand.”
Jane let herself stay silent. After a few seconds, Matt shook his head, staring intently at the mud.
“Something’s wrong,” he said quietly.
“No,” he said, turning to her. There was softness in his voice, but a shadow in his eyes. “There’s something wrong with all of this. With me being here. I don’t… I thought it was a coincidence. Just bad luck. But it’s not.” Matt’s hands trembled, but his words stayed steady. “I think someone planned all this. I think there’s something going on. I think we’re in danger.” There was a distant pop followed by the smell of sulphur, and the sound of raised voices called out over the ruins. Matt’s voice dropped. “I think we’re all in danger,” he murmured, glancing over at Will and the approaching Acolytes, “Everyone.”
For a moment Jane stayed silent, simply looking in Matt’s eyes. The wind blew, and the stones creaked, and the scent of ash floated through the night. Finally, the empath spoke.
“From what?” she whispered, as the Acolytes’ footsteps drew closer, “From who?”
Six thousand miles away in a cold, sterile room, a man the world had forgotten lay on life support. His body lay unmoving, drips in his arms, surrounded by monitors and machines – the only sign of life his breathing, that thin, quiet rasping, and his chest’s ragged rise and fall. Cameras gleamed above him, watching every second – though all who saw him knew it had been years since the man in the bed had freely moved.
The room was large, for a cell. Large and cold and clinical, white floors and plexiglass, two floors below ground where no sunlight ever touched. Devoid of human sound, the only noise the whirring cameras, the rhythmic beeps of life-support and the air-conditioner’s monotonous hum, pumping chills into the man’s frail lungs.
Alone. Dying. Forgotten.
There were staff who came to see him – doctors with their clipboards, guards to stand against the door. There were checks and changes and routine cleaning, even jokes outside his cell. Never inside. The prisoner may not have moved nor spoken but still in his presence they felt wary – still, there came a trickle of fear.
They came. They left. They waited. They watched.
Never knowing there was another.
From a place no one could perceive, a blue-eyed child stood silent, watching the prisoner breathe his artificial air, his slow, imperceptible atrophy; watched some machines give life and others prepare to take it. Watched the living corpse lay motionless, never giving any indication of the thoughts that whirled inside his writhing, boiling mind. Of his swirling pain and fury. Of his dark, unspoken truth.
Soon, the boy whispered: Soon.
The man’s eyes twitched.
END OF BOOK ONE
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).