A thick blanket of snow coated the forest north of Kedwin. Gusting wind licked at my exposed skin until the flesh became tight and painful. I could have quickly warmed my veins, but the pain provided a distraction from the aching disappointment.
Fisting my numb hands, I replayed Mom’s words until my temples throbbed.
‘Join the Hawk Unit,’ she’d said.
How could she tell me to do that? Even if I did survive the grueling training in one piece, there was the hunter’s oath to think of. Breaking the oath was a criminal offense, punishable by death and public decay.
Mad! She had to be mad!
Mad, I decided. It was easier to accept, to forgive.
Piping, hot tears stung my eyes. Blinking them away, I abandoned my sluggish pace. Almost two hours later, I reached a foul muddy pond bordered by a crumbling brick fence and red oak trees that, despite being deciduous, boasted large shiny leaves that did not tremble in the winter breeze.
The pond was one of seven entrances into Landon. It was also the least popular since only a handful of exiles knew how to use it without ending up waist-deep in thick slimy mud. Mom had shown the tell-tale signs to me and Aubrey years ago. Back when we’d done silly things like camp in the woods and hunt for morel mushrooms.
I climbed atop the crumbling fence and stretched out my left hand with the palm facing the sky. A flicker of thought warmed the cold flesh. Another and flames danced in vibrant hues of gold and orange, illuminating the naked, twisted branches above and the fragmented bricks below.
Circling the pond, I searched for the entrance. It took three tries to find the brick with crescent-shaped cracks.
I closed my fingers around the flame. Positioning my feet just so, I leaped off the wall.
A breath before my boots touched the muddy pond, the air shifted, and the sweet smell of magic crammed its way up my nose. There was no time to hold my breath. My feet slammed into a strip of solid pavement. I barely managed to stay on my feet. It was a good thing, too, since wild elephant roses bordered the sidewalk. I was allergic to their tusked-shaped thorns.
The pavement ended at a tall vine-covered gate. I slipped through it and into Landon. The town sat silent and drowsy beneath a haze of fog and dying camp-fire smoke. Thanks to Cloakers, it was shrouded under a layer of magic that made it invisible to the human eye. Cloaker magic also protected it against the harsh weather affecting the rest of northern Michigan.
Landon was one of six exile communities on Earth. Most exiles didn’t live in cloaked enclaves, though. Most chose to live among humans. A few had even married them.
My best friend, Ollie Martinez, was the result of such a union.
Ollie lived in the middle of Landon, above the bookstore she had inherited from her mother, Kel. Getting around the town square was usually simple. Unfortunately, thanks to Joshua’s upcoming Pinning ceremony, I was forced to navigate a maze of chairs, ropes, and tables.
To make matters worse, banners, imprinted with his holier-than-thou face, stared down at me from light poles and trees, fences.
I flipped him off.
Finally, I reached the other side of the square. My bitterness and anger retreated when the Bookish Nook came into view. For as long as I could remember, it had been my sanctuary and buttress. It was more of a home than my own.
From the outside, the store resembled a tree. Its peeling brown and gray bark stood over thirty feet tall before arching to form thick branches laden with leaves. The leaves were cut from book pages. The sign above the door was made from oversized Scrabble tiles — a tribute to the scrabble obsessed human father Ollie had never met.
I was surprised to see the lights on inside the store. Unlike most seventeen-year-olds, Ollie was an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of girl. Puzzled, I banged a fist on the door. It flew open at once.
I took a step back as Ollie, yawning, and stretching like a cat, joined me on the front porch. A glint of silver flashed in the dark of her mouth, showing off the tongue ring I’d dared her to get. She was still dressed in the shorter-than-short dress she’d been wearing when I left seven hours ago.
“Were you waiting up for me?” I asked.
“Why would I be doing that? You left for good.” She had a scratchy voice. The kind best suited for old men who chewed too much tobacco.
“I did leave for good.”
“Oh, admit it! You expected me to come crawling back here with my tail between my legs.”
Ollie leaned against the porch rail and crossed her legs at the ankle. She reached up to fuss with the paper leaves above our heads. Her paint-splattered brown fingers were elegant and long, perfect for creating art and music.
I walked to her side and glared at her face until, sucking air through her teeth, she turned to face me.
“So what if I waited up for you?” she said.
“That meant you thought I’d come back!”
Her eyes crawled over me, their soft brown darkening with anger. “Of course, I knew you’d come back. Letting you down is what Rose does best.” She made a face when she said Mom’s name like it had left a bad taste on her tongue. “She excels at breaking your heart. The question is, how long will you let this continue?”
“She didn’t hurt—”
“Don’t lie to me, Morgan. I know when you’re hurting.”
Heat slithered down my arms, causing my fingertips to swell and throb. I hated that Ollie knew how little Mom loved me. I felt ashamed for some reason. Like I’d done something to deserve Mom’s mediocre affection.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” she said, throwing her hands in the air. “Perhaps you're better off with the Hawk Unit at your side than at your back?”
“As if I’ll make it through the training,” I muttered.
Ollie sucked in a breath. “Don’t talk like that.”
“I once dislocated my shoulder by picking up a book.”
“It was a hardcover boxed set. Plus, Lefu wasn’t feeding you.”
“Face it, Ol. The odds are against me.”
She turned away, but not before I saw the tears glistening on her lashes. She wiped them away with the heel of her hand. “You’re a Shaw. Every Shaw hunter has retired from the Hawk Unit with honor. None has ever died.”
“My Dad will probably disown me for tarnishing the Shaw name.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing!” Ollie pushed away from the railing, her wet eyes brightening with hope. “Think about it! Lefu has more pride than a gay parade. For that reason alone, he’ll see to it you succeed.”
“Or, he’ll set me on fire and sweep the ashes under the rug.”
Ollie’s brown cheeks lifted in a smile. She shook her head. “He won’t let you fail. I’m sure of it. He has too big of an ego.”
She was probably right, but I didn’t care. Whether I passed or failed, the Unit’s training wouldn’t matter in the end. At least not to Mom.
Pushing away from the rail, I said, “Do you mind if I grab Phyllis and go? It’s been kind of a long day.”
Ollie’s face fell. “He’s still asleep from the pills you slipped him before you left. It’s likely he’ll be out until morning.”
She walked over to door and held it open so I could see into the foyer where Phyllis’s speckled body was sprawled out on a beanbag chair. My shoulders caved. The absence of tension in my limbs caused my bag to slide to the ground. I stared down at it, trying to will my weak fingers into retrieving it. Ollie’s nimble fingers hooked around the strap and heaved the bag off the floor. It was a minute before I could look at her.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Ollie leaned forward to hug me, but I shook my head. It was tempting. She gave the best hugs. “I don’t want to start crying again.”
“Would that be so bad? Maybe it’s exactly what you need to do. Cry a little. Scream a lot. Both have been known to help.”
“Tears are for the weak.”
Ollie’s lips thinned. “I hate it when you talk like her.”
I laughed bitterly. “Well, Mothers know best, right?” She looked like she was on the verge of tears again, so I started backing away. “Anyway, I should get going. If I hurry, I can put my name on the recruitment list before the Unit closes up for the night.”
“Can’t you wait until they reopen in a few days?”
“Dad said I had to sign up before my birthday. So …”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
The offer was genuine, but I shook my head. I couldn’t have Ollie walking back on her own after dark. Being half-human meant Ollie had no magic with which to defend herself. Most of Landon didn’t care Ollie had a human father, but some still treated her with contempt. Some had even threatened violence.
“I’ll be okay on my own,” I said, backing away. “Plus, you have to prepare for tomorrow. Your dress still needs hemming, remember?” Ollie was allergic to hemlines below the knee.
“It does,” she said nodding. “Plus I have a ton of restocking to do. That Leah girl was here. You know, that huntress with the face like a squashed peach? Anyway, she wrecked the whole damn genealogy aisle.”
“I know! She didn’t even try to put anything back.”
“Do you need help putting it back together?”
Ollie waved me off. “No, you go on. But call me if you can’t find anything to wear. I have a few backups you can borrow.”
“Oh! You know what you should wear?” Ollie close the distance between us, quickly. “That pink skirt you stuffed in the back of your closet because Lefu aped out about the slit being too high.”
My eyes almost rolled to the back of my head. “I am not dressing up to go see Joshua Kaito. He won’t even notice us.”
“We’re not dressing up for his sake.”
“It’s his Pinning ceremony and Captain’s banquet,” I said, waving a hand toward the platform and chairs across the street. “The entire night is about him. The banners don’t lie.”
“Forget about that conceited twit. Tomorrow night is your last chance to go wild before donning that wretched hunter’s cloak. You have to wear the sexiest, most daring outfit you can.”
Hunters wore only a black, feathered cloak. They were only required to wear it on hunts, but nearly all hunters wore their cloaks between hunts, too. “I can’t believe I’ll have to walk around in that ugly thing,” I grumbled. “And with nothing under it! Not even underwear!”
“They don’t seem to mind too much.”
“Because they are idiots,” I growled.
Ollie pulled on a dreadlock, inspecting it with keen eyes. “I’ll come by tomorrow and pin your hair up, so it’s doesn’t hit you in the face when we dance.”
It was Ollie’s mom, Kel, who’d first tamed my forest of curls. I’d gone bawling to her when Dad reached for a pair of scissors instead of a comb. Usually, it comforted me to have Ollie do my hair. At the moment, however, I was in no mood to be prettied up.
“There will be no dancing,” I muttered and brushed her hand away.
“Oh, there will be plenty of dancing. And we're not dancing, we'll be flirting with hot boys. Hot enough to make you forget about tonight!”
I turned and walked away so she wouldn’t see me roll my eyes.
The Hawk Unit’s headquarters was a seven-story building with a grand Aramithian name. Exiles were forbidden to learn the Aramtihian language, however, so it was merely called the Compound.
The Unit shared the Compound with Landon’s resident Healer, Nurse Spec, and her staff. The Healer’s emblem, a snake devouring a full moon, was stamped on all the fourth-floor windows. I didn’t stare at the insignia for too long, lest it awakened flesh memories of Nurse Spec cutting into my abdomen.
Instead, I kept my eyes on the towering gates ahead. A pair of stone hawks were affixed on either side. Their eyes were frozen pools of pain. Moonlight beamed through their opened beaks and threw shafts of light across my path. The pair were a tribute to Helena and Rayon, the founders of the Hawk Unit.
It was a poor tribute, in my opinion. All the stories described Helena and Rayon as mighty and magnificent, not wounded and terrified.
Unless the artist had meant to depict their Breaking?
My mouth turned dry. For a moment, I forgot how to breathe.
What was I doing? I couldn’t join the Hawk Unit!
We all have to make sacrifices, answered a tiny voice in my head.
It sounded a lot like Mom.
I squared my shoulders and inhaled deeply. The lump of fear in my belly stayed put. Ignoring it, I pushed the gates open. =
A swirling blue cobblestone path led to the Compound before splitting to form a circular route around the building. To the right were a training field and a boxing ring. To the left was Azure’s home, a windowless white tower that stood sharp and straight like a needle against the pitch-black night. A colorful garden wrapped around its base. The soil was rumored to be soaked with the blood of Azure’s enemies.
The lobby lights were off, so I stomped through waist-high shrubs to the after-hours entrance. The door was covered in vines and painted the same dull white as the rest of the building. A camera above the door stared down at me with a single red eye.
I waved to the hunter watching from the other side.
“We don’t have a public bathroom,” said a harsh voice.
Geez. Grouchy, much? Forcing a smile, I pressed the intercom button. “I need to visit the office.”
“It’s closed. Come back on Monday.”
I pushed back the sleeve of my sweater and checked my watch. “The office doesn’t close for another ten minutes.”
“We closed early.”
“You’re lying,” I snapped. “Open the damn door, or I’ll make sure my father knows about this. His name is Commander Shaw, by the way. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
I didn’t like wielding Dad’s name to get my way, but it was the only good thing about being his daughter. Exiles feared the Shaw name. It was a euphemism for cruelty and rage.
The hunter snorted. “You’re Commander Shaw’s daughter?”
My jaw slackened. Every hunter knew Aubrey was on the run. After all, it was their job to find her. It took a minute to remember how my mouth worked. “Are you a complete idiot?”
The hunter laughed scornfully. “Hmm, you must be Morgan. Is this about your little boy-toy who’s swinging in the basement.”
“Just open the door,” I growled.
The door popped open. I stepped into a narrow corridor. I caught a brief glimpse of doors on either side and a yellow line down the middle of the floor before the door slammed shut behind me and the lights went out.
I waved my arms to activate the motion-sensitive lights. Nothing happened. Non-hunters were not permitted to use magic while on the Compound, so I didn’t dare light a fire.
Instead, I stretched my arms out until I touched the walls on either side of me and shuffled forward.
The corridor widened, and the floor slanted upwards. Gradually, a buttery yellow light appeared in the distance. Two hundred feet later, I stepped into the main lobby.
A rutilant chandelier lit the large square room, washing every inch of the wall and floor in shades of ruby and gold. Velvet couches sat in a semi-circle in the very middle of the room. Four arches led to corridors like the one I’d come from, all of them, dark and silent. Against the far wall, a hunter sat with his legs perched on a massive mahogany desk with an old fashioned phone pressed to his ear.
I was halfway across the room, intent on telling him off when I noticed the white ribbon tied to his wrist. Exiles wore them to remind the dead of our banishment. That way, their souls did not spend eternity fruitlessly searching for a way back to Aramith and instead entered Rest.
I did not believe in Rest. The idea of a blissful eternal sleep had always struck me as false. Like maybe our ancestors invented it to soften the painful blow of mortality … and Celo’s rejection.
Still, I decided to play nice. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said and offered him a hand. “Was it someone here in town?”
The hunter hung up the phone without saying goodbye. He crossed his arms over his broad chest and sneered at my extended hand. “My dead is none of your business. What do you want?”
I dropped my hand and studied him. He was tall with powerful shoulders that strained against the fabric of his white t-shirt and cloak. Wrinkled denim pants stretched on and on before meeting his large feet.
It was good that he had a beautiful body. It distracted from the thick, jagged scars that covered his bronze cheeks from ear to chin. The scars shifted and formed hideous new patterns as he brushed a wayward brown curl from his forehead and said,
“If you want to stand around and stare, I suggest you try the Kedwin zoo.”
I lowered my eyes, feeling like an idiot for ogling him. “I didn’t mean to offend—”
“Then leave,” he said, rudely.
“I-I need to speak to the hunter in charge.”
I thought about his question and then shook my head. Some of the hunters were discrete, but most gossiped like old women. I didn’t want all of Landon to know I was joining the Unit. It would be the talk of the town soon enough … when I flunked out.
“It’s official business,” I said. “That’s all you need to know.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
I bit back a curse of frustration and glared at him. “Yes, are you slow or what?”
“Moron,” I growled.
“Moron, you say?” His eyes slid past me, narrowing on the corridor to my right. His lips curled in a slow, wicked smile that made his grey eyes sparkle menacingly. “Come on out of the shadows, Kaito. Ms. Shaw needs a moron.”
My fingers turned clammy and warm. I wanted to rub them dry, but I didn’t dare do so. I made myself turn and face Joshua. The moment our eyes met, I imagined him with warts, horns, and a tail. It was a little trick I’d been doing since he hit puberty.
“I thought you’d be resting for your big day,” I said.
Joshua wrinkled his nose and eyed the mud and wet leaves I’d tracked into the lobby. “And I thought you had a nine o’clock curfew.”
“My dad won’t know I’ve missed it unless you tell him.”
“I’m not going to lie for you, Morgan.”
“Then, don’t lie. Simply keep your mouth shut.”
Joshua exhaled slowly and raked a hand through his hair. For a breath, the facade of warts, horns, and tails disappeared, leaving behind six feet two inches of hard, well-earned muscles wrapped in smooth milky flesh and topped off with long black hair. For once, he was dressed in street clothes instead of his ugly, feathered cloak. My eyes slid over his white t-shirt and black denim pants, hungrily, eating up the details I rarely got to see since he’d joined the Unit.
Not that it would have changed anything.
Joshua belonged to Aubrey. Mom had made it clear Aubrey still had her hopes pinned on him despite their current relationship being that of hunter and prey.
Stifling a sigh, I dotted him with warts and crowned him with horns again. “Look, I just need to pop into the office and then I’ll be on my way.”
“I’d rather you get on your way now,” Joshua grumbled.
“And I’d rather you not be in super-serious-hunter-mode. Sucks for both of us.”
Behind me, the hunter snickered. I’d forgotten he was there. “It’s the only mode Kaito’s got. I’ve been here near two weeks, and I have yet to see another side of him.”
Nostrils flaring, Joshua stabbed him with a dirty look over my head. “Take your feet off the desk. You’re on guard duty not at the beach.”
“Dude, you’re proving our point,” the hunter said.
“Feet. Down. Now.”
The hunter swung his long legs to the floor and pushed to his feet. He was taller than both of us by more than a head. Smiling a lion’s smile, he swaggered over to Joshua. “I think I’ll go welcome that sweet little recruit from London. What’s her name again?”
Joshua’s fists tightened, and thunder rumbled overhead. He was Hydrokinetic, able to manipulate the weather to cause everything from a drizzle to a raging hurricane. “One more word and I’ll send you packing,” he growled.
The hunter quirked a brow. “What about two more words?”
Lightning lit up the night outside. Quick as a cat, the hunter melted into thin air, leaving behind a ghostly chuckle. My mouth fell open as I struggled to overcome my surprise. Half a beat later, an elevator dinged down a nearby corridor and the room filled with the mechanic whine of the elevator door opening and closing. When its jagged, clanking tune gave way to silence, I gave Joshua an expectant look.
“He’s a royal asshat,” he said.
“And a Cloaker,” I whispered though it was not a secret.
“Yeah, that too.” Joshua crossed to the other side of the room. I waited for him to say more, but he just leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. “Lefu is going to have a fit when he sees you hanging around here.”
“He’d find a reason to have a fit anyway. The man throws more tantrums than a two-year-old in a candy store.”
Joshua’s mouth twitched as he struggled to keep a straight face. “I did not hear that.”
“I can say it a little louder if you like.” I hopped on the desk and crossed my legs at the knees. “So, what’s that Cloaker’s deal?”
All traces of humor melted from Joshua’s face. It was a second before he spoke. “Coy is too old for you,” he said in a low voice.
“His name is Coy? How unfortunate?”
“So you’ll stay away from him?”
“I’m not interested in dating him, silly. I’m just curious. Everyone knows my dad hates Cloakers. He always says they’re as bad as Jumpers.”
He wasn’t the only one. Though they kept our towns hidden from the human world, Cloakers were not well-liked or trusted by the exiles. Mostly because no one knew why they were slumming it in exile with the rest of us. Cloakers had sided with Celo during the rebellion. Seeing as Celo had won, they had no reason for being in exile. Some thought Celo had banished them for hidden sins, but others, like Dad, believed they came to spy on us.
I didn’t care one way or the other. The only reason I asked after Coy was for Mom and Aubrey’s sake. A Cloaker would give the Hawk Unit an advantage on hunts.
Joshua shoved both hands deep into his front pockets and sighed as though he wished we were talking about something else. “Coy didn’t train under Lefu. He trained out in California before that big earthquake wrecked their facility two years ago. Don’t you remember Lefu having to fly out there once a month?”
“Dad never said where he was going and, I was too happy he was gone to ask. Kel used to let me stay over. I used to wish he’d never come back.”
“You didn’t really wish that, did you?”
I forced a laugh. “No.”
Joshua’s dark eyes softened with pity. Rapping my nails against the desk’s mahogany top, I hurried on before he said something to make us both uncomfortable. I didn’t need sympathy, least of all from him. “I still can’t imagine Dad approving Coy’s transfer request when there are dozens of other facilities he could be serving in. What’s so special about him that Dad would make an exception?”
Anger replaced the pity in Joshua’s eyes. “His grandfather was best buds with Azure.”
My brows shot up. “Azure is friendly with Cloakers? He thinks they can be trusted?”
“No, he thinks they can be controlled.” Joshua’s voice dropped to a whisper, and his lips barely moved as he added, “I overheard him tell Lefu that Cloakers are hardwired to do Celo’s will whether they want to or not.”
“That’s rubbish,” I said, my voice bouncing off the walls.
Joshua held up a hand. “I’m just telling you what I heard.”
“So you agree that it’s rubbish?”
“Does it matter? Azure is the lord and master of this place.”
I hopped down from the desk. “That doesn’t mean I’ll accept his nonsense theories without proof.”
Joshua shrugged and pulled a strand of raspberry licorice from his pocket and offered it to me. When I shook my head, he unwrapped the licorice and bit off half. I cringed as I watched him chew.
“How can you enjoy that when it gets stuck in your teeth?” I asked.
“That’s the best part.” He made a show of moving his tongue around his mouth. “It’s like having seconds.”
I pretended to gag. It wasn’t hard.
Cracking a smile, Joshua pushed away from the wall and went to the access panel by the door. I’d stolen the access codes from Dad months ago, so I didn’t bother to spy as he punched in the code. A moment later, an electronic voice said, "Door Armed."
“I'll see you out the back door," Joshua said.
My heart quickened. For a moment, I’d forgotten why I was there. “Um… I do have a good reason for being here.”
“I want to sign up for the Hawk Unit.” A high-pitched laugh slid out before I even knew it was coming. I couldn’t help it. The words sounded ridiculous.
Joshua laughed as though he thought so, too. “Good one.”
“I’m not joking.”
“Stop putting me on.” When I shook my head, his eyes turned to knives. “You’re not joining the Unit, Morgan. You don’t belong.”
My chin lifted at the indignation in his voice. It reminded me of when we were kids. He’d taken the same tone with me whenever I tagged along with Aubrey to his house. “Who are you to say where I belong?”
“The Captain of this Hawk Unit.”
“You’re not Captain, yet.”
Joshua hissed a curse. “Where is this even coming from?”
“From me. It’s my idea.”
“Is that why you get that stabby look in your eyes whenever I walk by in my hunter's cloak? Because you’re dying to get one of your own?”
Had I been that obvious? “Fine, it was my dad’s idea.”
“I’ll let Lefu know we can manage without you.” Joshua walked over, grabbed my arm, and began dragging me toward the hallway I’d come from. “I’m sure he means well, but the last thing we need is a hunter who’d rather be someplace else.”
“You’re hurting my arm!” I cried.
“Yeah, well you’re hurting my ears.”
I jabbed my elbow into his ribs, but he kept walking as though his sides were covered in armor instead of flesh and muscles. I switched tactics. Planting my feet, I rammed the heel of my free hand into his throat. Well, I tried to. One second my hand was an inch from his throat, the next, I was dangling in the air by my wrist like a rag doll.
My arm felt like it would rip from the socket, but I did my best to stare him down. “Let. Go.”
“Gladly,” he hissed and let go.
I landed on my feet but did not stick the landing. I picked myself up off the floor and cut Joshua with a go-drop-dead look. “Coy was right. You are a moron.”
Joshua didn’t seem to hear me. Wrinkling his nose, he sniffed the hand that had held my wrist and cringed. “That smell … it’s Rose’s scent!”
My heart slammed to a stop with such force that I staggered back.
Thunder exploded overhead as Joshua’s teeth met in an ear-bleeding gnash. “Why are you covered in her stink?”