Passion – Lauren Kate

A shot rang out. A broad gate banged open. A pounding of horses’ hooves echoed around the track like a massive clap of thunder. “And they’re of !” Sophia Bliss adjusted the wide brim of her feathered hat. It was a muted shade of mauve, twentyseven inches in diameter, with a drop-down chif on veil. Large enough to make her look like a proper horseracing enthusiast, not so gaudy as to at ract undue at ention. Three hats had been special-ordered from the same mil iner in Hilton Head for the race that day. One —a but er-yel ow bonnet—capped the snow-white head of Lyrica Crisp, who was sit ing to the left of Miss Sophia, enjoying a corned beef sandwich. The other—a sea-foam-green felt hat with a fat polkadot ed satin ribbon—crowned the jet-black mane of Vivina Sole, who sat looking deceptively demure with her white-gloved hands crossed over her lap to Miss Sophia’s right. “Glorious day for a race,” Lyrica said. At 136 years old, she was the youngest of the Elders of Zhsmaelim. She wiped a dot of mustard from the corner of her mouth. “Can you believe it’s my first time at the tracks?” “Shhh,” Sophia hissed. Lyrica was such a twit. Today was not about horses at al , but rather a clandestine meeting of great minds.

So what if the other great minds didn’t happen to have shown up yet? They would be here. At this perfectly neutral location set forth in the gold let erpress invitation Sophia had received from an unknown sender. The others would be here to reveal themselves and come up with a plan of at ack together. Any minute now. She hoped. “Lovely day, lovely sport,” Vivina said dryly. “Pity our horse in this race doesn’t run in easy circles like these l ies. Isn’t it, Sophia? Tough to wager where the thoroughbred Lucinda wil finish.” “I said shhh,” Sophia whispered. “Bite your cavalier tongue.

There are spies everywhere.” “You’re paranoid,” Vivina said, drawing a high giggle from Lyrica. “I’m what’s left,” Sophia said. There used to be so many more—twenty-four Elders at the peak of the Zhsmaelim. A cluster of mortals, immortals, and a few transeternals, like Sophia herself. An axis of knowledge and passion and faith with a single uniting goal: to restore the world to its prelapsarian state, that brief, glorious moment before the angels’ Fal . For bet er or for worse. It was writ en, plain as day, in the code they’d drawn up together and had each signed: For bet er or for worse. Because real y, it could go either way. Every coin had two sides.

Heads and tails. Light and dark. Good and— Wel , the fact that the other Elders hadn’t prepared themselves for both options was not Sophia’s fault. It was, however, her cross to bear when one by one they sent in notices of their withdrawal. Your purposes grow too dark. Or: The organization’s standards have fal en. Or: The Elders have strayed too far from the original code. The rst urry of let ers arrived, predictably, within a week after the incident with the girl Pennyweather. They couldn’t abide it, they’d claimed, the death of one smal insigni cant child. One careless moment with a dagger and suddenly the Elders were running scared, al of them fearing the wrath of the Scale.

Cowards. Sophia did not fear the Scale. Their charge was to parole the fal en, not the righteous. Groundling angels such as Roland Sparks and Arriane Alter. As long as one did not defect from Heaven, one was free to sway a lit le. Desperate times practical y begged for it. Sophia had nearly gone cross-eyed reading the spongy-hearted excuses of the other Elders. But even if she had wanted the defectors back —which she had not—there was nothing to be done. Sophia Bliss—the school librarian who had only ever served as secretary on the Zhsmaelim board— was now the highest-ranking o cial among the Elders. There were just twelve of them left.

And nine could not be trusted. So that left the three of them here today in their enormous pastel hats, placing phony bets at the track. And waiting. It was pathetic, the depths to which they’d sunk. A race came to its end. A staticky loudspeaker announced the winners and the odds for the next race. Wel -heeled people and drunks al around them cheered or slumped lower in their seats. And a girl, about nineteen, with a white-blond ponytail, brown trench coat, and thick, dark sunglasses, walked slowly up the aluminum steps toward the Elders. Sophia stif ened. Why would she be here? It was next to impossible to tel which direction the girl was looking in, and Sophia was trying hard not to stare.

Not that it would mat er; the girl wouldn’t be able to see her. She was blind. But then— The Outcast nodded once at Sophia. Oh yes—these fools could see the burning of a person’s soul. It was dim, but Sophia’s life force must stil have been visible. The girl took a seat in the empty row in front of the Elders, facing the track and ipping though a ve-dol ar tip sheet her blind eyes wouldn’t be able to read. “Hel o.” The Outcast’s voice was a monotone. She didn’t turn around. “I real y don’t know why you’re here,” Miss Sophia said.

It was a damp November day in Kentucky, but a sheen of sweat had broken out across her forehead. “Our col aboration ended when your cohorts failed to retrieve the girl. No amount of bit er blabber from the one who cal s himself Phil ip wil change our minds.” Sophia leaned forward, closer to the girl, and wrinkled her nose. “Everyone knows the Outcasts aren’t to be trusted—” “We are not here on business with you,” the Outcast said, staring straight ahead. “You were but a vessel to get us closer to Lucinda. We remain uninterested in ‘col aborating’ with you.” “No one cares about your organization these days.” Footsteps on the bleachers. The boy was tal and slender, with a shaven head and a trench coat to match the girl’s.

His sunglasses were the cheap plastic variety found near the bat eries at the drugstore. near the bat eries at the drugstore. Phil ip slid onto the bleacher right next to Lyrica Crisp. Like the Outcast girl, he didn’t turn to face them when he spoke. “I’m not surprised to nd you here, Sophia.” He lowered his sunglasses on his nose, revealing two empty white eyes. “Just disappointed that you didn’t feel you could tel me that you’d been invited as wel .” Lyrica gasped at the horrible white expanses behind his glasses. Even Vivina lost her cool and reared back. Sophia boiled inside.

The Outcast girl raised a golden card—the same invitation Sophia had received—scissored between her ngers. “We received this.” Only, this one looked like it had been writ en in Brail e. Sophia reached for it to make sure, but with a quick movement, the invitation disappeared back inside the girl’s trench coat. “Look, you lit le punks. I branded your starshots with the emblem of the Elders. You work for me—” “Correction,” Phil ip said. “The Outcasts work for no one but themselves.” Sophia watched him crane his neck slightly, pretending to fol ow a horse around the track. She’d always thought it was eerie, the way they gave of the impression that they could see.

When everyone knew he’d struck the lot of them blind with the flick of a finger. “Shame you did such a poor job capturing her.” Sophia felt her voice rise higher than she knew it should, drawing the eyes of an older couple crossing the grandstand. “We were supposed to work together,” she hissed, “to hunt her down, and—and you failed.” “It would not have mat ered one way or another.” “Come again?” “She would stil be lost in time. It was always her destiny. And the Elders would stil be hanging on by a thread. That is yours.” She wanted to lunge at him, wanted to strangle him until those great white eyes bulged from their sockets.

Her dagger felt like it was burning a hole through the calfskin handbag on her lap. If only it had been a starshot. Sophia was rising from the bleacher when the voice came from behind them. “Please be seated,” it boomed. “This meeting is now cal ed to order.” The voice. She knew at once whose it was. Calm and authoritative. Ut erly humbling. It made the bleachers quake.

The nearby mortals noticed nothing, but a ush of heat rose on the back of Sophia’s neck. It trickled through her body, numbing her. This was no ordinary fear. This was a crippling, stomach-souring terror. Did she dare to turn around? The subtlest peek from the corner of her eye revealed a man in a tailored black suit. His dark hair was clipped short under his black hat. The face, kind and at ractive, was not particularly memorable. Clean-shaven, straight-nosed, with brown eyes that felt familiar. Yet Miss Sophia had never seen him before. And stil she knew who he was, knew it in the marrow of her bones.

“Where is Cam?” the voice behind them asked. “He was sent an invitation.” “Probably playing God inside the Announcers. Like the rest of them,” Lyrica blurted out. Sophia swat ed her. “Playing God, did you say?” Sophia searched for the words that would x a ga e like that. “Several of the others fol owed Lucinda backward into time,” she said eventual y. “Including two Nephilim. We aren’t sure how many others.” “Dare I ask,” the voice said, suddenly ice-cold, “why none of you elected to go after her?” Sophia fought to swal ow, to breathe.

Her most intuitive movements were stunted by panic. “We can’t exactly, wel … We don’t yet have the capabilities to—” The Outcast girl cut her of . “The Outcasts are in the process of—” “Silence,” the voice commanded. “Spare me your excuses. They no longer mat er, as you no longer mat er.” For a long time, their group was quiet. It was terrifying not to know how to please him. When he nal y spoke, his voice was softer, but no less lethal. “Too much at stake. I can’t leave anything else to chance.

” A pause. Then, softly, he said, “The time has come for me to take mat ers into my own hands.” Sophia bit her gasp in two to hide her horror. But she could not stop her body’s tremors. His direct involvement? Truly, it was the most terrifying prospect. She could not imagine working with him to— “The rest of you wil stay out of this,” he said. “That is al .” “But—” It was an accident, but the word escaped Sophia’s lips. She could not take it back. But al her decades of labor.

Al her plans. Her plans! What came next was a long, earth-shat ering roar. It reverberated up through the bleachers, seeming to travel around the entire racetrack in a splinter of a second. Sophia cringed. The noise seemed almost to crash into her, through her skin and down to her deepest core. She felt as if her heart was being drummed to pieces. Lyrica and Vivina both pressed against her, eyes clamped shut. Even the Outcasts trembled. Just when Sophia thought the sound of it would never cease, that it would be the death of her at last, his roar gave way to absolute pin-drop silence. For a moment.

Enough time to look around and see that the other people at the racetrack had not heard anything at al . In her ear he whispered, “Your time on this endeavor is up. Do not dare to get in my way.” Down below, another shot rang out. The broad gate banged open once again. Only this time, the pounding of horses’ hooves against the dirt sounded like practical y nothing, like the lightest rainfal fal ing on a canopy of trees. Before the racehorses had crossed the starting line, the gure behind them had vanished, leaving only the mark of coal-black hoofprints singed into the planks of the grandstand. ONE ONE UNDER FIRE MOSCOW • OCTOBER 15, 1941 Łucinda! The voices reached her in the murky darkness. Come back! Wait! She ignored them, pressing further. Echoes of her name bounced o the shadowy wal s of the Announcer, sending licks of heat rippling across her skin.

Was that Daniel’s voice or Cam’s? Arriane’s or Gabbe’s? Was it Roland pleading that she come back now, or was that Miles? The cal s grew harder to discern, until Luce couldn’t tel them apart at al : good or evil. Enemy or friend. They should have been easier to separate, but nothing was easy anymore. Everything that had once been black and white now blended into gray. Of course, both sides agreed on one thing: Everyone wanted to pul her out of the Announcer. For her protection, they would claim. No, thanks. Not now. Not after they’d wrecked her parents’ backyard, made it into another one of their dusty bat le elds. She couldn’t think about her parents’ faces without wanting to turn back—not like she’d even know how to turn back inside an Announcer, anyway.

Besides, it was too late. Cam had tried to kil her. Or what he thought was her. And Miles had saved her, but even that wasn’t simple. He’d only been able to throw her reflection because he cared about her too much. And Daniel? Did he care enough? She couldn’t tel . In the end, when the Outcast had approached her, Daniel and the others had stared at Luce like she was the one who owed them something. You are our entrance into Heaven, the Outcast had told her. The price. What had that meant? Until a couple of weeks ago she hadn’t even known the Outcasts existed.

And yet, they wanted something from her—badly enough to bat le Daniel for it. It must have had to do with the curse, the one that kept Luce reincarnated lifetime after lifetime. But what did they think Luce could do? Was the answer buried somewhere here? Her stomach lurched as she tumbled senselessly through the cold shadow, deep inside the chasm of the dark Announcer. Luce— The voices began to fade and grow dimmer. Soon they were barely whispers. Almost like they had given up. Until— They started to grow louder again. Louder and clearer. Luce— No. She clamped her eyes shut to try to block them out.

Lucinda— Lucy— Lucia— Luschka— She was cold and she was tired and she didn’t want to hear them. For once, she wanted to be left alone. Luschka! Luschka! Luschka! Her feet hit something with a thwump. Something very, very cold. She was standing on solid ground. She knew she wasn’t tumbling anymore, though she couldn’t see anything in front of her except for the blanket of blackness. Then she looked down at her Converse sneakers. And gulped. They were planted in a blanket of snow that reached midway up her calves. The dank coolness that she was used to—the shadowy tunnel she’d been traveling through, out of her backyard, into the past —was giving way to something else.

Something blustery and absolutely frigid. The rst time Luce had stepped through an Announcer—from her Shoreline dorm room to Las Vegas— she’d been with her friends Shelby and Miles. At the end of the passage they’d met a barrier: a dark, shadowy curtain between them and the city. Because Miles was the only one who’d read the texts on stepping through, he’d started swiping the Announcer with a circular motion until the murky black shadow flaked away. Luce hadn’t known until now that he’d been troubleshooting. This time, there was no barrier. Maybe because she was traveling alone, through an Announcer summoned of her own erce wil . But the way out was so easy. Almost too easy. The veil of blackness simply parted.

A blast of cold tore into her, making her knees lock with the chil . Her ribs stif ened and her eyes teared in the sharp, sudden wind. Where was she? Luce already regret ed her panicked jump through time. Yes, she needed an escape, and yes, she wanted to trace her past, to save her former selves from al the pain, to understand what kind of love she’d had with Daniel al those other times. To feel it instead of being told about it. To understand— and then fix—whatever curse had been inflicted on Daniel and her. But not like this. Frozen, alone, and completely unprepared for wherever, whenever she was. She could see a snowy street in front of her, a steel-gray sky above white buildings. She could hear something rumbling in the distance.

But she didn’t want to think about what any of it meant. “Wait,” she whispered to the Announcer. The shadow drifted hazily a foot or so beyond her ngertips. She tried to grasp it, but the Announcer eluded her, icking farther away. She leaped for it, and caught a tiny damp piece of it between her fingers— But then, in an instant, the Announcer shat ered into soft black fragments on the snow. They faded, then were gone. “Great,” she mut ered. “Now what?” “Great,” she mut ered. “Now what?”

.

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