Shadow Trials – Isla Frost

I stroked Mila’s chubby cheek, her skin damp with tears, and held my handkerchief to her nose before a snot bubble could erupt. “Blow,” I ordered. She did. Heaven help me if even this was a memory I might cherish. A mundane and kind of gross aspect of family life that I was somehow loath to miss out on. I grinned at her. “That was a wet one.” My voice wobbled on the words, but I hoped she wouldn’t notice as I tucked the handkerchief into her breast pocket. “You can keep it.” Over the years, I’d given her more of my handkerchiefs than I could count. It always amazed me that in a world where dirt was a rare commodity, my little sister was always covered in it. The thought made me spare a glance for the cityscape below. Even from our rooftop vantage point, cityscape was a generous term for the concrete wasteland that had once been Los Angeles. The power had long ago been cut off, taking most of mankind’s modern conveniences with it, and signs of disrepair were everywhere. Buckled tarmac, half-toppled buildings, broken glass.

Even the once-bright colors had conceded defeat, fading like bones bleached by the sun into a uniform drab gray. Though a few washed-out billboards still promoted obsolete products from the Before if you peered closely enough. But some of the city had remained intact in the years since the takeover. And until today, one of those intact buildings had been my home. Not anymore. But it wasn’t the building that hurt so much to leave behind. Reuben, my younger brother, was scuffing his foot against the ground like he didn’t care. But his red-rimmed eyes and tight-knuckled fists told a different story. I ruffled his hair in the way he’d come to hate in the past few months and pulled him close. “Look after everyone for me, okay, squirt? And don’t worry about me.

You’ll have your hands full keeping Mila out of trouble and Dad out of the dessert rations.” His mouth tugged upward at one corner, and he shoved me away. Gently though. His fingers gripping the fabric of my shirt a moment too long before releasing. A subconscious gesture that made my chest ache. My mother. Her eyes were on my face, but I sensed she didn’t really see it. She had looked right through me ever since I could remember. A distance that only grew as I did. A distance she’d created to prevent her heart from breaking in this inevitable moment, my dad said.

One I’d resented until now. Until it didn’t hurt so much to say goodbye to her. I hugged her stiffly but softly in a moment of understanding and turned to my father. Dad. His eyes were shining with wet. He had never held me at arm’s length, never put distance between us. Instead, it was if he’d tried to pour all the love he held for my lifetime into these past seventeen years. I was his favorite. He told me so all the time. Then again, I’d overheard him telling both Mila and Reuben that a bunch of times too.

I embraced him. “I love you.” The words left me in a whisper. Not because it was anything other than complete truth, but because my throat was so tight I could barely squeeze the sound out. “I love you to the stars and back, Nova.” His voice was as constricted as my own as he spoke the familiar endearment. A play on my name that belonged to just us alone. “Please come back to us. If you possibly can.” His huge arms wrapped around me in the strong and tender shelter he’d offered since I was an infant.

A shelter I would never experience again. I swiped at my eyes, angry with myself. I had promised myself I would not cry. That I would wait until I was through the runegate to fall apart. The guilt my family would live with was burden enough without me adding to it in this moment. The people left behind paid too. In their own way. I’d seen it time and time again. Mrs. Crocus, who didn’t smile anymore since giving up her daughter six years ago.

Her remaining son, who bore the strain of knowing he wasn’t enough to ease her grief. The Hernandez family, whose home had grown quiet now without Gloria’s contagious laughter. I’d always known the cost. Known too that there was no other option. Thirty years ago the Blythe family broke the Agreement, refusing to send their firstborn. An entire bloodline, three generations, had been wiped out in the blink of an eye. So I forced my chest—my chest, which felt like it was on the point of collapsing—out in a deep breath, lifted my chin, and stepped out of my father’s arms for the very last time. “I love you all,” I told them, meeting each of their eyes and attempting to etch every detail of their faces to memory. “Live well. Don’t let grief get in the way of that.

And enjoy the extra serving of fruitcake.” The rest went unsaid. Make my sacrifice worthwhile. Love and laugh often. No matter what my future held, I wanted the very best for them. I did not wait for their replies. I couldn’t. I needed to go while my legs would still obey m e.S o I t u r n e d a n d s t e p p e d u p t o t h e w aitin g r u n e g a t e. C H A P T E R T W O Whatever I faced, I would not face it alone.

Ameline, my best friend since forever, was going with me. Our birthdays were but days apart. And now she was standing beside me before the ominous, glowing runegate, her hand in mine. That fact gave me the strength I needed to take the final step. My vision went black, like the snuffing out of a lantern on a moonless night. For a split second I feared I’d gone blind. Then my skin prickled as if a thousand ants were crawling up my legs, down my neck, and over my face. I could barely feel Ameline’s hand over the sensation, but that only made me hang on more stubbornly. I heard something. A whimper? But the sound was muted like I was underwater, and then my ears popped, the prickling sensation ceased as quickly as it came, and I could see again.

I checked to make sure that Ameline was still beside me, and something in my chest loosened at the sight of her pale face. Never mind it was rigid with fear. We were together. Until the end. The first thing I noticed was the gloom. We’d left our home on a crisp but sunlit autumn day and now stood in a dimly lit place heavy with shadows. Despite my warm scarf and warmer coat, a chill crept over me. We were in some sort of tall, narrow room. A tower maybe? And the very walls felt alive. I scanned our surroundings.

Noticed the weak circle of sunlight from a window high above. Too high to escape through. Noticed the threadbare rug offering little insulation from the cold and ancient timber floor. And the sparse furnishings, beautiful but worn, left over from another time. Before the world went to hell. Did the strange creatures depicted on the wallpaper just move? Ameline’s hand tightened around my own. I took a deep breath. And another. There was enough to fear here without letting my imagination get the better of me. There was no sign of the runegate we’d come through.

No way back. So I shuffled forward a single step, drawing Ameline with me. “Hello?” I called. “We’ve arrived from Los Angeles to honor the Firstborn Agreement.” No answer. No sound at all except for our unsteady breathing. Which was when I noticed what was missing. No clock on the wall. No fire crackling in the hearth. Nothing but this antique furniture.

And… I gulped. No door. My heart sped up, and my gaze flew to that window again. So high above. Three stories maybe. And nothing on the wall but the strange wallpaper that seemed to move in my peripheral vision. Certainly nothing to grip. Was this a test of some kind? It must be. Surely firstborns were not simply sent here to die. To starve slowly in this small, timeworn room.

There would be bones if that were the case. So many bones. Unless they were eaten afterward. No one had seen the creatures we were now bound to. We did not know if they were the ones that called themselves world walkers. The race that led the invasion who’d looked almost human yet possessed powers that were anything but. Or whether our Agreement was with one of the countless strange beings that had come with them. Creatures of legend. Dragons. Unicorns.

Griffins and more. Or if, worst of all, our future now belonged to the monstrous, devouring darkness that had wiped out life from Europe before the last satellites failed. In truth, we rarely saw any other species—those that did tended not to survive the encounter. Nothing but strange flickers of movement in the forests that surrounded the safety of our concrete jungle, so often out of the corner of your eye where you couldn’t be sure if you’d seen anything more than your own fears. But if our “benefactors” were so fast, so impossible for us to protect ourselves against, and so hungry for our flesh, why would they sign the Agreement to begin with? Food and basic provisions showed up on the first day of each month, enough to supply the colony’s needs until the next delivery was due. As a twelve-year-old, I’d snuck out to watch, hiding in the wrecked body of an old car to learn who it was that brought our rations. I’d stayed up all night, shivering in the cold. But the delivery hadn’t come. Nor did it come the next night, or the next. Not until I’d given up and returned home to the refuge of my blankets had our precious provisions been delivered.

Four days late. I’d never tried again. And “all” these unknown beings had required in return for their protection from the forest trying to reclaim our city and the monthly provisions that kept us from starving— was the firstborn of every family to be surrendered to them at the age of seventeen. Were we… livestock to them? It was a suspicion I’d never voiced aloud but one I couldn’t shake either. Whoever they were, they fed us and kept us safe and took no more from the “herd” than could be spared without unduly shrinking our population. An arrangement that sounded an awful lot like what grandmother had told me of her parents’ cattle ranch in the Before. The familiar thoughts were not helpful in this creepy little room. A sound at our backs made me whirl. A buzzing of energy and something scuffing the floorboards. Not something.

A girl. She stumbled forward and stopped. Her wide, dark eyes flying around the room before landing on us. She straightened to her full height, which was decidedly underwhelming, and gave us an appraising once-over. “So… do you come here often?” I stared. She grinned, the expression quick and sharp across her heart-shaped face. “I’m Bryn. Did you just arrive too?” “Yes,” I confirmed faintly, still wondering if she knew something I didn’t. “I’m Nova, and this is Ameline.” “It’s a pleasure, I’m sure.

” The girl brushed past us, breaking my and Ameline’s unspoken agreement to huddle together, frozen in place. She helped herself to the single chair in the room, clonked her heavy boots onto the ornate desk beside it, and folded her arms. “So what’s the situation here? Are there more of us coming? Have you met our new overlords or whatever yet?” Ameline was stiff beside me. She was not a rule breaker by nature. In fact, she was the furthest thing from a natural rule breaker I’d ever known, and I knew what she was thinking. “Um,” she said, “are you sure you shouldn’t be more respectful of the furniture? They might not like it.” The new girl, Bryn, shrugged. “I’m sure the oh-so-powerful ones can handle feet on furniture. Besides, who’s watching?” Her question made my skin crawl. Were they watching? “They could be observing us,” I pointed out, giving Ameline’s hand a squeeze.

“We only arrived a minute ago, but there’s no door out of here, and no one answered when we announced ourselves. I wondered if it might be a test of some kind.” Ameline’s brow furrowed. “Or maybe they’re just busy.” Bryn grinned again. “So they’re either too busy to greet the human sacrifices they demanded, or they’re testing us. In either case, sounds to me like we should find our own way out of here.” She swung her feet off the desk—much to Ameline’s relief—and started tapping the wall with her fist. Listening for a hollow noise that might indicate a secret passage, I guessed. Her reasoning made sense enough to me.

Plus there could be no harm in looking, could there? My question was impossible to answer. We knew nothing about our new masters. But I was sick of standing around feeling helpless, so I gave Ameline’s hand a last squeeze and joined Bryn in testing the walls. We made it around the room in a few minutes. One section sounded different from the rest, but I could find no seam or gap that would indicate a hidden door. Ameline joined us and traced her fingers over the wallpaper on the off chance something would trigger it to open. Bryn did the same but with a lot more force behind her fingers. Nothing happened. “Maybe something else in the room could be the trigger mechanism?” Ameline suggested hesitantly. I was proud of her for participating in the search and glad for Bryn’s influence.

It was hard to remain terrified when the girl was banging around the room like it was some sort of grand adventure. And she’d been right in at least one thing: doing something was better than nothing. The three of us split up to inspect and shift every object we could find. In a moment of inspiration, I pulled back the rug. But only more ancient floorboards and a light layer of dirt hid beneath. Damn. Half an hour passed, and we were no closer to finding an exit. Which was when Bryn withdrew a switchblade and plunged it into the wall. Ameline, who’d been sizing up the chair and whether she was allowed to sit in it, flinched. “What are you doing?” Bryn wiggled the knife free, then plunged it into the wall again.

“Looks like the window is the only exit. And since there’s not enough furniture in here to stack and climb, I’m testing if we can make toeholds.” She seesawed the blade until a chunk of plaster and wood came free, then inspected the hole she’d created with self-satisfaction. I was unsure whether to get out my own dagger and help. It was strapped discreetly to my thigh, and I’d wanted to keep it hidden. To have an element of surprise in an emergency.

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