Because the danger they're facing comes not only from the ravenous hollow ones... but from each other.
This terrible new world has left scars, and only some of them are physical. As Clare fights to protect the most precious people in her life, she begins to realize a horrible truth: Not everyone can be saved. And sometimes the worst monsters wear a human smile.
Release date: July 7, 2020
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 399
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Whispers in the Mist
Clare clung to her seat as the minibus rocked through the city. Abandoned cars littered the streets like the fallen on a battlefield. A path had been carved through them using brute force, but it was irregular, weaving in sharp angles and often forcing them to rise onto the curb.
Every time the bus jolted over some obstacle, Dorran’s shoulder bumped hers. Clare felt pure elation rush through her. They had gotten out of Helexis Tower and away from the scientist who had created the thanites that destroyed humanity. Dorran was with her. Dorran was safe.
She looked up at him, grinning. He tried to return the expression. Clare’s heart sank.
They might be free, but Dorran hadn’t escaped the tower unscathed. Even though he matched her smile, the gesture obviously took effort. He braced one hand on the seat ahead to absorb the shocks. The fingers trembled. His skin was ashen, his dark eyes had lost their familiar brightness, and every jostle seemed to drain more of his strength. His black hair, slightly too long, was damp with sweat.
He needs rest. A few days of good food and sleep, and he’ll start to heal. She wanted to believe the idea. She was desperate to. It seemed too cruel to escape the tower—to escape Ezra and his experiment—only to lose Dorran.
She took his free hand and pressed it gently. He threaded his fingers between hers. His thumb grazed over the ring he’d given her.
Hold on a little longer, Dorran. I’ll do whatever it takes to make this right.
Two rows ahead of then, Beth sat in the driver’s seat, navigating the congested roads. It felt like a dream. Clare had clung to hope for her sister longer than any rational part of her could justify. She had travelled across the country, only to lose her again. To find Beth by what seemed like pure coincidence was more good luck than Clare dared trust in. But she was there, within touching distance, alive and real.
Clare swallowed, trying to find her voice. “Beth—”
“Not now,” she barked, her eyes fixed on the path ahead as the minibus screeched around a tight bend.
Ten years her senior, Beth had become a surrogate mother to Clare after their father left and their mother passed away. Beth had taken her to school programs, swimming lessons, and camps, and watched her like a hawk the entire time. There had been doctor’s visits over mild coughs. No swimming in pools unless both Beth and a lifeguard were present. No sleepovers unless Beth trusted the families empirically.
The old Beth, naturally cautious, had never sped in her life. She’d once told Clare, “Driving is one of the most dangerous things a person can do, second only to eating undercooked meat.”
But the new world had changed Beth. Even with the road choked, she was over the speed limit. The minibus scraped half the cars it passed. She drove aggressively but efficiently. The chattering screams from the hollow ones pursuing them were already fading.
That wasn’t the only part of Beth that had changed. Her fine, wavy blonde hair had grown out a little since Clare had last seen her, and it grazed over her shoulders. Her face looked harder. Leaner. Fresh scars marked her delicate features.
Clare leaned forward to try to see her sister more clearly. If Beth was aware of the scrutiny, she didn’t acknowledge it. They rose onto another curb and clipped a lightpost, and Clare dropped back into her seat to avoid being rattled any more than she already was.
The scars were fresh. One ran across Beth’s nose, starting near her eye and arcing down onto her cheek. Another mottled patch stood just above her temple. Three small marks showed where something had sliced into her jaw.
They were recent but already sealed over. Clare knew the thanites would be responsible for that. The thanites were airborne nanoparticle-sized machines designed to heal the human body but gone terribly, horrifically wrong. Like Clare, Beth would have been spared a full dose. She’d had her bunker, an airtight fortress that had saved her from being converted into one of the twisted, mindless creatures during the hours the thanites had been active.
The bunker would have limited Beth’s exposure to the thanites but not eliminated them entirely. And now the tiny machines were inhabiting her body, healing her injuries. It was one of the reasons Clare had survived so long. Poison, blood loss, and infection were all being repaired by the same creations that had grown out of control and mutated most of humanity.
Beth wrenched the wheel to navigate a tight angle. Clare hit Dorran’s side, and he hit the window. The bus teetered on the wheels of one side, and for a moment, Clare was afraid they were about to tip. Then the bus lurched back down, sending shockwaves through them as it reconnected with the road.
This reckless, energetic Beth was a sharp contrast to the woman Clare knew. Her wardrobe had changed too. All black swaddled her, from the scarf around her neck to her boots. If she wore a mask, there wouldn’t be a scrap of skin visible. Covering skin was a defence against the hollows, but it still left Clare disconcerted. She’d never seen Beth wear black before. It was as though all of Beth’s soft sides had been sharpened into angles.
Clare supposed it was hard to stay static in the new world. She wondered how much she had changed in the past weeks.
The minibus’s windows had been covered with plyboard. Narrow gaps existed around the boards’ edges. When Clare was close to them, she could see the businesses and vehicles they passed. She caught sight of movement inside many of the cars. Hollows, trapped, pressed their hands against the closed windows and hissed in frustration. Each nightmarish face was only visible for a split second, but the images haunted Clare. Deformed mouths. Missing teeth. Bulging eyes. Sparse hair.
She tried to imagine what their lives would have been like before the stillness. People on their way to their jobs, parents dropping their children off at day care, an elderly couple driving to an early-morning breakfast date. Those were the monsters that now surrounded them.
Stop. Focus on what’s good. Because there’s a lot of good to be found today.
Dorran was safe. Hurt but still alive. Clare tightened her hand around his. Against all odds, they had found Beth. Or, rather, Beth had found them. She’d gotten them out of Helexis Tower. And now they were leaving the city. The high-rise buildings were being replaced by homes and wider roads as they entered the outer suburbs. The country wasn’t far off.
The tyres screeched as Beth pulled off the road. It wasn’t the first time she’d taken a shortcut across a parking lot, but this time, she didn’t floor the accelerator. She let the minibus rock to a halt, pulled the handbrake, and jumped out of her driver’s seat.
“What the hell were you doing in the city?” She stood in the aisle, her face made of sharp angles and her eyes doused with fire. Then the expression softened, her jaw unclenching and her eyebrows rising, and she reached towards Clare. “Thank goodness you’re okay.”
Clare crossed to her in two quick steps. Beth’s hug was fierce as she half cried, half laughed into Clare’s wet hair.
“I didn’t think I’d get to see you again,” Clare managed.
“Neither did I.” Beth leaned back far enough to see Clare’s face and used her fingertips to brush wet hair off her cheek. “You’re not hurt, are you?”
“I’m not, but—”
Clare turned to look at Dorran. He stood a few steps behind them, one hand braced on the back of a chair for support, watching cautiously. He was trying not to look intimidating, Clare knew, but that was hard to avoid when his head grazed the ceiling.
Beth’s eyes fixed on Dorran. The hand on Clare’s shoulder tightened a fraction. “This is the man you’ve been staying with?”
“Yes.” Clare reached towards him. “I’m really glad you get to meet him. Dorran, this is Beth. Beth, Dorran.”
He dipped his head in a respectful nod, his eyes not quite meeting hers and his voice subdued. “A pleasure.”
“Mm.” Beth’s lips pressed into a tight line as her eyes ran over him, from his black hair, to his broad shoulders, across the muddied lab coat he’d borrowed from Ezra, down to the boots. Clare wished she would be more subtle about it.
“He figured out how to repair my car.” Clare spoke too fast as she tried to soften some of Beth’s hostility. “I’d never have gotten this far without him—”
“Outside,” Beth said abruptly and tugged on her arm.
“Come on. We’ll talk outside.”
Clare stared at the windshield. Light reflected off the water flowing over the surface. “It’s raining.”
“You’re already drenched.” Beth hit a button, and the door hissed open, letting the steady drum of rain inside, along with the faint scent of smoke, oil, and hollows. “Come on. I want to talk in private.”
Clare sent Dorran an apologetic glance as she was dragged out of the bus. He looked conflicted, one hand reaching towards her, and Clare mouthed, “Don’t worry.” Then the door creaked closed behind her, sealing him inside the bus.
Beth kept her hold on Clare’s arm as she dragged her away from the vehicle. The rain, vicious in its intensity at Helexis Tower, had reduced to a drizzle in the outer suburbs.
Clare blinked at the space, surprised. Beth had stopped the minibus in the centre of a shopping mall’s parking lot. They were well lit as gigantic bulbs washed the area with cold white light. Clare didn’t know how the lights could still be running four weeks into the stillness. Even if the centre had a generator—and she guessed it must have for emergencies—it would need to be refuelled. The area seemed deserted except for their vehicle.
“Beth?” Clare was already wet from the run out of Helexis Tower, but the new wash of rain drained another layer of warmth. Her sneakers sank into a puddle two inches deep, and she shivered. Beth stopped a dozen paces away from the bus, facing the deserted shopping mall, arms crossed. Clare hunched her shoulders. “Is everything okay?”
Beth dragged her hands over her hair, plastering it back, and then turned towards Clare. “I don’t like the way he looks.”
She’d been expecting wariness towards Dorran. “He’s a good man. He’s kind and patient, and he saved my life. Multiple times. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I owe him.”
Beth paced across the asphalt, arms folded, expression tense. When she turned back to Clare, there was fresh suspicion in her eyes. “He looks sick.”
“He…” She could tell Beth exactly what had happened: about how Dorran had been coerced into becoming part of Ezra’s experiment to destroy the thanites and how they didn’t know what the consequences might be. But the way Beth was talking about Dorran—like he was an unwanted liability—made Clare swallow the story. She couldn’t afford to give Beth any more reasons to mistrust him. Instead, she opted for a half-truth. “It’s been a weird couple of days. He didn’t sleep last night.”
“Uh-huh.” Beth’s eyes narrowed in the way they did when she was sceptical. Her jaw worked as she stared towards the bus, chewing something over. Then she took a deep breath. “We’ll drop him off with some other survivors then get back on the road.”
“What?” Clare blinked water out of her eyes.
“Don’t worry. I know some groups that would take him in.”
“No.” Clare took a step back, her heart thundering. “We’re not going to abandon him. We’re a team.”
“He’s a stranger.”
“To you.” She hated how defensive she sounded, but she couldn’t stop. “He’s my best friend.”
Beth’s lips twisted. “Oh, really? After knowing him for what? A couple of weeks?”
“After having to rely on him for my survival, repeatedly, through some of the worst moments of my life, yeah. And I think I’m a good enough judge of character to say I trust him. Why can’t you believe that?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Beth’s voice rose, and a harsh note entered it. “Maybe because I can’t even trust you to follow basic instructions.”
It took Clare a second to catch the implication. “Are you angry because I came looking for you?”
“What did I tell you the last time we spoke?” Beth lifted her eyebrows to arrest Clare with one of the sharpest looks she’d ever experienced. “Stay where you are.”
“Your generator died. Was I supposed to just leave you there to suffocate?”
“Yes.” Beth held her hands out to the sides, her open palms catching the rain. “It would have been better than traipsing across the country, just to find my bunker was empty. And if that weren’t bad enough… what the hell were you doing in the city? The single most dangerous place in this part of the country.”
Clare was used to her share of lectures from Beth. She’d hated them as a teen, but as she grew older and moved into her own home, she’d learned to see them for what they really were: an expression of love. Beth cared about her. Therefore, Beth worried about her. Therefore, Beth lectured her.
But this felt different. There wasn’t any concerned tilt to her sister’s eyes or pleading note in her voice. This Beth, the Beth who had been hardened and sharpened by the still world, was full of fire and wrath. Clare took a half step back.
“We—” Were lost. Became trapped. Ran out of options. None of them sounded good. She swallowed. “We found the tower by pure luck and recognised the address, so we took a chance on it.”
“And how were you planning to get out?” Beth’s piercing blue eyes were relentless. “You ran through the horde with no weapons. No protection. Not even a mask. If I hadn’t been there, what would you have done to escape the hollows?”
The rain drenched Clare’s skin. Her hair stuck to her face. But for all the external cold she felt, it was nothing compared to the lump of ice forming deep in her stomach.
She’d been desperate to reunite with Beth. She’d taken risks she shouldn’t have, just for the hope of finding her. But Beth was furious. And, unlike a normal lecture, she didn’t know how to stop this new anger.
Beth took her silence for the answer it was. “You had no way to get out of that tower, did you? You’re only alive right now because of pure, miserable luck.”
Angry tears were building, and she was grateful that the rain would stop Beth from seeing them.
“I told you all of this so clearly.” Beth’s voice dropped until it was almost inaudible through the rain. “Don’t take risks. People who gamble on the odds eventually lose. And what did you do?”
“Whatever it took to try to find my sister.”
Beth’s face stayed hard for all of a second, then the expression crumpled. She exhaled, head drooping and shoulders bowing. For a moment, they stood together, letting the rain beat on their backs and drip off their chins. Then Beth lifted her head, her expression soft again.
“That was really dumb, Clare.”
“But thank you, anyway.”
Her sister’s arms wrapped around her again. Beth’s jacket was thick and cold, but her body was warm. She squeezed Clare tightly, swaying with her like she used to when Clare was a child.
“I’m happy to have you with me again,” she murmured. “I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance.”
“I missed you, Beth.”
“Mm.” She pulled back, blinking rapidly. “Me too.”
Thunder crackled in the distance. Clare turned to look behind them, towards the minibus. Its windows were blacked out, but she could imagine Dorran sitting inside, anxious and uncertain, alone in the dark as he waited for them to return. Her heart ached for him. “I’m not letting you kick Dorran out.”
Beth chewed on her lip for a second then sighed. “He can stay. For now. But if he wants to split up, we let him go, okay?”
Clare still didn’t like her sister’s tone, but she nodded. It was probably the best concession she would get. And she already knew Dorran would stay.
Beth squinted up at the sky as lightning arced above them. “Rain’s nasty today. Come on. Let’s get dry. We shouldn’t linger here, anyway. The hollows are growing impatient.”
Beth wrapped one arm around Clare’s shoulder as they moved back towards the minibus. Clare frowned, trying to understand what her sister had said. “The hollows?”
“Yeah. I parked here because it’s the closest haven to the city. The light keeps the hollow ones at bay. But they’ll only stay on the outskirts for so long before the hunger gets the best of them.”
Clare squinted at their surroundings and took them in properly for the first time. The parking lot stretched around them in all directions, empty except for a handful of overturned shopping trolleys. The lights above them flooded the area for a hundred feet in each direction. But if she stared at the shadows on the edges of the asphalt, where the light was thinner, she thought she saw bulb-like eyes glowing in the bushes.
The shopping centre stood not far behind them. It was a single story, designed in a long boomerang shape. She guessed it would house at least eighty stores. She’d thought the windows and doors were dark, but as she looked again, she realised they’d been boarded up. Through the planks and sheet metal, she thought she saw spots of light. “Beth… are there people in there?”
“No.” They were at the bus’s door, and Beth pushed the handle to open it. With the windows covered, barely any light reached inside the vehicle, and Clare had to blink as her eyes adjusted.
The minibus had probably been used for tours at one point. Six rows of seats, made of mottled blue-and-grey fabric, ran either side of the aisle. Metal baskets suspended above them were full of luggage. It wasn’t exactly luxurious, but it was modern and clean.
Dorran still stood in the aisle, one hand braced on a chair for support, shivering as his clothes dripped onto the floor. His expression was unreadable, which Clare had learned was a defence mechanism when he felt uneasy.
“Hey,” she called, injecting some brightness into her voice. “We’re all good. Beth, do you have towels, by any chance?”
“In the basket to your right.” Beth dropped into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition. Lights flickered to life above them, and the door slid closed, muffling the rain.
Clare found a black plastic bag full of towels in the storage compartment Beth had indicated. She pulled two out, checking they were clean, and passed one to Dorran. She couldn’t stop herself from glancing back at the door as she squeezed water out of her hair. “Uh, Beth was just saying that there’s someone in the shopping mall back there. And I’m really hoping she’ll tell me more about that.”
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