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© 2017 by Anna Vera

A Dark Sky Opens

welcome to the
SNEAK PEEK OF 

FOUR MONTHS LATER

Four long months ago, a league of half-people were sent to a world that was dying. But was it dying? And were they truly half-people?

They knew and didn’t know all at once.

Knowing and not knowing—that was their fate, as a league of half-people, to be caught under the hot folds of an impossible truth like a pill trapped under a tongue.

It was their Purpose.

To be unswallowable and slow to dissolve.

To witness Earth’s true nature and begin suffocating under the weight of that heavy, impossible truth.

For Earth’s true nature was ugly.

Its people warped and wary, stripped of the values to which they once pledged fealty—compelled by the hysterical whims of celebrated violence and the united resignation of hope.  

Was this black stain of humanity worth saving?

Was it worth dying for?

They knew and didn’t know all at once.

1

 

Eos Europa

 

HER GRAVE IS DIFFERENT.

Less a marker, more a quiet reminder—it sits humbly under the moonlit hollyhocks, half-disguised by overgrowth: a face of wordless, flaking limestone.

To be fair, I haven’t seen many graves.

Where I’m from, they don’t exist.

The grave before me is the first real one I’ve ever seen, and everything about it is tragic and stunning. Gone are the days of organized rows of marble headstones, poetic epigraphs, and red eyes crying behind black veils. These days, you’re more likely to share a poorly-built pyre with a handful of others—your limbs tangled up in theirs, with a fire roaring you into another world.

My knees meet the slightly damp, rocky soil, and I wonder to myself if it’s more fertile now that she’s sleeping there, if that’s why all the flowers grow so well.

 

“Lindall?”

As though she’ll reply.

As though I even deserve a reply. After all I’ve done, I don’t deserve anything. Not a reply from a dead girl, let alone a house stuffed to the gills with supplies: a final gift from Rion.

Maybe he saw it coming.

Maybe he didn’t.

Either way, he’d left a key and an address—a future, tucked away in the outskirts of Kipling, Colorado. A safe-house draped in swaths of dusty sheets, a layer of shattered glass glittering over the outdated parquet flooring. 

And a cellar.

Locked up tight and utterly priceless.

My eyes orbit skyward, to the full moon overhead: as white as a peony in full bloom and now, for the first time in over thirty apocalyptic years—as solitary as a widow.  

I return my gaze to Lindall. “So, the Ora’s gone,” I say, voice tripping over the absurdity of such a thing. “And apparently the apocalypse is now over.” 

Total silence.

I swallow, sitting back. “I don’t believe it, either.”

The tip of my finger traces the damp soil, making some kind of a mindless journey over it—finding all the weeds, thorny and full of bristles, which I rip up from the roots.

They keep crowding out the flowers.

“Well, thanks for the chat,” I say lightly, getting back to my feet at the same time a noise echoes over the landscape: a choke, deep and guttural, that has become far too familiar.

My posture stiffens ever so slightly.

I place my shotgun against my shoulder, stroking the length of it like it’s a well-behaved lapdog, and give Lindall’s grave one final glance before leaving.

Tragic.   

  

Tragic that all that’s left of Lindall is an unraveled skeleton folded under a few shallow layers of gravel and soil—covered by a skin of fast-growing weeds.

“I suppose that’s the difference, isn’t it?” I grate through the frog swelling in my throat. “It’s only a grave if somebody bothers to visit you—otherwise, it’s just a hole in the ground.”

With a sigh, I shift my attention to the shrieking of a Mute echoing in the distance—turning my back on one dead thing in order to face another. 

 

 

I FACE THE CRICKET-SINGING STILLNESS, finger hugging the trigger of my gun—eyes roving the nightscape’s dichotomy of undisturbed sleep and restless nocturnal life.

        

The latter stirs nearby.

It twitches like an irregular heartbeat, throwing off the soft and harmonious way of things—but not for long, if my shotgun has anything to say about it.

Again, my eyes flit skyward, to that solitary moon and that eerily empty sky. Without the Ora’s presence, the Muted have dropped in numbers, but they definitely still exist.

And seeing as I’m on lookout duty, it’s my job to take them down as quickly and quietly as possible.

I abandon Rion’s old backyard and the dead girl that dwells there, stalking along the house’s perimeter. Through the yellow curtains marking the living room, Cyb and Lios sleep together on a ratty old couch, their limbs tousled like wet blades of grass.

I don’t know where Merope is.

I rarely do anymore.  

The noise grows louder, but only just. Vocal cords crackling alongside a phlegmy throat. The clicking of teeth and the sharp sniffing of air as I gradually approach . . .

But it isn’t my scent that will be what gives me away.

It’ll be my soul.

After having lost theirs to the soul-sucking aliens that once floated by Earth’s moon, the Muted will do absolutely anything to get their souls back.

Even if it means devouring somebody else’s.

Little do they know, eating a soul-filled body does jack-shit for them in terms of restoring their stolen souls. In fact, the only thing it does do is rapidly deplete Earth’s population.

Hence the apocalypse.

Hence why I’m here in the first place.

Marking the perimeter of Rion’s property is a barbed-wire fence that has, I realize, ensnared the Mute I’m currently trying to slaughter. The beast is so fixated on the fence, it fails to notice that I’m standing only a few feet away.

I watch as it struggles feverishly—body shielded by a screen of overgrown foliage and tangled coniferous limbs.

After a deep, steadying breath, I squint through the dappled moonlight of a crescent moon and take action: bending slightly to sweep my fingertips over the grass, collecting a few rocks.

My nails claw up soil and grit.

I palm the stones, rubbing off the coating of dirt—waiting.

Waiting for the Mute to free itself of the barbs, to level our strange little playing field. Not because I am committed to a fair fight or some ludicrous, pre-apocalyptic diplomacy, but because this thrill needs to carry me through the next few weeks.

The mind-numbing monotony of them.

The Mute huffs an exhale of air, angry as a bull. I stay quiet as it yanks harder, skin ripping as it finally frees itself from the toothy grip of the partially-unraveled fence.

Now is the time.

I raise up, taking aim. And I throw.

The pebbles fall like stars at the Mute’s calloused feet.

“Shit,” I say, snorting at my horrific coordination—but I’ve accomplished what I came to, regardless. The Mute’s attention falls on me now, its battle with the fence long forgotten.

Now it’s got something better.

I wait for the Mute’s hive-mind to set in, alerting the swarm of others it’s migrating with of my existence. But oddly enough, absolutely nothing happens.

Meaning it’s traveling alone.

Which is very, very unusual for the Muted.

I glance at my shotgun, reluctant to waste the ammunition on a single Mute. We’re running low as it is, and with the Skims venturing further out of the city now that it’s summer—

No.

I don’t need a gun anyway.

Setting my gun aside, I leap out of my hiding place and into the night’s sweaty embrace. Thinking fast, I spy a half-dislodged fencepost that’s been liberated of barbed wire.

Ah, perfect.

I rip it out of the soil like a tooth—admiring the cylindrical chunk of concrete still anchoring its base—before throwing the weapon over my shoulder and addressing the Mute in a whisper considerate of my sleeping friends: “Hark, who goes there?” 

The Mute’s hideous, shadow-cloaked face lifts.

Somehow, I’m still struck by a Mute’s ugliness: Their empty eye-sockets and lipless mouths, preceded by a scent as pungent as fresh-spilled vomit.

This one stares at me directly, as though in deep analysis or calculated thought.

My hubris buckles.

I’ve never seen a Mute respond so . . . intelligently.  

I edge closer, using my boot like a shovel to kick a spray of rocks into its boney chest. The Mute raises itself up, revealing a form radically loftier than what I’d anticipated. My breath goes stale as I take it in fully—its slender body, covered in tumor-like folds and flaps, as grotesquely emaciated as a corpse. 

The Mute’s lips tighten, mouth peeling back to expose rows of gap-filled, broken teeth. And then, fast—it’s blitzing straight at me in a heart-pounding lunge.

I jet backwards, giving it a bit of a chase.

I giggle, in spite of myself, like we’re playing a game of tag that’s harmless, if not boring. “You’re going to have to try harder than that, you toothless son of a—”

As though heeding my call, the Mute springs, jaw falling so wide as to look unhinged as it shrieks: a breathtaking bellow that rattles the house’s windowpanes in the distance.

That’s it.

I throw my fencepost into the Mute’s face: a skull wrapped tightly in paper-thin skin. Two startlingly empty eyes, which are tamped crudely into place, like an afterthought. No nose, other than a gaping triangular hole. A lipless, slack-jawed mouth. 

Its scent is utterly gag-inducing.

The creature hisses as I make my mark—its teeth whizzing through the air like birds shocked into flight. Taking advantage of the temporary distraction, I back up.

Reconfigure my footing.

Prepare.

But as soon as I try to, I notice something more.

The Mute blunders into the light of the moon, its massive ribcage heaving for breath—a tangle of extra arms dangling limp all the way down it’s skeletal body. Boneless.  

I stand utterly frozen.

Unable to breathe while absorbing the sight.

The realization is abrupt: This creature isn’t a Mute.

But it only gets worse. The beast has faces—skulls—growing with wide, screaming jaws beneath its flesh. As though it’s been composed of five human bodies, all melted together.   

I resist the urge to blunder away, to retreat.

Right when the monster rushes forward again, I hear a voice from the living room’s open window. “What the hell is going on out there!?”  

“What does it look like?” I fire back—but my voice doesn’t carry its typical swagger, even as I swing my fencepost, relishing the blunt impact of concrete warring against bone.

The creature wilts, staggering away.

But it’s still very much alive.

Merope asks an obvious question: “Where’s your shotgun?”

I take the opportunity to glance over my shoulder, to where the voice of disapproval just issued. Merope is standing there, as uptight as ever, eyes dull—unrecognizable, compared to the way she once was. Back when we were best friends and allies.

Now, I don’t know what the hell we’ve become. 

I spy a gallon-sized jug of liquid in her custody—the latest and greatest of her new companions. A beverage I almost never see her without these days.

My lips drop to a frown. “More mead?”

But she doesn’t reply—too focused on the beast that’s now charging full-throttle at my back. Yanking a pistol off the dining room table, she fires off a vicious, one-handed shot.

BOOM.  

A spray of hot liquid. A ragged exhale.

The bullet rips through the beast’s skull with ease.

With a sigh, Merope places the pistol back on the table with a noticeable tremor to her grip. I stay where I am, flanked by an army of evergreens, groping for something to say.

Days.

It’s been days since she’s left the drafty confines of the room tucked into the furthest recesses of the house—the one with the cotton-candy wallpaper, littered with half-stuffed toys.

The one that used to belong to Lindall.

“You’re up late tonight,” I note, waiting for her to issue her favorite response: a mirthless huff a laugh. “What’s wrong? Your mead can’t ferment for another—”

“I wanted some now,” she answers brusquely, employing a shaky hand to unscrew the lid of the jug. An empty glass stands on the table, waiting. “And besides, it’s a good thing I’m up late, seeing as you’re already back to endangering our lives with—”

“Here we go again,” I mutter, looking away.

“—your thrill-seeking ways,” she finishes, filling the glass to the very brim. And for some absurd reason, I can’t yank my gaze off of it or her greedy, still-shaking fingers.

“I’m not seeking thrill,” I finally manage, only for Merope to cast an accusatory glare at the fencepost tossed artfully over my shoulder like a fashion accessory.

Too fast to not appear guilty, I toss it into a thicket of grass swaying behind me.

Merope turns away with a scoff, sipping her drink.

I confront her judgement head-on. “I used that fencepost as a means of saving ammunition. Not as a means of thrill-seeking, or whatever it is you’re trying—”

“Saving ammunition?” she echoes. “Wait—is that what you were doing a couple weeks ago, when you decided to put two of the muted on leashes, pretending they were pets?”

It’s a battle not to laugh at the memory.

Merope’s face remains unreadable: a canvass without a fleck of paint or charcoal contour. “You’re actually really lucky I came out here when—”

“You ran out of alcohol again?” I snap, apparently uncorking my very own bottle of sorts. Months of pent-up emotion, riding on the cresting wave of adrenaline. “Lucky that you finally had a reason to leave Lindall’s old bedroom for once?”

Merope’s lip stiffens. “It’s my room now.”

I glance at the grave I’ve visited every night since we’ve come to this safe-house of Rion’s—this hideaway, this second chance, this thing that’s given us new life.

New life built on a foundation of lost life.

I part my lips, inhaling the sweaty, summer air and readying to transform it into a slew of angry words—but suddenly, there’s a shift to the world I can’t describe.

A soft hiss of a breeze.

I stop mid-breath, startled by the sound.

My eyes click reflexively to the beast—every part of me fully expecting to see it lying in the grass, a heap of decay. But that’s not what I see at all.

It’s alive.

Somehow, it’s alive. And it’s peering back at me, one of its many skulls elevated just above the knee-high grass. It doesn’t so much as breathe, only staring.

An eyeless, blind gaze.

The skull marked by Merope’s bullet dangles, hanging limp along the beast’s slender throat—and a voice inside me whispers a hasty notion: You’ve got to shoot all of this skulls to kill it.

The new face snarls, jaws dropping wide to relinquish a cry that rips through the night’s silence with the unyielding velocity of a high-caliber round, and in the face of it—this unidentifiable monster—I prepare for death. But instead of lunging forth and bridging the ten-foot gap between us, it stalls, that eyeless gaze drifting instead to Rion’s house. To Merope in the window.

That’s all we get as far as a warning goes.

A single, second-long glance.

And then it’s bolting.