The person outside hammered on the door again, harder and faster.

Michael saw Helga straighten up and smooth out the clothes she’d just put on.

“Everyone arm yourself,” she ordered. “Walter, see who it is.”

Walter didn’t hesitate. He crossed the room swiftly as the others busied themselves seemingly conjuring weapons from thin air. Michael wished he had something other than Jackson Porter’s fists.

Walter flipped open a small window in the old door and peered out, then glanced at Helga. “It’s just one person. At least, that’s all I can see. Short, with a…hood over his head. Or hers. Can’t tell which from here, but it looks like a kid.” He turned back toward the door. “Who are you?” he yelled.

“I’m alone!” a voice shouted back. A girl’s voice. “Please let me in, sir.”

Walter looked at Helga, eyebrows raised.

“You’re sure she’s alone?” Helga asked.

“As far as I can tell.”

“Well, I highly doubt she’s a local farm girl who’s lost her way.” Helga waved an arm in frustration. “I suppose we might as well find out what it’s all about—if we have enemies outside waiting to kill us.” She sighed. “Let her in, then bar the door behind her.”

Walter nodded, released several locks that Michael hadn’t noticed before, then quickly opened the door and motioned the girl inside. She stepped in and he slammed the door behind her, relocking everything. Another person patted her down to make sure she had no weapons; then they both stepped back and Walter repeated his question.

“Who are you?”

The girl couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. She wore jeans and tennis shoes and had on a bright-red cape, with a hood draped over her head. She looked like she’d walked straight out of the old fairy tale. All that was missing was the basket full of cakes for Grandma. And a wolf.

The young stranger reached up and pulled her hood down, revealing dark hair and pale skin, and an odd half smile.

“Who are you?” Walter asked for a third time, his tone now charged with impatience.

The girl gave him a curtsy, then looked around the room until her eyes fell on Michael.

“My name is Janey,” she said, in a voice so innocent it sounded cartoonish. “I was wondering if Michael could come out and play.”

CHAPTER 4

INTO THE WOODS

1

She smiled after she said it, still staring straight at Michael with doe eyes. On the surface she seemed harmless, but Michael knew better. She was creepier than a zombie who’d just crawled out of a muddy grave.

Despite all the people in the room, it felt like it was only him and the strange girl. “How do you know my name?” Michael asked, fearing the answer.

A hurt look flashed across her face, only turning up the weirdness. “How can you be surprised?” she asked, and bit her lower lip in confusion. “You’re the First; we all know who you are. We practically worship you. Won’t you come out and play with us?”

“Us?” Helga repeated sharply, marching up to stand between Michael and their new visitor. “Who else is out there?”

The girl named Janey gave Helga a hard look. “I prefer to speak with the First only, please. We’re grateful that…other Tangents have chosen to protect him for us, but we’ll take it from here, thank you.”

“You don’t sound much like a kid,” Walter said, inching closer to Helga.

Janey glanced sharply at him, her odd smile suddenly gone. “Because I’m not. Why so many of you choose to take over bodies that are already so…old completely baffles me. If you’re going to take over a human, why would you pick one that’s already close to its deathbed?”

Michael was frozen, unable to move or even think properly. He still hadn’t recovered from his trip to the Hive, and now he had to deal with this? Janey wasn’t the only person who’d recognized him since he’d gained a body, or referred to him as the First, but he still had no idea what they wanted from him. He wished he could just go back to being Michael the Tangent, living in blissful ignorance with his parents and Helga in Lifeblood Deep. He didn’t want this new life. He didn’t want any of it.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Helga said calmly. “Who else is out there?”

Janey started to walk toward Michael, but Helga and Walter stepped in front of her, arms out. Janey glanced at each of them, annoyed, then rested her eyes on Michael.

“There are so many of us,” she said. “We’re waiting for you. Things have changed, you know. We don’t work for Kaine anymore—we broke off. He’s not right in the head. All we want is freedom to…live like humans were meant to live. Come with us. Bring your two friends if you like. We could use your help if Kaine retaliates. These other Tangents have to stay here, though. I’m sorry. It’s clear they want to end the Mortality Doctrine, and we can’t allow that.”

Michael shivered. It was so eerie seeing this little girl speak like an adult. Bryson and Sarah were at his sides, one at each shoulder. Sarah had a reassuring hand on his arm.

“You can leave,” he said, telling himself he didn’t need to be scared of a twelve-year-old. “You get your buddies and waltz right on out of here. If you’re against Kaine, then we’ve got no beef with you.” He left out that little part about the Doctrine.

As he spoke, Janey’s smile widened, and when he finally finished, she let out a high-pitched laugh. “You’re as adorable as we were told. But the First needs to be educated, obviously. I’m not sure your friends here are the best people to entrust your life to.”

“Cut the act,” Sarah snapped. “Tell us what you want.”

Janey glared at Sarah as she answered. “The Tangent you know as Kaine played a very important part in making the Mortality Doctrine come to life. But he was never the one in charge. There was someone far more important pulling the strings. There always is, isn’t there?”

“Still talking in riddles,” Sarah answered.

“Then let me spell it out for you,” Janey shot back. Michael had never seen a little girl look so menacing. “Kaine has lost his relevance. If at one time he was in charge—and that’s by no means certain—he no longer is. He lost his value with those who matter, and he’s been…relieved, accordingly.”

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