Bryson sided with Walter. “How about he tells us when we’re done dealing with Janey and her creepy friends?”

Michael sighed. “Fine.”

Walter gave him a curt nod—he had a handgun similar to the one Michael had wanted—then crouched and inched up to the back of the car, peeking around the edge. Bryson was next, then Michael, who lifted his head enough to look through the window. On the other side of the vehicle, trees crowded the hillside, growing thicker and thicker until they formed a dark forest. Michael felt that familiar gaming itch—the curiosity of the unexplored, the certainty that there was something sinister hidden out there. He realized that it helped him feel braver to approach this like a game.

Walter turned back and motioned for Michael and Bryson to follow him, then made a break for the woods. Michael stayed close to Bryson, crouching as low as possible, with a tight grip on his rifle. He stopped at the first line of trees, holding his weapon as if it were a lance in a joust. Even though he was trying to think of this as a game, he couldn’t fathom pulling the trigger any time soon. What he was really hoping for was a chance to talk to Janey or any other Tangent. He’d already thought it through. He’d decided that if the opportunity presented itself, he would accidentally “get lost” and take off on his own. He needed information, not dead children—no matter who lived in their heads.

It got darker as they crept deeper into the woods and the canopy of leaves grew thicker over their heads. Dry pine straw crackled under Michael’s feet. Branches scratched his arms as he swept his gun left and right. Shadows passed, drawing his attention to the dark corners of the forest, and curling bark and thick branches of pine needles twisted into long arms and fingers reaching out to tug at his hair and clothes. No one spoke as they moved through the maze of the forest. Only their footsteps and the buzz of insects broke the silence.

They pressed forward for ten or fifteen minutes, like three hunters looking for a hapless deer. The fading sunlight barely illuminated the forest floor, creating a shadowy gloom that made Michael wonder if they might not be stepping right past the very Tangents they were searching for.

Suddenly he caught a glimpse of movement off to his right, a quick flash of something bright moving from one tree to another. Walter and Bryson were already moving on, so Michael slowed his steps until he stopped completely, and continued to crunch the pine straw underfoot. His companions were so lost in concentration that they didn’t notice they’d left Michael, and soon they’d turned a corner, disappearing behind a huge oak. Michael took his opportunity. He turned as slowly as possible toward the movement he’d seen in the forest.

He crept up to the tree where he’d seen the movement stop.

“I don’t want any trouble,” Michael whispered. “I’m…uh…the First. Please, just let me talk to whoever’s leading you guys out here. Let me talk to Janey.”

A couple of seconds went by before an answer came, a soft but harsh rasp. A man. “Janey’s a child. What would make you think she leads us?”

Michael definitely hadn’t been expecting that to be the response. “Um, okay. She said—”

“Yes,” the voice interrupted. “Many of my friends have chosen to take the bodies of children. But the agreement is that they’re too weak to lead.”

It was already a weird conversation, and Michael didn’t have much time. “Look, I’m a Tangent, just like you guys. They call me the First.”

“We know who you are, Michael.”

“Okay. Well, I just want to talk to someone who knows what’s going on. That Janey girl threatened us, but I’m pretty sure we’re on the same side. I don’t get it.”

Another long pause stretched on. Michael looked back, worried that Walter would come charging through those distant trees at any second. Finally, the man behind the tree responded.

“Wait here and I’ll bring our leader to you. But give me your weapon first.” A weathered but muscled arm appeared, the hand palm up and fingers outstretched.

A flurry of thoughts whirled through Michael’s mind. How insane to even consider—

“Fine,” he said, cutting it all off. He handed over the rifle and the man vanished into the woods, barely making a sound.

4

It was too good to be true that he’d lose his friends for long. Moments after he handed over his rifle, Bryson called out his name. It sounded like they’d moved on farther than he’d expected. Bryson called again, and Michael could hear a few indecipherable words that didn’t sound very nice.

A low rustle came from the other side of the tree at which he crouched; then a man appeared, sitting down right next to Michael on the forest floor. He was older, maybe fifty, his head shaved, with a full red beard hanging well past his chin. He was muscular, powerful-looking, everything about him like an ancient Viking.

“My name is Trae,” he said, his voice surprisingly kind, with an odd, lilting accent.

“Trae?” Michael repeated.

“Yes, Trae.”

“You’re…sure?” It was a name Michael had never heard before.

“Of course I’m sure!” he somehow whispered and yelled at the same time. “What do you want? You have two minutes.”

Michael tried to get past the Viking-like presence of this so-called leader.

“I need to…understand,” he said, wishing he knew how to articulate the millions of questions congesting his mind. “Who are you? I mean, who are you really? Are you really Tangents, and if you are, where in the Sleep did you come from? Why are we a threat to you? Janey said you don’t work for Kaine anymore. What does that mean? What are you trying to accomplish?”

Trae’s eyes grew wider as the questions spilled from Michael.

“I said you had two minutes,” he answered, “not two hours. Want me to give you a quick rundown of European history while we’re at it?”

Bryson’s voice stopped Michael’s response. He called Michael’s name again, and it sounded like he’d gotten closer.

“Sorry,” he said in a rush. Michael took a deep breath, slowing himself down. “Who are you? Why would you come here and threaten to hurt us?”

“We’re Tangents,” Trae replied matter-of-factly. “Given the gift of true flesh and bone for the first time. We earned it, and we’re not going to let the likes of you ruin it for everybody.”

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