Michael was stunned, feeling as broken apart as his virtual self was at the moment. Kaine scared him in so many ways. He didn’t know how to read the situation. He went the safest route and said nothing.

“But it will have to wait,” Kaine said after a long moment of silence. “Something is happening. Something terrible.”

“What?” Michael asked, surprised at the sudden shift in the conversation.

“They found us. I don’t know how, but they found us.”

CHAPTER 15

BLACK CLOAKS

1

The darkness turned to fog, then mist, swirling around Michael. He looked down at his arms and legs as his body reappeared, as if someone were pouring him into an invisible mold. The mist thinned out, and finally the inside of the tree house appeared, at first blurry, then slowly solidifying. He and Kaine sat in the same two chairs as before the vision had started.

“Who found us?” Michael asked immediately, unfazed by the odd transformation.

Kaine held a finger to his lips, searching the room with his eyes. Then he leaned closer to Michael so he could whisper. “There are more Tangents against me than for me now. I don’t know if the VNS programmed them or what—but you’ve met many of them. They have a terrible knack of knowing exactly where I am. And they’re nasty, Michael. Nasty.”

Michael immediately thought of the people in the woods, outside the barracks where Helga had set up her Alliance. “Were they—”

“Yes,” Kaine said curtly, still speaking softly. “The same. No one ever makes it easy, putting power before sense.” He was about to say something else, but a noise stopped him short.

A high whine came from outside, as if a sudden windstorm had sprung up. It intensified, piercing enough to hurt Michael’s ears. It was like a dog whistle, yet just above the threshold where humans could no longer hear it. It got louder, like wounded angels shrieking. The tree house creaked and shook. Something black and oily poured in through the cracks in the wood of the window frame, funneling in like smoke. The air shimmered, and suddenly the darkness was coalescing, forming shadows that hovered in the air around Michael and Kaine.

“Don’t move,” the Tangent said, staring straight at Michael. “They know me too well. We’ll get out of this, but we have to be smart about it.”

“What’s happening?” Michael whispered.

“Just watch, and follow my lead.”

A chill crept up Michael’s back. As slowly as he could, he turned to get a view of the entity nearest him. It had taken a distinct shape, along with several others, shadowy figures with black cloaks draped from their thin shoulders, billowing in an unseen wind. Waves rippled across the cloaks, and the figures bobbed slightly. Up and down, up and down—there were about eight in a circle, all of them next to the walls. Like suspended blackened corpses. They’d yet to make a sound.

Michael wanted to run so badly. Kaine sat across from him, stoic and still, not really looking at anything. He certainly wasn’t focused on their visitors. It was as if he’d fallen into a waking coma.

One of the entities swooped down from the other side of the room and stopped just inches from Michael’s nose. He could feel the blood drain from his face, and he pressed himself as far as he could into his chair, holding in a scream.

“Don’t…move…,” Kaine said, as quiet as a stir of breeze.

Michael tried to focus on the creature floating in front of him, but it was like trying to capture a shadow in the middle of a moonless night. The black figure that hovered before him was shifting, becoming an impossible, impenetrable emptiness. A black hole. Michael wondered if he was about to be sucked away forever.

Sucked away. He remembered the KillSims, created by Kaine. Devouring the lives of their victims, sucking them dry, leaving their real bodies back in the Wake, brain-dead or close to it. Whatever this was, it was similar to the KillSims. Then another shifting within the entity’s abyss of a head stopped him cold.

A section had opened. Widening like a mouth. For the first time he saw something that wasn’t black, making the growing hole more obvious. They were lined up in two rows, white and pointed and sharp, drops of red all over them.

Teeth.

2

The creature inched closer to Michael, those bloody jaws yawning open farther than seemed possible. A horrible smell wafted from the thing’s mouth, putrid and rank. Michael pictured the remnants of past meals—pieces of small animals stuck between its teeth, rotting. Decaying. It was the smell of death, pure and simple.

Michael looked away from it, tried to focus on Kaine’s eyes, which bored into him, stern with their unspoken command: Do not move.

A low growl came from within the creature, guttural, primal. Michael could see in his peripheral vision that the monster was only moments from devouring his entire head. The smell was rancid, and he fought to stop himself from gagging.

Then, from somewhere, from everywhere, a whisper. Like a blade scraping on dried bones. “Don’t…resist. Become…a part…of us. Kaine…is irrelevant. We…are…one.” The voice of a wraith.

Another wave of sour breath washed over him, and the very tips of the creature’s teeth lightly brushed against his forehead. Michael couldn’t hold still one more second. In a burst of energy, he snapped.

He twisted his body and brought his elbow up, smashing it into the side of the creature’s head, right on the corner of its impossibly huge mouth. It shrieked, a horrible sound that was a thousand times louder than its whisper. As it spun away from him, the other dark figures swarmed in, filling the world with darkness. Formless hands tore at his shirt, his neck, his arms and legs, lifting him into the air. He struggled, but their grasp was firm, pulling him until he was close to the ceiling.

“Kaine!” he shouted. “Help!”

“I told you not to move,” the Tangent responded with a sigh, as if they were just playing some game.

Michael opened his mouth to yell, but before he could form the first word, the creatures threw him violently. His body flew as if shot from a cannon, and he slammed into the programmed wooden wall of the tree house, exploding through it. Shards of wood swirled around him as he tumbled in the air. The world spun, and in a flash of pain he crashed into a tree and fell to the ground, landing across its massive root.

A scream finally escaped his lungs. It felt like he’d just crushed several organs and broken even more bones than that. He rolled into a ball, unable to isolate which part of him hurt more than others, and closed his eyes. He opened them just in time to see dark shapes flying from the hole in the tree house and descending on him like huge bats.

***

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