“No rest for the wicked,” I say, and follow him down the hallway. I trust Ethan knows where he’s going. He has the nerd sense, or whatever it is, and can navigate ExcelsiCon despite never having been here before. I trail him like his shadow. I don’t even try to remember where we are, what hotel we’re in or what part of the convention center we’re wandering through. It all looks the same. Bland hallways and people dressed up as characters and long lines and meet-and-greets.

We take an elevator up a few floors and step out into another long empty hallway. At the end, waiting patiently, is Dare. He’s snacking on some sort of protein bar. Since filming for the sequel starts next month, he’s back on his dreaded diet, which means he’s just a little bit cranky and scowling at salads most of the time.

He sees us and waves.

“So, you get that whole thing sorted out?” he asks, inhaling the rest of his protein bar and tossing the wrapper in a trash can.

“Yeah,” I reply. “Thanks for distracting Calvin and Felix.”

“I figured it hadn’t been planned. She looked scared to death up there. Who was she?”

“I think she’s an exhibitor—at least, judging by her badge,” Ethan says.

I roll my eyes. “She didn’t look very scared when she went on that whole Amara tirade.”

Dare shrugs. “She’s probably part of the Save Amara initiative.”

“Ugh, they’re everywhere.” I scowl.

The double doors swing open, and a woman in a Captain Marvel T-shirt greets us with a wide, plastic smile. “Oh, good! Darien, Jess, my name’s Heather.” She extends a hand for us to shake. “Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedules. I’ll be interviewing you for the next thirty minutes. Shall we?” She gestures back into the room, where I see a makeshift interview set, complete with photo lights, a green-screen backdrop, an ExcelsiCon banner, and three chairs. An expensive-looking camera on a tripod is off to the side, a cameraman in black standing behind it.

Ethan pulls out his phone and says, “I’ll be out here catching Pokémon,” and then wanders toward the elevators.


* * *

* * *

AFTER THE INTERVIEW, AS I FOLLOW con security across the skybridge to my hotel, I realize I’m still holding the package from Amon as I enter the hotel. Our secret, he called it. Must be the contract for the next movie, where I’ll be relegated to melodramatic flashbacks. Or maybe it’s panel questions for tomorrow, because that girl royally screwed me with her surprise performance.

Whatever it is, I’m furious that I even have it.

Ethan squawks as I lob the envelope into the nearest trash can, where it drops to the bottom with a satisfying thunk. If it’s the contract, Amon’s probably sent a copy to my agent. I haven’t been officially brought on because no one knows if the princess will “return”—in a flashback or whatever—but either way I don’t want to sign on for a sequel. I want to reiterate, again, that Amara is dead. Here’s hoping she stays that way.

“Jess!” Ethan runs over to dig it out. “It might be important.”

“Then Diana can take care of it,” I say, a bit too loud. “That’s why I pay her,” I add, lowering my voice. Everyone in the lobby has begun to suspect who I am.

It always happens this way. First is the quiet, as people squint at me, trying to place my face; then they’re googling or whispering to their friends; then—

“Amara!” someone calls.

And suddenly I’m not anonymous anymore. It’s happening quicker and quicker these days. They call me that even though Amara’s not my name and even though I don’t turn around in response to whoever’s yelling it.

I press the up button on one of the elevators. Which, by the way, are breathtaking—pods of glass that rocket you up ten, twenty stories, some sort of meld between Willy Wonka’s magical lift and a transporter in an ’80s sci-fi flick. When we checked in yesterday I was awestruck by them, but now I can’t look, keeping my head down, praying that no one recognizes—

“Princess Amara!”

That’s not my name.

“It’s just a fan,” Ethan mutters. Then, in a kind but stern voice, he prods, “Jessica.”

He’s right. Of course.

I turn to the girl with a smile. “Hi!” She’s about fourteen maybe, cosplaying as…something orange. She gushes about how big a fan she is and how much she loves me, and I pose for a selfie, biding my time until the elevator comes. More people have gathered around us.

Fortunately, before anyone else can take my picture or call me Amara, the elevator doors whoosh open and Ethan and I step inside.

THE SHOWROOM FLOOR IS SPREAD ACROSS the second-biggest room in the main convention hotel. The space is massive, abuzz with hundreds of vendors selling everything from cosplay gear to mock weapons to T-shirts to dice to obscure tabletop games to books to trading cards, all arranged beside large exhibits hyping upcoming franchise films and obscure TV series. And in the back of the ballroom are three neat rows of artists in what we at ExcelsiCon lovingly call Artists’ Back Alley. There are vendor halls in the con’s other hotels, too, but this is where the magic happens.

In the distant corner, farthest from Artists’ Back Alley, the Nox King has been hoisted to full mast, and I set my sights on him. It’s one of those old plastic models that used to stand at the front of comics and gaming shops in the ’90s. My moms bought it off a vendor before I was even born, and it’s been a symbol of their business, Figurine It Out, ever since. The Nox King is present at every con they attend, and it’s become a landmark for anyone who’s lost their friends on the merciless con floor.

Here, this is where I belong. Not on some panel, being mistaken for Jessica Stone.

I’m no one.

I’ll see you purged from this con—and every other con—forever. Do you understand? I still hear the icy warning in her voice, and it makes me wince.

I was basically born and raised right between the 200s and 300s aisles. I know every nook and cranny of this con, every shortcut across every skybridge, every back stairway, every rule, and every way to break them. I even know most of the longstanding volunteers. The con map is tattooed under my eyelids—I could walk it in the dark.

This is my kingdom, my home, existing as far back in my memory as the dawn of time. Well, okay, the dawn of my time, but time is wibbly-wobbly anyway—


I glance over my shoulder in the direction of the voice.

A guy is pushing through a crowd of Attack on Titan cosplayers and stumbles out the other side—Milo, my younger brother, grinning now that he has my attention. He’s broad and muscular, with curly brown hair that has a single dyed silver streak in the front, a child’s Spider-Man backpack hiked high on his back. So you honestly can’t tell whether he plays football or DnD on Friday nights. (Spoiler: it’s both.) Last year, the twerp grew into his too-big feet. Now he’s taller than me and he’ll never let me live it down.

I glare at him as he approaches. “I told you not to call me that in public.”

His grin widens. “Why, because it’s true?”

It isn’t true. I mean it kind of is, but only when there’s one cheese-stuffed garlic roll left on spaghetti night. That last one is mine. I will spork your eye out for it.

Our moms began calling me Monster because, when I was little, my favorite pajamas were a T. rex onesie that I refused to change out of—ever. I went to kindergarten with it on, that’s how much I loved it. I would stomp around and roar, and whenever someone asked my name, I’d tell them that I was a monster.

I guess my four-year-old self kind of trolled me from an early age. It doesn’t help that Imogen shortens to Mo, which is, you guessed it, the first two letters in “monster.” So it just kind of stuck. The fact that I sometimes get into trouble has nothing to do with my nickname.

It doesn’t.

At all.

I scowl at Milo. “If you weren’t my brother and I didn’t love you, I’d strangle you with your own jockstrap.”

At that he laughs. “Yikes, someone’s had a bad day.”

Oh, he doesn’t know the half of it.

I dig into my backpack for a handful of pins and shove some into his hands. “Here, if you’re going to walk beside me at least help me pass these out. Save Amara!” I add, forcing a pin into the hands of oncoming attendees. “Revive her! She deserves better!”

Most people take the pin and go on their way.

My internet friend Harper designed them. She draws the best Starfield fanart and designs the coolest merch and apparently makes delicious hotel ramen. We’ve never actually met in IRL, never Skyped or FaceTimed, so I honestly can’t tell you what she looks like. But all that will change this weekend. We’re sharing a booth in Artists’ Back Alley, her selling her artwork and me hawking my petition and pins.

It’s been fun imagining what Harper looks like, though. Her avatar has always been Starfield’s fearless Zorine, so I kinda picture her as the six-armed green-skinned lesbian Llotivan who could strike fear into your soul with a single vicious red-eyed glare. She’s so badass online that I’m pretty sure she is Zorine. And she’s talented on top of being rad. Harper is destined for greatness. Like my brother, Milo.