Page 27


but I can’t turn back now


because there it is


the door is right in front of me


all I have to do is knock


but the door flies open first.

“Oh good,” he says to me. “You’re right on time.”


“It’s refreshing, really,” he says. “To see that the youth still value things like punctuality. It’s always so frustrating when people waste my time.”

My head is full of missing buttons and shards of glass and broken pencil tips. I’m nodding too slowly, blinking like an idiot, unable to find the words in my mouth either because they’re lost or because they never existed or simply because I have no idea what to say.

I don’t know what I was expecting.

Maybe I thought he’d be old and slumped and slightly blind. Maybe he’d be wearing a patch on one eye and have to walk with a cane. Maybe he’d have rotting teeth and ragged skin and coarse, balding hair and maybe he’d be a centaur, a unicorn, an old witch with a pointy hat anything anything anything but this. Because this isn’t possible. This is so hard for me to understand and whatever I was expecting was wrong so utterly, incredibly, horribly wrong.

I’m staring at a man who is absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful.

And he is a man.

He has to be at least 45 years old, tall and strong and silhouetted in a suit that fits him so perfectly it’s almost unfair. His hair is thick, smooth like hazelnut spread; his jawline is sharp, the lines of his face perfectly symmetrical, his cheekbones hardened by life and age. But it’s his eyes that make all the difference. His eyes are the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen.

They’re almost aquamarine.

“Please,” he says, flashing me an incredible smile. “Come in.”

And it hits me then, right in that moment, because everything suddenly makes sense. His look; his stature; his smooth, classy demeanor; the ease with which I nearly forgot he was a villain—this man.

This is Warner’s father.

I step into what looks like a small living room. There are old, lumpy couches settled around a tiny coffee table. The wallpaper is yellowed and peeling from age. The house is heavy with a strange, moldy smell that indicates the cracked glass windows haven’t been opened in years, and the carpet is forest green under my feet, the walls embellished with fake wood panels that don’t make sense to me at all. This house is, in a word, ugly. It seems ridiculous for a man so striking to be found inside of a house so horribly inferior.

“Oh wait,” he says, “just one thing.”


He’s pinned me against the wall by the throat, his hands carefully sheathed in a pair of leather gloves, already prepared to touch my skin to cut off my oxygen, choke me to death and I’m so sure I’m dying, I’m so sure that this is what it feels like to die, to be utterly immobilized, limp from the neck down. I try to claw at him, kicking at his body with the last of my energy until I’m giving up, forfeiting to my own stupidity, my last thoughts condemning me for being such an idiot, for thinking I could actually come in here and accomplish anything until I realize he’s undone my holsters, stolen my guns, put them in his pockets.

He lets me go.

I drop to the floor.

He tells me to have a seat.

I shake my head, coughing against the torture in my lungs, wheezing into the dirty, musty air, heaving in strange, horrible gasps, my whole body in spasms against the pain. I’ve been inside for less than 2 minutes and he’s already overpowered me. I have to figure out how to do something, how to get through this alive. Now’s not the time to hold back.

I press my eyes shut for a moment. Try to clear my airways, try to find my head. When I finally look up I see he’s already seated himself on one of the chairs, staring at me as though thoroughly entertained.

I can hardly speak. “Where are the hostages?”

“They’re fine.” This man whose name I do not know waves an indifferent hand in the air. “They’ll be just fine. Are you sure you won’t sit down?”

“What—” I try to clear my throat and regret it immediately, forcing myself to blink back the traitorous tears burning my eyes. “What do you want from me?”

He leans forward in his seat. Clasps his hands. “You know, I’m not entirely sure anymore.”


“Well, you’ve certainly figured out that all of this”—he nods at me, around the room—“is just a distraction, right?” He smiles that same incredible smile. “Surely you’ve realized that my ultimate goal was to lure your people out into my territory? My men are waiting for just one word. One word from me and they will seek out and destroy all of your little friends waiting so patiently within this half-mile radius.”

Terror waves hello to me.

He laughs a little. “If you think I don’t know exactly what’s going on in my own land, young lady, you are quite mistaken.” He shakes his head. “I’ve let these freaks live too freely among us, and it was my mistake. They’re causing me too much trouble, and now it’s time to take them out.”

“I am one of those freaks,” I tell him, trying to control the tremble in my voice. “Why did you bring me here if all you want is to kill us? Why me? You didn’t have to single me out.”

“You’re right.” He nods. Stands up. Shoves his hands into his pockets. “I came here with a purpose: to clean up the mess my son made, and to finally put an end to the naive efforts of a group of idiotic aberrations. To erase the lot of you from this sorry world. But then,” he says, laughing a little, “just as I began drafting my plans, my son came to me and begged me not to kill you. Just you.” He stops. Looks up. “He actually begged me not to kill you.” Laughs again. “It was just as pathetic as it was surprising.

“Of course then I knew I had to meet you,” he says, smiling, staring at me like he might be enchanted. “‘I must meet the girl who’s managed to bewitch my boy!’ I said to myself. This girl who’s managed to make him lose sight of his pride—his dignity—long enough to beg me for a favor.” A pause. “Do you know,” he says to me, “when my son has ever asked me for a favor?” He cocks his head. Waits for me to answer.

I shake my head.

“Never.” He takes a breath. “Never. Not once in nineteen years has he ever asked me for anything. Hard to believe, isn’t it?” His smile is wider, brilliant. “I take full credit, of course. I raised him well. Taught him to be entirely self-reliant, self-possessed, unencumbered by the needs and wants that break most other men. So to hear these disgraceful, pleading words come out of his mouth?” He shakes his head. “Well. Naturally, I was intrigued. I had to see you for myself. I needed to understand what he’d seen, what was so special about you that it could’ve caused such a colossal lapse in judgment. Though, to be perfectly honest,” he says, “I really didn’t think you’d show up.” He takes one hand out of his pocket, gestures with it as he speaks. “I mean I certainly hoped you would. But I thought if you did, you’d at least come with support—some form of backup. But here you are, wearing this spandex monstrosity”—he laughs out loud—“and you’re all alone.” He studies me. “Very stupid,” he says. “But brave. I like that. I can admire bravery.

“Anyhow, I brought you here to teach my son a lesson. I had every intention of killing you,” he says, assuming a slow, steady walk around the room. “And I preferred to do it where he would be sure to see it. War is messy,” he adds, waving his hand. “It’s easy to lose track of who’s been killed and how they died and who killed whom, et cetera, et cetera. I wanted this particular death to be as clean and simple as the message it would convey. It’s not good for him to form these kinds of attachments, after all. It’s my duty as his father to put an end to that kind of nonsense.”

I feel sick, so sick, so tremendously sick to my stomach. This man is far worse than I ever could have imagined.

My voice is one hard breath, one loud whisper when I speak. “So why don’t you just kill me?”

He hesitates. Says, “I don’t know. I had no idea you were going to be quite so lovely. I’m afraid my son never mentioned how beautiful you are. And it’s always so difficult to kill a beautiful thing,” he sighs. “Besides, you surprised me. You arrived on time. Alone. You were actually willing to sacrifice yourself to save the worthless creatures stupid enough to get themselves caught.”

He takes a sharp breath. “Maybe we could keep you. If you don’t prove useful, you might prove entertaining, at the very least.” He tilts his head, thoughtful. “Though if we did keep you, I suppose you’d have to come back to the capital with me, because I can’t trust my son to do anything right anymore. I’ve given him far too many chances.”

“Thanks for the offer,” I tell him. “But I’d really rather jump off a cliff.”

His laughter is like a hundred little bells, happy and wholesome and contagious. “Oh my.” He smiles, bright and warm and devastatingly sincere. He shakes his head. Calls over his shoulder toward what looks like it might be another room—maybe the kitchen, I can’t be sure—and says, “Son, would you come in here, please?”

And all I can think is that sometimes you’re dying, sometimes you’re about to explode, sometimes you’re 6 feet under and you’re searching for a window when someone pours lighter fluid in your hair and lights a match on your face.

I feel my bones ignite.

Warner is here.


He appears in a doorway directly across from where I’m now standing and he looks exactly as I remember him. Golden hair and perfect skin and eyes too bright for their faded shade of emerald. His is an exquisitely handsome face, one I now realize he’s inherited from his father. It’s the kind of face no one believes in anymore; lines and angles and easy symmetry that’s almost offensive in its perfection. No one should ever want a face like that. It’s a face destined for trouble, for danger, for an outlet to overcompensate for the excess it stole from an unsuspecting innocent.

It’s overdone.

It’s too much.

It frightens me.

Black and green and gold seem to be his colors. His pitch-black suit is tailored to his frame, lean but muscular, offset by the crisp white of his shirt underneath and complemented by the simple black tie knotted at his throat. He stands straight, tall, unflinching. To anyone else he would look imposing, even with his right arm still in a sling. He’s the kind of boy who was only ever taught to be a man, who was told to erase the concept of childhood from his life’s expectations. His lips do not dare to smile, his forehead does not crease in distress. He has been taught to disguise his emotions, to hide his thoughts from the world and to trust no one and nothing. To take what he wants by whatever means necessary. I can see all of this so clearly.