rogue (exceptional)

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ROGUE

 

 

BOOK TWO IN THE EXCEPTIONAL SERIES

by

Jess Petosa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright –2013 by Jess Petosa

 

This book is a work of fiction.  Any references to historical events, people, or places are used fictitiously.  Other names, characters, places, and incidents are simply products of the author’s imagination, and any similarity to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

All rights are reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any way whatsoever without written consent from the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dedicated to those who read and loved Exceptional, and told me that my ideas were worth continuing.

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

 

EXCEPTIONAL….…………………………..…5

PRAISE……….…………………………….……6

PROLOGUE…….…………………………...….8

ONE……….…………………………………....10

TWO……….….……………………………..…17

THREE…….….…………………………….….25

FOUR…….………………………………...…..27

FIVE…….………………………………….…..36

SIX………………………………………….….47

SEVEN…………………………………………55

EIGHT……………………………………….…60

NINE……..…………………………………….65

TEN…….…………………………………...…74

ELEVEN………..…………………………..….79

TWELVE……..………………………….…….92

THIRTEEN……..………………………….….99

FOURTEEN……..………………………..….102

FIFTEEN………..…………………………….113

SIXTEEN……...……..……………………….123

SEVENTEEN…………………………………125

EIGHTEEN…………………………………...133

NINETEEN…………………………………...148

TWENTY……………………………………..157

TWENTY-ONE………………………………160

TWENTY-TWO………………………….…..166

TWENTY-THREE……………………….......173

TWENTY-FOUR……………………………..178

TWENTY-FIVE……………………………....186

TWENTY-SIX……………..…………………194

TWENTY-SEVEN……………………….…..204

TWENTY-EIGHT………………………..….214

TWENTY-NINE………………………..……217

THIRTY……………………………………...225

EPILOGUE………………………………..…236

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS……………….....239

ABOUT THE AUTHOR………………….....240

 

 

Exceptional

 

Don’t miss the
first
book in the Exceptional series!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Praise

For Exceptional

 

"Exceptional takes you to a place where you never want the book to end. Breathtaking, riveting and phenomenal do not even begin to describe the characters you meet. You will not put this book down once you take a step inside its grasp. "
-Kendall Alio

 

“A fast faced roller coaster ride into a new world with twists and turns you don't expect, with just the right amount of romance and suspense!”
 
- S.A. Jones

 

“This amazing dystopian needs to be made into a movie. This is the kind of book that you can't put down! Excited to see what book two will bring!”

-LaJuenne' Sherzai-Harding

 

PROLOGUE

 

Luke sat at the edge of the lake, his bare feet barely grazing the moss that carpeted the stagnant water.  He was surrounded by cracked concrete and rusted scrap metal, all part of a world lost long ago.  He looked out over the moss, pinpointing the spot where the water resurfaced and shone in the sunlight.  The green vegetation had created a barrier between the shore and the water, and each year the barrier grew thicker.  He watched as the current caused the water to lap up against the edge of the moss.

      In the same way, strange dreams lapped at the edge of his mind.  More and more they were beginning to feel like memories.  That was the only way he could seem to explain them.  Events from the past few months would resurface in his mind, and each time there was a wisp or passing of a shadow over them.  Sometimes the shadow would take the shape of a person; a girl. Other times it would float idly in the distance, beckoning him to come forward and figure out the meaning behind its existence.

      Luke’s dream the previous night had been the most vivid yet.  He had been at the Warehouse sparring Tighe, which was nothing new for him.  But this time he had the sense that he was fighting for something more than just pride.  Something more than just a “win” in the books.  He had been fighting for something important.  The wispy shadow floated behind Tighe, taunting his memories.  He had woken up with a start and hadn’t been able to fall back asleep, a cold sweat dripping down the sides of his head.

      The dreams had to be an addition to his abilities.  He was just beginning to touch the surface of what he could do now that he was going to the Training Center every week.  The shadows had to be premonitions of some sort; there was no other clear explanation.

      A hand fell on Luke’s shoulder and he looked up.  Blonde hair framed her heart shaped face and fell several inches past her shoulder.  Her rose colored lips smiled down at him, but the sentiment didn’t quite reach her icy blue eyes.  She looked worried, and her body language told him she was being cautionary.

      Luke stood slowly and was now the one to look down at the girl.  He stood over a foot taller than her, which was nothing new since she was an Ordinary.  He reached out a hand and brushed a piece of hair from her face, letting his hand travel down her arm and to her hand.  She shuddered slightly at his touch, more out of fascination than nervousness.  He, however, felt nothing.

      “Did you find what you were looking for, Mr. Lukin?” Her voice cracked slightly.

      He nodded, even though he hadn’t. “For now.  We should get back.”

      He laced his fingers through hers and led her back to the bike that had brought them here.  Two Exceptional Guards sat on bikes about one hundred yards back.   With the news of the Rogues, Aden had required that Luke leave the City limits with Guards at all times.  He didn’t mind.  Recently, he found it hard to feel upset or annoyed over anything his father did, which was unusual.

      That was one of the reasons it was so easy to walk into the ORC last week and finally pick a female to bring home.  His mother had been less than thrilled about it than he would have imagined, but he decided it had to do with all of their Ordinary helpers quitting on the two weeks prior.  Luke hadn’t even seen them leave.  He had come home from hanging out with Pax one night to find their things gone. And the next day, new Ordinarys took their places.  His father, however, had been overly thrilled.

      He helped the girl onto the bike and climbed on in front of her, waiting until her delicate hands circled his waist, her fingers grazing his skin under his shirt.  Again, nothing.

      “Hang on," he said as he pulled out into the afternoon sun.  His words carried behind him with the wind, and he willed the shadows in his mind to go with them.

 

CHAPTER ONE

2 Weeks Later

 

Ally climbed down the tree with ease, beating her brother to the ground by at least thirty seconds.

“You know,” Stosh huffed when his feet finally touched the dry brush beneath it. “One of the last times you and I climbed a tree together, you got dragged off into a hostile environment and came out an Exceptional.”

Ally cocked her head to the side and rolled her eyes.  “And look what you got out of it.”

She motioned toward the path where Sabine and the others were waiting for them.  Stosh blushed and punched her in the arm, turning his back and walking away.  He was less gentle with her now that she was at least five times stronger than he was.  She smiled to herself and followed after him.

       They found Sabine leaning against an old oak tree, using an old knife to carve a stick to a point.  Her clothes were ripped, her skin filthy, and her once long, red hair was now trimmed just over her shoulders to make care easier.  It took her longer to adjust to life outside the City since she had grown up there.  The rest of them were used to hard work and living off the land when they needed to.  The whole group showed signs of heavy travel, and had each made adjustments to make travel more simple.

Willow was seated in the middle of the worn-down path, mending a tear in one of her shoes.  Somehow she had managed to grab a sewing kit in one of the settlements.  Theo and Flora stood off to the side, facing each other and speaking in hushed voices.  Cody was seated on a low branch of the same tree Sabine was leaning against, watching her with interest.  Stosh stepped over to her side and set his hand gently at the small of her back, earning one of her small, sweet smiles.

       When they had left their settlement and headed north, it had been just Ally, Stosh, Sabine, and Willow.  The plan had been to travel north for two weeks, and then turn around and take a different path south, hopefully catching up with the rest of the Oak settlement further on.  But when bad weather arose on their third night into the journey, they were forced to walk east and find shelter in one of the settlements on the outskirts.

They had planned to hide out in a storage shed or an old warehouse, but they stumbled upon Cody, a scrawny thirteen year old.  He had seen them approach from his perch in a bordering tree and dropped down in front of them, almost causing Ally to eradicate him on the spot.   She didn’t think sitting up in a tree during a bad storm was an indication of a sane person, so she kept her hands at the ready as he approached them.

“You aren’t from around here,” Cody had said.

For a moment Ally thought they had been caught.  This young boy would tell someone he had seen them and then word would spread to the Exceptional Guards.  Aden would know that they were headed north.  In a way, that was a good thing.  Then they definitely wouldn’t be searching south, where the Ordinarys from her settlement were hopefully hiding.  Ally thought about sending Stosh, Sabine, and Willow off and getting captured on her own.  All of this played through her mind in less than a minute.  By then Cody’s eyes were growing wider.

“You are leaving the settlements, aren’t you?” He sounded so excited when he spoke, and he bounced in place.  “Take me with you.”

       “No way,” Stosh had answered.

       Cody crossed his arms.  “My dad was killed in a mining accident last month and my mom died when I was a baby.  I have nothing left here.  They are talking about sending me into the City for work because no one wants to take care of me. Plus, if you don’t, I’ll tell on you.”

       Stosh had stepped toward the boy with fists raised but Ally stopped him.  He had been sitting in the tree out of dire hope.  She saw it now, the hope that lightning would strike the tree and save him, in a way only death could.

       “He comes with us, but this is it,” she told the others.

       Sabine had stayed silent through it all, clutching to the back of Stosh’s shirt like she had done since they left Oak.  Willow stood idly by Ally’s side.  She still hadn’t spoken since they left the City, and Ally didn’t have the strength to worry about her just yet.  Their group of four became five and they spent the night in a storehouse Cody’s father used to own.  It was falling apart and full of dust, but it served it’s purpose.

       The next day the rain cleared and they headed northwest into the Wilderness.  They found that they would often come upon old settlements— or neighborhoods— and collapsing buildings, areas of the old world that hadn’t been salvaged or useful since before the virus.  Ally figured that these parts were too close to the City for the Ordinarys who had escaped to the Wilderness, and too far out for the City to set up living arrangements or connect power.  Many times they would stay in an old house or business overnight, not wanting to risk sleeping in the open until absolutely necessary.

       If Ally had thought that being out of range of the settlements would keep them from coming upon their inhabitants, she had been wrong.  When they came upon Theo and Flora, she thought they had finally stumbled upon Ordinarys living in the Wilderness.  A second glance told her otherwise.  The male and female had been sitting on an old bench in what looked to be an old park, dressed in matching red outfits.  They each had a matching mark on their forearm, something that resembled a stalk of wheat.

       Theo saw their group first and jumped up, pulling Flora with him.  She held onto his waist tightly, her big brown eyes opened wide in terror.  Theo had matching brown eyes and a similar mop of honey colored hair.  Ally wondered silently if they were siblings like she and Stosh.  She knew by Theo’s posture they were ready to flee at any moment so she stepped forward and spoke.

       “Are you from the settlements?” she asked.

       Theo narrowed his eyes.  “Who wants to know?”

      “Is that a trick question?” Stosh had said with a laugh.

      Theo’s face relaxed slightly. “Yes, we are from the settlements. We came out here to…” he trailed off and looked down at Flora, placing a small kiss on her temple.

       Not siblings.

       “… we came out here to decide.”

       “Decide what?” Ally had asked.

       “If we want to run,” Flora responded, her voice loud and strong, surprising Ally. “The Guards come tomorrow.  My father is going to force me to volunteer.”

      Flora looked up at Theo, a small smile forming on her thin lips.

      “… and I can’t do it,” she finished.

      Ally sighed.  Definitely not siblings.  For a moment she thought of Luke and then quickly pushed him from her mind.  She turned and looked back at the others in her group.  Cody was bouncing in place again, Stosh had his eyebrow raised, Sabine was grinning, and Willow stood off to the side, staring at an old building.

       “Two more?” she had asked.

       The others nodded and they agreed that Theo and Flora could join their now not-so-small group.  Ally was nervous traveling with such a large group.  They agreed that if they needed to separate quickly, that Ally would take Cody and Willow while the others went in an opposite direction.  That way at least one group had a chance to make it.

       So here they stood, a group of seven, on a dirt path headed south.                  

“What did you see?” Willow asked when Ally rejoined the group. She had started speaking again a week into the trek.  First in one word increments, and then finally on to sentences.  Ally knew she had just needed time to process what had happened to her in the City, and what consequences those moments held for her future.

       “I couldn’t see any Guards,” Ally responded. “But we are closer to the settlements than we have been before.  We should head west about a half mile or so and then start south again.”

       “I still don’t understand why I can’t do any of the scouting trips,” Cody said with a pout.

      Stosh shook his head. “One, because Ally is the one with exceptional sight and can see much farther than you.  And two, because I’m her scouting buddy.”

       He tousled Cody’s hair with his left hand and slid his free hand into Sabine’s, pulling her onto the path.  Stosh wasn’t open to talking about his relationship with Sabine, but it was obvious from their actions that they were officially a couple; even if they kept their physical affection to a minimum.  Theo and Flora on the other hand were completely enamored with each other; enough that sometimes Ally had to look away, embarrassed.  Had she and Luke looked like that when they were together?  Or did they look cold and dry, not even a couple at all?  She couldn’t quite decide which grouping she would get rid of first if she had to decide; the two couples or the immature boy and the pregnant girl.

       Willow had been great on the trip so far, but every now and then she would get sick and they would have to stop while she ran into the woods to vomit. Willow was pregnant, maybe six or eight weeks along. She had been in the ORC when Ally had first found her in the City; the Ordinary Reproduction Center. The building served as a holding area for Ordinarys, and Willow had fallen victim to its sick and twisted purpose before Ally had had a chance to break her out. Several times Willow would beg Ally to let her go back to the settlement and turn herself in, that way the group could move on more quickly.  Ally refused, however, because she couldn’t let her friend take the heat, and because she knew it was a risk.  She knew they probably had harsh ways of getting information out of people, and Willow knew too much.

       Ally pulled her pack from the ground and slung it over her shoulder.  She had taken it from the storehouse they had spent the night in the day they found Cody, and it proved to be quite useful so far. Ally started to cut a path through the wilderness, using the position of the sun to turn herself toward the west.  The others would fall into step behind her, just as they always did, and they would travel in their own form of silence.  For Ally this meant
actual
silence but for the others it was a mix of singing, rustling leaves, humming, and sometimes giggles.  She tended to walk ahead on the path and spend her travel time thinking, and planning.

       She felt responsible for ripping these Ordinarys from their homes and dragging them on what might end up being a futile trip.  She had no idea how they would meet up with the others, or if they would even find this so called southern City.  Ally had no idea what dangers waited for them in the Wilderness, and she had a feeling there were worse things than Rogues waiting in the darkness of the trees.  For this reason she kept her hands ever at the ready, and the package of vaccines safely tucked in the bottom of her bag.  Ridding herself of her abilities would be a selfish act at this point, but Kemp had left them for her for a reason. She wasn’t sure of their worth just yet, but knew that a single dose would take away abilities from an Exceptional. Perhaps they could be used as a weapon if necessary.

Two hours and one scouting trip later, they set up camp in a section of old, crumbling homes.  These homes were different than others Ally had seen on their trip.  They were long, not very wide, and they were set off the ground, as if they’d once been mobile.  The homes sat side by side in neat little rows, an odd display of order in the overgrown and untreated Wilderness.  Most of them had been completely gutted but a few of them had bench type seats built into the walls and tables in broken apart kitchens.  While five of them climbed up into a home that looked suitable for an overnight stay, Theo and Flora snuck off to a home several down in the row.  They would do that every now and then, spend the night away from the group or slip off during meal breaks.

       It made Ally nervous. Maybe a little bit jealous, but mainly nervous.

“Don’t look so sour.  You made your choice,” Stosh said as he laid his pack down on the table.

       He did this every so often, chiding Ally for having feelings at all.  More and more she felt like her emotions were on overdrive.  She found her bottom lip quivering at the thought of their mother, her heartbeat quickening at the worry of an attack, and her skin tingling at the mention of Luke.  Stosh was always there along the way to remind her of the choices she had made, and in those moments she felt the heat of anger filling her cheeks.  In a way, Ally wondered if he blamed her for everything that had happened, as though she were personally responsible for the bullet that took their mother’s life, or the force of evil that was traveling toward them from the Eastern City.

       “I’m not sour,” Ally snapped at him. “I just want them to be safe.  We’re getting farther and farther from the City.  That might mean more safety from the Exceptionals, but it also means we are wide open to whomever, and whatever, is out here.” She motioned to one of the dark, dusty windows.

       “I’m sure they’ll be fine.” Sabine said, nodding in the direction that Theo and Flora had gone.

       “More than fine,” Willow giggled in the corner.

       Ally couldn’t help but smile at the sound, and soon they were all giggling.  All except Cody, who stared at them with a confused look on his face.  This caused them all to start laughing even louder and soon they were all seated on the floor, leaning against each other to keep from falling over.  Ally had missed moments like this; where she could be free and open with her friends.  She couldn’t remember a time when she had laughed this hard in the past month, maybe the past
several
months even.  This was a good reminder as to exactly why she left the City and the settlements behind.

       Stosh hadn’t had luck hunting earlier in the afternoon so they ate a sparse dinner of berries, and laid out their blankets to settle in for the night.  With each day that passed, Ally hoped they were growing closer to the others and closer to the answers they needed.  She fell asleep quickly to the sound of crickets, and woke just as abruptly to the sound of screaming.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

It took Ally a moment to orient herself to her surroundings and realize the sounds coming from outside their resting spot were not normal.  She processed this all much faster than the others and for that reason she was up and out the door before Stosh had even rolled over.  She could tell it was early morning by the hazy blue light that filled the space around her, signaling that at any moment the sun would rise above the trees and sprinkle the area with a new, golden light.  She hurried toward the sound of screaming, knowing just who she was headed for before she saw them.

       Flora sat on the ground, swatting at an Exceptional Guard that stood over her.  He was handling her roughly, attempting to cuff her hands behind her back.  Another Exceptional Guard stood over Theo’s body, which was eerily still.  From here Ally could see a thick gash on his head, and it was seeping red blood onto the leaf-covered ground.  She hesitated for a second, trying to decide what move she would make.  She could hear footsteps behind her, and a startled cry from Sabine.

       “Ally,” Stosh said behind her, as if confirming her worst fear. “You have to.”

       She nodded and raised her hands just as the Guards took notice of them.  They stared at the group with smug expressions, not even worried or frightened by the Exceptional girl and her band of Ordinarys.  They didn’t even know what hit them when the beam of light left Ally’s hand and incinerated their bodies.  Piece by piece their flesh bubbled until all that was left was a cloud of ash.  She pushed all her thoughts of hatred and malice toward the Guards into her mind as her abilities flowed through her hands, finding that this helped quicken the process.

       Flora’s screaming ceased and Sabine sobbed quietly behind her.  Ally had yet to use her abilities in front of anyone but Stosh, and even then that had been to move a fallen tree from a path they needed to travel.  This was the first time any of them had seen her use her abilities to end a life.

       Ally stalked over to Flora, who slid backwards in fear until her body was touching one of the box shaped homes.  Ally reached down and took hold of the cuffs on Flora’s wrists, letting a burst of light snap them apart.  She did the same for Theo, after checking that he was still breathing, and brushed off her pants.  She hurried into a covering of trees and once she was out of sight, she released the breath she had been holding.

       She had now killed five Exceptional Guards in a month’s time.  She hadn’t felt guilty about the first three for a long time, knowing that, given the chance, they would have killed her.  But now that she had added two more to the count, she was starting to experience an awful feeling creeping up from her stomach.  Her mouth felt dry and the trees around her tilted slightly.  She bent her knees and pushed her head toward the ground, sucking in deep gulps of air.

       When Ally was sure that she wasn’t going to pass out, and that she could approach the others with a calm appearance, she stepped out of the trees and headed back toward the box homes.  Theo was awake now and sitting next to Flora.   Sabine was kneeling by his side, applying pressure to the wound and cleaning it simultaneously.  Willow sat off to the side with Cody, working on her shoe again, either fixing the same tear as before or starting on a new one. They had all fallen back into some time consuming tasks that helped pass their down time while traveling.

       Stosh caught up with Ally before she reached the group and stopped her.

       “Are you okay?” he asked.

       She looked over at him, still growing used to the fact that now that she was an Exceptional, her body was trying to compensate by rewarding her with a growth spurt.  There was a time when Ally was almost a foot shorter than him.  She gave her brother a nod.

      He sighed and ran his hand through his heavy hair, which had started to grow long again.  “It’s just that, well, you have been acting really strange recently.  When we left the City nothing seemed to bother you.  Not our mother’s death, not killing those Guards, but now you seem shaken.”

       Ally shrugged.  “I don’t know what to tell you, Stosh.  I have no idea what is going on in my mind.  Maybe the events of the past few months are finally catching up with me, or maybe this is all a part of my transformation into an Exceptional.”

       “Speaking of that,” Stosh interrupted her.  “I need to speak to you about something.  You know, Mother took me to get my shot just after you were taken from the settlement.”                

       “And?” Ally peered over his shoulder at the others, wanting to get back on the move in case more Exceptional Guards were nearby.

       “Well, what if I really
am
an Exceptional? I mean, we are twins.  We shared a womb and father.  Wouldn’t it make sense that I am too?”

       Ally’s eyes fell back on his.  She hadn’t thought about it that way, or bothered to ask if he had received a vaccination recently.  She thought about the vaccinations in her own pack back in the home they had spent the evening in.  She suddenly felt anxious to get them safely by her side.

       “There is only one way to know,” she finally responded.

       “I’m not sure I want to,” he said.

       Ally nodded her head.  “Well, you have a few months to decide.  Until then, let’s take this step-by-step, and together.”

       They walked over to the others and Ally kneeled down in front of Theo and Flora.  Flora still held a hint of fear in her eyes as she took in Ally, while Theo regarded her with a look of awe. 

       “What happened this morning? Start at the beginning,” she said to the both of them.

       Theo started, “The Guards burst into the home we were sleeping in and pulled us out by our legs, pinning us to the ground to cuff our wrists.  I put up a small fight which is how I ended up with this.” He motioned to the gash on his forehead.

       “That is when I started screaming,” Flora jumped in. “The Guard slammed Theo over the head with a cuff and he slumped to the ground.  I just lost it after that. A few minutes later you showed up, Ally.”

       “I wonder how they found us,” Sabine said as she wrapped a makeshift bandage around Theo’s head.  Ally noticed that she had ripped part of her own shirt apart to do so.

       “We are closer to the settlements now, and they’ve probably been on the lookout for us,” Ally responded, pushing herself up off the ground. “They might still be looking and it won’t be long before they realize two of their Guards are missing.  We need to get moving. Now.”

       Stosh nodded silently and took off to gather their things from the home where they had slept.  Willow trailed after him at a brisk walk, a sheen of sweat on her face.  Morning sickness; just what they needed to add to this already stressful day.  Sabine and Flora helped Theo stand and he seemed to be able to balance himself well, so Ally didn’t need to carry him.   She peered around for a nearby tree with enough branches and walked over to it, pulling herself up branch by branch.  When she grabbed onto one of the highest branches, she spun herself around and looked out over the open expanse below her.  She could see puffs of smoke from a settlement to the east, and if she concentrated hard enough, she could almost hear the sound of saw against wood.  What she didn’t sense, which brought her relief, were any more Exceptional Guards.  That didn’t mean they weren’t headed this way though.

       As her feet hit the ground, Stosh and Willow reappeared, holding an arm full of packs.  Ally threw her own pack over her back and strapped the hunting pack to her waist.  She and Stosh took turns with it every other day because of the weight of it.  They both knew she could carry it every day without growing tired, but it Stosh insisted on helping out. 

       “We are going to have to skip breakfast this morning and travel fast,” Ally said to the others. “We don’t have a choice.”

      “I’m okay with that,” Sabine said.

      “I’m not,” Willow and Cody said at almost the same time.

       Ally rolled her eyes and pulled a small stash of berries from her pack, handing it over to them.  They would have to divide it amongst the two of them, and hopefully it would keep them from whining for the next hour or two.

       “Let’s go.” Ally said.

 

Ally lowered her hands and stared at the pile of ash in front of her.  They made it four hours into their morning travels before they ran into another pair of Exceptional Guards.  The Guards had approached Ally and her group with ease, expecting an easy catch.  Once again, Ally had raised her hands and eliminated the Guards before they took another step toward her or the others.  She stood over the pile, breathing heavily.

       She felt Stosh come up beside her, his arm brushing against hers.

       “Seven,” she said in almost a whisper.

       “I know,” he responded, taking her hand in his.  “We should be south of the City now, for good.  Maybe we won’t run into anymore of them.”

       “There will always be more,” Ally said as she faced her brother. “They will never stop coming.”

       “And you’ll…”

       “… stop them?” Ally finished for Stosh.  “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hold this up.  Knowing that I’m killing another human being...”

       “They’re animals, Al.  You can’t even try to compare them to you or me, or to Sabine and Willow, and the others.” He dropped her hand and crossed his arms over his chest.

       Ally let out a humorless laugh.  “
Them,
Stosh? I am one of
them
.” She pointed to her violet eyes.

       “But the Guards are different.  They seem… altered somehow.  You are nothing like them.  Luke is nothing like them.”

       Ally covered her face with her hands at the mention of Luke.  She refused to say his name out loud to herself or to the others, and hearing it from her brother sliced fresh pain through her insides.  “It doesn’t matter.  It’s still murder.”

       Sabine stepped up to her right side. “You saved our lives, Ally.  Right now, we should keep moving.”

       Ally appreciated Sabine’s quick change of subject.  It pulled her from thoughts centered on the Guards that were now a pile of ashes, to the four others standing behind her and the two at her side.  She angled her head and saw that the Cody, Willow, Theo, and Flora were hanging back by several yards, trying to read the situation.

       “They deserve what they got,” Theo spat, finally approaching her. He took in her surprised look. “Someone had to say it.”

       “No one deserves this.” Ally clenched her fists.

       “No, we didn’t,” Sabine said in agreement.  She could tell that Ally’s words went deeper, and further back in time than any of them could remember.  None of them deserved the chaos that the virus created in their world.  “But this is our life now, and we are choosing to survive, however we can.”

       Ally nodded and swallowed at the lump forming in her throat.  “I’ll make sure we are just below the City, and then we can head straight south.  Hopefully, if we move fast, we can pick up signs of the others and follow their trail.”

       “If they left at all,” Cody piped in.

       “If they left at all,” Ally agreed.

       She hoped that for her sake they’d heeded her words and chosen to leave, and had been able to do so safely.  She didn’t want to think about what would have happened to them had the Exceptional Guards discovered them trying to escape.  Ordinarys were supposed to have free will to choose the Wilderness over the settlements, but she couldn’t imagine Aden taking the exodus of an entire settlement lightly.

       After she scaled a nearby tree and dropped back to the ground, she had a good idea of the path they needed to follow.  From her spot in the treetops, she saw many vast openings in the landscape, which meant more desolate towns and crumbling roadways.  It seemed easiest for the large group from the settlement to take the roadways that moved south, rather than cutting a path through the old settlements and groupings of trees, but it was also a dangerous way to travel.   They would be out in the open for an attack from the Exceptional Guards, or even Rogues, if they had made it this far from the east.

       “We need to split up,” she finally said to the others.

       “You’re joking, right?” Flora said with a nervous smile.

       When Ally didn’t respond Theo stepped forward. “That has to be the dumbest thing we could do right now.  You are the only one who stands a chance against the Guards, and you can’t be in two places at once.”

       “I think it is our best chance at survival.  If we split up, we stand a better chance of at least some of us making it to the southern City.  Plus, there is no way to tell which directions the others took.  If we split up, we have a better chance of finding them.”  Ally let her eyes travel over the others.

       “I say we just try to get ourselves to the City and then either find the others, or wait for them to show up,” Willow jumped into the conversation.

       “They might need our help along the way,” Ally countered. “If the Guards find them, or the Rogues, they will all be captured or killed.”

       “So you’ll sacrifice us just to save the others? Let me guess, you want me, Flora, and Cody to be in one group?” Theo said angrily. “Then the four of you can head off and get rid of us once and for all.  You originally let us tag along because you felt sorry for us, but now you are starting to realize that we slow you down.”

       “No!” Ally glared at him.  “I wasn’t suggesting that at all. I just… I just don’t know what to do.  You guys expect me to have all the answers, and to know where we should go and when we should leave.  I know just about as much as you all do, and I’m trying to figure it out as I go.”

       “This was all your idea, wasn’t it? This whole trip to the southern City that may or may not be there,” Flora said from behind Theo.  She tried to keep her voice even but Ally could hear it cracking from her nerves.

       “Yes, but I never said you had to follow us, or commit to anything.  If you don’t want to be a part of this group, then leave.  I’m not forcing you to be here.” Ally could feel her abilities vibrating through her core and into her arms.  She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

       No one moved for what felt like hours, but it was really just over a minute.

       Finally, Theo stepped back from the group, pulling a shocked Flora with him.

       “Sounds good to me,” he said. “We’ll take our chances with the Wilderness.”

       “What!” Sabine cried out. “No! Where will you go?”

       “We’ll find our own way,” Theo responded, pulling Flora further from the group. With one last backward glance, he turned and the two of them disappeared behind a thick grouping of trees.

       “Did that seriously just happen?” Willow looked more amused than upset about the situation. “Boys and their pride.”

       Stosh shot her a look. “They are going to get themselves killed, and somehow alert the guards to our location.  They are liabilities now.”

       Willow snorted. “They were liabilities before. They kept disappearing to have ‘couple time’ and almost got us all killed this morning.”

       Ally still hadn’t moved, staring at the ground.   “We stay together and we move through the abandoned settlements, looking for any traces of the others.  If we don’t find them, we hopefully meet up with them in the southern City.  Deal?”

       The others nodded slowly.

       “What about Theo and Flora?” Cody scratched his head, peering up at Ally.

       “They’re on their own now,” Ally responded. “They’ve made their choice.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Luke sat in Aden’s desk chair, swiveling back and forth in an uneven rhythm. He had spent the past five minutes staring at a shadow on the wall, watching it randomly twist and turn into the shape of a woman. Or maybe a young girl.  He had no idea which one it was, but he could almost see wisps of hair floating off her back.

       “Lukin, are you listening to me?” His father was staring out the window, one of his hands rubbing slowly at the creases in his forehead.  In the past month he appeared to have aged ten years.

       “Sorry, I was distracted.  What were you saying?”

       Aden sighed. “The response to the situation in the east has not been what we expected.  While some choose to disbelieve us all together, some of those that do believe do not seem worried.  They don’t understand the seriousness of the situation, thinking that our army of Guards could easily take on the Rogues if they attacked the City.”

       His father looked weak and exhausted, something Luke hadn’t seen from Aden in a very long time.

       “Then maybe we should show them,” he responded, pushing his body out of the chair.  He walked to his father’s side and put his hand on the window, watching as it buckled under his touch.