With Deacon’s help, I remain upright. The lights begin to fade, the diamond tube reappears. We step onto a gold brick street, surrounded by chrome-and-crystal buildings, no longer on the edge of the realm but in the middle of it. Thousands of people surround us. Male, female. Young, old. Well, not too old. No one tops thirty-five, I’d guess. There’s a beautiful mix of colors and races, and yet they are one people. Different, but exactly the same: priceless.
Due to virtual reality tours I’ve taken through Myriad, I know their citizens wear clothing compatible with the era they lived in as a human. I’ve seen everything from Victorian ball gowns to loincloths. The same is not true for Troikans.
“Everyone is wearing a catsuit or robe,” I say. “Why?”
“The robes are ceremonial. Needed for certain jobs,” Deacon replies. “The suits are lightweight armor. The material protects us against certain weapons. We must always be ready for attack.”
How...sad for us.
A clatter of voices hits my awareness, each light and cheerful. Smiles and laughter abound. No one seems to mind the threat Deacon described.
Envy cuts through me. Have I ever been so carefree?
First I was a girl sheltered by her parents, protected from any outside influence. Then I was a girl tortured at Prynne. Then I was a girl meant to save one realm and destroy the other. Always I was a means to an end. Until Killian and Archer transitioned from Laborers to friends.
Speaking past the lump in my throat, I ask, “How did we move from one location to another in mere seconds?”
“We’re spirits, no longer bound by physical laws. The Gates allow us to travel at the speed of Light.”
I struggle to process such an impossible revelation. The precise value of the speed of Light is 299,792,458 meters per second.
2 + 9 + 9 + 7 + 9 +2 + 4 + 5 + 8 = 55
5 + 5 = 10
Stop counting! Deacon has moved on. I rush after him, trailing him through the crowd. Despite a seeming preoccupation with each other, the couples and families remain highly aware of those around them, and no one bumps into anyone else. Everyone is courteous, offering a genuine “Please” and “Thank you” whenever warranted.
Various perfumes scent the air, blending harmoniously with the fragrance of roses. Multicolored petals continue to rain from the sky.
Deacon enters a crystal building, whisking through a door of mist. The decor is breathtaking, the ceiling like a midnight sky filled with vibrant stars. The walls are aglow with hues plucked straight from a rainbow, and every piece of furniture—from dinner tables and chairs to sofas and coffee tables—extends from massive trees that have grown through the floor, as if carved from branches still attached to the trunks.
A woodland forest inside a building. This is where impossible meets miracle.
When the identity of the occupants registers, I come to an abrupt stop. People I knew and loved in Firstlife, and even family I never actually met.
There is my grandmother Meredith; since my parents disowned her before I was born, I’ve only ever seen her in pictures. She is so beautiful. Though she experienced Firstdeath in her forties, she now appears twenty-five, her skin unlined, her pale hair without a single strand of gray.
Mom once told me about the adventures she and her mother had. How they’d spent every weekend at homeless shelters to care for the less fortunate.
My palms sweat. Am I a disappointment to her?
Meredith is speaking with Clayton “Clay” Anders. Clay and I met and bonded at Prynne. During our escape, we trekked through ice-covered mountains and got caught in an avalanche.
I shudder. Clay and Sloan were swept to the edge of a cliff, terrified out of their minds, and I had to make a split second decision. Who to save first. At the time, Sloan was Unsigned, while Clay had a secure future with Troika.
I picked Sloan, pouring what little energy I’d had into pulling her to solid ground first. I hadn’t wanted her sent to Many Ends, a realm of horrors and pain, to be tortured for eternity.
In the end, I hadn’t had enough time to save Clay, too, and I regret—
No. Absolutely not. I don’t regret. Yes, Sloan later betrayed me. Yes, Clay died too young. Considering the circumstances, I made the right call. I gave an Unsigned girl a chance Clay didn’t need. She made the wrong choice afterward, and the fault is hers alone.
And look at Clay now. My hand flutters over my heart to contain a starburst of joy. He’s thriving!
I spot General Levi Nanne, as handsome as ever in an immaculate pin-striped suit—no armor for him?—his dark hair brushed back from his chiseled features. He’s holding Jeremy, my infant brother, and I squeal.
Jeremy is my little miracle. To protect the Everlife from overcrowding, the Land of the Harvest is strict about population control. Women are sterilized after giving birth to their first child. If someone heals and a second pregnancy occurs, the child is given to a childless family. If no family is found, the child is placed in an orphanage. If the orphanages are overcrowded, the child faces elimination.
My mother had Jeremy in secret. She died soon afterward, poisoned by Madame Pearl Bennett, and Jeremy died only minutes later; Mom had unwittingly shared the poison with him when she fed him.
Some of my happiness deflates.
Let go of the past, march into the future.
I don’t recognize anyone else in the group, but I sense they are my blood relatives, ancestors who fought for me from behind the scenes during all the years of my Firstlife.
“Ten!” Clay catches sight of me and rushes over. I meet him halfway and throw my arms around him, clinging to him. With a laugh, he swings me around. “What did Zero say to Eight?”
At the asylum, he’d always greeted me with a number joke.
As I kiss his cheek, tears burn my eyes. My voice wobbles as I reply, “Hey! Nice belt.”
He chuckles. “I’m never going to stump you, am I?”
“Not in any lifetime, my friend.”
He tweaks my nose. The others join us, and I’m passed around like a hot potato.
By the time I make it back to Clay, his smile is gone. Sorrow peers at me. “You had so much more to do. You died too soon, Ten.”
My chest constricts. “So did you, my friend. So did you.” I lean my head on his shoulder. “Did Marlowe make it into Troika?” Please, say yes. Please.
Marlowe Dillinger is another of my Prynne friends. The sweetest, gentlest girl I’ve ever met. She ended up at the asylum because she stole money from her mother to—horror of horrors—pay for groceries.
She signed with Troika, hoping to escape the asylum. Her mom refused to spring her, and soon after, a guard sneaked into her cell to—
My mind shies away from the horrors she endured. The next morning, the girl with a heart of gold killed herself. Maybe she voided her contract, maybe she didn’t. I’m unclear about the fine print.
Clay flinches. “I’m told suicides are decided on a case by case basis. Hers... She’s in Many Ends.”
Fresh tears well, but I blink them back. No more crying. Marlowe’s Firstlife sucked, and guaranteed her Everlife is worse. It’s not fair. But I will find a way to free her and all the others trapped inside Many Ends. I will! My determination will never wane.
“I know a little boy who is eager to say hello,” Levi says, claiming my attention.
I give Clay another hug before stealing my little brother from the General. “Zero! He’s changed.”
Levi beams with pride, his love for the boy obvious. “He grows stronger every day.”
Jeremy Eleven Lockwood. The last time we were together, he was missing patches of hair. His cheeks were sunken in, and his swollen lips had turned blue as he’d struggled to breathe. Now he has a headful of curls the same shade of cobalt as mine. His peaches-and-cream complexion speaks of health and vitality, and his eyes...they sparkle like precious gems, mesmerizing me. Like me, one of his eyes is blue and the other is green. Though he’s only a few weeks old—spirits age just like humans, until reaching the Age of Perfection—both eyes regard me with intelligence and adoration.