When Talia runs away from the only life she’s ever known, she could have never fathomed the lengths to which the Agency will go to get her back. But if the Agency Director- the man who raised her, trained her, and made Talia who she is- can’t have her, he wants her eliminated. Now those she once considered friends are bona fide enemies, ruthless in their pursuit of her.
Talia aligns herself with Ian Crane; the man she’d always believed was responsible for her parents’ murder. With Crane’s forces at her disposal, Talia sets off on her most personal mission yet: rescuing the love of her life from the Agency. But she never imagines that going after him will plunge the nation into chaos.
Retribution for the lives of her parents is no longer enough for Talia; she wants justice for every innocent affected by the Agency’s greed. But she soon realizes she is actually at the center of two wars- one with them and one with herself. Talia can no longer trust the one thing that has never failed her; her Talents are growing stronger by the day and she’s already losing control. Defeating the Agency will save countless innocent lives, but triumph over the manufactured power within her will preserve her sanity.
The Agency will stop at nothing to perpetuate the propaganda- that the Coalition is the enemy.
Crane will do anything to expose the truth- that the Agency has been creating Talents for decades.
Her world, her life, her future with the only person that remains true… the Agency stole everything. Now, Talia will sacrifice the little she has left to reclaim what’s hers.
“These,” Brand said, holding up a silver dagger with a gleaming six-inch blade, “are poisoned tipped.” He rotated his wrist so that the synthetic metal reflected the light from overhead, bouncing it off the walls. Reverently he tossed the weapon from one hand to the other. “They can penetrate the fabric of adapti-suits quicker than a hot knife through butter.”
Reflexively, I ran my palm over the place on my stomach where a blade identical to the one Brand was holding had pierced my flesh. My abdominal muscles tightened with the memory. There was no scar, medical had removed it shortly after the incident, but the sight of the weapon made my skin tingle.
Brand held the dagger by the blade. The pads of his fingers perched on either side of the metal and the handle facing away from his body. “You should definitely carry one,” he told me.
Hesitantly, I crossed the mats to join him. I was reluctant to take the offered weapon, but unwilling to show weakness by refusing it. For his part, Brand seemed just as reluctant to give me the dagger as I was to take it. Those piercing green eyes of his bore into mine as I wrapped my fingers around the handle. Brand refused to let go at first.
“Thanks,” I snapped, giving the weapon a firm tug.
In the forty-eight hours I’d been staying at Crane’s compound, I’d tried to avoid Brand like the plague. But he always seemed to be wherever Penny was, hovering over her shoulder, asking what he could do to make her more comfortable. I suspected he would’ve carried her on his back had she asked. This forced interaction had one fortunate, or unfortunate depending on how you looked at it, side effect. I was familiar enough with his brain patterns to establish a connection. I used the connection to read his thoughts, as if the hateful gleam in his eyes wasn’t enough to tell me what was on his mind.
Brand didn’t trust me. He was convinced that I’d turn on him and his people once we rescued Erik. He’d gone as far as to express this concern to Crane who dismissed the notion. Arming me when we were alone, save Frederick who was watching our exchange with an amused smile, scared Brand. Had Crane not instructed him to play nice, Brand would throw me back in that damned cage and toss the key over the bluffs.
“Let go,” I growled when he still refused to release the dagger.
With one last withering glare, Brand finally relented.
I stumbled backwards a couple of paces and only just managed to keep my feet from becoming so tangled in one another that I fell.
“Do you really think you have what it takes to do this?” Brand demanded, crossing his arms over his chest.
“I’ve trained nearly half my life to become a Hunter,” I spat back. “This mission is no different than the ones they go on.”
Brand scoffed and shook his head back and forth. “You don’t get it,” he blew out a long breath, “Chances are you’ll know many of the prison guards. Some of them might even be your friends.”
My resolve faltered. That hadn’t occurred to me. I’d been too consumed with thoughts of Mac torturing Erik. As I stood there, trying to match Brand’s indigence, I started to truly appreciate the fight that awaited our attack on Tramblewood. The guards wouldn’t be nameless, faceless strangers like the ones I’d fought on my missions with the Hunters. They might be former classmates, colleagues, people I respected.
“Will you be able to kill them?” Brand pressed. He took a slow, deliberate step towards me. His next words were barely audible. “Kill your friends?”
My mouth went inexplicably dry and I found myself unable to swallow over the lump in my throat. This was what the McDonough School had trained me for. All the years of sparring, honing my powers, perfecting my skills had been in preparation for the war that was now on the horizon. Never once had I considered that I’d be fighting against TOXIC, against Mac. When push came to shove, would I be able to kill people who had done nothing more than follow their orders?
An image of Erik, bloody and beaten, tormented and tortured by the prison guards, filled my mind. The answer became obvious. Of course I could. For him, I would do anything.
“Yes, I can,” I said with more conviction that I felt.
Brand laughed, actually laughed. The sound echoed off the walls of the weapons room. It was unnatural coming from his lips. “I don’t doubt you can kill, Talia. Will you, though? What if you have to choose between me or Ian and one of TOXIC’s operatives? What then?”
Killing in self-defense or to save Erik was a no-brainer. I was quickly coming to terms that both were a very real possibility. But choosing Brand, a guy who despised my very existence, was a hard concept to digest. From a young age, the Agency had shoved duty and loyalty to them above all others down my throat. Even after they’d betrayed me, I wasn’t sure I could reciprocate.
“Tal, I know how hard this is for you,” Frederick said, breaking the tension that was so thick it was oppressive. “But Brand is right. You need to decide now where your allegiance lies. It will be too dangerous for the rest of us if your loyalty is divided.”
“Not all of them deserve to die,” I mumbled, fighting back the unpleasantness swirling in my stomach. “The guards are just as much in the dark as to what Mac is doing as I was.” I looked back and forth between Brand and Frederick, silently pleading with them to see it the way that I did.
“They won’t hesitate,” Brand said quietly. “You can’t either.”
“You don’t have to go,” Frederick said. He came to stand beside me and placed his hand on my shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Everyone will understand if you’d rather wait here. No one will blame you.”
My eyebrows arched at the ridiculous suggestion. Wait here? Was he crazy? This was Erik we were talking about. They really would have to lock me in that stupid cage if they thought I’d stay behind. I was going on the rescue mission.
Drawing in a long breath to calm myself, I said, “I would blame me, Frederick. I came here because I needed help. Help,” I repeated the word for emphasis. “Not to ask Crane to fight my battles for me.” I turned to meet Brand’s gaze. “I made my choice the moment I decided to come here. I chose the Coalition then, which I guess means I chose you then, too.” I tried not to shudder when I spoke. If he wasn’t so nice to Penny, the temptation to shove the poison-tipped dagger into his chest would have been too enticing to pass up just then.
The silence that filled the room was deafening. Brand and I engaged in a battle of wills, both of us staring the other down, neither of us willing to blink first. To a casual observe the moment probably appeared intimate. It was anything but.
Brand’s left eyed twitched when I pushed on his mind. Frederick’s hand was still on my shoulder. He squeezed harder, warning me not to press. When Brand’s jaw tightened and the veins in his neck popped up under his skin like blue worms, Frederick decided enough was enough.
“Talia, stop,” he snapped. Then he turned his admonishments on Brand. “She gave you her word. She will fight for us.”
Brand shrugged and bent to retrieve a semi-automatic rifle from the chest at his feet. He handed me the weapon. “You’ll need one of these, too.”
“I’m not very good with a gun,” I said, not reaching for it. The sight of the automatic weapon was even more unsettling than the poisoned-tipped dagger.
“Your Talents are strong, but you’ll need more protection than that. The guards will be armed. McDonough wants you badly, but if he can’t have you alive, he wants you dead. Once they realize you’re there, you will be the main target.”
He was right, of course. That didn’t make the news that Mac was now operating under the notion that if he couldn’t have me, no one could, any easier to hear.
Reluctantly, I took the gun and slung it over one shoulder. Brand selected two more knives and five throwing stars from a board on the far wall. He fitted them into a weapon’s belt before handing the belt to me. I threaded it through the loops at my waist. The weapons were light, all made from synthetic materials and designed with aerodynamics in mind. But the belt felt heavy when it settled into place on my hipbones. I took a couple of tentative steps to make sure my knees wouldn’t buckle under the added burden. They didn’t.
Frederick and Brand were fully outfitted soon thereafter, both of them looking like one man militias ready to take on whatever and whoever stood in their way. Brand was lean, but fairly muscular, so it came as no surprise that he appeared at home dressed like a solider ready for battle. Frederick, though, was fine-boned, delicate almost, and the weapons were unnatural on him.
Brand strolled towards the door, Frederick two steps behind. I remained where I was, taking advantage of the last moments of calm before the storm of a lifetime. In a few short hours, we, Crane and I, would set in motion a third civil war. In a few short hours, I would officially be labeled a traitor to my country. In a few short hours, chaos and destruction would replace the relative peace of the last few decades. But, in a few short hours, Erik would be safe. I wouldn’t let myself think beyond that point. The possibilities were too vast, too depressing, too horrible to consider.