“I’m sorry for that,” Soren said, lowering herself to sit before him, her legs crossed under her long skirts. “Everyone’s a little rattled today. We’ve had… a visitor, you see, at the front gates. An unexpected one.”

Wells froze, his heart racing. Had their friends come for them?

“And then your raiding party returned and we learned what had happened.” She shook her head sadly. “It’s tipped them over the edge, I’m afraid.”

“What Graham did is inexcusable,” Wells said hoarsely, his throat still aching from Oak’s attack.

Soren gave him a tight smile. “I’m inclined to agree. And I’m inclined to believe that you had nothing to do with it.”

She reached out and gently clasped his wrist. “I have plans for you, Wells,” she said, her eyes sparkling.

Wells fought the sudden impulse to pull his arm away from her, as if he was recoiling from a snake that had just reared its venomous head. Plans meant that she expected him to stay here for the long-term.

Play along, he reminded himself. Just long enough to stay alive.

“These plans are for the faithful. For Earth and for us.” She squeezed his wrist tighter. “So tell me. Are you one of us?”

“Yes,” he said, as firmly as he could manage while his mind whirred. What could he say to convince her? “I was just as shocked as everybody else by what Graham did. I just wish I’d been able to warn you about him sooner.”


Soren leaned back and surveyed him carefully. “What do you mean?”

Wells clenched his jaw. “I’ve been wary of Graham for a very long time. He was on the dropship that brought me down to Earth.” He nodded reverently downward, the way the Protectors always did when referencing Earth incidentally. “I learned very quickly not to trust him. I don’t even think it’s about him not accepting Earth’s wisdom. I think he has. I just think he’s unstable and needs…”

The door opened behind Soren. She cocked her head without turning as her blond advisor stepped inside, pulling a limp figure behind her. Graham.

“He’s awake,” the advisor said.

Wells bit his lip to stop himself from gasping as the blond woman yanked Graham into the room and let him fall to the floor. He was awake, though you could hardly tell. His head, puffy and caked with blood, lolled against the wall where she’d left him. His eyes traveled to Wells’s, completely expressionless, as the woman in gray stepped out again, shutting the door behind her.

Soren touched Wells’s knee, her sweet smile never wavering. “You were saying?”

Wells glanced at Graham, swallowing hard. Graham kept staring, as though he didn’t have enough energy to blink. Only the rise and fall of his chest told Wells that he was even alive.

Wells looked at Soren. “I think he’s… unwell. Mentally. From the moment we landed, he did everything he could to undermine my standing in our camp, for no other reason but petty rivalry. He drew a line in the sand on our very first day on Earth and put my life and the lives of my friends in danger every single chance he could get. So if you’re asking if I’m with him…” He contorted his face into a sneer. “The answer is no.”

Graham’s gaze dipped slowly down to the floor, Wells’s stomach sinking with it. He had to be so careful. If they thought he was in league with Graham, any hope of escaping with their friends would be lost. But he couldn’t risk making too convincing a case that Graham was irredeemable either. He couldn’t put Graham at any more risk than he already was.

Wells swallowed.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Wells said, shaking his head.

Her eyes widened, a quick flash, barely perceptible. “For what, Wells?”

“For dwelling on the past. I was meant to have washed it all away in the river, I know that. Whatever happened before is gone now.” He peered up at her. “This is my home now, if Earth wills it.”

“If Earth wills it,” she repeated, her voice hushed, continuing to watch him.

Just as he was losing all hope that she’d bought that sudden display of devotion, she leaned over and kissed his forehead.

“I believe you,” she said. “And at dawn tomorrow, I’ll be performing what we call the Pairing Ceremony with you and the other recruits, where we officially welcome you into our fold as Protectors.”

She pulled a dagger out of a pocket in her long, flowing skirts. It glinted dangerously in the low light of the room. Wells held his breath, heart racing, as Soren ran its blade along the inside of Wells’s arm, then sliced through the ropes binding him.

Wells let out a long sigh of relief, rotating his ankles and wrists until the feeling returned to them in sharp prickles. Pocketing her dagger, Soren stood.

“The others will require more, of course,” she went on. “My Protectors.” Soren pressed her hand to her heart, smiling indulgently, like she was talking about small children. “Our community’s very existence requires our men to be brutes. It’s what they know, and it’s what they respect. If you want to join our community and be accepted by them, they’re going to need a brutal kind of proof from you. It’s the only way to get them to trust you.”

Wells felt his breath stilling, icy in his chest.

“Take this young man out to the forest and kill him,” she ordered, her voice light as ever. “You can make it as quick or as drawn out as you like, but do it well outside our sacred walls, please. We don’t need any more blood spilled here today.”

No. The word tore through Wells as hatred and revulsion battled for dominance. This was where it ended. They had to get out of here. Now. A second wave of nausea crashed over him as the implications of Soren’s words sank in. What did she mean by more blood? His mind raced back to that mention she’d made of an unexpected visitor. Now he prayed with every fiber of his being that it hadn’t been one of his friends.

“Oak will accompany you as a witness to your obedient service.” Soren opened the door and waved Oak over, then glided away without another look back.

Oak filled the doorframe, two guns clutched in his ropy hands. He trained them on Graham. Graham stood shakily and walked out the door, like one of the Earthborns’ sheep being herded to its pasture.

Graham glanced over at Wells, but Wells couldn’t read any expression through his swollen eyes and bruised jaw.

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