Three hats had been special-ordered from the same milliner in Hilton Head for the race that day. One—a butter-yellow bonnet—capped the snow-white head of Lyrica Crisp, who was sitting to the left of Miss Sophia, enjoying a corned beef sandwich. The other—a sea-foam- green felt hat with a fat polka-dotted satin ribbon— crowned the jet-black mane of Vivina Sole, who sat looking deceptively demure with her white-gloved hands crossed over her lap to Miss Sophia’s right.
“Glorious day for a race,” Lyrica said. At 136 years old, she was the youngest of the Elders of Zhsmaelim. She wiped a dot of mustard from the corner of her mouth. “Can you believe it’s my first time at the tracks?” “Shhh,” Sophia hissed. Lyrica was such a twit. Today was not about horses at all, but rather a clandestine meeting of great minds. So what if the other great minds didn’t happen to have shown up yet? They would be here. At this perfectly neutral location set forth in the gold letterpress invitation Sophia had received from an unknown sender. The others would be here to reveal themselves and come up with a plan of attack together.
Any minute now. She hoped.
“Lovely day, lovely sport,” Vivina said dryly. “Pity our horse in this race doesn’t run in easy circles like these fillies. Isn’t it, Sophia? Tough to wager where the thoroughbred Lucinda will finish.”
“I said shhh,” Sophia whispered. “Bite your cavalier tongue. There are spies everywhere.”
“You’re paranoid,” Vivina said, drawing a high giggle from Lyrica.
“I’m what’s left,” Sophia said.
There used to be so many more—twenty-four Elders at the peak of the Zhsmaelim. A cluster of mortals, immortals, and a few transeternals, like Sophia herself. An axis of knowledge and passion and faith with a single uniting goal: to restore the world to its prelapsarian state, that brief, glorious moment before the angels’ Fall. For better or for worse.
It was written, plain as day, in the code they’d drawn up together and had each signed: For better or for worse.
Because really, it could go either way.
Every coin had two sides. Heads and tails. Light and dark. Good and—
Well, the fact that the other Elders hadn’t prepared themselves for both options was not Sophia’s fault. It was, however, her cross to bear when one by one they sent in notices of their withdrawal. Your purposes grow too dark. Or: The organization’s standards have fallen. Or: The Elders have strayed too far from the original code. The first flurry of letters arrived, predictably, within a week after the incident with the girl Pennyweather. They couldn’t abide it, they’d claimed, the death of one small insignificant child. One careless moment with a dagger and suddenly the Elders were running scared, all of them fearing the wrath of the Scale.
“Look, you little punks. I branded your starshots with the emblem of the Elders. You work for me”
Sophia did not fear the Scale. Their charge was to parole the fallen, not the righteous. Groundling angels such as Roland Sparks and Arriane Alter. As long as one did not defect from Heaven, one was free to sway a little. Desperate times practically begged for it. Sophia had nearly gone cross-eyed reading the spongy-hearted excuses of the other Elders. But even if she had wanted the defectors back—which she had not—there was nothing to be done.
Sophia Bliss—the school librarian who had only ever served as secretary on the Zhsmaelim board—was now the highest-ranking official among the Elders. There were just twelve of them left. And nine could not be trusted.
So that left the three of them here today in their enormous pastel hats, placing phony bets at the track. And waiting. It was pathetic, the depths to which they’d sunk. A race came to its end. A staticky loudspeaker announced the winners and the odds for the next race.
Well-heeled people and drunks all around them cheered or slumped lower in their seats.
And a girl, about nineteen, with a white-blond ponytail, brown trench coat, and thick, dark sunglasses, walked slowly up the aluminum steps toward the Elders.
Sophia stiffened. Why would she be here?
It was next to impossible to tell which direction the girl was looking in, and Sophia was trying hard not to stare. Not that it would matter; the girl wouldn’t be able to see her. She was blind. But then—
The Outcast nodded once at Sophia. Oh yes—these fools could see the burning of a person’s soul. It was dim, but Sophia’s life force must still have been visible.
The girl took a seat in the empty row in front of the Elders, facing the track and flipping though a five-dollar tip sheet her blind eyes wouldn’t be able to read.
“Hello.” The Outcast’s voice was a monotone. She didn’t turn around.
“I really don’t know why you’re here,” Miss Sophia said. It was a damp November day in Kentucky, but a sheen of sweat had broken out across her forehead. “Our collaboration ended when your cohorts failed to retrieve the girl. No amount of bitter blabber from the one who calls himself Phillip will change our minds.” Sophia leaned forward, closer to the girl, and wrinkled her nose. “Everyone knows the Outcasts aren’t to be trusted—”
“We are not here on business with you,” the Outcast said, staring straight ahead. “You were but a vessel to get us closer to Lucinda. We remain uninterested in ‘collab orating’ with you.”
“No one cares about your organization these days.” Footsteps on the bleachers.
The boy was tall and slender, with a shaven head and a trench coat to match the girl’s. His sunglasses were the cheap plastic variety found near the batteries at the drugstore.
Phillip slid onto the bleacher right next to Lyrica Crisp. Like the Outcast girl, he didn’t turn to face them when he spoke.
“I’m not surprised to find you here, Sophia.” He lowered his sunglasses on his nose, revealing two empty white eyes. “Just disappointed that you didn’t feel you could tell me that you’d been invited as well.”
Lyrica gasped at the horrible white expanses behind his glasses. Even Vivina lost her cool and reared back. Sophia boiled inside.
The Outcast girl raised a golden card—the same invitation Sophia had received—scissored between her fingers. “We received this.” Only, this one looked like it had been written in Braille. Sophia reached for it to make sure, but with a quick movement, the invitation disappeared back inside the girl’s trench coat.
“Look, you little punks. I branded your starshots with the emblem of the Elders. You work for me—”
“Correction,” Phillip said. “The Outcasts work for no one but themselves.”
Sophia watched him crane his neck slightly, pretending to follow a horse around the track. She’d always thought it was eerie, the way they gave off the impression that they could see. When everyone knew he’d struck the lot of them blind with the flick of a finger.
More about the author
The third book in the incredible FALLEN series.
Before Luce and Daniel met at Sword & Cross, before they fought the Immortals, they had already lived many lives. And so Luce, desperate to unlock the curse that condemns their love, must revisit her past incarnations in order to understand her fate. Each century, each life, holds a different clue.
But Daniel is chasing her throughout the centuries before she has a chance to rewrite history.
How many deaths can one true love endure?
And can Luce and Daniel unlock their past in order to change their future?