Midnight didn’t feel so good.
It hadn’t brought its usual awesome silence. Instead there’d been a sudden burst of noise and mind-wrenching pain that had left her here, swimming in this dark place.
Melissa remembered driving fast, glancing at her watch, letting her foot off the accelerator, slowing as she waited until the last moment to put on the brakes.
Oh, yeah. Really important to put on the brakes…
With an effort she opened her eyes. There were stars in front of her, pinpoints of light dancing against a cold black sky.
Can’t get distracted. Brakes…
Melissa moved her arm painfully, bringing her wrist in front of her eyes. She had to fight to bring the numbers into focus.
The watch face was cracked, the hands stopped at eight seconds to midnight.
She let it drop back to the salt, finally understanding.
“Stupid cheap quartz watch…” she muttered.
Then her head began to pound. Melissa knew all about headaches. She’d felt her own and everyone else’s since the day she was born. Totaled up, she’d probably spent years of her life with a headache. But this one… this was the worst ever.
She swam in the darkness for a while, the pain spreading like a bruise all the way to her fingertips. Then she heard footsteps pounding across the hard desert floor.
Stupid noisy flame-bringer. Jessica’s buzzy brain tasted like a nine-volt battery pressed against Melissa’s tongue.
“Quiet,” she commanded, wondering if her eyes were shut. Open or closed, there were stars in front of her.
Loud as a car alarm.
“Don’t move her.”
Maybe that was Jonathan’s voice. His bouncy Flyboy taste was around here somewhere.
Melissa decided to open her eyes. The voices weren’t going to go away until she glared at them. Glaring was good for making annoying people shut up.
Jessica’s blurred, concerned face appeared.
“I’m fine.” Everything was fine… except for the dizziness and the feeling like she was going to puke and the headache. Anyway, there was a bottle of aspirin in her glove compartment, like always. Where was her car, anyway? She lifted her head to look. Jeez, it was miles away.
“Lie still,” Jessica advised.
Yeah, I was just about to start dancing. Melissa thought.
Then a piece of memory fell out of the starry sky—why she’d been driving so fast. And even though speaking hurt, she said, “Go get Rex, you morons.”
The three of them looked at each other, and no one said what they were all thinking, while precious seconds ticked away.
Finally Dess said, “All right. I’ll stay here.”
Melissa closed her eyes. Poor Dess, always the odd one out. Couldn’t fly, couldn’t flame-bring. They should all three go, leaving her for the darklings. Being eaten couldn’t hurt worse than this headache.
But arguing would hurt too.
Their voices and thoughts got even louder. Dess kept telling Jessica which direction to go. Flyboy was anxious to get started and also quietly relieved to have only one passenger to carry. And all the while, not even a mile away, the arid taste of dark things was gathering.
“Go,” she tried to say.
If Rex was out there, he wasn’t conscious; Melissa couldn’t taste him. But she’d driven ahead following the flavor of a familiar mind. Angie wasn’t far away, her brash confidence silenced now by midnight.
Oh, if only Melissa could crawl that mile, the things she would do to Angie. Rex’s dad could tap-dance around her after Melissa was done.
But lying still was better. So she lay still for a while longer.
Only Dess now. The other two had faded, finally flying off to help Rex. Polymath thoughts filled the air as Dess pounded stakes into the ground, protection from the dark things all around them.
“Wake up! You’ve got a concussion. If you go to sleep you could die.”
Melissa groaned. “Fine with me.”
“What a coincidence. Fine with me too.”
She opened her eyes, looked at poor lonely Dess, tasting bitter as burnt rubber. Dess thought she’d been robbed of her secret friend. Didn’t she see what Madeleine was? What she had done to them all? Abandoned them. Left them pathetic orphans, when she knew all the tricks.
And anyway, Melissa had had no choice.
She licked her lips, desperately wanting a drink of water. “I’m sorry I touched you, Dess. But they took Rex… I had to find him.”
No answer, just the pounding of stakes into the hard ground. Every stroke was like an ice pick through Melissa’s brain.
Finally the hammer paused. “They know about her now, don’t they?”
“They already knew.” Melissa closed her eyes. Here, half conscious in the middle of the desert, she was awash in darkling thoughts, their slow rhythms easier to take than those of buzzy, headache-making humans. It hadn’t been Madeleine’s first slipup when she’d popped directions into Jonathan’s and Jessica’s brains. Over the years the darklings had sniffed her existence. They could hardly miss the spate of young midnighters appearing in Bixby. And the oldest, most paranoid ones had always suspected that someone had survived.
Then she realized the obvious.
“That’s why they let us live,” she croaked.
The pounding stopped.
Talking hurt, but at least Dess wasn’t driving tent stakes while she listened. Melissa lifted her head a bit and rolled painfully onto one side, feeling bruised shoulders and salt scraped hands.
“We weren’t a threat, not until Jessica came along. So the darklings were clever: they let us survive. To find Madeleine.”
And to let Rex mature, she thought. They’d taken Anathea too young; that was why she was dying after only two years of darkling time.
They wanted Rex to be their slave for centuries…
Melissa groaned, her head sinking back onto the salt.
“Can you sense her?” Dess asked.
Melissa sighed. Casting that far would hurt her head, like everything did. She could feel blood trickling down her face now, its progress as slow as thick oil. But she owed Dess an answer.
She sent her mind past the edge of the desert into the silent town, searching for the null spot that Dess’s numbers had uncovered, hidden behind the contortions of midnight.
Just in time Melissa felt them watching and realized what she’d almost done. The darklings were all around, leery of the barrier Dess had made but paying close attention. They had almost followed her thoughts to Madeleine.
Melissa smiled and let the knowledge she’d taken from Dess scatter like shattered safety glass. One thing about going through a windshield, it made it easy not to think. They would sift Madeleine’s secret place from her mind eventually but not tonight, not with this concussion raging in her head.
“Madeleine’s fine,” she said. For now.
Dess started pounding stakes again. The protection might not even be necessary—the darklings had bigger fish to fry. A dark mass of them boiled furiously nearby, excited by something in their midst…
“No,” Melissa murmured, and her head sank back to the hard ground. She let herself be overwhelmed, drifting in and out of the merciful sleep that might kill her, consciousness too painful to bear.
Of course, she really ought to remind Dess about the car poised sixty feet away. It was frozen now, but the old Ford was still doing better than forty miles an hour and headed straight toward them with no one at the wheel.
But the words of warning couldn’t seem to form in the jumble of her mind. Amid the gathering darklings was a distracting flavor, the most familiar taste she knew… but different now.
Not far away, Rex was waking up.