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35

12:00 a.m.

FLATS

They decided to leave her there on the salt flats. The three darkling groupiesAngie, Ernesto, and the eldest Grayfootstill stood frozen, looking at the spot where they had left Rex for the darklings. Maybe the appearance of a dead girl in his place would give them something to think about.

Jonathan turned away, unable to watch as Rex arranged dominoes around Anathea. Rex had dressed, finding his clothes untouched where the darklings had discarded them, and he looked eerily normal. All that was different was his burned hair and his hands, which trembled just like his fathers now.

Jessica also didnt look. She pressed against his chest, crying, but Jonathan found he didnt know how to grieve for Anathea, born in 1940 but dead tonight at only fourteen. Her wasted body looked hardly twelve, the age shed been when she was taken.

And what had she said about a Madeleine Hayes, right before the end? Was the old mindcaster the one who had betrayed her generation so long ago? He would have to ask Dess about that.

Okay, lets go, Rex called.

Jonathan turned and saw what Rex had left for the groupies, and a chill traveled down his bruised and battered spine. He stared into the seers eyes: no tears for Anathea, just a fierce, haunted expression, as if Unanticipated Illuminations hadnt burned all the darkness out of him.

Rex had ignored the lore meanings of the dominoes, arranging them into letters a foot high. Around Anatheas body they spelled out in simple English:


YOURE NEXT


It made an awful picture, but that was the point, Jonathan supposed. It might convince Angie and the others to pursue a different career path. With no halflings left, this terrible message would be the last the darkling groupies ever received.

Jonathan took Jessicas hand and kissed it, tasting the salt from her tears. Dont look, he said.

She shook her head.

The slither strikes across Jonathans back were fading together into one giant bruise, and he winced as he held out his other hand for Rex, whose trembling didnt stop when midnight gravity connected them.

They hadnt told him yet about Melissa going through her windshield. As they flew, the seers leaps weak and tentative beside him, Jonathan wondered if Rex would make it if she hadnt survived.


* * * * *


They reached the car as the dark moon was setting.

Melissa stood shakily as they landed, her face streaked with blood but managing a smile. Rex pulled his hand from Jonathans and stumbled toward her across Desss pattern of stakes and wire, gathering Melissa into a hug.

I knew it, she said. You tasted human again.

Jonathan glanced at Dess, who rolled her eyes. She seemed better than when theyd left her.

Help me with this? she said, stooping to pull a tent stake from the hard ground. With Jessica around, we can clean this up before that monstrosity gets rolling again.

Jonathan followed Desss gesture to the old Ford, pointed at them and trailed by a cloud of dust. Oh, yeah. Good call.

He held Jessicas hand for a moment longer, and then they set to work, Jonathans slither bites aching as he bent to pull up the metal stakes. His left leg and all of his back felt like theyd been hit with line drives and then sunburned extra-crispy. And he was starving. He couldnt wait to get back to the peanut butter on banana bread sandwich stashed in his glove compartment.

You believe those two? Dess whispered as she wound a spool of wire.

Rex and Melissa still embraced, their faces close, eyes flashing purple from the setting moon.

He shook his head.

Do we have to tell them about the car? Dess said quietly a smile playing on her dirt-streaked face.

Jessica didnt smile back, just bent to pull up another stake, and Jonathan reached out and touched her arm. Death was too real to joke about tonight.


They stood back a good hundred yards to watch the two cars jump to life again, streaking across the desert in sudden tandem as the blue light swept from the world. Jonathans whirled to a quick stop, but the old Ford rattled across the salt for half a mile. Hed already reached inside to turn the engine and headlights off so it disappeared into darkness, only a dust cloud marking its passage.

Ill get it tomorrow, he promised Melissa again. It was the weekend, and nobody would be out here for a couple of days. As if anyone would steal that crappy old wreck with its busted windshield anyway.

I hate the hospital, Melissa whined again. All those sick people. And doctors touching me.

You need stitches, Rex said. And you could have brain damage.

Could have? Dess muttered.

Jonathan sighed and limped toward his car. It was going to be a real treat driving back into town. Finally it was just like Rex had planned, all five of them together again.

But at least they were all still alive. More or less.

Melissas face had stopped bleeding, but she was going to have scars on her forehead and left cheek for a while, maybe forever. Rexs hands still trembled, and he twitched at sudden sounds. He walked carefully, half blind, his glasses lost somewhere out in the desert. Jessica hadnt said a word since Anathea had died; she clung to Jonathans arm, exhausted by the fight and by everything theyd seen.

Only Dess seemed herself.

Is Madeleine okay? she asked as they walked toward Jonathans car.

Melissa tipped her head back into the air, and nodded. She made it through the night. But she knows whats happened; theyll find her soon.

You are in so much trouble, Dess said.

Youre the one whos crap at keeping secrets.

Youre the one who cant keep her hands to herself!

Jonathan tuned the argument out, pulling Jessica closer, glad of her support as they made their painful way to his car. He needed her touch, especially here on the salt flats, the flattest stretch of Flatland there was.


34 12:00 a.m. ANATHEA | Touching Darkness | 36 9:11 a.m. PARAGON OF SANITY



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