The soul of eighteen-year-old Thea is as dark as the cloud-covered Earth, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for a little light.
Thea’s solitary life on a polluted, sun-shrouded Earth is shattered by the unwelcome presence of an injured girl who lands on her doorstep. Gentle, sixteen-year-old Viviana has a life-threatening infection… and she sports a freakish patch of glowing skin over her heart! When this strange light spreads to Thea, causing the palms on her hands to glow, she’s forced to trust Caden, an arrogant boy she despises. Caden has discovered a map to the last city on earth; the only place that might have a cure for both Viv’s infection and the strange light on Thea’s hands. As the trio embarks on a journey through the barren wilderness, Thea and Caden fight their mounting attraction for each other. They’re joined by Rain, Naomi, and Enoch, who reveal that the light is not a curse, but a powerful gift meant to heal the dying Earth and reconnect the remnants of humanity.
The ragtag group also learns that Viv might be the key to this planet-wide redemption and that there are dark spirits called Shadows who will do anything to keep humanity steeped in violence and death. Thea and her companions must choose: help Viv fulfill her destiny or slink back into the darkness and let the planet slide into oblivion—forever.
The next morning when Thea tried to wake the girl, she didn’t move. No matter how much Thea shook her, Viv’s eyes remained closed and her body limp. She felt the girl’s forehead. Her skin was hot and sweaty. The deep gash that ran across her temple had become bright red and swollen overnight. It was definitely infected.
She should get rid of the girl now. Dump her useless butt in the forest and be done with it. Thea gritted her teeth. She couldn’t do it. And had no idea why. Maybe it was something about the way the fragile little thing had stubbornly refused to die all those years alone in the woods. Or maybe Thea saw a little something of herself in the girl.
She stayed in the shack all day, washing Viv’s face and trying to cool down her temperature. But the fever grew worse, and the wound on her head began oozing a disgusting amount of green pus. Viv thrashed wildly in the bed as the fever raged through her body, and it was all Thea could do to keep her from rolling off and crashing onto the hard floor below. As the gray light of day thickened into night, Thea knew the girl was in bad shape.
She gazed down at the small figure twisting and moaning under the sweat-soaked blankets, and something in her heart jolted again. Thea gasped and clutched her chest. What was that?
Then her eye caught a faint flash of light from underneath the ragged bedclothes. Viv’s thrashing had loosened the wrappings that covered her torso, and a bit of glowing skin winked up at Thea. As if in a trance, she reached out her hand and placed it over the soft, yellowish-white light.
Thea’s life had been simple up until now. There had been no strange dreams or girls with impossible glowing skin. She had been alone, and everything had been uncomplicated. She should just let the girl die. No one would care, Thea thought as she stared down at her fingers. And then things could go back to the way they were.
But as she gazed at the hand covering Viv’s heart, Thea instinctively knew that something inside of her had changed. She didn’t want the girl to die, not now. She wanted Viv to live.
Thea straightened and pulled her hand away. As she let it fall back to her side, she noticed something strange out of the corner of her eye. She lifted her palm up and stared at it in horror.
It was glowing.
The skin on the palm of her hand was shining with a soft, yellow light. The same light that gleamed up at her from Viv’s half-covered torso.
She looked at her other hand. It was glowing, too.
“Oh no,” she breathed. “Oh no, oh no, oh no!” This was not happening. It looked like the light was coming from somewhere inside her hands. “Get it off!” she yelled and wiped her palms frantically on her pants, hoping somehow it was a mistake. That her eyes were playing tricks on her. She turned her hands over. No! The light was still there!
Thea grabbed a rag off the bed and lunged toward the fire and the boiling pot of water that was suspended over the flames. She plunged the rag into the scalding bubbles, wrenched it back out and began scrubbing viciously at her palms. Her skin screamed in protest, but the light remained.
Then she really panicked.
She rushed out the door and scrambled down the wooden ladder that connected the deck of her house to the ground below. Jumping off the last three rungs, she stumbled, caught herself, and ran full tilt for the river, her thick boots grinding into the grimy, muddy earth.
Her lungs burning, Thea reached the edge of the riverbed. Its banks were thick with poisoned sludge and covered in slimy, mold-colored reeds. Her hands had been clutched in fists, but now, with a quick glance into the darkness surrounding her, she slowly uncurled them.
Thea’s heart dropped. The light was still there, glowing strong against the backdrop of a starless, moonless night. There was nothing else she could think of to do. She had to get rid of it. Slowly, Thea sank to her knees on the muddy embankment, grimaced, and then plunged both of her arms elbow-deep into the dark, poisoned waters.
I don’t feel anything, she thought, her eyes still clamped shut. Her skin should have melted to the bone by now, or at the very least, burned. There were decades of toxic chemicals running through this thing. With a sinking feeling in her gut, Thea opened her eyes and lifted her arms from the river, drops of the oily water running down her arms. She willed her pupils wide and saw that her pale skin was smooth, not a blister or burn mark in sight.
And her palms were still glowing.
Thea slumped to the ground, defeated, as the river swirled by. She tucked her hands under the backs of her knees and rested her head on her thighs, her thoughts swirling. Whatever it was that had infected Viv had now spread to her. Maybe the fever wasn’t from the wound, Thea thought miserably, but from Viv’s glowing skin. Like some sort of strange disease. Her moment of weakness had cost dearly. She had been so stupid! Even if the light itself wasn’t harmful, what the others in the Valley would do to her when they saw it was.
The voice from her dreams had been wrong. Saving Viv hadn’t helped Thea. In fact, she was pretty sure it had just cost her life.
* * * *
Far away, across an ocean that was black with generations of poison and decay, lay a forgotten canyon. The canopy over this particular canyon was so low, and the clouds so thick, that the place was cast in a perpetual, eerie darkness darker than the gray twilight that hung over the rest of the earth. The air in the canyon rested, humid and still.
Tall, black mountains made of jagged rock surrounded the floor of the canyon. Once inside the imposing walls, escape was almost impossible. Skin, fur, scales: all were ripped to shreds on the sharp cliffs in a matter of minutes. And that wasn’t the only danger. Creatures shifted back and forth in the gloom. Terrible slinking things, they crept through the dark gullies and crevices, snatching their prey from the shadowy depths, their teeth as sharp as razor blades and their beady eyes searching, always searching for the next meal. The place reeked of death.
In a far corner of the canyon, wedged between two tall cliffs, was a dense patch of forest. Towering, vine-covered trees twisted toward the clouds above. Gray mists rolled over the bottom of the forest in waves so that the sucking, muddy earth below was totally obscured. Taking a step forward into the mists was a dangerous game of roulette. You never knew quite where, or what, your foot would land on next.
Thick underbrush hedged the edges of the forest, covered in long, evil thorns. The brush created an almost impenetrable barrier for any who were foolish enough to disregard the clear signs that this place was not to be disturbed.
But the ebony shadows making their way through the undergrowth were neither foolish nor daunted by the forest’s many defenses.
They glided through the dense bracket with ease, their jet-black bodies parting like air when an obstacle appeared in their path. There were nine in total. Nine creeping forms that appeared similar to men but that could not have been further from human. Their arms and legs were long and thin, and their inky, orb-like eyes glinted in the almost night, focused and menacing. Their long backs curled around protruding spines like crippled old men, but their movements were smooth and strong. Their black heads bent forward with purpose. The creatures wore no clothes, and their skin seemed to lack a definite beginning and end as if they were made of the dark clouds above.
The nine shadows were almost invisible between the dark tree trunks. Like panthers creeping through the jungle thicket, they slunk predatorily toward a single, unified goal.
A hundred yards ahead, the forest cleared slightly, just underneath one of the vertical walls that made up the barrier of the canyon. At the base of the wall was a large, black opening: the mouth of a cave. When the shadows passed through the brush and into the clearing, they fanned out and formed a half-moon around the opening. There they stood, silent and waiting.
From deep inside the cave’s belly, something old and dark rumbled awake. The mountains trembled, and pieces of rocky debris from the cliffs surrounding the cave crumbled and fell into the mists below.
The shadows did not move.
The Ancient One took a terrible, shuddering breath and began clawing up through his winding lair. He flexed his long-dormant muscles, feeling strength flow through them once more, and sighed with relief when his razor-sharp talons scraped the rock walls. It felt so good to move. On his way to the surface, the Ancient One passed scattered pieces of bone and fur, creatures that had been stupid enough to seek shelter in the dark recesses of the cave, ignorant of the danger that silently crept up on them from behind. He didn’t need to eat, of course, but he enjoyed their pain, enjoyed the way their spines snapped in his mouth and their blood ran hot down his chin. The air was rank from the decaying shells, and he breathed it in like a perfume, reveling in the memory of their deaths. With one final heave, he reached the cave opening and pulled himself through.
For the first time in centuries, he unfurled his black, snakelike body, arching upward to his full, towering height. Ah, to stretch.
The shadows bowed their heads. They had waited long for this moment. One shadow stepped forward and addressed his master. His voice was low and rasping.
“I have found her,” the shadow hissed.
The Ancient One smiled. A slow, evil smile, his black teeth gleaming with oily saliva. Finally, he thought. With a foul whoosh of breath from his rank, innermost parts, the creature spoke, his voice filled with the hatred of a thousand years.
“Bring her to me,” he commanded.
The shadow bowed his head in acknowledgment, and with a flash, he and his eight brothers vanished back into the mists.