Prologue.

 

“One. Two. Three.”

They stopped saying ‘toss’ twelve bodies ago. Leaving the word implied, Carian and another man released a teenager into the all-devouring pit. Was it still a teenager? Was there age in death? Liv’s twelve years hadn’t set much precedent for catastrophe, and her mind whiplashed with questions like these. Were they forever a teenager now? Nah, just dead.

Liv shuddered. Everyone was dead.

The fingers around hers tightened. Rhys stared up at her, mouth and nose covered to block the stench of burning flesh. Tear tracks carved through the dust of his cheeks. This boy had been a stranger to her before the bombs. His black eyes reflected darkened sky, cut with the flames of the pit. He hadn’t spoken much—not since he and his father brought her into their fold—but he clung to her. She’d have fought it, but she needed to be held just as badly.

At the pit’s edge, the adults tossed questions back and forth. Their answers fell short. No service. No communication. Terrorists. God’s punishment. War. No one knew what happened, what was happening. Rhys inched closer to her. She slipped a cautious arm around his shoulders. I should say something comforting…

“Rhys, darling.” Carian’s Welsh accent pulled Liv’s attention toward him, away from his ten-year-old son. “Why don’t you and Olivia come over here by me? Careful, boyo. Nice and slow.” He smiled kindly, but his eyes trained on something behind them. The man beside him drew his pistol.

Liv turned her head. Bricks and debris lay scattered about her field of vision, unmoving. A heavy breath clipped her attention, gave her a glimpse of the source’s body writhing in the ruins. She placed her palm on the back of Rhys’ head, gripping to keep his eyes forward. Delicately, she pushed him toward his father.

Gurgles echoed in the silence, punctuated by gnashing teeth. Backing away, Liv kept her eyes on its frame, hunched and stark among the wreckage. What the heck is that thing? It called to memory a leopard, but shaved naked and robbed of all beauty. Only the visceral remained, as though it…

Her foot snagged. A squeak clawed from her throat. The creature snapped its gaze to her; blood trailed from its fangs. Terror collapsed in her chest. The beast blurred into rubble, the rubble into black sky, the sky into flames, as her eyes traced her fall into the pit.

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