Finally, I have this sneak peek of book 8 in the Unbounded series, tentatively entitled, The Avowed. This book is from Erin’s point-of-view again, and starts a week after that last book ends. This is AN UNEDITED preview, so there will be tweaks and changes before the release, and I’ll update later with the edited chapter here. Hoping for an April 1st release for the book, but we’ll see. This book has two major, converging plots that will affect the entire Unbounded world, so stay tuned!
I’ll update with cover reveal, book description, and pre-order links soon. Hope you enjoy this sneak peek!
People teemed on the sidewalk in front of the Mission on Ninth in downtown Los Angeles, spilling into the street between cars parked along the road. With the neighborhood search for the missing girls, the crowd itself was expected, but the sheer number of sign-holding protestors was a surprise. Only the area directly in front of the mission doors was void of people, and there, on the two steps and the threshold leading into the building, lay mounds of flowers, pictures and stuffed animals, as if people already expected a negative outcome after only two and a half days.
“What?” I said, catching Ritter Langton’s scowl as he steered his black Toyota Land Cruiser toward the throng of protestors.
“We’ll have to park down the street and walk in. There are easily over a thousand people here.”
“At least they look peaceful.” This came from Dimtri Sidorov in the back seat.
Dimitri had a point. In the four months since the earth-shattering announcement detailing the existence of Unbounded, we’d seen more riots than peaceful protests. Learning that a society of nearly immortal people lived among you had a way of bringing out fear in people—and for good reason, especially if they had any inkling of the true history between the two Unbounded factions, the Renegades and the Emporium. Yet even in their blissful ignorance, many mortals had rioted against identified Unbounded, demanded illegal medical tests, and encouraged violent discourse between Hunters, who hated Unbounded, and Believers, who worshipped them in the newly formed Church of the Unboundaried. Sometimes it was hard to keep it all straight.
“For now, they’re peaceful,” Ritter allowed.
I could my sense his anxiousness though the connection we shared, even without accessing my sensing ability. Since our marriage, our link barely required an effort—and the connection went both ways to a certain extent, though Ritter was a combat Unbounded and not a sensing one.
“It’s a vigil not a protest, I’m betting,” I said. “They’re worried about the girls like we are.” I stared at the pictures littering the steps of the mission, taking out my phone to snap a few pictures as we passed so I could zoom in to study them. Ordinarily, missing teens in this run-down area of LA wouldn’t have made it to our radar, but Kimber Wheeler was vaguely related to Dimitri, second-in-command in our San Diego Renegade Cell, and her name in the news had triggered our electronic warnings.
“I am sorry to get you involved, Erin,” Dimitri said to me, his careful pronunciation almost completely masking his slight Russian accent. He was a short, broad man with longish dark brown hair, intense brown eyes, and a mustache. Not good-looking, exactly, but so sure of himself that he exuded attractiveness. “But I need your ability when I talk with the pastor and the parents.” He was referring to the fact that our vacation on our inherited tropical island had been cut short after only a week, but Dimitri was family—and not just because I’d recently learned he was my biological father.
“Of course we’re involved,” I said. Kimber was related to me too, after all. She was Dimitri’s eleventh great-niece, to be exact, the third great-grandchild of an Unbounded. Dimitri had been checking periodically on Kimber since her birth, as we did with all descendants who might still undergo the Change. Following our posterity had been vital before we had taken over the Emporium, whose murdering ways had made it necessary for most Renegades in the past to sever all ties with our mortal families and obscure any connection to them, even to the point of faking our deaths. It was too soon to know how that practice might alter in the future, without Emporium interference, but for now we were still very much at risk from a world that had newly learned of our existence.
At seventeen, Kimber, was nowhere close to a Change, which usually happened between the ages of thirty-one and thirty-three, and though the chance was small after six generations, it was still a possibility. That meant she was important to Dimitri. To us. We needed to find out what happened to her and why.
Ritter pulled over to take the space of a departing car, squeezing the Land Cruiser into an impossibly tight gap.
“Wait a minute,” I said, studying the pictures I’d taken, immediately recognizing Kimber with her short blond hair. “A lot of pictures on that step aren’t of Kimber or the girl she’s supposed to have gone missing with. There’re a couple boys too.” I shoved my phone in Dimitri’s direction.
He glanced at it and nodded, killing the engine. “Could explain why so many people are here. Families and friends of other missing children must have come to offer support. Makes sense. The girl’s family isn’t large or wealthy enough to evoke this kind of response on their own.”
I put away the phone, smoothing the skirt of my casual blue dress over the thigh holster that held two guns and a knife before hopping out of the Land Cruiser. The top of the dress was tighter than I liked, but the fuller skirt allowed a full range of movement in a battle, which was why I’d chosen it. For the same reason, my long blond hair was pinned in a tight knot at the nape of my neck.
Ritter met me on the sidewalk, his dark eyes already scanning for potential threats. He was a good head taller than I was, his muscles rippling noticeably under his gray button-up shirt. Every part of him was strong, from the determine set of his square jaw and wide shoulders to the hands hanging loosely near his hidden weapons. His black hair parted on the left, the strands falling to the right and grazing a mole on his cheek. A shadow of growth already marked his face, thanks to our rapid metabolism, though he’d shaven barely hours earlier.
“Ready?” he asked, his hand gently brushing my bare arm, evoking a welcome response in me, as he always did.
I took a moment to scan the area. No life forces hiding between or in parked cars, though there were plenty of glowing life forces inside the surrounding buildings and up ahead on the sidewalk near the Mission on Ninth. But none were dimmer, which meant no one trained to mask their thoughts from those with my sensing ability. Only the rare few could hide it all from me, and those not for long.
“Relax, your Deathliness,” I said with a grin. “No one knows we’re here.” No one threatening, I meant.
The slightest arch of one eyebrow was his only response as he started down the sidewalk ahead of Dimitri and me. Ritter was close enough that people would know we were together but far enough away that he could easily move around to combat anyone who might confront us. On another day, I might remind him that I didn’t need his help against mortals—after all, he had trained me himself as he did all our cell members. But things had changed for me this past month, and I was fine with letting Ritter go first. For now.
My ego aside, Ritter had a right to worry because we were different from those in the crowd ahead. We weren’t dressed in our customary black clothing, and we had no weapons in the open—and certainly not the swords we’d found necessary when facing Emporium hit teams—but the observant would know there was something different about us. Being Unbounded not only meant that we physically aged only two years for each hundred that we lived, but we had the best genes our human lineage offered and our healing ability meant we carried no scars or imperfections. We also radiated the confidence and vitality that came with the Change. Mortals translated this into beauty, but for those who had dealings with us, our nature would be apparent.
Currently, our most challenging enemies were Hunters, whose solitary goal for more than half a century had been to eliminate all those with the active “devil gene.” We were negotiating with leaders in the Hunter Circle to change this, but decades of hurt and indoctrination were a hard battle to win. Since the announcement, thousands of discontents had joined their ranks, mostly hotheads with little education or “educated” intellects with an overactive sense of fairness. Since they could never be like us, they would enjoy the opportunity of trapping and cutting us in three precise parts, even if it meant jailtime. While the leaders claimed never to target children, who by their very age could not yet have Changed, we knew that if any of their violent new recruits were involved in Kimber’s disappearance, her chance of survival was slim.
They can’t know about her or her connection to us, I thought, stamping down on the thoughts. We lived in a completely different world now, and I was dredging up trouble where there was none. There had to be another explanation.
We’d reached the crowd now, who milled about, talking and holding their signs that proclaimed a variety of information and demands. Dimitri had been correct in his assumption that this gathering went beyond Kimber’s disappearance.
Despite the heat already blistering the streets on this late-May Saturday morning, several small groups of protestors had dressed in head-to-toe black, some wearing long, high-collared coats and boots with various weapons on display, including the occasional sword strapped to a back. These were Believers, which I’d expected because the pastor at the Mission on Ninth ran a Sunday service for those who had adopted their ways. I had to admit the costumes of these particular Believers were rather accurate depictions of Unbounded, except our clothing was specifically designed to hide numerous weapons, not display them. Even our tightest metamaterial bodysuits, necessary in certain operations, could hold a dozen or more weapons and first aid supplies with barely a bulge. But these faux Unbounded made no attempt to mask their thoughts, their life forces glowing as brilliantly as the average mortal’s.
I paused when a young woman in jeans and a purple blouse stepped into my path. Tears slid down her cheeks as she waved a poster with the photograph of a smiling young male high over her head. No one cares about my brother, the single, piercing thought stood out from her despairingly, a determined grimace on her face.
Curious, I delved deeper, stepping into my mental representation of her conscious mind. A sandlike stream of thoughts flowed from top to bottom of my awareness like a waterfall, appearing overhead and vanishing into the stage of her mind at my feet. Disjointed scenes rushed at me, glimpses that I couldn’t hold and study, but only peer at as they rushed by with lightning speed. Finding the right place to jump into the stream to observe was the challenge, but the thought about her brother had given me a place to start.
There I had it. The thoughts and memories came in an instant dump of knowledge.
Her parents had washed their hands of their rebellious son years before he’d gone missing from their home, and they hadn’t bothered to look for the sixteen-year-old. Life had been easier. But this woman, his older sister, had looked for him repeatedly in the two years since. I saw the boy in her thoughts—a too-bright teen who couldn’t fit in with his peers at school. She’d traced him as far as this mission, but aside from a few days of eating here, no one had any idea where he might have gone. The single most feeling in the forefront of her mind was one of failure—her failure. She moved away without appearing to notice me.
Stepping around her, a young man’s solemn face calmly met my gaze, though his thoughts cried out wildly: Where are you now? I should have let you stay in my garage when you asked. I wish you knew how much I regret saying no.
That could be related to Kimber, and I had to know more, so I studied his thought stream. But his thoughts revolved around a girl he had known from school, who had run away from her home one night a year earlier and had never been seen again. He’d talked to police, but when her drunken father hadn’t shown interest, they’d written her down as a runaway and had stopped actively looking.
More thoughts came to me, each event unique but all them following a common theme of loss and guilt. I stopped walking, swept up in the emotion. I was perhaps the strongest sensing Unbounded to have been born in the past millennium, my line-of-fire training having propelled me to that status, but the emotions here by these unshielded mortals were overwhelming. I hadn’t been around so many ordinary humans since before my Change, before I was able to sense.
Ritter’s arm closed around me, urging me on, and with effort, I shoved the emotions back, while still keeping watch for anything that might jump out as important. Someone in this crowd might have been the last one to see Kimber. Maybe they even knew where she was right this minute. Ritter shot me a questioning gaze, but I didn’t have any answers. Not yet.
Before we reached the steps, a tall, full-figured woman in a peach-colored suit picked her way through the pictures, toys, and flowers that littered the stairs and began speaking through a megaphone.
“Thank you for being here, everyone. Together we can make a difference!” Cheering met her shout, and people surged forward, momentarily blocking our progress. “Eight hundred thousand children go missing every year in the United States and too many of them are from California,” she continued. “We will—we must—bring our loved ones home!”
But she was lying. Her thoughts screamed out that she didn’t believe even this many people could change a thing. Her granddaughter had been gone for four years now, and she’d given up hope. Yet organizing this rally and those like it made her feel she was at least doing something. Besides, there was always the longshot that these Believers at the mission would be able to call upon the new angels they worshipped for help.
“The news reporters have arrived,” the woman continued as the crowd quieted. “We will hear from Kimber Wheeler’s parents shortly, but until then please feel free to come up here one at a time to tell your own stories while we pass out the new flyers for you to share in our march today. Make a line at the base of the stairs. Let’s tell the world what we know. We need to find these kids!” More cheers and a line began to form.
Ritter tensed at her words about the media. We had expected a few people coming to pay respect, and maybe a bored freelance reporter trying to get an exclusive interview with Kimber’s family, but with over a thousand people swarming the sidewalks, there was bound to be a lot of unwanted media attention. Unlike me, Ritter and Dimitri’s faces were well-known both to Hunters and to any stray Emporium soldiers who hadn’t yet gotten the memo that we were no longer at war. We’d agreed disguises weren’t necessary, but things could quickly go wrong if we were recognized.
Heads turned and gazes fixed on us as we pushed past the protestors and hurried up the five stairs to the mission’s steel-reinforced glass door. Without anyone trying to stop us, we let ourselves into a vaulted entry hall, gratefully leaving the crowd behind.
A man rose from a couch against the back wall where he sat with a couple, all three radiating brightly to my senses. “Welcome,” he said, hurrying toward us and holding out a hand to shake Dimitri’s.
I recognized Pastor Mike from his picture. He had piercing blue eyes and a chiseled face, and deep brown hair that spiked up in front and somehow looked stylish rather than too short. I hadn’t been sure whether to expect a formal minister or an Unbounded wannabe, but he was neither of these. He wore nice black jeans and a short-sleeved, gray shirt, and except for the white tab on his collar and the one-inch sword pendant hanging from a silver chain around his neck, the Believer symbol, he could have passed as any of the protestors in the street. He was, by any yardstick, a handsome man.
“Good to see you, Mike,” Dimitri said quietly. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”
“Yes. Me too.” Pastor Mike glanced briefly over his shoulder at the couple behind him. “But I appreciate your coming, Sam. Are these colleagues of yours at Steel Cross?” He gave us a wide smile.
“Yes, they are.” Dimitri or “Sam” didn’t introduce us, and Pastor Mike didn’t ask our names.
I focused on the couple. Already, their grief and sadness reached out to me, the emotions like cloying fingers threatening to strangle me. I understood their loss. Just over a month earlier, the former Emporium Triad had killed my mortal grandmother and one of our closest Renegade Unbounded, Cort Bagley. Permanently killed, and we were still grieving his loss. But I also knew neither of my losses were the same as what these parents were going through.
My grandmother had been in her eighties, and Cort had already lived five hundred years. But my niece and nephew, whose family lived with us in our San Diego Fortress, would never Change, and that meant sooner or later, I’d lose them too. I would likely bury many of my own children as well because only fifty percentage of offspring underwent the Change, and the percentage was only that high under specific circumstances.
Ritter’s hand brushed my bare arm below the sleeve of my dress, drawing me out of the despair emanating from the couple. Concern came through our link—and a rush of protectiveness.
Giving him a faint smile I knew wouldn’t fool him, I stepped forward over a huge, dark stain in the thin carpet, as if someone had spilled a pot of food or maybe a pitcher of coffee. The sparse furniture and aluminum accents of the entry hall screamed cheap, but that was to be expected at a mission designed only to save and feed the poor.
Pastor Mike came with me, beating me to the couch where the couple watched us with achingly hopeful expressions. The woman was beautiful, even with the reddened eyes and smeared makeup. She had short, raven hair that curled slightly under at the ends above her neck and ears, flawless dark brown skin, and a curvaceous figure. Her husband was more non-descript, with light brown hair, pale eyes, a decidedly large nose, and a painfully thin figure. The man had one arm comfortingly around his wife’s shoulders, his angular, pale face almost skeletal.
“These are the people I told you about,” Pastor Mike said to them. “They’re from the Steel Cross Syndicate.” He stumbled on the alliteration. To us he added, “These are Kimber’s parents, Isaac and Nyomi Wheeler.”
The Wheelers stood as one, Mrs. Wheeler wiping a tear. “Are they the ones who awarded Kimber the scholarship?” she asked the pastor.
“Yes.” Pastor Mike said with a brisk nod. “Anonymously, I might add, so let’s keep it between us. And it’s not the first helped they’ve offered over the years. They have been instrumental in keeping our programs open in these difficult times. My father and his predecessor also worked with them.”
I glanced at Ritter, whose mouth gave a tiny quirk, which told me the scholarship and Dimitri’s apparent relationship with the mission through this so-called syndicate was a surprise to him as well, but I bet Dimitri’s involvement coincided with the Wheelers’ participation at the mission—or Mrs. Wheeler’s family, as she was Dimitri’s descendant.
Mrs. Wheeler’s gaze brushed over Dimitri and Ritter before fixing on me. “Thank you for choosing our daughter,” she said. More tears dripped from her eyes as she leaned heavily into her husband. “I only hope she’ll be able to use your generous gift.” So that Kimber could go to college, she meant. I was in her mind now, sifting through the sands of her thoughts. The ache for her daughter was paralyzing.
“I know you wanted to speak to the Wheelers after talking with me,” Pastor Mike said to us, dragging two chairs away from the wall to face the couches, “but they have to speak to the group outside in a few minutes before they pass out more flyers, so I thought it would be okay if you talked to them first.”
“That’s fine.” I sank onto one of the chairs, mostly because I was worried both Wheelers might collapse. Dimitri took the other chair, while Ritter and the pastor remained standing. “Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler,” I said, “our organization has many branches, and because of our long relationship with the Mission on Ninth, we have decided to look into your daughter’s disappearance.”
Mrs. Wheeler started sobbing softly, so it was Mr. Wheeler who spoke. “Thank you, so much,” he said. “We appreciate your time and anything you might be able to do to help.”
“If you can tell us everything that happened, anything you think might be useful and even things you don’t think matter. Keep in mind that we do have access to the police reports, but hearing it from you might lead us in another direction.” The police reports had been hacked into, not given to us, which meant we didn’t have the impressions of the responding officers, but they didn’t need to know any of that.
“I don’t know what happened,” Mrs. Wheeler said through her sobs. She just didn’t come home for dinner. She was here working with the kids, and she texted to say that she was stopping at the park with a friend. I didn’t even notice that she was late until Isaac said we’d be late to bowling if we didn’t eat.” Her voice grew higher at the end of the sentence as she struggled to speak. “I was getting ready in my bathroom when . . . when whatever it was happened. Oh, my poor baby!” She curled into her husband and cried.
“You have to understand,” Mr. Wheeler said, his arms wrapping around his wife. His skin looked even paler against her dark bronze, “Kimber is a good girl. She’s a straight A student, and she’s a little shy, except for when she’s here with the young kids in the afternoons. She’s also kind and considerate. She would never do this to her mother.” Or to him.
“Did you notice anything different in the days before her disappearance?” Ritter asked. “Tell us what it was like.”
This was my cue to watch their minds carefully to catch anything unsaid, but as the Wheelers each described the days and weeks before, nothing stood out in the chaotic jumble of their minds. The only thing they did besides go to their jobs, Mr. Wheeler as a middle grade teacher and Mrs. Wheeler as a city secretary, was to watch TV and go bowling on Wednesday nights. Kimber would usually accompany them. They were ordinary people, with seemingly no secrets or vices. On the surface, they were a little too good to be true, but my senses were so imbued with their loss that I might be overlooking something.
I pushed back partially from their thoughts, dulling their emotions enough to give me a little perspective. “What park did she say she was going to?”
“The one near our house, I think,” Mrs. Wheeler recovered enough to whisper. “They like to go there and hang out sometimes.”
“And is the friend the other missing girl?”
“I don’t know.” She gave a despairing snort. A vivid picture in her thoughts came to me of carefully adjusting the wig she was wearing now over her naturally kinky hair on the night of Kimber’s disappearance, a memory that would no doubt haunt her for the rest of her life. “What kind of a mother is so preoccupied that she doesn’t ask?”
“The kind of mother who trusts her intelligent daughter.” I leaned forward to touch her on the arm. “You can go outside for your speech now. They’re probably ready for you. I’ll get your contact information from Pastor Mike if we need to talk further.” They could tell me nothing more than I’d seen from their thoughts as they spoke, and I wanted them and their crushing emotions gone before I questioned the pastor.
“Oh, right.” Confusion registered on Mrs. Wheeler’s face, as if she’d expected more questions, but I was sure she couldn’t help us more than she had, and the police documents already contained anyone who knew Kimber. By the time we returned to the Fortress, Stella should have backgrounds on all of them.
Pastor Mike strode across the room to open the door as Mr. Wheeler led Mrs. Wheeler across the entryway. Seconds later, as the pastor closed the door and walked toward us, we heard clapping outside and the megaphone woman announcing them.
“Kimber was last seen leaving the mission with Brenna Dabney,” Pastor said, coming back to sit on the empty couch. “They had just helped with the kids in the afternoon who come here for lunch and play while their parents work—it’s a program we offer to save parents money in daycare to encourage them not to leave young kids home alone. Usually, they only need a few hours overlap, and both girls were volunteers. Well, Kimber more than Brenna. We didn’t really count on Brenna as her appearances were sporadic, but she came a few times. The girls seemed to work well together.”
“And now they’re both missing.” Dimitri leaned forward in his chair, his voice grim.
“Yes and no,” Pastor Mike said. “In truth, we don’t know that Brenna is missing. She’s only been around a few months, and during that time, there have been weeks when I haven’t even seen her. I believe she’s a homeless teen, probably a runaway. She could have simply gone back home.”
“You don’t report runaways?” Ritter asked from behind my chair.
Pastor Mike studied him for several heartbeats before shaking his head. “Not unless they agree. Because they put them in the foster system, where many just end up running away again. Sadly, I know of too many situations where these teens are abused in the very place that is supposed to be helping them. And I’m not just talking too many chores, I’m talking big time emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Sometimes I can place them with members of my congregation, and I was hoping to do that here. In the meantime, I knew she was sleeping up on our roof when she was around. There’s worse things for these kids.”
Ritter nodded, satisfied, but Dimitri frowned. “This other girl, Brenna, she’s two years younger than Kimber?” he asked.
“Yes. And I thought Kimber was having a positive influence on her but . . .”
“It’s possible it went the other way,” I finished. Just like Kimber’s parents, Pastor Mike felt guilty at what he hadn’t done, but he had done more than simply allow Brenna to sleep occasionally on the roof. He’d provided blankets, clothing, and food. Even a mirror.
Pastor Mike nodded. His handsome face twisting as his eyes glistened with moisture. He clenched and unclenched his jaw.
“Maybe Kimber went with Brenna to wherever she’s from,” I said. If so, Brenna was the key to finding Kimber.
He shook his head. “As far as I know Brenna told Kimber nothing about her family. The only thing she got from her was that Brenna believed she was the descendent of Unbounded.” She’s a most devoted Believer.”
“Which explains why she chose your mission,” I said.
“Likely.” Pastor Mike gave a little shrug, one corner of his mouth twitching in an ironic smile. “Although it could also have a lot to do with the free lunches.”
“So she dressed like a Believer?” Ritter asked, disapproval in his tone.
“Very much so. All the time.” Pastor Mike smiled widely. “Not a bad thing. Mimicking the angels is a tenet of the faith, though not required outside worship service.”
Angels? I wasn’t familiar enough with the Church of the Unboundaried to know if this was a common belief or came only from his sect. They all seemed to believe we had come to save them.
“Was there anyone else here close to Brenna?” I asked. “Anyone who might know where she’s from?”
“No, she kept to herself,” Pastor Mike said, “though she did a few odd jobs for our handyman, Jim James in exchange for a little money. And before you ask, that’s not unusual.”
We’d have to find and talk to the man. “You saw nothing out of the ordinary in the past weeks?” I pressed, though his thoughts were showing nothing useful. “No one hanging around?”
Hunters kept a database on known Unbounded and could have possibly traced Kimber through her heritage. Many of the Hunters were mortal offspring of the Emporium Unbounded, thrown away or abandoned when they didn’t Change, so unlike most mortals, they’d known about us long before the announcement—and had hunted us. Still, Dimitri would probably have had some idea if this branch of the family had been on their radar.
Pastor Mike shook his head. “No, nothing like that. We’re a quiet bunch. In fact, only a few dozen parishioners come to the morning Believer sessions, and they’re mostly new here. My longtime members prefer a more traditional service.”
“I bet,” Ritter said, half under his breath.
“Where can we find this Jim James?” Dimitri said.
“Oh, he’s around somewhere.” The pastor stood and his mouth opened to speak again, but his words were overrun with shouts and screams coming from outside. Then the shouts were overrun by the buzzing of several small engines.
Ritter looked down at Dimitri. “Are those—?”
“Chainsaws. Yes.” Dimitri jumped from his chair, heading toward the mission door. Ritter beat him there, his movements so fast they blurred. Pastor Mike and I ran after them.
Outside, the feeling had changed. More than a dozen men had surrounded the Believers, two brandishing chainsaws and at least two other wielding axes. One man carried an assault rifle. All around people screamed as they fell over each other, trying to retreat. The life forces of the newcomers were dimmer to my senses, but their attempt at thought-blocking was poorly done, which told me they were mortal. The attackers wore plaid shirts that I knew would have a logo of a rifle and man on them. A mixture of dread and anticipation puddled in my gut.
“Hunters,” Ritter gritting, saying the word like a curse. With one hand on the railing, he vaulted down the five stairs.
Giving Dimitri a quick glance, I leapt after Ritter.